The 2018 UM Star Lectures: in the digital age, is everything we know about marketing obsolete?

The digital era is changing how organisations and consumers communicate with and about each other, causing a major shift in marketing strategy. Martin Wetzels, professor of marketing and supply chain research at Maastricht University’s School of Business and Economics, is looking at the impact of “digital disruption” on the academic and business world alike. His findings are the subject of his 2018 UM Star Lecture in Cologne.

“There has been a paradigm shift in marketing,” Wetzels says of the impact of digital technologies. “It is quite interesting. On the one hand, it’s very exciting; on the other, it means that most of the current knowledge about marketing is increasingly losing its value.”

Practitioners and researchers alike are increasingly focusing on digital marketing, in the realm of the internet and mobile technologies, as well as technologies such as artificial intelligence and robotics.

“There are a number of studies that show that most routine jobs in marketing could be done by what we call cognitive robots or even by robots themselves,” Wetzels says. “Some predict that 20 to 30 per cent of jobs in this channel will be automated in some way. That obviously changes the way marketing works. It also means that in terms of teaching and research, the priorities in marketing, as well as in business in general, will change. Business schools will be strongly affected by this development.”

The digital revolution, he says, has an impact on how customers communicate with organisations and each other, and who controls that communication. “This paradigm shift also causes a large amount of data from different sources to become available,” he says. “Content is created in an unstructured way, and typically by consumers. Customers’ influence is clearly increasing. They create data that companies need in order to assess what kinds of services and products we need. At the same time, customers also become more vulnerable, because of privacy issues. They give away a lot of information, and it is used for marketing purposes. There’s a real trade-off for customers.”

Problem-solving across disciplines

Understanding how to mine and analyse the large amount of data available is a significant challenge. “We’ve looked over the past five years into text-based data on social media, and how we could use that information for generating new insights ,” Wetzels says. “You need to leave your discipline, in this case marketing, and look into other disciplines such as linguistics and information systems and computer science, because those disciplines worked with text data long before we started looking at it. We have adapted and developed concepts from other areas and applied them to marketing.”

Coming from a discipline that traditionally relies on surveys and experiments, Wetzels says that developing ways to use data from social media is quite novel. “The classical tools will most likely never completely go away, but their importance will be reduced,” he says. “We will be able to pick up more behavioural measures. We need to be able to distil what customers want from all the textual data available. It’s a different kind of data that requires new methods to collect and analyse.”

That’s where Data-Driven Decision-Making (D3M), one of SBE’s seven research themes, comes in. “In essence, what is changing is the underlying business model,” says Wetzels, who leads the D3M theme. “So we look into both the business side – how does this change strategy, how do companies need to adapt, what does it mean for customers? – but also method-wise, what kind of data is out there and how we can best analyse it. It’s exciting to see how people can take text, video, pictures and voice data and combine it into a comprehensive dashboard of what is going on. Obviously, this can only be achieved by reaching out to all disciplines at SBE in a truly multidisciplinary manner.”

‘Two-way communication’ with alumni

Events such as the UM Star Lecture series, Wetzels says, offer a good opportunity for interaction with Maastricht University alumni. “There’s an exchange of information; a two-way communication,” he says.

“It’s not that we are telling our audience how they should do things, because they also have very valuable insights gained from their practical understanding. These events are a valuable interface between SBE and the alumni, and also between academia and practice, as many alumni work in practice. There are a lot of insights to be gained on both sides about what is going on, what is becoming important and what different skills are becoming necessary.”

Wetzels also keeps in touch with alumni in other ways. “I have a very regular ongoing communication with alumni,” he says. “I still have a very good relationship with former students and PhDs who are working in practice. We discuss what is going on, data that they can make available or phenomena they want to look into, problems they need help to solve. Combining practical relevance with insights from theory provides a very effective way of solving real-life problems.”

Himself an alumnus of SBE, Wetzels is from the Maastricht area. He says the university has had a major impact on the region, and that its location is one of SBE’s major strengths.

“It’s very well connected in Europe, which makes people here very well positioned for future developments,” he says. “I think that’s why a lot of students choose UM. We have a school known all over Europe and globally, with a great reputation research-wise that was built over a very short period.

“It makes me very proud to work at the school in which I studied. Compared with other schools in the Netherlands that have been around for some time, and almost out of the blue, UM and SBE have been able to develop and maintain a very strong position,” Wetzels adds. “It is acknowledged internationally that what has been accomplished here is really quite extraordinary. That was hard to predict when I started studying here back in 1987.”


Text: Tracy Brown Hamilton

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