“Managers tend to pick a strategy that is the least likely to fail, rather than a strategy that is most efficient…. The pain of looking bad is worse than the gain of making the best move.”

-Michael Lewis, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game

Moneyball tells the story of how a new kind of data analysis turned baseball scouting and recruiting upside down, transforming the game overnight. In 2002, the Oakland A’s were the only team using predictive analytics to make decisions about their roster. With a 20-game winning streak, it’s safe to say that the A’s use of predictive analytics worked. And by 2004, every team in baseball was using their system, aching to achieve the same level of success.

So when you dig past all the sports metaphors and Brad Pitt grins, the underlying point of Moneyball shows us that sticking to yesterday’s marketing best practices is a sure path to maintaining the status quo, but using smarter data going forward can be your biggest competitive advantage. Marketers tend to fall into the same trap as those baseball scouts of yesteryear: we tend to use data to measure past performance rather than predict future action.

Proactive vs. Reactive Marketing

Reactive marketing is all about responding to data when the opportunity arises. Let’s take this example: in July, Chris, an e-commerce manager for a live sports ticketing company, looks at last month’s reports and sees that a high number of 25-40 year old women bought Oakland A’s tickets. So, he launches an email and SEM campaign in August to market A’s tickets to that segment. In October, he sees that ticket sales are plateauing, so he ends the campaign. The marketing he did was relatively easy and provides good short-term gains to compete that season.

On the other hand, proactive marketing (aka predictive marketing) uses data to see what will contribute to positive growth, instead of reacting solely to past explicit data or your last campaign’s success or failure. It allows you to create more engaging opportunities and squeeze more value out of each user on a more granular level. Imagine knowing that one of those customers, let’s call her Lindsay, is buying tickets regularly and for the purpose of organizing corporate events for her company. Chris could proactively market season tickets and package game deals to Lindsay (to her absolute delight). He could create look-alike campaigns around Lindsay’s interest profile and build targeted fan emails that would overall impact sales, revenue, and long-term performance.

As a proactive marketer, you can now take into account not only explicit data (think: last purchase, demographics, frequency to site), but also implicit data (think: behavior, interests, collaborative filtering) across all channels. Then, you can predict what the best next message is and answer future-looking questions like “What will Lindsay want next?” With a 360-degree view of each of your customers, you can leverage deep user insights to drive engagement, retention, and growth.

7 Steps to Becoming a Proactive Marketer

Creating incredible user experiences based on data is far from easy. But, industry leaders in ecommerce, media, and publishing have a wide range of solutions at their disposal—from basic personalization to advanced artificial intelligence—to help them make better decisions around customer needs.

Here are 7 ways you can become a more proactive marketer in order to win over customers, grow your business, and stay ahead of the competition:

1. Access your data in real time to avoid blind spots

The most powerful data is the data you already own! This is first-party data, or the information collected directly by website publishers and vendors. It’s rich in value, but you have to stay on top of it. Too often, by the time you’ve noticed an opportunity and re-tooled a campaign, the ship has sailed. Use analytics dashboards to simplify your data visibility and set alerts for spikes and dips so that you can respond immediately.

2. Send smarter emails

Email is an ideal place to be proactive. You can still react quickly to trends you see, but the key is to get ahead of them by actually predicting what customers will enjoy next. A/B testing, segmentation, and dynamic content are all ways to better target your audiences with more relevant content or products, subject lines, and send times.

3. Put your marketing and your website on the same program

Making sure your website delivers on your marketing promises is vital to increasing your engagement rates. Furthermore, email and on-site strategies can act as bellwethers for each other. In many cases, on-site behavior can predict email engagement, and the reverse is equally true. Add mobile into the mix and you’re really starting to understand users and behavior more holistically.

4. Personalization. Personalization. Personalization.

Nothing is more proactive than anticipating the needs of an individual customer. There are many different levels of personalization, but true personalization means observing an individual’s behavior—what they order, what they read, when they perform these actions, and how frequently—to predict what they’ll like at a specific time in a particular context. Segmentation is a good start to building more targeted campaigns.

5. Recognize churn before it happens

A great type of segmentation is “active” vs. “non-active” users. Acquiring customers is difficult and expensive, and if you’re not proactively engaging them with smarter emails, you’re going to lose a lot of value. One way to identify churn before it happens is the 4×4 rule: Look for users who have visited at least 4 times in the last 4 months, but who have had no activity in the last 4 weeks. Then send them a valuable win-back campaign before it’s too late.

6. Find opportunities to delight

As marketers get better and better at anticipating customers’ needs and targeting segments, some are arguing that we’re running the risk of being, well, boring. Nothing is quite as delightful and successful in driving loyalty than serendipity, otherwise known as “relevant discovery.” You could have editors continue to handpick pieces to send out, but their time is valuable—and there’s a smarter way…

7. Bring in the machines: predictive personalization at scale

Given enough data and time, a sharp person can predict the behaviors of a specific segment of customers. But if you want to proactively engage a diverse customer base at meaningful scale, you are going to need some help with all that data. You need technology that can rapidly personalize and disseminate content based on individual user behavior. You need technology that can help people find what they want before they know they even want it.

And really, at the end of the day, your users deserve to be treated like individuals. Communicating with a segment of one requires a nuanced understanding of your customers, your content, and data across channels. In short, that mean you need algorithms—big, hairy algorithms. Learn how artificial intelligence and machine learning are transforming how marketers connect with customers and drive growth.

Marketers have gotten very adept at reacting to customer actions in their respective markets, and it’s brought them plenty of success. But it has also created complacency in an online world becoming increasingly sophisticated. If the Oakland A’s have taught us anything, it’s that using data to look backward is useful, but using data-driven proactive marketing to predict the future changes the game entirely.