One of the things I personally enjoy most about marketing is that it's constantly evolving. There are always new and better ways of engaging your audience, building better business relationships with partners and customers, measuring your efforts, and driving results for your company. And one of the best places to learn those trends, tactics, and strategies is at marketing conferences.

One of the events where there's a lot of talk about these tactics and strategies is the Gartner Digital Marketing Conference in San Diego, where attendees can focus on learning about data-driven marketing, which is one of the biggest ways I've seen marketing evolve over the years.

This is the third year that Gartner has held this conference, and it welcomed more than 1,100 attendees. So what did they all have the chance to take away from this event? "The theme of the conference is how marketers can take the lead in managing change, risk, and opportunity in the era of the empowered customer," Andrew Spender, VP of global corporate communications at Gartner, said.

Making Sense of Data to Drive Your Decisions

Our customers are so empowered today because of the technology and the resources available to them. The basically unlimited data, content, and information that your audience has access to has set the bar a little higher for brands. To reach this new standard of brand experiences, you as a marketer have to harness your own data, too.

Data is the key to making good business decisions, and for you and your team to get the right information, you must have the technology to get the data in the first place; ask the right questions to interpret it; and affirm the data by analyzing what your customers actually do.

But even with all this data, you still have to put it into practice in your company's messaging. Data-driven decisions start with data; it's up to you to apply the data at your disposal toward your decision-making. To help you do that, here are four takeaways from sessions that truly stood out to my team and the attendees we spoke with:

1. Marketing is getting smarter.

Jake Sorofman, a research vice president at Gartner, said that CMOs are on track to spend as much (or more) on technology than their CTO and CIO counterparts this year; more than one-fourth of every marketing dollar is spent on technology.

Dan Curran, CEO of PowerPost, a client of ours, was really intrigued by this finding. "The conference certainly left everyone feeling optimistic regarding the evolution of content marketing technology," he said. "However, every stage of the content supply chain must evolve."

And as marketing evolves to become savvier and more intelligent, so will the content it's creating for audiences. Most audiences and content consumers have grown to expect somewhat more personalized content from the brands they interact with, and that content marketing trend is only going to continue with a move to "atomic content."

2. Customer journeys are discovered, not created.

I've seen plenty of marketers waste time and resources by trying to develop buyer personas and engineer their customers' path to their company and then create content around what they've put together. However, the best customer journeys aren't created; they're discovered.

And with additional players in the game -- especially social media platforms and other tools that make it easy to distribute content -- your audience members' journeys are more complicated than ever. Andrew Hsu, CEO of Spotlight, noted, "Marketers must acknowledge the remarkable roles Facebook, Amazon, Apple, and Google play in their customers' lives. From customer acquisition to relationship building through customer servicing, marketers will be borrowing moments from, shaping experiences within, and co-existing beside these market-shaping platforms."

To improve your customer experience, study what your customers actually do, what kind of content they consume, and where they go for it. Use data to discover how your best customers are coming to you, and create content that enables their journey.

3. Content is your best tool for hitting trust touchpoints.

Marketing is expected to create exceptional brand moments at every customer touchpoint, and audience members touch six different channels before they become customers.

Think of touchpoints with your audience like moving targets: It's not going to be easy to hit each one every time, but as marketers, it's up to you to hit as many as you can -- and content can be your biggest help. The more you hit, the better you keep your audience engaged and the more trust you build with them. So listen, learn, and engage with triggered, personalized content.

Eighty percent of your future profits will come from just 20 percent of your existing customers -- but 80 percent of marketers' budgets are spent on acquiring new customers. You need to align your sales and marketing teams to create and distribute content that lines up with where your company's revenue comes from.

4. Authenticity is the key to success in both owned and earned media.

In his presentation, Chris Lynch, CMO of Cision, discussed the data behind the types of marketing communication that perform well and shared that authentic content that tells a story works best for organizations. His advice was to be human, emotive, and original.

And that advice applies to more than just the articles you and your team of thought leaders write for your blog. Your earned media efforts can drive real business outcomes for your company, so it's important that they accurately reflect your brand, not just boost your ego. Executed with an authentic storytelling mindset, influencer marketing and content marketing will resonate with your audience and drive opportunities to your business.

Marketing is always evolving -- that's part of what makes it such a dynamic industry. At the same time, your audience is more empowered than ever. To best meet audience needs and keep up with the evolution of marketing, your decision-making should be fueled by data.

Published on: May 15, 2017
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.