Imagine a world in which you can receive feedback on a daily basis. What are your customers thinking? What do they want? What does loyalty mean?  And what data does understanding your customer start with?

These are the questions we were lucky to hear VP, Global Head of Media, Data and Digital of McDonald's Bob Rupcyznski, Lucinda Martinez, Senior VP at HBO and Peter Pham, Co-Founder of Science discuss with Neustar VP of Product Marketing, Julie Fleischer. There were some truly unique and actionable insights we heard at last week’s Neustar Connect about how marketers should be thinking about The Future of Connected brands.

There’s a lot of talk these days about data.  What data you can get? What can’t you get? What should, and can you do with that data? What should you not do with that data? The reality is: It isn’t enough to collect data. There’s no context to the data that lives solely in Excel spreadsheets. It’s only a partial picture, and an insufficient one at that. Brands need to work harder to understand their consumers: What customers want, when and how they want it, what works…and what doesn't.

McDonald’s touches 70 million people per day, said Rupcyznski. That’s a bigger audience than citizens who live in some nation states. And McDonald’s not only interacts with but they also collect real-time information from those 70 million people. This data informs everything they do, from menu to marketing, and when and how they do it. “It’s those insights that make McDonalds uniquely able to understand their consumer on a deeper level,” Rupcyznski said.

But Rupcyznski wondered what the future would hold for this brand marketing giant: What if McDonald’s could get that feedback even quicker? How might customers have a more immediate say in their brand experience?

Science’s Pham noted that two startups he’s been incubating are entirely focused on understanding that customer experience in real-time and what the cost is to acquire customers. What is the ROI of their marketing dollars?  What is the long-term value of acquiring that customer?  The reality is that marketers should not only think about what their existing and prospective consumers want, they must also consider how to redefine the overall experience. To that point, Pham claimed that redefinition starts at the channel level: “Every channel and every network we watch will be redefined on mobile."

Martinez said that in the rat race for consumer attention, “a shared experience is what [people] crave the most”. HBO spends a good deal of budget to respond to viewer behaviors, especially. HBO listens to post-show, “water cooler” conversations and then follows up with relevant messaging based on those collected insights.

There was a healthy debate among the panelists about how marketers should think about those prospects and at what point it’s most likely to get consumers to pay for services.  Rupcyznski noted, “I don’t think you can just start with data. Data isn’t going to work if it doesn’t have a value exchange with the consumer.” Earlier in the day, Michael Wolf had called out how much, or whether, millennials would pay for access to media should they not have to share their data. This group discussed the merits of what was the value of that access.

Science’s portfolio company, Yarn, charged their 17+ target market (of 18-25 year olds) $3 a week, comparable to HBO’s monthly subscription rate. That this young consumer base could drive this kind of weekly commitment caused the audience to sit up and take note, not unlike during a previous session where another of Pham’s incubated start-ups, Dollar Shave Club, was put forward as a model of a new kind of connected brand.

All the panelists resoundingly agreed that if your brand isn’t growing, the time is now to start challenging the old way you do business and how you view growth. Throughout the day, we heard time and again that marketers need to be open to question their preconceived notions, that they need to be smart and take some risks as it relates to how they scale their businesses. In fact, there were specific call outs that it’s not about monetization or about revenue. What everyone agreed on is that the secret sauce is for management teams to empower their teams to pay close attention to the kinds of experiences people want, and to be prepared to respond to the data as it evolves.

Today people gravitate to visual stories. That’s what has sparked the stickiness of platforms like Instagram, Snap, and Pinterest. But the digital landscape is fickle and fast changing. The Future of Connected Brands will require flexibility and action for marketers to keep up with their customers.