Five ways that consumers have irreversibly altered their expectations online and offline.
Are you still broadcasting your ads to the "haystack" and praying that the "needle" saw your ad? Advertising has always been like sending a message to a haystack and hoping there were enough "needles" in the haystack (i.e. target customers) who would see the ad, recall it, and then go make purchases. That used to work, but these days the needles are getting harder to find, they tend to block out all advertising, and they have built up new expectations and irreversible habits. These expectations and habits have a dramatic impact on how they receive, react to, and act upon advertising. Let's examine a few of these examples.
Consumers Search Rather Than Navigate
If you want to find the price of Rice Krispies on FreshDirect.com do you: 1.) Click into "Groceries," then into "Cereal & Breakfast," then into "Cold Cereal," then into "Kid's Cereals," then back to "Cold Cereal" because it wasn't in "Kid's Cereals," then into "Kellogg's," etc. or 2.) Simply type "rice krispies" into the search at the top of the page? I would guess that most of you said No. 2. The trend toward searching rather than navigating is irreversible because it's faster, more efficient, and in the user's own terms.
Consider a site with tens of thousands of pages. It's difficult to imagine an information architecture or site navigation scheme that would not only link to all pages but also make sense to all site visitors all the time. People use different words to describe the same thing or the same word to mean different things -- so a word in a menu-based navigation system may or may not be interpreted the same way by everyone. But, with search, all of this becomes moot. Users can search in their own words and if they don't get what they are looking for, they can refine their search further. They are not stuck with words that the site's creator chose to use in navigation menus.
Consumers Want Information Now Rather Than Later
Just like people have no patience to figure out a site's menu-based navigation, modern consumers are also impatient. They want information now, not later. Imagine if you're standing in Manhattan's West Village and need a restaurant recommendation; would you wait until you got home to go online, log into Zagat.com and look up recommendations? No. You'd need the recommendation immediately, preferably on your cell phone or BlackBerry. Many users, including kids growing up with T-Mobile Sidekick phones, want instant information and communications. Apple even has a TV ad showing that as a use case -- an iPhone user standing in a car dealership looks up car prices in KellyBlueBook.com on the iPhone to contradict the salesperson's false claims on the spot.
The "real-time-ness" of information is also infusing into other areas of consumer life. In their GPS navigation systems, consumers can see the location of McDonald's, gas stations, and other attractions near their exact current position, plotted on a map. Local news broadcasts are starting to feature news tickers streaming across the bottom of the screen with late breaking news, even while other stories are being reported on. Digg.com has for years shown what news is "hot" by way of an ordered list of items with the highest number of "diggs." Twitter and Facebook status updates are today's version of real-time news, and instantaneous information is used for more than just fun or frivolity. JetBlue for example uses its Twitter account for real-time customer service, including weather-related updates -- e.g. "Snow in Boston causing 1 hour delays at Logan Airport."
Consumers Want Lots of Information
Today's consumers expect to get a lot of information, not just a little or none at all. If they don't get enough information from a 30-second TV ad, they will go online and look for more. While they may not do as much research about a can a soup, the higher an item's price, the more time and effort they will devote to research to ensure they are making the right purchase and that every aspect of the purchase is optimized (e.g. did they get the best price, get all the accessories they need, etc.). Take, also, for instance an advertiser that has a how-to video for setting up a home theater system versus one that didn't. If both offered a product with similar specs and similar prices, where do you think the customer will shop? Whoever has better and more timely information will win.
When an advertiser does not provide complete information, consumers may suspect the advertiser has something to hide. It is better for advertisers to disclose potentially negative information rather than suppress it, letting customers judge for themselves. An advertiser who can openly discuss how they are addressing customer concerns or complaints stands a much better chance at successful resolution than another advertiser trying to hide information. Consider Dell. At one time, the computer maker tried to hide or suppress poor customer service issues. Later, it proudly took customer suggestions and even turned some of them into new products via Dell IdeaStorm.
Consumers Seek Trusted Sources for Information
When modern consumers go online to look for information, there's sometimes too much information and it is hard to tell what's official or even true. This is especially important, for example, in the pharmaceutical or healthcare industries, where people's lives depend on it. How does a consumer, or even a doctor, determine what information about a drug is accurate or up-to-date? Many go to trusted sources -- e.g. sites like WebMD where the content is checked for accuracy -- rather than to the open Web where there are no checks and balances. This also applies to very basic information such as technical specifications. For example, even on Amazon.com there are instances where the technical specifications of a digital camera or a computer component are not accurate (it could be simply copied incorrectly from a different version of the product). In this case, the opportunity is for the manufacturer to maintain the absolutely correct information on its own Web site -- as a definitive, central source for objective information (you'd be surprised how many manufacturers don't provide such information, provide too little of it, or make it really hard to find).
Savvy consumers look for clues from others. The information that they rely on tends to be from peers, or at least others like them (i.e. total strangers who wrote reviews on an item they are considering buying), instead of the information in ads put out by advertisers. They trust claims made in ads less and less. They trust the reviews, comments, and recommendations from other users more and more. In fact, others don't even have to expend a lot of effort but still can be helpful. If they took a fraction of a second to rate a video or flag it as inappropriate, their collective actions will help police the community and rid it of the inappropriate videos and bubble up the best videos so that future users don't have to spend their own time figuring out what videos to invest their time watching -- they can skip straight to the highest rated videos first.
Consumers Prefer Collaboration Over Isolation
Finally, today's consumers expect to get help from friends or others like them. They will ask which restaurant, digital camera, or even wedding dress their friends recommend and why. They will look for clues about what other users find useful -- for example on Gawker blogs, stats show how many times a blog post was viewed and how many comments it has. Usually if readers are engaged and vocal in their commenting, others get a sense of the quality and value of the post. This way, they have immediate feedback on whether they need to even spend any time reading the post.
Consumers also expect to share information. Their friends know them best and they also know what they are looking for or are in the market for. Friends also know their tastes and standards and can easily help them filter and prioritize what to consider. Consumers will share items and recommendations with friends because they know their friend will appreciate help and insights and they expect the same in return. If they don't have friends who are expert enough in a particular product category, they can rely on the reviews they find online -- e.g. reviews and recommendations for what snowboard to buy, what camera is best for underwater photography, etc. Usually the people who have used the item are the most qualified to provide insights about its use. And this is real advice from real people, not an ad from someone trying to sell you something.
How Marketers Should Respond to the Irreversibly Changed Consumer
So we've seen just a few examples of how modern consumer habits and expectations have changed and how these will, or should, lead to changes in the way we do advertising and marketing.
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Dr. Augustine Fou is the senior digital strategy advisor to CMOs, marketing executives, and global brands. Dr. Fou has over 15 years of Internet strategy consulting experience and is an expert in social media marketing strategy, data/analytics, and consumer insights, with specific knowledge in the consumer packaged goods, financial services/credit cards, food/beverage, retail/apparel, and pharmaceutical/healthcare sectors.
He is a frequent panelist, moderator, and keynote speaker at industry conferences. Dr. Fou is also an Adjunct Professor at NYU in the School for Continuing and Professional Studies and at Rutgers University at the Center for Management Development, where he teaches executive courses on digital strategy and integrated marketing.
Dr. Fou completed his PhD at MIT at the age of 23. He started his career with McKinsey & Company and previously served as SVP, digital strategy lead, McCann/MRM Worldwide and group chief digital officer of Omnicom's Healthcare Consultancy Group (HCG). He writes a blog "Rants, Raves about Digital Marketing" and can be found on Twitter at @acfou.
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