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Sell Experiences, Not Products

  |  March 15, 2005   |  Comments

Four points to consider to make online customer experience exceptional.

A few weeks ago, I was on a panel with IS (define) executives to discuss the "Future of the User Experience" at Forrester's annual Automotive Summit. It was a thought-provoking day and the inspiration for today's column.

The automotive industry is one of the online biggest marketers. Several research studies find roughly 70 percent of car buyers perform research online before buying a vehicle. Most consumers in the market for a high-consideration product or service, be it a car, home, engagement ring, computer, or new bank or brokerage firm, conduct a significant amount of online research to inform their purchase decisions. Because of this, $8.4 billion was spent in 2004 in online advertising, according to Jupiter Research (a Jupitermedia Corp. division). This figure is expected to double by 2009.

Where does the money go? Much of it is intended to position products or services in very crowded marketplaces. With so much money pouring into online advertising, it's amazing how slow most industries are to respond to customer inquiries or leads. According to Jupiter Research, 40 percent of automotive leads, 37 percent of travel leads, and 25 percent of retail leads take three or more days to respond to.

If I were CEO of a company producing high-consideration products or services, I'd invest in improving the buying experience from initial impression to final close. While I was at it, I'd reinvent the product or service, in the spirit of creating the "Purple Cow," Seth Godin endorses. If you're thinking about reinventing your customers' total experience, look outside your industry for inspiration.

Last year, I bought an iPod at an Apple store. It was more beautifully and luxuriously packaged than a Rolex watch. Opening the box, I felt as if I'd bought something truly wonderful. What I bought wasn't a product, but a total experience that was seamless from beginning to end. Here's what makes the iPod exceptional (and enables Apple to command a premium for the product):

  • Holistic marketing. Every detail of the marketing mix is synchronized beautifully and obsessively. The advertising, Web experience, product, store, and packaging all feel connected. Each is beautiful on its own. That's why opening the box feels like a rite of passage.

  • A total experience perspective. ITunes' business model ensures the experience extends beyond purchase and becomes an integral part of the customer's lifestyle. Beyond iTunes, communities have sprouted around podcasting (define) and playlist sharing.

  • Great service after purchase. Many brands fail with service. I was concerned about this when I had trouble connecting my iPod to a new computer. I went online to sniff around but required human contact to sort out the problem. Apple has a Genius Bar in its stores, and customers can sign up online for an appointment.

This very highly sophisticated experience is for a product that costs under $500. A nicely appointed business laptop is $3,000. The sticker price for a good car now runs north of $30,000. Luxury cars cost twice that. Shouldn't we expect more from the experience of buying some of the most expensive, highly considered purchases in our lives?

Learn from Apple. Think about how to make your customers' experience exceptional. Here are a few items that I discussed on that panel for your consideration:

  • Think experience. It's not just about the car. After the home and workplace, it's where many Americans spend the most time. Apple thinks experience. The iPod isn't an MP3 player. It's a complete experience; together with iTunes, it's a command central for buying, enjoying, and sharing music.

    When I'm looking for a neighborhood retail store, I go to Citysearch to find it. I print out a map with directions, carry it to my car, and either input the destination into my navigation system or read the printed directions. I'm solving a transportation problem, but I don't do it on an automotive site. I must cobble together the experience myself. It'd be great to visit my car site, get directions, and click a button to transmit them to my vehicle's navigation system. Navigation is just a small part of the overall transportation experience the auto industry could solve. The Internet could easily be command central, and an automaker could own it.

  • Make the Internet work harder. When my car needs service, I call the dealership to schedule an appointment. This should happen online, or the vehicle could let me know and put me in touch with my local dealer. Many telematics companies are working on these kinds of solutions.

  • Make the purchase process transparent. Car buyers are frustrated by the process of finding a dealer, getting quotes on the desired vehicle, then negotiating a fair price. They arm themselves online with competitive pricing information to do battle with a dealer. The manufacturer's suggested retail price (MSRP) provided on OEM (define) sites often differs from the actual price paid, and this can confuse consumers. The OEM that cracks the code on online local pricing information will have a winning proposition.

  • Reinvent the vehicle around the user. My computing experience is customized to my needs technically, in terms of basic functionality, and aesthetically. My desktop is a photo of a recent vacation; I smile every time I see it. My Yahoo has the news and information I want to read. How customizable is a car? Not very. I'd like the my car's interface to reflect my desire for simplicity. The dashboard could be a screen I can easily customize on my computer by dragging and dropping the controls I want to see. Memory controls on the seat and mirror positions is a starting point, but there's much more that can be done to make the transportation experience exceptional.

Regardless of your industry, we can all learn lessons from Steve Jobs, and Virgin's Richard Branson, as we strive to reinvent the product and the purchase/ownership experience. I enjoy your feedback, so please share your opinions on how the Web can reinvent the personal product experience.

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Mark Kingdon Mark Kingdon joined Organic as CEO in 2001 and has led the company to its current position as a leading digital marketing agency. Prior to Organic, Mark worked for Idealab and provided strategic guidance to emerging companies. Earlier, he was a partner at PricewaterhouseCoopers, where he led the America's retail and distribution industry practice and managed the PWC and Lybrand merger and was a leader in the e-business practice globally. Mark is a member of the International Academy of Digital Arts and Sciences and serves as a Webby judge. He's also a regular contributor to Three Minds, Organic's blog. Mark received his MBA from the Wharton School of Business and a BA in Economics from UCLA.

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