Listen. That sound you hear? It's your customers. They're marketers. You're the target.
Marketing is its own worst enemy. The more there is, the more consumers turn cynical and distant. This, in turn, spawns more marketing. The whole business is bound up in a never-ending effort to target, capture, and penetrate an ever-receding object of desire. This mindset makes it next to impossible to address the opposite -- the consumer who wants to communicate -- and to seize the opportunity of today's two-way channels.
Since the mid-19th century, channels of communication to the consumer have steadily multiplied. In the 20th century, they proliferated, in part causing the growth of multidisciplinary communications agencies with integrated marketing and multichannel practices. In this mix, the Internet is just another channel. At the same time, it adds two new channels that (unlike most others) can also be from the consumer: email and personalized Web sites. Combining email and the Web with telephony and the inbound communications path from the customer is suddenly a lot broader, faster, and less expensive. It enables as never before consistent, two-way conversations over time between companies and their customers.
Some customers want to talk. Some are especially worth listening to. The most famous example of preferential listening is the highly productive computer user groups of the 1970s. Tech companies back then sponsored self-governing organizations of customers whom they could learn from.
It's not just for geeks anymore. Procter & Gamble's Web site invites visitors "to see and share ideas for improving our brands and creating new ones," "to get free samples and buy our latest innovations before they hit the store shelves," and to "tell us what you think about [brand name]," automatically refreshed from a rotation list. Indeed, these prominent home page features reflect, according to Greg Icenhower, who led the site's overhaul, a paradigm shift in P&G's communications strategy. "We were the biggest shouter in the 20th century. In the 21st century, we want to be the best listener."
Many companies use the Internet to garner the qualitative inputs of certain customer groups. They include, among others, lead customers, who have technical expertise; product enthusiasts, who share above-normal usage, skill, and involvement; and early adopters, known by their symbolic perceptions and behaviors. They also include the online version of humankind's ever-present know-it-alls.
Identified in research commissioned by public relations firm Burson-Marsteller and dubbed the e-fluentials, these amount to just 8 percent of the U.S. online population. Unlike others, their primary motive for being online is to share their opinions and change the opinions of others. They are more active communicators; they publish their own Web sites, participate in news groups, and so forth. Most important, they've got reach in their social networks. The thrilling prospect (if you're an optimist -- it's a terrifying one if you're not) is e-fluentials share their opinions four times more frequently and among twice as many people as the average online user.
In addition to research methods such as attitudinal surveys and focus groups being repurposed, new approaches are emerging. Some digital service firms, including Participate Systems and Live World, specialize in building online customer communities not only as a fringe benefit to help retain owners/users but also as a venue for peer-to-peer after-sale support and for listening, often in advanced forms.
Text processing and content analysis software is used to generate maps of online conversations. These are graphic depictions of who's talking to whom, how often, and about what in various online discussion environments. Equally novel are the Virtual Customer experiments at MIT's Sloan School of Management that use market mechanisms to enable consumers to reach conjoint decisions, preferences, and other outcomes. The Hollywood Stock Exchange uses such a method to entertain movie fans and generate data it then sells to the film studios.
We know why there's an increase in efforts to capture customer knowledge beyond the intrinsic interests of exploring the uses of a new medium. Customer knowledge is increasingly valuable.
In the old view, a business creates value in a chain of steps occurring within its own walls -- getting raw materials, manufacturing, then shipping finished goods out the door. Each step adds incremental value. The old view did not include the customer in the value chain. Customers were outside as purchasers and users/consumers. Today, wherever the basis of competition has shifted to information, customer knowledge is increasingly valuable. Exchanging information with small but distinctively qualified customer groups is one very clear step toward a co-creation or a collaborative model of value creation. (See a summary of this argument here.)
Marketers know with whom, how, and why. The practical question is whether. The decision to focus on the small is the challenge. This challenge appears elsewhere online.
It's the gist of the opt-out/opt-in debate. Typically, 3 in 10 opt out, leaving 7 names available. Only 1 in 10 gives his permission. Although the interested 10 percent typically have a business potential many times that of the indifferent 70 percent, the industry is busy defending its right to inefficiently target the latter. It should be clamoring to explore and invest in developing the former.
Most marketing is organized for large-scale, outbound efforts. That's why most marketing uses brute force on a broad front or a concentration of forces on a narrower target to achieve its goals. The challenge is to acknowledge that among these objects of every marketer's desire there's a subset of subjects worthy of our attention -- on their terms and ours -- and to figure out how to leverage these specially qualified smaller groups with inbound communications that generate knowledge.
Did someone say that we need a new inbound version of marketing? If reinvention is a bit too much, perhaps we could learn to just listen. It's a strategic challenge of the attention economy and one attribute of digital the other media can't quite match.
Len Ellis is on vacation. The editors felt this column was worth repeating.
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