By now, most of the predictions for 2011 are probably in. Pundits and gurus have called 2011 anything from "the year of the tablet" to "the year of the smartphone" to "the year of the rabbit" (which it is). So I'll take a slightly different approach and focus instead on the "essences" of these trends and what we can learn from them and how to infuse them into marketing programs.
What happens when more and more consumers have nearly full-fledged, connected computers in their hands everywhere they are? I'm talking Android smartphones and tablets and Apple iPhones and iPads, all which have browsers that can handle nearly everything that a desktop browser can handle. With such devices, users can access price comparison sites, read full reviews, and even watch demo videos about a product while they are still standing in a store. No longer will they need to rely on a salesperson's biased recommendations, incorrect technical specifications, or claims of the "lowest price on earth." Consumers have constant and instant access to information which gives them power relative to those trying to sell them stuff, namely, the advertisers. What happens when advertisers can no longer make claims about themselves or their products (advertising) or even compete on price?
What happens when more and more consumers "check in" at local establishments, like restaurants, stores, museums, or even gas stations or churches? I've always wondered why people would spend time doing this - was it the points? The badges or mayorships? Yes, all of the above. But what I came to realize was even more important and fundamental in this behavior was the aspect of "overt consumption." This phenomenon was previously relegated to physical things like the watch a person wore, the shoes, clothes, jewelry, etc. With a service like Foursquare, the restaurants that I actually eat at (not just the ones I say I like), the stores that I shop at, and even the museums that I go to become visible to my friends and followers. By checking in, the user has created an "overt consumption event" that others can see even if they are not physically with the person. These become part of the identity of the person. So a self-proclaimed "foodie" had better have a track record of check-ins at top restaurants instead of daily check-ins at the local McDonald's. What happens to advertisers when consumers can overtly consume physical and non-physical products and services and broadcast such consumption to friends around the world instantly?
What happens when more and more people are becoming accustomed to sharing information and statuses online in social networks. Where e-mail was one-to-one or one-to-several, posting something on your own wall on Facebook or tweeting it is more like one-to-hundreds or even thousands. In social networks, posting something does not come along with the expectation that followers will respond. In fact, the new etiquette of social networks means followers can choose to read, ignore, delete, respond to, or pass-along at their own convenience. If someone is posting things that are valuable and useful to followers, they will not only keep those followers but also gain more; conversely, if someone is posting useless items, not only will they get ignored, they may even get "unfriended." Consider the vast majority of advertisers' Facebook and Twitter pages - most have few to no genuine followers and most have little to no recent activity, let alone pass-along and amplification by their followers. What does this mean for advertisers creating ads versus creating content that is informative, useful, and worthy of being shared?
What happens when more and more people band together to get group discounts of up to 50 percent through services like Groupon, LivingSocial, and the dozens and dozens of clones. This could be setting a dangerous precedent - like the "Macy's effect," where people don't go to Macy's unless there is a sale or discount. This came about due to the overuse and abuse of sales (discounts) as a tactic to drive sales (revenues). The sales happened so often that people were conditioned to expect it and even wait for the next one before they went to Macy's. A similar danger lurks for the overuse of deep discounting services like Groupon. So while continuous discounting is not a sustainable strategy to drive business, two key things can be learned from the temporary success of Groupon: 1) the requirement of a minimum number of purchases to activate the deal which incentivizes sharing with the right people, and 2) the time limit on purchasing the deal which creates urgency. Combining these characteristics with the facile sharing that is enabled by the social tools mentioned above, customers can indeed help to amplify and accelerate the pass-along to others who are very likely to be interested in the product or service; the super deal lowers the barrier to trial. In many ways, this is even better than "free" because once people have committed dollars to the trial, they are likely to actually try it.
What happens to advertisers and marketers when all of the above trends collide? They get the vortex of change that is 2011. They are forced in many ways to cross "The Grand Digital Canyon." With continuous and ubiquitous information available to consumers, advertisers cannot claim anything that will not be double-checked by the consumer. Advertisers will need to truly differentiate. With overt consumption expanding beyond physical things, advertisers will need to make their offering worthy of being worn as a "badge." With the new sharing habits and etiquette, advertisers will need to ensure their content is worthwhile and valuable. And finally, with rapid social amplification through Groupon-like services, advertisers can indeed launch with far less budget and far greater impact through the use of social commerce. The confluence of the trends and examples mentioned above means advertisers must: 1) make sure they have a really great product or service, 2) have useful and consistent information available across all channels (integrated marketing, cross-channel thinking and planning), and 3) and make it easy for people to share not only the information and their opinions, but also their consumption events, as proof.
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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.
March 19, 2014