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The Consumer's Expectation of Access

  |  May 9, 2012   |  Comments

If we want to be able to reach consumers, we'd better pay attention to how changes in technology are changing the way that all of us live.

Take a minute to think about how you answer the phone. For most of us it's probably one of two ways: you say your name or you greet the caller by name having seen it come up on the caller ID.

Now think back to the days before ubiquitous mobile phones (yes, kids…there really was such a time!). If the phone rang at home, most of us were taught that the polite way to answer the phone was to say "hello" followed by some indication of where you were, i.e., "Smith residence!" You wanted to make sure that whoever was calling knew that they'd reached the right place.

Yesterday we called places. Today we call people because the phone has gone from something attached to a place to something carried by people wherever they go. Where somebody is physically located has become less and less relevant when you just want to talk to them.

This might seem pretty trivial - after all, who cares how someone answers the phone? - but it's a lot more profound than we realize. It's a perfect example of something that many of us marketers don't often take the time to think about: as technology changes, people change along with it. And considering that it's our business to understand people and how to influence their behavior, changes in behavior aren't something we can ignore. If we want to be able to reach consumers, we'd better pay attention to how changes in technology are changing the way that all of us live.

A recent study by the Pew Internet and American life Project provides some interesting data on just how widespread these changes have become. The study looked at what Pew calls "just in time services" provided by mobile devices, information downloaded "on the go" when people needed it. According to this study, 70 percent of cellphone owners and 86 percent of people who own smartphones have used their devices to make decisions, coordinate meetings, solve unexpected problems, or settle arguments in the last 30 days. In fact, if you add up all the numbers, 62 percent of the U.S. adult population is now relying on mobile devices as extensions of their brains or as tools to help make on-the-spot decisions. The majority of us no longer have to remember things like sports scores, trivia, directions, or traffic: a couple screen taps and we have the information we need to make decisions about how to live our lives.

But consumers aren't just relying on their phones to settle bar bets or find a place to eat. During the 2011 holiday season, another Pew study found that over half of adult cellphone owners (about half the U.S. adult population) have used their phones to either look up information about products or reach out to a friend for advice while out shopping. One-quarter of adults either looked up reviews or checked prices and nearly four in 10 called friends to help them decide what to buy.

Another study by location-based services firm Placecast underscores the impact that mobile technology is having on consumer shopping behavior. In its May 2012 study Placecast found that an increasing number of consumers are relying on their mobile devices when they shop, especially if they own a smartphone. Over half used their phone to find a retail location, 44 percent visited the websites of the stores they were visiting, more than a third downloaded retailer apps, and a quarter of smartphone owners used their phones to get better prices on products either by scanning barcodes or looking for coupons while they shopped.

And if technology is changing consumer behavior, it's also changing their attitudes about what they expect from businesses. A May 2012 survey by American Express looked at how people are thinking about customer service these days and came up with some interesting results. The study compared social media users, the general population, and consumers who haven't used social media for customer service. What it found was that tech-savvy social media users were far more likely to bail on purchases because of poor customer service and also a lot more likely to spread the word when they encountered bad service. They were also nearly twice as likely to say that they'd pay more for excellent service than the less connected folks in the survey. Social media users expect more and they're a lot more vocal when they don't get what they want.

For most of you reading this column, chances are none of these studies are big news. For years now we digital marketers have been experimenting with mobile commerce and most of us have probably created apps or run mobile campaigns of one form or another. The rise of mobile tech over the past decade or so - especially the rise of smartphones - has obviously had an impact on the marketplace, right?

Yes. But when you look at these studies together (and think back to the phone answering example I started with), it may be that simply focusing on the tech - GPSes, QR codes, mobile apps, mobile coupons, text promotions - is only half the picture. While it's somewhat of a chicken-and-the-egg issue (did consumers change because of the tech or did the tech change to meet consumer needs?), it's pretty clear that not only has behavior changed due to our newfound abilities to get information pretty much anytime and anywhere, but how we think has changed, too. And that's the profound change we need to be paying attention to. Specific technologies might come and go, but the change they're bringing doesn't.

The big change we should be looking at isn't whatever happens to be the new "hot app," social media service, proximity-based texting technology, or barcode scanner. In many ways, those technologies are symptoms. The big change that's affecting all of us is the consumer's expectation of access.

Access to information. Access to people. Access to opinion. Access to service. In the past - especially in the retail environment or out-and-about in the world - people had to rely on what they observed and what they heard from others. Brand experience could be crafted and controlled by marketers because marketers were the ones creating the entire experience. Immerse a consumer in a big box store, an automobile dealership, a department store, or a mall and it was possible to influence them to make a purchase by carefully controlling the physical aspects of the shopping experience. The only information they had was what was in front of them, and crafty marketers could control that information to get the result they wanted. Even when they weren't in the retail environment, their limited media choices allowed advertisers to create brands out of whole cloth because there weren't that many other sources of information about products and services. Sure, they would be influenced by their friends, family, coworkers, and acquaintances, but for most that was a limited circle…and a limited circle being influenced by the same limited communications channels.

But those times are gone. Today's consumer has virtually unlimited sources of information and nearly unlimited numbers of opinions to tap in to…no matter where they are. And they expect to be able to access that information or opinions. Brands are no longer singular experiences communicated from company to consumer but rather a combination of the brand experience created by the communicator and the experience of brand shared by consumers.

Brands are collaborations…and the sooner we understand that, the better. Consumers already do.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Sean Carton

Sean Carton has recently been appointed to develop the Center for Digital Communication, Commerce, and Culture at the University of Baltimore and is chief creative officer at idfive in Baltimore. He was formerly the dean of Philadelphia University's School of Design + Media and chief experience officer at Carton Donofrio Partners, Inc.

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