Are You Ready for the Cyborg Consumer?

Are you ready for “cyborg consumers”?

You’d better be. They’re already here, according to Markus Giesler, a marketing professor at York University in Toronto and subject of a recent Wired News article about his research into consumer use of technology and, in particular, iPods.

According to Giesler, the iPod is a great example of what happens when consumers unite with technology that fits their lives. More than just a music player, the iPod is a personal soundtrack, a memory device, and a gadget that carries around all the digital information we collect. As a result, a person and an iPod together form a cybernetic unit, one in which the device becomes essential to the person’s identity and wellbeing. The cyborg consumer is embedded in a hybrid entertainment matrix, one in which they’re always on and always connected, both technologically and socially.

Academic mumbo jumbo? Don’t be so quick to dismiss it. Though this description of the iPod user may seem a little breathless to those of you embedded in the realities of the business world, there’s a lot of evidence to support the notion that technology is changing consumer behavior. And we’d better be ready to respond to those changes.

It’s hard to deny the iPod has become a cultural phenomenon. In fact, the pricey little music player is more than a passing fad. It can probably be credited with ensuring Apple is going to be with us for a long, long time. Recently named the top brand in the world (edging out Google), Apple’s income grew over 300 percent in 2004, resulting in $295 million of cold, hard profit in the fourth quarter alone.

iPods continue to sell like hotcakes, and the brand recognition of the little white earbuds is near universal at this point. From a specification standpoint, there are other MP3 players out there that measure up to the iPod in both price and performance, but all lag far behind in popularity. Apple’s sold 10 million iPods so far, raking in $3.49 billion in 2004. Clearly, the iPod strikes a cultural nerve in consumers.

Forget iPods for a moment, and look at some new numbers recently reported on ClickZ about simultaneous Web and TV usage. According to figures released by Universal McCann, consumers now spend 72 percent more time watching TV and using the Web simultaneously, from 174 minutes per week in 2001 to 300 minutes per week in 2004. Web sites increasingly serve as fulfillment vehicles in the way print used to. TV provides the push to get consumers to visit a site. This behavior adds credence to Giesler’s assertion that consumers are increasingly plugged in to an ever-growing entertainment matrix. More and more, they’re not just passively watching TV but also using the Web to supplement the experience.

Other examples abound, from the growing popularity of blogs to increased use of text messaging and instant messaging (including some new devices such as Ogo that allow both) to new phones that combine PDA and calling features all the way to Sony’s upcoming PlayStation Portable (PSP) that functions as a game machine and MP3 and video player. Consumers have increasingly more choices and increasingly more opportunities to plug in, no matter where they are. Add to this mix the ever-increasing popularity of broadband and wireless connectivity, and it’s no surprise convergence technologies such as online video are becoming increasingly popular.

To think of all of this as “convergence” misses the point. Giesler’s assertion that consumers are actually being changed by exposure to all this technology, becoming cyborgs that can’t be separated from their technology, is a lot closer to the reality. From always-on kids connected by their Sidekicks, cellphones, and online gaming to business travelers tethered to the home office by their Blackberries, Wi-Fi hotspots, and cell-phone walkie-talkies, today’s consumer looks a lot like but acts very differently from consumers of a decade ago… or even five years ago.

Reaching the cyborg consumer means recognizing the realities of their lives: always on, always connected, socially engaged, networked, multitasking, consuming multiple media, and actively controlling their lifestyles and connection to information. For marketers, reaching these folks means paying attention to a few key areas:

  • Networks. These folks are hooked in to other people. The image of the lone, socially disconnected computer geek is wrong. From eBay and Google Groups to blogs and discussion boards, they’re connected. And because they’re connected, news travels fast, often through networks that are tough for marketers to control.

    Viral marketing taps into this reality (for some great examples, check out ViralMeister). Recognizing new forms of that communication such as blogs and podcasting have as much effect as “official” publications is important to tap into this mindset. Don’t think of blogs just as a communications outlet for your company. Recognize bloggers in your space are major influencers and should be treated as such. Also recognize that PR efforts are even tougher to control than ever, now that anyone with a Blogger account can become a “media outlet.” Bad companies have nowhere to hide anymore.

  • Lifestyle. The genius of Apple’s strategy is it isn’t about a product, but a lifestyle. The point of entry may be the iPod, but soon the iPod users uses Apple’s iTunes to manage their music, buys music on the iTunes Store (over 1 million songs per day at last count), and, Apple hopes, eventually uses Macs to hook everything together. Whether that will happen remains to be seen, but figuring out how to create a product or service that fits into the cyborg consumer’s lifestyle definitely seems to work. Heck, you don’t need to be a technology to use this method. Consider the marketing of the Atkins diet if you want another example.
  • Control. Connected consumers are partially defined by an ability to control their world. From the music they listen to and the games they play to videos they watch, news they read, and people they talk to, cyborg consumers use technology for control. They like control, and anything that interferes with their sense of control is viewed as bad and dangerous. Just look at spam and spyware if you need examples of how consumers react to marketing efforts that try to take control away. Respecting the need for control and fitting into their lifestyle pays dividends.
  • Who, not where. The explosion of mobile connectivity and (as Giesler puts it) “technotrancendance” through immersive technologies means we need to market to the person, not the place where she happens to be. The Internet blurs the line between work and home, allowing us to conduct personal errands at work and ensuring we’re never really away from work. Mobile technology such as cell phones and messaging devices mean we’re always connected to our social and business lives, no matter where we are. For marketers, paying attention to targeting the person rather than the person’s location (home, work, school, etc.) is increasingly important now that consumers can connect to media pretty much anywhere they want.

Though true cyborg consumers may be few and far between today and limited to the bleeding-edge early adopters, the trend vectors are clear. As technology becomes cheaper, easier to use, and more accessible, usage inevitably increases. Understanding today how behavior will change is vital if we’re to be ready for the future.

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