In the mid 1990s, after Amazon started selling books, Netscape went public, and “Jerry and David’s Guide to the World Wide Web” positioned itself to become yet another hierarchical officious oracle, it was clear the Internet was going to attract a large audience. With this audience expansion looming, some advertisers had the interesting idea of putting their commercial messages or catalogs online, the rationale being that individuals interested in an advertiser’s products or services would flock to their websites. It was thought that this could potentially eliminate costs associated with creating a consuming audience. Thus was born “brochure war” and with it, the first attempt to have a low-cost, “organic” consumer base simply show up without marketing to them. This hopeful but naïve view of the digital world as an antidote to rapidly rising marketing costs was easily dispelled. Advertisers, and retailers especially, quickly learned that if they wanted to attract an organic online audience, they would have to offer something of value – better products, better prices, or a better consumer experience.
After testing these fundamental value sources, advertisers discovered that bringing in-market consumers to their products or services took time, money, and effort. Still, there were some stars that appeared to defy the rules. Priceline forged a user base by marketing unsold travel, slashing rates, and letting you “name your own price.” Amazon leveraged web technology to make finding what you wanted in the world’s largest book store easy; giving it a virtually unlimited product selection. And as part of the team of United Media, I helped facilitate new ways for loyal Dilbert and Snoopy fans to engage with the comics, namely discovering old comics based on particular themes, sharing a favorite with a friend, and directing them to our online store featuring comic-related merchandise. In each case, the unique abilities of the web circa 1997 were utilized to their fullest to improve the user experience.
Today, as e-commerce morphs and online advertisers and retailers begin getting their bearings with social and mobile media, it seems that hopeful but naïve view of yore is coming back to life. But as marketing departments get their hopes up about how their Facebook page and new iPad app will reduce campaign costs, it is worth remembering that developing an organic, interested audience requires showcasing fundamental sources of value. The examples cited above did precisely that. Priceline, Amazon, and United Media distinctly leveraged an emerging new medium to provide a new experience. In order to win in the social and mobile space, it would be wise to follow their example and take full advantage of the unique capabilities these new entry points have to offer.
The greatest buzz today is focused on social media. The massive 600 million person audience that collectively spends more time on Facebook than any other social site is certainly an attractive target. But just putting up a Facebook page and expecting great things will produce disappointing results. The genius of Facebook is that it has merged the self-expressiveness of Yahoo GeoCities with an unparalleled interactive platform. Letting digital “friends” share their point of view makes it possible for them to drive opinion. For opinion makers, which are what all advertisers hope to be, shaping the social discussion and thereby becoming influential is critical. Kaplan Test Prep makes this work well. Kaplan has a team that monitors and weighs in on social conversations that impact its brand. If someone is praising Kaplan’s services, it can retweet, post, and distribute the note to a broader audience. Conversely, if a customer service need arises, Kaplan can step in, in near real time, to ensure that it is handled appropriately. By being an active participant in the social conversation, Kaplan is maximizing social media’s ability to shape opinion and influence buyers.
Mobile is another emerging media that advertisers can better leverage. In today’s hyper-connected world, the mobile device, especially the phone, is always present. Like email, mobile marketing lets marketers push highly targeted messages to individual users when the advertiser deems the message most relevant. Also like email, this privilege should be granted by the consumer and used respectfully. When it is properly implemented, mobile marketing takes digital convenience to a new level. Delta does a good job here, offering flight updates via SMS. This has improved the user experience for those going to and from the airport. The folks at 1-800-Flowers have also tapped the singular proficiencies of mobile. The company has developed an app that lets a user easily select and buy flowers from their smartphone with a few clicks. Pair that with an SMS reminder that it’s your mother’s birthday in two days and it is easy to see how Flowers has turned the always-on, always-at-hand, individually-addressable mobile device into a tool for family harmony.
As was the case in the 1990s, emerging technologies will enable marketers to reach and interact with their audience in new and clever ways. The winners going forward will effectively exhaust the distinctive abilities of each medium to grow existing platforms and provide the consuming public with a better user experience. And just like Sears learned in 1888 and Kaplan discovered in 2008, using a new communication tool to create a better user experience creates consumer value that will get your target audience talking.