Educational Marketing and the Information Junkie

Sitting here in rural New Mexico, far from any sort of Internet connectivity, I’m confronted with how dependent I’ve become on being one click away from the answer to literally any question. It’s not that I’m a tech junkie, I’m an information junkie. And I’m not alone.

The Internet, in all its various incarnations, is the ultimate resource for 99 percent of the information most of us want on a daily basis. Yes, there’s Lexis-Nexis and similar archives for professional use, though just because a doctor, lawyer, or academic said it doesn’t make it true. In large part, it’s the Internet that dishes out what the masses consume. This applies to everything from why accountants wear green eye shades to how to transfer VHS home video to DVD. From the mundane to the practical, pretty much anything a typical person wants to know is a click away.

What, then, was CNET was thinking when it offered a class on converting VHS to DVD? It isn’t a targeting issue: I’m actually interested in this, as I’d suspect many parents in 40 to 50 age range are. What’s puzzling is the way it went about marketing this class. CNET classes are, after all, as much about marketing as education.

To convert VHS to DVD requires a few basic components: a VHS player, a DVD burner, and something to convert the analog VHS signal to a digital format. This where the class started. So far, so good. To help get us started, CNET recommended a converter package from Pinnacle. The presence of the recommendation was expected and appreciated. After all, the premise of these classes is a combination of knowledge for participants and marketing exposure for relevant manufacturers. Even better, because CNET is in large part a user-driven community, and user reviews of the recommended Pinnacle converter were available. A link to the reviews was included in the recommendation.

The problem? The reviews said “don’t buy this.” The average rating was a dismal 4 out of 10, and user comments were far from complimentary. As a result, the first educational experience was poor. About half the participant comments in the first lesson — which essentially comprised setting up the Pinnacle hardware and converter tools — were along the lines of, “Why did they recommend this?” Of course, as in any user-driven context, the class recovered as users offered alternate suggestions. Unfortunately, since much of the early lessons in this class were specific to Pinnacle’s product, the experience devolved into roughly the equivalent of what most participants probably already knew about converting VHS to DVD or could quickly figure out for themselves by using Google.

A few years back, the CNET classes were created by Powered. They were consistently excellent and avoided this sort of error. Perhaps this was an isolated incident. I hope so, because the discipline of educational marketing, Powered’s core practice, remains one of the best e-marketing vehicles. Consumers like knowledge and dislike irrelevant interruption. Done correctly, educational marketing addresses both.

What’s an online marketer to do? For starters, whether it’s an online class, an e-mail solicitation, or a loyalty program promotion, recognize online consumers can and will check everything you say or claim. This is one of the fundamental characteristics of the true information junkie. Consumers really hate making bad choices. And with answers at hand, there’s no longer any justification for doing so.

A duped consumer used to explain his mistake away to friends with something like, “The guy at the store told me this was the best,” or, “The ad claimed it would do this.” Nowadays, that type of excuse is met with rolled eyes and a retort like, “Didn’t you bother to check it out online first?” This is where firms such as Bazaarvoice are making hay. They bring the power of recommendations, reviews, and authentic user-generated content to a range of businesses. Not only do reviews presence of boost consumer confidence at purchase time, it also provides businesses with solid, quantitative feedback on what’s hot and what’s not.

As marketers continue to press into nontraditional forms of user-centric persuasive communications, smart ones will focus on the effect of consumer-initiated validation. What actual customers have to say about a brand, product, or service will become the dominant criterion for predicting marketing success. Virtually all consumers are too connected and too conscious of not appearing the fool as the result of a bad purchase to suggest anything less.

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