The Empowered Customer: Your Client

There’s a popular theory that the Internet shifts power from sellers to buyers because it makes it easier for buyers to get information and shop around. The “empowered customer” is said to be part of the sea change of the new economy, borne out by services like Autobytel and Priceline that provide information and heighten competition.

But if you work for an interactive agency, there is a new empowered customer on the scene: your client. It’s not because of new economics, but because of your client’s experience. In the past year, many are finding that “traditional” advertisers, with a few years of e-marketing experience, are increasingly savvy, strategic, and streetwise when it comes to hiring and managing their agencies. That is presenting many of us with some new challenges, but it is good for the industry.

Many companies that market on the Net have come a long way. Just two years ago, every new business presentation that I made focused on convincing traditional advertisers that it was worth spending money on the Internet. This wasn’t always an easy sell — many were unfamiliar with the Net and wary of spending money on an unproven medium.

Things changed after the watershed 1998 and 1999 holiday seasons, when e-commerce bloomed and millions found computers under the tree. Suddenly, the Internet was on the cover of every major business magazine, and companies realized that they could no longer ignore it.

But for many companies, the period that followed was one of naiveti. Along with their rush to “get on the Internet,” many had no strategic vision or purpose. That’s how some companies ended up with hundreds of disparate, or even competing, web sites.

Because interactive agencies had some Net expertise and experience, they held the cards. E-marketing was more of a mystery than it is now, and agencies projected an aura of mystical knowledge.

That period seems to be coming to an end. First of all, the market correction has broken the Internet’s spell of invincibility and omnipotence. The new vibe is prudence and planning. Advertisers are making sure that every dollar they spend sees a quantifiable return.

It’s not that experienced advertisers are questioning the value of marketing on the Internet. (It’s those with no experience who usually do.) But they have made mistakes, wasted some money, and now are more careful when they plan their Internet marketing efforts. In addition, brand managers are increasingly accountable to a corporate Internet strategy.

This seems to be changing the relationship between agencies and their clients. Clients are demanding more from their agencies, especially in terms of accountability and integration with offline advertising. Agencies, in turn, are scrambling to learn new skills like e-CRM to meet the demands of a new, holistic way of thinking about e-marketing.

An article by Tom Hespos last week rightly called for our industry to get serious about promoting ways of measuring online advertising and holding it accountable to provide ROI. This is necessary to convince companies that aren’t marketing online that it is worth doing so. But it is also increasingly important when working with existing, experienced clients.

It’s not easy meeting these new demands. But the fact that clients are getting smarter is good for the industry. Good agencies will draw upon their own clients’ expertise and become more disciplined in developing strategies and measuring success.

In those slide presentations two years ago, the last slide always said the same thing: You must start learning now. Those who heeded that advice are in a much better position today to take advantage of the power of marketing online.

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