The Post-Web World: Connecting With Connected Consumers

Is it time to start talking “post-Web”?

Maybe. We’ve all been pretty much wrapped up in the Web for the last half-decade or so (hell, for most of us, the Web is our job). Perhaps it’s time to step back and think bigger.

In a recent New York Times article, Glenn Davis, founder of one-time megasite Cool Site of the Day, arbiter of online “coolness,” and maven for legions of Web newbies, voiced something many of us feel but haven’t had the guts to say.

“We’ve lost our sense of wonder,” Davis told The Times, “The Web is old hat.”

In many ways, he’s right. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Having endured the most spectacular boom/bust cycle any industry has experienced, the Web has settled down to become a fact of life for the majority of Americans. The frontier has been settled, the claims staked, and the weak buried. People don’t say, “Wow!” when they see the Web anymore. They just use it.

Figures reflect this new complacency. The Pew Internet and American Life Project reports the average online session length decreased from 90 minutes in 2000 to 83 minutes in March of 2001. At the same time, the number of users who said the Internet “helps them a lot” when learning new things decreased from 50 to 39 percent. People spend less time online and are getting pretty set in their ways.

The Net’s not the only medium that’s seen a decrease in attention over time. Television has seen share decrease for years. In the early 1950s, the average network viewing share was 60 percent. Today, that number’s in the low 20s. In 1950, Milton Berle’s show achieved a 79.9 share. Last year, Monica Lewinsky’s interview with Barbara Walters (the most highly rated single news event ever) barely hit a 40 share.

The same can be said for all media. A proliferation of magazines has reduced the print audience share. Radio’s homogenization turned many off the medium. Mass culture, driven by common mass media experienced by a huge percentage of the population, is over. We’re splintering into smaller and smaller groups. We’re no longer separated by distance. We’re getting harder to reach.

Advertising has naturally suffered. The economic hit taken by the industry since September 11 had a major impact, but the cause of advertising’s decline is deeper. In 1999, a study by Erdos & Morgan found consumers were spending less time with all media — Internet, magazines, cable TV, network TV — than in the past. The study discovered that the percentage of people who trust and believe advertising is miniscule. Ten percent “trusted and believed” Internet advertising. Just 14 percent trusted ads they saw on TV.

Why? Sure, the postmodern consumer is far more media-savvy than in decades past. At the same time, access to information, enabled by the Net and proliferation of media, has been working rapidly to shift power from producer to consumer, according to Yankelovich. Having doubts? Look what the Net’s done to the automobile and travel industries. That’s consumer power at work.

This power was at its clearest with the death of so many dot-bombs. Sites such as Pets.com thought they could convert consumers from brick-and-mortar buying to online buying, changing behavior ingrained since birth. Consumers balked and took control, voting with their pocketbooks. They decided how they were going to buy pet food and groceries. It wasn’t online.

How does this fit into thinking beyond the Web? A trend has been developing over the past decade. It indicates that the real power of the Internet may not be the Web at all but rather the Internet’s ability to connect people.

Let’s look at what consumers do today. We already know they surf less. But, they’re sending more email, more instant messages, and more SMS messages. They’re increasingly playing games online against people they’ve never met. They’re swapping files like crazy (sending shockwaves through the entertainment industry). They’re chatting, downloading video, listening to music… in short, doing stuff involving connection but not necessarily the Web.

Your customers are connected. They’re talking to each other, playing games with each other, sharing files with each other. No matter where they go, they’re using technologies born out of (or inspired or enhanced by) the Internet to communicate with each other and often with your (or your client’s) company.

How can we as marketers operate effectively in an environment where consumers have so many choices, are so jaded, and are likely to bypass our messages through brutally honest assessments shared with a global network of friends? How can we cut through the clutter and connect with the connected consumer?

First, we need to differentiate. That doesn’t mean being different for the sake of being different. It means design applied to understanding. Tom Peters once said, “Design is the principal difference between love and hate.” He’s more right today than ever. People love or hate products based on intangibles of design more than anything. Differentiation is the result of that love (or hate). The way to create that effective differentiation based on design isn’t by being “cool” but by getting your hands dirty and actually talking to customers where they live. Get out of the focus groups and onto the street — where real insight comes from.

Second, connect with your customers by being at every point where they could touch your company. That could be through the typical official communications channels — a given. It also means communicating your brand and your difference through people your customers come into contact with, through the emails they send, through products. Brand is formed by that contact. It’s that brand that connects.

Once you’ve connected, engage your customers in your brand. Get them immersed in it through games that hold attention, experiences that hold interest, or products and services that provide entertainment or real-life usefulness. Think “apps,” not “ads.”

Finally, “delight” is a business strategy. It’s worked for Apple, been a core tenet for Target, and built companies such as OXO into giants. The most repeatedly watched part of the Super Bowl (at least, for TiVo users) was not the final few minutes of the game. It was Britney Spears’s ’60s TV spot. Whether you like Britney or not, that ad generated engagement and delight in the target audience.

When we look back at now, we may discover the Internet revolution wasn’t about the Web, but about ubiquitous connectivity and a universal platform for information. Recognize the power of connection and learn how to use it in a post-Web world.

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