Who Drives the Marketplace Today?

Let me ask a question of all you marketers out there: Who are you working for, your clients or their customers?

Strange question? For many people it is. “Of course I’m working for my clients,” is the resounding reply, delivered with a little sniff. “Who do you think is paying the bills?”

Of course, you get a check from your clients (or your employer if you’re an internal marketing person). But if you think about who’s generating the money to pay those bills, it isn’t the client… it’s their customers. And the only way customers are going to continue to purchase those products and services is if the company selling these things continues to provide the most important thing: value.

Yes, value. Contrary to a lot of what’s been going on online over the past several years, true value is something that people want, not just something they’ve been “marketed” into buying. And as the web becomes more and more mainstream, and more and more people start to buy, value will end up being the one thing that continues to make money over the long term.

Why? Because increasingly, consumers are driving the marketplace. Whereas the old models of marketing and business put the company in the driver’s seat, today consumers drive the market. From doing their own research online about health treatments to doing their own stock-brokering to getting car dealers to bid for their business to using tools like TiVo to create their own custom “channels,” consumers are deciding what they want to buy, when they want to buy it, and who they want to buy it from.

In the latest Yankelovich Monitor, 92 percent of consumers reported feeling “much more knowledgeable and powerful today about what [they] buy and where [they] shop than ever before.” Contrast this with 66 percent of consumers reporting the same feeling 10 to 15 years ago, and it becomes a significant trend.

Yankelovich’s findings break down factors driving consumer behavior into three segments: autonomy (feeling in charge), enjoyment (desiring pleasure in life), and diversity (feeling that people should be able to act as they wish). They have also found that people trust advertising and marketing less and less; only seven percent have “a great deal of confidence” in advertising. (This is definitely a stat we marketers should pay attention to!)

Overall, people are trusting much more in themselves and taking more control over their lives. The amount of traffic sites like eBay or MySimon are attracting shows just how much control people are looking for. They want to shop for bargains and decide who they’re buying from, and the Internet provides an infrastructure to do this in a way that wasn’t possible ten years ago. Like it or not, consumers are in control. Yankelovich calls this “self-invention” and defines it as consumers customizing their own experiences, creating their own unique solutions, and again, driving the marketplace.

So how are we as marketers going to respond to these trends? As I mentioned before, the key is to work for customers, not companies.

While this may fly in the face of conventional business wisdom, it doesn’t mean becoming Ralph Nader or living lives as social activists. The basis of this assertion is pure, cold capitalism: The more value we create for customers, the more they’ll buy over the long term, and the better we’ll all do. It’s not a zero-sum proposition: Companies win by building sales and brand loyalty, and customers win by getting better products and services.

The most important part of “working for your customers” has to come from using your knowledge of those customers, something a lot of people aren’t doing too well.

A recent study from FollowUp.Net found that only 14 percent of e-commerce companies are using attitudinal data gathered from their sites to segment customers… pretty lame. And while a lot of people are paying lip-service to personalization and customer data-mining, few are actually using that data to do more than serve up new products. What we need to be doing is using the tools available and the knowledge we can glean to create products and services that make people’s lives better, more streamlined, and more fun. We can only do that if we know what they want.

The web has shifted the balance of power away from companies and to consumers… and consumers seem to be responding in all aspects of commerce. It’s time that we all woke up and realized this is happening by shifting our focus away from the short-term “what do you want to sell today” attitude that’s been around for so long and get in touch with what consumers are actually looking for… and then working with our clients and their customers to actually deliver.

Related reading