There's an important conversation going on in the world. People are telling other people what to do, where to shop, and how to feel. This conversation takes place face-to-face, over the phone and through the internet. It is the sum total of purchasing experiences, advertising, rumors, myths, truth and media.
Isn't it time you got in on the conversation?
The customer is the center of the universe.
For years we marketers have operated under the misperception that the product was at the center of the universe. We've built our advertising, manufacturing and distribution systems around the product rather than the customer. It worked well for a long time, however new technology has enabled us to see more clearly what's really happening
Telegraph, telephone, fax, WWW, wireless...
Much has been written about this being the age of the customer. The pundits say that thanks to technology, consumers have access to more information and therefore have the power to drive prices down. The customer is "empowered."
At first I didn't buy all this stuff about customer empowerment. In my opinion it was overblown. Yes, consumers have access to more information, but very few have the time and the skill required to access the information on demand. What I saw (from the customer's perspective) was information overload, attention deficit and stress!
What I didn't fully appreciate is the amazing adaptability and coping mechanisms we humans posses. What I failed to realize is that not everyone needs wireless access through a palm pilot with digital scanning capabilities to get the latest info. All they really need is to know a person who knows someone else with the information.
Whether you're talking about B2C or B2B situations, purchasing decisions are influenced by multiple people. It's a network of people and opinions that becomes the real driving force. These opinions are more and more educated as prospects gain access to data, and these opinions are backed up by experience. In other words, we don't have to take the advertiser's word for it anymore. We can talk to other customers to learn the real deal before we buy. And we can report on our own experiences. Our opinion matters to someone - to other consumers - if not the company.
There has been a lot of noise lately about the virtues of branding versus direct response. Practitioners of both communication methods have value - but both need to continually sharpen their attention to the conversation. It is fluid. It is fast. It is concentrated. It is targeted. It is elusive. Marketers need to find a way to add value to the conversation - or at least get mentioned in the conversation (in a positive light) - in order to remain valuable to consumers.
Brands should think of advertising like a job search
If you haven't experienced the power of the conversation first hand, you may not understand or appreciate its power.
Recently I advised a college senior to start networking. He grew up in an affluent area and his family had dozens of influential friends and acquaintances. I stressed to him that the best way to find a job would be to tap that network. Put his hat in his hand, call these guys and ask if they'd tell him about their jobs. People love to talk about themselves, and they love to help young folks get along in the world. Best of all, they'll refer you to their friends, and every conversation will not only increase your chance of getting hired, it will give you a chance to learn about another possible career.
You can't possibly know what you want coming out of school - and you'll be amazed at the different ways people make their livings. He didn't take my advice. He E mailed his resume and did on campus interviews, which is fine, but not enough. Not surprisingly, he did get a job (through a close friend) but he's not happy with it.
Now that he has been in the workplace for a year, he's starting to get it. He sees how it really works. He's less bashful about networking. He's not E mailing resumes. He's conducting networking interviews and he's already drummed up a few opportunities.
I can tell marketers that the way to new customers is similar to the way to a new job. You've got to network among your friends and family and go talk with people. Find out what they do and listen. See if there's a fit with what you have to offer. If not, perhaps they know someone else you can talk to. They'll forward your resume to their friends.
If you've been advertising the old way then it might be hard to believe what I'm saying. But if business is down and advertising isn't working the way it used to, then you may be open to what I'm saying.
Media splintering and information overload / attention deficit all contribute to the problem; but there's something else going on. Most of what is being sold - WE DON'T NEED! And people are starting to realize that less is more. The good news is you can cut your ad budget and you won't feel the effects right away. Scale back media spending and learn more about the conversation. It's a blend of grass roots, cause, PR, etc?but it's done in a real way.
Acknowledgements / Recommended reading:
Many of the opinions and observations made here are inspired by others. I've talked to so many people and read so many books, that it's difficult for me to say where their thoughts end and mine begin. So here's a list of books that have made a significant impact on my thinking. I want to give credit where credit is due. I would recommend the following to anyone interested in learning more about customer-centric enterprise.
Built to Last, James Collins
Mass Customization, Joseph Pine
Differentiate or Die, Jack Trout
Simplicity Marketing, Steven Cristol & Peter Sealey
Making it Personal, Bruce Kasanoff
The Influentials, Ed Keller & John Berry
Anatomy of a Buzz, Emanuel Rosen
The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell
Gonzo Marketing, Christopher Locke
Experiential Marketing, Bernd Schmitt
The Circle of Innovation, Tom Peters