The shift in control began gradually enough not to notice.
At first, the web browser provided access to mostly static websites. The next big shift came when Google provided easy access to all the information on the web and used that position to disrupt advertising. Apple shifted control further by putting the whole experience in our customers’ pockets. Since then, the web has become more mobile friendly, better at facilitating online buying, and has become an intermediary in our personal lives through social media. At the same time, access has become so fast and ubiquitous that even HD video can be streamed anywhere.
We are undeniably in an age of an extremely empowered, online, mobile customer. Before any major purchase our customers check reviews and prices on at least three different sites. They find new competitors in seconds and change their preferences quickly. Where once the distributors, suppliers and salespeople controlled access to information, our customer now has as much or more information than we do. The customer is now in control.
How should marketing adapt?
Our objectives are still about solving two problems: First, generating awareness and attention. And second, converting that attention into interest and sales.
It’s easy to get caught up on the first problem. There are so many exciting new channels and tactics to experiment with.
Digital media tends to get most of the attention because options are expanding so fast. And our ability to track it gives us the ability to prove the ROI. Social Media is appealing because our customers spend so much time on it. Search Engine Marketing works because it gets in front of potential customers at the peak moment of their interest. Online display advertising keeps coming up with new technological advances such as programmatic ad buying for better targeting, and remarketing to win back potential customers who left your website.
Traditional media still has an important role to play. It’s more difficult to track but it still works. Print provides access to audiences that aren’t necessarily available or easy to reach elsewhere. Radio reaches captive and broad audiences at particular times of the day. Outdoor has incredibly broad yet precisely local reach. Simply appearing in major media provides credibility and trust that’s hard to match.
Yet, with all these options, generating awareness from digital and traditional media is getting more difficult. Customers tune out advertising and in many cases actively avoid our messages with adblockers and PVRs. They’ve also become selective about to whom they give their attention by using subscribed ad-free services such as streaming television or satellite radio. Although it’s interesting to note you can’t yet block ads in print or outdoor advertising.
The counter intuitive approach – and your competitive advantage – is to focus on the second marketing problem. How do you convert more of the attention you already have into interest and action?
What’s important to understand is the awareness and interest you generate from both digital and traditional sources results in prospects and customers visiting your website. Focusing on your online customer experience – starting well before they become customers – is your best option for leveraging the attention and interest you generate.
Entire industries have been disrupted by companies focused on the online and mobile customer experience. We’ve already mentioned what Google did to advertising and yellow pages. Netflix did the same to video rentals, then cable and television networks. Uber has done this to the taxi industry, and soon to food delivery. Amazon is attempting to do this to the whole of retail.
In most industries there’s still a large and growing gap in the expectations of the customer and the experience provided. Customers increasingly expect and demand speed, convenience, security, personalization and great service at their fingertips – and some company is going to give it to them.
The first step in improving your customer experience is to change your mindset to match the new reality. Digital marketing is fundamentally collaborative – it’s a never ending value exchange between buyer and seller. When your customers show up they are providing you with their valuable attention. You must return the favour by meeting their expectations in the most convenient way possible. Make sure your website prioritizes the information they want, not just what you want to say.
It’s especially important to understand where your customers are in their journey. A prospect visiting your site for the first time with limited knowledge of your products and services – and possibly your category – needs different information from someone who’s decided to buy and they’re down to you and two other options.
Next, continuously engage with them. Provide valuable offers like free downloads, online or physical events, subscriptions, interactive tools, videos, online courses, chat, or simply a request to for personal contact. These offers can be traded for permission to communicate or to deepen the relationship. In this age of limited attention, permission is a valuable asset. It’s your opportunity to stay top-of-mind and establish preferences. Treat it with respect by only sending useful and timely information so you don’t get tuned out.
Getting and keeping customers is about providing a great customer experience from first interaction and throughout the life of the relationship. The customer now wields all the power, so we must collaborate with them by continuously providing more value so they enthusiastically return the favour. When we provide a better experience we’ll get more attention and the attention we get is more valuable. In the future, the customer experience may be the only competitive advantage we have.
A version of this article originally appeared in The Globe and Mail June 17, 2016.
Getting and keeping customers when the customer has control
The shift in control began gradually enough not to notice.