The changing role of marketing in a consumer-driven world

By Sarah Sorensen
May 4, 2010

It should have come as no surprise when Twitter, one of the most popular sites on the Internet, introduced advertising to try to start to monetize their traffic. So why did it make news? I believe it's because their advertising model epitomizes the seismic shift currently taking place in marketing. In today's hyper-connected world, the advertiser has less influence and control; it's all about the consumer.

Through Promoted Tweets, advertisers will be able to target any of the millions of Twitter users that conduct a search relevant to their products and services (e.g. if a user's looking for coffee, a Starbucks' Promoted Tweet will show up in the results; similar to the Google model). However, it's not just about getting the message of the promoter out; these Tweets need to be useful to the visitor, and if they are not, they will stop being shown.

This is the Marketing 2.0 model; in all communications, companies need to engage and address the needs and interests of the consumer or risk losing credibility and quickly becoming irrelevant. Marketing is less about generating one-to-many discussions, in the form of advertisements or press releases, and more about creating an ongoing dialogue with customers. This is because success hinges on being able to develop a productive relationship with the consumer that allows companies to stay on top of customer preferences and concerns to understand how best deliver on evolving requirements.

It's not about talking TO but WITH the consumer.

No longer can you carefully craft your message, buy ad space or radio or TV time, and assume your message will be heard by a quantifiable audience. Today, the audience is fragmented, and they want to hear from you on their own terms. You need to figure out where your customers are spending their time. Perhaps they are on Facebook, where users post more than 55 million updates a day and share more than 3.5 billion pieces of content weekly, or maybe they're on their phone sending one of the 2.5 billion text messages that are sent, according to Blackberry, every day in the U.S.?

Then, you need to determine how they want to hear from you on a regular basis. It could be they want to come to you. This was the case for more than 93,000 people who submitted questions to a new "Open for Questions" section on within just forty-eight hours of launching. Or it could be they would like the convenience of your information embedded in their regular activities, as in the aforementioned Promoted Tweets.

Regardless of the communications channels you choose to pursue, the key is to not just talk, but listen. If people have problems, acknowledge and learn from them. That's what Frank Eliason, a customer service representative for Comcast, did. He saw that many Comcast customers were on Twitter posting their frustrations, so he decided to reach out to them with a simple question "How can I help you?" He then responded to each and every Tweet he received and tried to resolve their issue. He now has close to 42,000 people who follow him and has become one of the go-to resources for Comcast customers looking for help.

It's not a CAMPAIGN but a CONTINUUM.

The Eliason example highlights another important point; marketing shouldn't be about the latest buzzword or trend, but rather about how you live the brand promise in each and everything you do. It's about creating an ongoing relationship with the consumer, and every communication and touch point with the consumer is an opportunity to further develop that relationship. Ever get frustrated when you call customer service, punch in some information and then get asked for that exact same information when someone comes on the call? Or maybe you are one of the more than twenty percent of people who stopped their online purchase because of a lack of company information. These are marketing issues and opportunities.

Look at everything you do, all the intersections you have with consumers and determine how you can enhance the experience and provide additional value to the customer. Financial institutions have found the loyal customer is the one they can help with their overall finances. It's about creating a relationship with the customer that supports them in all their financial planning and decisions, regardless of whether there is an immediate transaction or profit to be made; customers who use an institution's tools to track their spending habits, pay their bills, create a budget, and manage their debt are much less likely to switch banks and will ultimately do a lot more business with them long term.

This is critical, since consumers are going to be turning to a lot of different voices to get their information on you in this digital age. An ecommerce survey by Squidoo found that more than 70 percent of customers looked at online reviews before buying. Intuit revealed that out of every ten sales, eight are due to word of mouth. The lesson is to ensure that you are consistently delivering value to everyone because you never know who or where that critical influence will be.

United Airlines learned the hard way how, in this digital information age, the impact of each and every consumer can be amplified. When Dave Carroll's Taylor guitar was damaged during a flight and United refused to reimburse him ($1200) to get it fixed, he wrote and sang a catchy song about the incident that he posted on YouTube. Within eight months, more than 8 million people had seen the humorous video, with "pass the buck" and "don't ask me" phrases attributed to their customer service, along with the refrain "should have flown with someone else or gone by car because United breaks guitars." What do you think 300 media interviews, a Top 10 viral video, and a Harvard Business Review Case Study cost their brand? I would venture it's more than $1200.

There's no such thing as CONTROL.

One critical mistake that many companies make is that they are obsessed with trying to control each and every interaction, which means they can't develop a real relationship with the customer. Employees following strict guidelines and policies, such as the one United probably had around luggage, have no room to consider the context of the interaction, or create solutions that are unique to the specific requirements of the customer, which means their ability to deliver value is significantly diminished.

The reality is that gone are the days when formal statements and copy that's reviewed by legal can be the voice of a company. Customers are dubious of "spin," they are suspicious of anything that looks contrived or too "corporate;" they want transparent and genuine. Going back to Eliason, when he reaches out to customers, it is not formal or rehearsed. He is not working off a script. You can tell he truly cares and that makes people want to listen to him and work with him, even when he can't actually solve their problem.

Customers want to know you are aware of issues and actively working to solve them. Just as in all relationships, there's the good and the bad. Companies that are open and honest about their problems have earned the trust of their customers and they are rewarded with their pocketbooks. Just look at Nike or Wal-Mart; they have both been able to successfully recover from issues within their operations (supply chain and human resource-related, respectively), in large part because of their willingness to openly address them with the consumer.

But it's important to understand this relinquishment of a perfect façade and control may manifest in surprising ways. For example, some hospitals are letting their patients read the notes their doctors write about them during exams - of course, there's the worry that patients might react badly to a statement that points out they are "slightly obese" or "appears stressed," however, it's a step towards a more transparent relationship. The initial reaction has been positive; patients say it takes some of the fear out of the process (you no longer have to worry about what the doctor knows that you don't), often confirms what the patient already knew, and ensures they have all the information they need to make better decisions about their health.

Businesses that can look across their extended operations and open themselves up to communications that are real and not always comfortable can build trust with customers. Those companies that can relinquish control and instill confidence in their employees to represent them well will be able to engage consumers in authentic, ongoing dialogues that will build the relationships that pivotal for the success of companies in this consumer driven world.

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