The New "M-E" Generation (Mobile-Everywhere)
Consumers Raise Their Mobile Hands, Part 2.
By Paul McEnany
In my last article, I touched on how we, as advertisers, should be working harder to embrace consumer self targeting. They do it already. Hell, you do it already. The simple act of searching for something on Google or Amazon is a form of self targeting, even if in minimalist terms. But, what about when they go to Amazon and read the hundreds of thousands of product reviews already uploaded to the site. No amount of advertising can combat a slew of poor reviews.
So how does this all work, anyway?
I'm an enormous music fan. I spend way too much of my time searching for new music to listen to and write about. Even so, the days of sifting through the album racks at my local CD store are long gone for me, now existing in some state of nostalgia in the back of my brain.
And while I'm constantly looking for new music, I'm hardly ever swayed by any amount of advertising for it. In fact, my general music snobbiness precludes me from buying anything in that fashion.
Now, I spend some of my time on trusted sites like "Gorilla vs. Bear", Pitchfork, or Insound surfing through music from the recommendations I trust. I'll search for bands I find there on MySpace to get a larger taste of their music, and explore other bands on their friends list to hear more. If there's something I like, it's a couple clicks over at itunes, a quick download into the iPod, and that CD goes with me wherever I go, in a process that may take ten or fifteen minutes, and one that is totally me-generated.
Even further, iTunes then catalogues the albums I've bought, then suggests more music I'd like, based upon what other people who buy music like me, also buy. More often than not, it's dead on. The people who buy what I buy are snobs just like me, and through these computer algorithms, our snobbish community grows larger and larger based on our collective buying patterns. It's not advertising, it's all about me, and us.
But, where does advertising fit in with a system such as this?
And, it's not just music, it's news, too. Until about a year ago, I faithfully bought the newspaper every single day. Each night, I'd take 30 or 40 minutes to read through the front page, sports, business and maybe some local news. But, then the newspaper dispenser outside my apartment broke, and remained paperless for a few days.
It made me realize, I never needed it in the first place. More often than not, whatever was in the paper, I had already read about anyway. No printed media can ever move at the speed of the internet. But, how then, is this a form of self targeting?
Now I get the news I want, and lots more of it. Social networks have been created around sites like Digg, Reddit, Netscape, among others, that act as a filter, a distillation of news of some importance to people like me. Thousands of Digg users vote on what the news actually is, creating a concentric affect and trickling down to the rest of the net. Getting to the front page of these sites is literally like striking a gold mine causing such large storms of people, that sites regularly crumble under the pressure of the enormous traffic. To solve the problem, Digg users mirror them elsewhere to keep them accessible.
But that's just one piece of the puzzle, now sites like memeorandum, techmeme and tailrank track the hottest news from sources all over the internet, including traditional media entities, single bloggers, and everything in between. Again, these engines automatically track the news, sending the most important, and the most talked about, to the top.
The problem for papers like my hometown Dallas Morning News, is that most simply have a very narrow need for them. Sure, they do hold some sway for local news, but many sites representative of offline newspapers force users through a deluge of pop-ups, and other desperate, caustic advertising techniques. Now, I just don't waste my time. Even local news can quickly become the domain of someone else as these recommendations engines creep down to the micro-level.
So, when we get our news in only the pieces we want, where do advertisers fit in?
After Christmas, I decided it was time for me to buy my first HDTV (I know, finally!). Now, even this consumer electronics device, once heavily reliant on advertising, simply couldn't break through my advertising shield. Every television commercial wasted, every insert trashed. I need only to rely on two different pieces of information, the price and the quality of the product.
By using a site like Shoplocal.com or Pricegrabber.com, I only need to search for exactly what I'm looking for, and immediately, I'll receive feedback on where I can receive the best price. For me, the best price for the set I was leaning towards was at Circuit City. So, again, with just a couple clicks to the Circuit City website, I had over 400 reviews and ratings, analyzing every aspect of the television, from the obvious to little things I would have never even questioned. And it's not just the TV's, but every product sold in the store.
And, Circuit City's not the only one using these recommendations and reviews. They're everywhere, and those that don't have them now, will have them soon. It's safe to say that almost any product that you could ever imagine buying has been reviewed by someone, somewhere, and as these recommendation engines and computer algorithms get stronger and more robust, it will literally become impossible to ever hide from a poor product. With every aspect of every product under scrutiny, from price to manufacturing standards, where does advertising play a role? Surely, hiding behind an advertising budget the size of Bill Gates' wallet won't be enough to save any mediocre product. Hell, just ask Bill Gates, the Zune was a miserable failure despite millions of dollars burned in traditional push advertising.
Just wait until more mobile devices with full internet access like the iPhone come out. Then, comparison shopping will be available in the palm of consumer hands. It's already here to some extent, with TicTap.com and Smarter.com offering SMS comparison services with a search of product numbers or UPC codes. As you can probably imagine, these services will become more and more popular as cell phone technology catches up.
All this should seem pretty scary. In the past, it was more likely for advertising to cause consumers to make a quick decision to buy because finding more information about a product was such a huge pain. At the very least, advertising had the opportunity to beat the word-of-mouth cycle, and have a fighting chance for a crap product to stay out of the red. Those days are gone.
In my mind, it just keeps pointing back to the fact that we have no choice but to embrace consumer control. They know more than they ever did, and we should be there to facilitate the process as much as we can. By helping consumers find the right product for them, regardless of whether it comes from you, there's a better chance at creating loyalty that cuts through these systems and engines that are now in place. These new mechanisms will simply force us to make better products, and offer more value in the experience of buying them.
So, while price shopping is important, spending some time with these thousands of reviews will make it abundantly clear that service plays just as an important role for a large percentage of buyers of any product. If you think outsourcing your customer service, or paying minimum wage for poorly trained workers is a good idea, you will be caught, and the consumers you need will turn from you, along with not only their friends, but strangers across the country based on the strength of a simple product review.
There is no easy answer for advertising. Obviously, there will still be a place, but advertising alone simply can't drive the results it once did. For advertising agencies, this will mean finding new ways to add value past creating ads. What will be needed is community building and communication facilitation. Making unidirectional advertisements to a populace weary and overwhelmed by the clutter is useless. Consumers have already been trained to shut you out, and by shouting louder and attempting to gain even more ubiquity, advertisers are just driving the wedge deeper.
So why bother with all the clutter? The more clutter we rush to create, the less likely we are to be heard anyway, and making programs that ask consumers to raise their hands increases the likelihood that you'll walk away with a trusting customer. They have their hands raised already, but we've let other companies step in to recognize that, leaving billions of dollars that was potentially ours on the table.
The next marketing program you create, take the time to ask yourself, does this put you in a place where your customers want you to be, and facilitate the conversations they're already having? It's not good enough to be everywhere, you just have to be there.
Paul McEnany is a new media and marketing strategist at Levenson and Hill in Dallas, TX and works with clients in business categories ranging from logistics to QSR. He is a contributor to Beyond Madison Avenue, one of the most popular marketing blogs as well as his own personal marketing blog, Hee Haw Marketing. A budding activist, he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.