Originally featured in the Journal of Digital and Social Media Marketing
Today’s digital consumer expects more from brands. Less patient than ever, these consumers are attracted to ease, experience and personalization. This article will equip marketers with some basic tools needed in order to reach their target audiences. Weber and Prodromou argue that a truly customer-centric business model as well as a system of well-designed, engaging content production will both increase sales and brand awareness. Separately, this article explores how brick and mortar environments can engage consumers as well as facilitate the e-commerce experience. The research gathered here will help marketers cater to consumers through convenience, accessibility and human interaction.
Evolution is the key to survival. And it’s no different in the world of marketing. Today’s new digital consumer is smarter, savvier, and comes equipped with greater expectations—expectations for which technology companies may be responsible, but more on that later.
Over is the broadcast era during which television reined Madison Avenue and the number one goal was to push product on unsuspecting, passive consumers who lacked true platforms to express themselves.
Enter: the engagement era. Now firmly entrenched in a time where 1.2 billion people are active on Facebook, 500 million+ live on Twitter, 4 billion hours of video are viewed monthly on YouTube, and 75 percent of the world holds a mobile phone, it’s no surprise that trends have shifted both in the ways marketers market and consumers consume.
Social media has empowered customers like never before—from being able to check online reviews before committing to a purchase to registering complaints in real time via the likes of Twitter or Facebook. Because of these behavioral changes, the customer journey has become circular rather than linear, according to McKinsey & Company.[i]
A fully integrated marketing approach is the most effective way to engage customers across this circular spectrum, as brands like Sephora have learned. In 2012, the team at Sephora kicked off ’15 Days of Beauty Thrills’ sweepstakes that included a trip to Paris in its grand prize along with smaller incentives throughout.
A special Facebook app was created to bolster engagement while paid media directed the target to like its page and participate in the promotion.
In the end, the integrated campaign delivered Sephora a six-fold increase in its Facebook-fan base, more traffic to its new website and a lift in product sales. Beyond that, the company continues to enjoy high levels of brand interaction.
But before any marketer can successfully activate an integrated approach that reaches the digital consumer far and wide, marketing departments must become less tool-oriented and more customer centric.
It’s no longer about the hard sell of the broadcast era. In this new age of engagement, the rules have changed, and the rest of this paper will help you figure out how to play by them.
To start, we will discuss how to understand this new digital consumer and analyze the importance of physical environments to see what can be learned as we build enjoyable digital environments that make people want to stay awhile.
Expectations of the Digital Consumer
Before companies can truly become customer centric, they must understand the customer. For centuries, technology and innovation have been changing people’s expectations for what’s good or bad or acceptable. As a result, today’s digital consumer is insatiable.
When the first Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog hit mailboxes in 1893, a certain power was given back to the consumer.[ii] For 100 years, the storied catalog allowed shoppers to buy without leaving their homes. Sears was one of the first companies to leave the physical world, and as we know, it has only kept going from there.
Innovation that was meant to satisfy effectively threw patience out the window. Remember when dial-up Internet was the wave of the future? Instead of nails on a chalkboard, the trademark static sound was like sweet music. AOL’s instant messenger, also known as typed conversation between peers in real time, was a revolutionary way to communicate.
But, as to be expected, the then-current technology was brushed aside to make room for progress. Dial up no longer fulfilled a need well enough. Fast forward to today when a mere ten-second lag in connection speed is cause for frustration. The consumer can’t be blamed for this lack of contentment. It’s the tech companies that have changed what reasonable expectations look like when it comes to the digital realm.
Today’s customers now also live their lives across channels, often incorporating several to complete a single task or transaction. Comfortable with giving up a certain level of privacy, consumers almost expect companies to know about their affinity for blue shirts or red lipstick. That level of encroachment on privacy ends at a certain point, of course, such as when it dips into the worlds of healthcare or banking.
As a result of it all, the reality for marketers is more complex. The challenge becomes how to break through these sometimes unrealistic expectations to make an impact and get the message across despite consumers’ attempts at avoiding it.
Digital marketing has become the new solar system with software, content creation, analytics, and design orbiting around the central pull of the consumer. Innovation itself is slowing down—instead, success will be reached by refining and mastering techniques already in place.
Along with this—two words, data and mobile, must be given a second look. Just like dial-up Internet, they have become obsolete and superfluous. It’s no longer just data, it’s analytics and prediction that comes from all sources. At the same time, everything is mobile—from computers to entire office spaces. The real focus should be on environment.
The Importance of Environment
In order to fully understand the significance of creating an enjoyable digital environment, one must look back into the land of brick and mortar. As evidenced by the popularity of stores such as Starbucks, where environment equates to cozy chairs, calming music, and personalized concoctions, people gravitate toward places and experiences they find pleasant and satisfactory.
Movie theaters, too, are smartly adapting to create spaces that look more like a living room where you can come and order food and drink as you recline comfortably in a lounge chair to watch a feature flick. And it’s working.
McDonald’s recognized the importance of its physical spaces. Former IDEO designer Denis Weil was hired to serve as vice president of concept and design. Tasked with overseeing the redesign of many of its locations, he expressed the magnitude of their design challenge to Fast Company, “If Martians came down to Earth and visited a McDonald’s, a post office, and a bank, they wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. They would just see that everything starts with a line, has a counter that acts as a divider where the money exchanges, and has something hidden going on way in the back.”[iii]
A visit to one of the renovated McDonald’s restaurants in Boston reveals many key changes. Spacious dining-in spaces complete with Wi-Fi and electric outlets reflect the company’s effort to rebrand McDonald’s as a place to eat and work, rather than just get drive-through food. To reduce customers’ waiting times, the company has redesigned the way purchases are made. Rather than waiting in line while their food is being prepared, customers receive a number and are encouraged to get their drinks and settle in at their tables until their number is called.
And with rumors of Amazon’s first physical store coming to Manhattan, it’s clear that even during a time of e-commerce domination, retail stores are taking stock in creating a positive environment.
H&M’s new flagship store in Times Square hosts a social media lounge that creates an inviting space where shoppers can sit and enjoy free Wi-Fi access, music, and even a photo studio. Cash registers and sales advisors are located inside the dressing room area to simplify checkout. Another popular feature is a virtual runway upon which customers are encouraged to strut their stuff. People on the street can enjoy the show as runway performances are projected onto gigantic outdoor LED screens that face Broadway and 42nd street.
Based on these examples alone, a few key trends are evident: one, stores are establishing an atmosphere people will enjoy regardless of whether or not they’re making a purchase; two, they’re providing customers with a non-traditional experience; and three, it’s all centered around the consumer’s wants, needs, and likes.
These same observations hold true in the digital world and will carry over into the discussion in the pages that follow about how to master creating—and adapting—an online environment that entices the consumer, encourages his or her participation, and still benefits the bottom line.
It’s no easy task. We will talk about how to start by first truly embodying customer centricity into your marketing. From there we will focus on how great design and a quality content experience can go a long way toward keeping the digital consumer interested.
At the center of it all are these four key, inextricably connected elements, which you will see play out across success stories.
- Attraction: everything marketing agencies do is meant to attract, including the distribution or sharing of owned, earned, and paid content.
- Engagement: that content then needs to keep the digital consumer engaged for a period of time.
- Experience: marketers need to create personalized, effortless experiences that make users want to keep coming back.
- Action: the end goal remains generating a sale or stimulating a pre-determined action.
A Shift to Customer Centricity
Customer centricity is an old story. For decades we have known that being as close as possible to our customers and bringing their voices into the center of our organizations has been a winning strategy, but we have not turned that aspiration into reality. However, the numerous changes that digital has ushered in have forced us to move away from our traditional producer-based strategies and tactics to focus on meeting our customers’ needs and desires.
A great example of a customer-centric digital marketing campaign is Coca-Cola’s “Share a Coke” campaign, which ran during the summer of 2014. The campaign featured Coca-Cola bottles and cans on which the iconic logo was replaced by the 250 most popular first names and nicknames for teens and millennials in the United States. Consumer personalization was what truly led this campaign to great digital marketing and business success. [iv]
As of July 2014, the social results of the campaign were outstanding. More than 125,000 Share a Coke campaign posts were shared across all digital channels since the campaign started in the U.S. in June, and according to a report by Networked Insights, 96 percent of the sentiments were positive. The brand share of voice in digital channels was also impressive: According to Network Insights, Coca-Cola recieved a campaign share of voice of 0.00166 percent, a brand share of voice of 0.01576 percent and a brand lift of 11.8 percent.[v]
Despite this, much confusion still exists around the definition of customer centricity. We define it as helping our prospects and customers achieve their goals in a way that makes sense for our organization. We are operating in a place of shared value, playing on the same team, and pursing the same goals. As a result, customer centricity is uniquely defined for every organization.
Marketers must continually find ways to stay on top of shifting customer preferences and distinguish their products and services from the growing competition. To effectively meet their needs, companies must be present and available within their preferred channels, offering a seamless, personalized, and often predictive experience.
Organizations that have grasped the new reality and are redesigning the way they attract, engage with, and develop experiences for their prospects and customers are making strides in realizing customer centricity. Two standout examples include Amazon and Marketo.
Amazon’s customers feel as if the world was made for them. Greeted by name as they arrive on site, a robust search engine acts like a personal assistant, quickly locating items from multiple vendors. Tailored recommendations reflect prior searches, page views, reviews, and purchases in order to offer suggestions for items that may be of additional interest.
Ancillary features on Amazon transform a simple purchase into an experience by creating the much sought-after attractive digital environment. When looking for a book, customers may view videos about the author, such as William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech from 1950. From there, one may jump to book reviews or excerpts before landing on the final purchase. In the end, customers can (hopefully) look back fondly at how they’ve spent the last hour or two.
Marketo shows that B2B companies are also making strides in defining and delivering new levels of customer centricity. A marketing automation and revenue management company, its website houses a resource center it knows is helpful as potential customers start their work.
Once a potential customer accesses its content, Marketo proactively offers them increasingly targeted content and invitations to events in hopes of building a meaningful relationship. Because its communications are well targeted and timed, prospects experience them positively, not as spam. Engagement with Marketo also includes access to their social community, on-demand training, and the ability to submit ideas to the company’s product management team.
Thinking again about the four key elements for creating a successful digital environment—attraction, engagement, experience, and action—it’s important to note that the average American in his or her twenties switches media venues 27 times per non-working hour. He or she is also browsing multiple screens at once, often absorbing unrelated content simultaneously.[vi]
For marketers, reaching out to the millennial audience is clearly more involved. Larry shares an example of watching The Voice at home with his 24-year-old daughter who, across her multiple devices, was simultaneously shopping at Lululemon, chatting to and sharing her purchase considerations with friends, and tweeting about the show.
Throughout the experience, Lululemon gave her real-time offers via mobile that coincided with the items she’d perused on her laptop. The experience led to a sale for the retailer while it created an enjoyable experience for the user that will keep her coming back and ignoring the competition.
In addition to the customer-centric strategies shown in these examples, the importance of a great design cannot be overlooked.
The Draw of Superior Design
Positive digital environments have become increasingly critical, which makes the thoughtful design of individual customer experiences, and how multiple touch points work together as a whole, too vital to be left to chance.
But there’s a fine line between offering hyper-personalized experience like the Amazons and Netflixes of the world and offering an overly cluttered experience encased in marketing messages that instead overwhelms the consumer and sends them elsewhere.
For years, companies have operated under the assumption that customers want more options, however, research conducted by American psychologist Barry Schwartz found that for most people, having too many options is anxiety producing rather than freeing.[vii]
We know when an experience is well designed: it works. It’s easy, engaging, and perhaps even entertaining and fun. It leaves us confident that we’ve gotten the best answers to our inquiries and that if for some reason we aren’t satisfied, we will be able to alter the situation with the company’s assistance.
The Google search experience continues to define what works. Its 15-year history has solidified a place in the digital world, and it works because it’s clean, easy, and neat—three key indicators for success.
Providers should take care to follow this example and set better expectations for the consumer by simplifying the experience and creating environments that are less crowded, more intuitive, and powered by a single click.
Celtics season ticket holders, for instance, receive a digital fan pass that automatically gives them their tickets for every game via their smartphones. It’s a pleasant and user-friendly experience. However, frustration enters when the ticket holder wants to gift tickets to someone else. The process lacks intuition and erects a barrier to convenience.
The technology to simplify exists. It’s just a matter of putting it to good use in order to generate convenient and accessible experiences. Design combined with technology can create remarkable digital environments, which leads to another big theme for 2015: the need for marketers to understand software integration.
In an attempt to reach millennials, the 150-year-old luxury brand Burberry worked with Google to deliver a beautifully designed and romantic experience across screens.
What resulted from the partnership is being able to send a letter sealed with a real kiss to anyone in the world using a smartphone or webcam. It works by using facial recognition technology to transform a real kiss planted on screen into a digital kiss print. The sender can write a message and choose a lipstick shade from Burberry’s latest beauty collection before letting it fly. Try it out for yourself or see a live map of worldwide kiss delivery at kisses.burberry.com.
Burberry succeeded in creating an online experience that is attractive and engaging, while keeping its lipstick collection at the tops of millennials’ minds. The shared public results of this campaign have been moderate (they only range a week to 10 days from the initial launch), however, the innovation, as well as the interactive and “fun” nature of this campaign goes to show how brands can truly humanize their digital marketing efforts.
There have been over 253,000 search results for “Burberry Kisses” on Google.com. Within the first 10 days of the campaign going live, 13,000 cities sent a kiss and a total of 109 million miles were traveled by kisses as of June 25 2013.[viii]
Another great example of a company using a well-designed approach to generate attraction, engagement, and experience in order to drive action is the eyewear purveyor Warby Parker.
The digital environment they’ve designed lets customers enjoy a fun and easy online shopping experience for an item that generally requires a trip to the store. The e-commerce site allows shoppers to filter their options by shape, color, and material. Acting like a salesperson in a high-end boutique, the site makes recommendations for similar frames based on their choices.
Customers can also upload a photo of themselves for virtual try-on. Integrated with social, users can get friends’ opinions by sharing the results on Facebook or Twitter (#warbyhometryon). A home try-on program also makes it accessible and easy for those who wish to hold the product in their hands—try five frames for five days with free shipping both ways. A culture of transparency has helped the company sell over 500,000 frames, distributed over one million (world wide), and went from a start-up to a 350-employee business (as well as 10 retail locations throughout the US). Warby believes that it’s the experience that matters, not so much the medium.[ix]
Content Experience Strategy that Delivers
In combination with design, the ability to tell great stories in order to catalyze customer connection is critical for creating successful digital environments. Storytelling is quite different from writing ad copy or press releases. It enables prospects and customers to find themselves in a brand’s story and often includes tools that bring them into the experience.
Designer Tory Burch uses content to more fully build out her brand and engage consumers. The Tory Blog offers value by highlighting Burch’s style as evidenced in beauty, culture, and music. Her City Guides describe her favorite places to “eat, sleep, shop, and see around the world.”[x] While reading the blog, viewers can click on an embedded hyperlink to research or purchase items.
This type of strategic thinking is required for each piece of content used on a site or distributed via other channels. To determine the types of content relevant for your business and customers, ask:
- Is this content useful?
- Is now the right time to distribute it?
- Is it short and sweet?
- Is it the most appropriate type of content?
- Is it better expressed with pictures?
- Is the content placement right?
- Is it shareable…searchable?
- Would paid media expand its reach?
- Is it working?
With a little imagination and a lot of understanding of customers’ needs, desires, motivations, and existing beliefs, compelling content can be created for any product or service.
For example, if someone is in the market for a clothes dryer, a quick search reveals multiple links including one to an About.com page detailing all kinds of information about gas versus electric dryers, energy-saving tips, and more. Notably there are no sales pitches in the body of the content, but links to vendors appear on the sides. If viewers are indeed looking to buy a dryer, this is compelling content.
Similar to the over-crowded environments alluded to in the discussion about design, the same holds true with content. Too much content or too many options can easily become overwhelming. To help combat this challenge, content must be personalized to reflect the setting in which the digital consumer is experiencing it—it must deliver contextualized experiences.
One such example is on L.L. Bean’s website. In addition to receiving personalized product recommendations when customers first visit the site, the company also offers them suggestions for seasonal outdoor adventures available in their geographic areas.[xi]
This type of thoughtful, ongoing engagement through activity suggestions, challenges, contests, text messages, webinars, mobile apps, or social communities can go a long way toward retaining customers, facilitating cross-sells and up-sells, and fostering engagement, customer advocacy, and co-creation.
IBM’s Midsize Insider is another good example. A lightly branded customer community originally developed to fill a void for small and medium-sized businesses without large IT departments, the site operates like a newsroom with over 60 bloggers and journalists contributing a steady flow of content on topics relevant to the audience.
Recognizing the quality of the site’s content, Google News, which aggregates content from a variety of high-quality sources, taps Midsize Insider’s content for distribution to its readers.
MidsizeInsider.com has a 1.8 percent click-through rate to solutions pages on IBM.com, which is 36 times the average .05 percent click-through rate of banner ads. The site also has a 20.8 percent social-sharing rate of program content versus Facebook’s social-sharing average of 1.4 percent—making it a successful digital environment without question.
Of course, the best content and outstanding design means nothing if it’s not easily assimilated across devices and platforms. Google found that 61 percent of consumers are likely to leave a site if it is not mobile optimized.[xii] So, as you plan your 2015 customer-centric marketing strategies, be sure to keep that top of mind.
In today’s uber-connected world, it’s about reaching the digital consumer on his or her terms and creating a space through content and design, amongst other things, that is far too compelling to pass up. Naturally, a business without revenue is not viable over the long term. A business that focuses solely on sales, however, is leaving far too much on the table.
As we continue on through 2015 and beyond, digital loyalty programs and couponing are going to be huge drivers of engagement. Success will continue to be more about the ease of use for the digital consumer at the center of this new solar system and marketers’ attempts at filling their insatiable needs.