ACCM Bonus: Consumers Are in Control – Deal with It

We all know that the Internet has changed the marketing game. In his May 21 keynote address at the Annual Conference for Catalogers and Multichannel Merchants in Orlando, FL, last week, author Keith Wardell explained what marketers can do about it.

The Internet, Wardell said, has enabled consumers to take control of the marketing process. Not only do consumers have a number of new channels through which they can shop and communicate, they also have an overwhelming number of products to choose from online. There is hardly a product made that isn’t indexed multiple times in the search results of the major search engines. All of this choice, Wardell said, is causing consumer confusion, and fragmentation, which in turn is making marketers’ jobs more challenging.

What’s more, marketers no longer have control over the information consumers use to make buying decisions. Today, consumers can get more information about a product using any number of independent online sources such as blogs, customer reviews, comparison shopping sites, consumer reports and social networking sites. Wardell said marketers must get comfortable with the idea that “most of the information about your company that’s out there … didn’t come from you.”

Wardell said because the customer has control over the marketing process, marketers are now in the unfamiliar position of having to be reactive, rather than proactive. They have to find new ways to keep customers engaged – through store, catalog and especially Web – and their campaigns must be personalized to reflect the way each customer likes to do business. Customer information must be continuously updated and analyzed so as to develop individualized marketing campaigns, and merchants must be prepared to react to sudden and erratic changes in customer behavior.

Wardell outlined several transitions marketers can make to adjust to the new reality of consumer control. First, they must move from a “major channel proactive” to a “multichannel reactive” model. They will still need to be proactive in building brand awareness and engaging with the customer, he said, but after initial contact has been made, the marketer must learn to step aside and let the customer drive the process.

The goal for the marketer now, Wardell said, is to quickly react to the decisions the customer makes: Did the customer just abandon a Web page? Maybe the merchant can offer additional information about the product that was being viewed upon the customer’s next visit to the site.

Did the customer recently purchase a product? Maybe the merchant can send an e-mail to the customer offering matching or similar products (or the same product in different colors). Automated systems, he said, are the wave of the future and are perhaps the best way to keep customers continuously engaged in the this new multichannel age. He said marketers will be investing more in this area, but warned, “be sure to choose your technology partners wisely.”

Next, marketers must learn to migrate from “mass marketing” to “merchandising for the individual.” Wardell said customers today want personalized service – and marketers must provide a unique shopping experience if they are to stay competitive. Shaw Flooring, for example, lets customers upload photos of rooms in their homes to the company Website, where they can see what a new type of flooring material might look like in that particular room.

Similarly, consumer electronics distributor Crutchfield lets customers mine its massive databases of automobile and electronics information, so that they can accurately select the best car stereo components for their vehicle without the help of a live rep.

Wardell said giving the customer the ability to “self-serve”– and doing it in an engaging and compelling way — boosts sales and improves customer loyalty. It’s just a question of finding the best way to do it, based on your industry, your brand, your product line and most importantly, your customers’ past buying habits.

The transition “from product proliferation to mass customization” is where the merchant not only offers personalized service, but personalized products as well. A good example of this is 121 Watches, which lets customers design and build their own watches, from guts to face, using tools available on the Website. This puts customers in full control of their own transaction, and creates a unique shopping experience that the customer will remember.

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