Talking to today’s customers

Jun 01, 2009 9:30 PM  By

Consumers are breaking down the traditional walls of advertising, forcing us to revolutionize the way we talk to them. We are no longer always in control of how they interact or do business with us, as we were in the past.

And if you don’t believe this, your brand may be at serious risk. Factors from ecology to economy, as well as technology, are forcing changes in our cultural norm. Attitudes about spending, where consumers seek information and how they spend their time are shifting like sand.

Remember when we controlled the consumer/merchant dynamic with mailings, e-mails, even offers? Our channels determined the circumstances under which the customer would buy from us.

This is no longer the case: Consumers now dictate how they’re going to receive and handle our messages. And multichannel marketers must learn how best to compete with new media. We may have pushed away our target audience by not being relevant to them and their needs.

Your message will depend on your brand, your product line and your target customer. But there are a few smart practices to keep in mind.

Where are they “listening”

Do you really know where customers spend their time? Are they using Google, Facebook or Twitter? Do they really read your blogs?

It’s easy to manage the points of contact you control, unless you don’t know the path that might be leading customers to or away from you.

If you are feeling the push to join the next hot trend, take the time to find out where your customers go to learn about or engage your brand.

For many years, a business-to-business company spent a large part of its marketing dollars on industry space advertisements. The company thought that was where its prospects spent their time.

This past year, the owner went on a cross-country trek, sitting down and talking one-on-one with customers.

He was stunned to learn that his customers sought out his company through only two avenues: Google and an industry-specific Website. His entire approach to marketing changed overnight.

Try listening to them

What are your customers saying about you? What search terms are they using on your Website and the Internet? What do they like? What are their fears and concerns?

Your customer service reps harbor a wealth of information. They, along with your sales force, are your most frequent point of contact with the customer. Ask them what your customers are saying, what they’re asking for, and what they need.

Check your site for the most commonly used search terms, and go online and search for yourself. Review blogs and social media sites, and use what you find to refine your advertising message.

Identify this new consumer

Do you really understand what your customers are going through right now and their concerns today?

Thanks to widespread layoffs, the credit crunch and the real estate crash, the concept of “trading down” or “right sizing” is a reality. Why should they spend one dime with you when it’s now chic to save?

As a marketer, you should be thinking in terms of how your products offer real solutions and add value to your customers lives in an authentic way. Consumer Reports magazine claims there has been a shift in how consumers make purchase decisions, moving from “I want it” to “I need it” or “I want to escape.” Your products and services should be solving real problems for real people.

When you write copy or talk to customers, understand the emotional take-away of your brand and what you’re selling. What do customers gain by doing business with you? Understand the problem you are solving and who you are solving it for.

Get to know customers one-on-one. Meet them face to face if you have to. Go beyond demographics — reach out to them, observe them.

Pay to have your house file overlaid with attitudinal data. This tactic will uncover valuable information about their hobbies, likes and dislikes.

Form a customer profile that goes beyond simple demographics like age and income. You must understand who they are and what motivates them to be able to speak to them authentically and address their real needs.

Don’t pander

Turn on a TV, pick up a catalog or go online — in this economy, everyone is saying the same thing: “We know these economic times are tough, and we at (insert company name here) understand.”

Do you really understand? Prove it! Don’t say what everyone else already knows and what everyone else is already saying. Address their fears with real, out-of-the-box solutions.

For example, Pottery Barn is offering its credit-card holders 12 months with no payment, no interest (after a minimum purchase), plus 10% back in rewards dollars. While this is a unique incentive, it’s not always necessary to discount.

What can you offer to add value to your product or service? And if you truly offer an amazing value, shout it out using every creative trick in the book! Make sure it gets noticed.

Build on your strengths/your niche

Embrace the reason customers shop with you in the first place. Remind them over and over again of the emotional or physical need your brand will meet when customers do business with you.

Many niche marketers are doing well for this reason. They concentrate on building a unique, differentiated filter directed to a defined target audience. The filter allows them to craft meaningful communications and lets them get creative in talking to customers.

Mega-brand Heinz found a creative way to interact with customers while proving how well it knows ketchup. Heinz set up a live Webcam to test the theory that plants grow bigger when exposed to human interaction.

Customers “talked” to one tomato plant while the other was ignored. Users could type in a message and select a voice; text-reading software would then read the message to the plant. The users could watch the plants’ comparative growth and cheer on the test plant.

At the end of the seven-week experiment, the test plant had received more than 19,000 messages from more than 18,000 people in 10 different countries! Heinz executed the entire project online, using viral marketing with no additional advertising.

Heinz not only promoted its brand, it had a rare opportunity to “listen” to customers. Crazy as it may seem, events such as this are where many consumers choose to spend their time.

How will your brand communicate?

According to a survey by AlixPartners, U.S. consumers say that even after the recession ends, the “new normal” spending levels will be 14% lower. How are you addressing this new reality?

Consumers do not have the money, time or trust to listen to what’s not relevant in their world. Messages that worked yesterday may alienate a customer today, so review your message in the context of the current reality.

Lois Boyle-Brayfield (loisb@jschmid.com) is president of J. Schmid & Associates, a catalog consultancy in Mission, KS.