Marketing challenges in the era of users
Until recently, the most popular corporate ways of communicating with customers allowed very limited interaction. TV, radio and print media provided a narrow platform for public participation with the scales almost entirely tipped to the corporate side. At that time, brands were deciding how, when, where and why to reach their audience.
Today the whole world is once again celebrating the Internet Day, and we must admit that the advent of the web has definitely changed the world of corporate public relations. While Facebook is getting ready to go public in a deal that could result in over $100 billion, companies face a new reality where it is no longer so easy to master the communication relationship with their customers. On the largest network on the planet alone, more than 900 million users interact on a daily basis with no restrictions on what to say. They can stay in touch with their favorite brands, recommend them to friends and leave appreciative messages through the social network. However, they can also criticize, publicly show their discontent with a product or service, and affect a company’s image and reputation.
Companies always wanted to know what their customers think about them. This is undoubtedly the most valuable information they can get: if they can know user’s wishes and needs, they have more chances of meeting them. For years, brands spent most of their marketing budgets on market research, testing products and campaigns, focus groups and other initiatives in an effort to obtain a deeper knowledge about consumers to optimize the performance of their actions.
Today, in the age of online interaction, companies can know surfers’ opinions in real time in a relatively simple way. But paradoxically, the information at their fingertips can also pose danger. On social networks, users have more power than ever, and they can bring their discourse to mass audience, something virtually impossible a couple of years ago.
The truth is that the Internet came to change forever the rules of the game in the marketing world. In the book Winning the Zero Moment of Truth - ZMOT, Google says that 84% of surfers use the network when making purchasing decisions. When users use online information about products or services, they can find brands pages that offer what they are looking for, as well as reviews and comments on specialized media. Above all, they can access the online social tools that allow them to hear other users’ opinions. Sites like Yelp or Tripadvisor function through the content generated by surfers. Big online stores like Amazon also include users’ comments, allowing surfers to get first-hand opinions about a product before purchasing it.
This new reality implies a paradigm shift, admission to a stage where the brand’s public image is no longer an exclusive responsibility of its marketing departments, public relations and communications. Companies must step out on a stage where its reputation is a result of collective creation, and where they no longer can hide in case of providing deficient products or services. Public opinion – both positive and negative –directly influences company commercial performance.
The phenomenon of the participatory web is not just a fad or a passing trend. This trend follows behavior patterns adopted by users and fortunately seems impossible to reverse. Companies are not always prepared in the best way to move into this new context, they are not used to being challenged by its customers in front of the whole world. The first thing to do is to lose the fear. Be aware that the context has changed, and the new maximum that should govern the world of communication and marketing in the Internet age is transparency.
If businesses accept these challenges, they will face an unprecedented opportunity of establishing a more human, daily, sentimental relationship with their customers. The relationship that goes beyond mere meeting the needs and, settling in symbolic ties, allows creating a more lasting bond. Today more than ever, companies must understand that the era of online sociability is here to stay. And, if well used, the new web reality can be a tremendous booster for businesses.