Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Age of the Digital Ozone (Take a Whiff)

Let’s talk advertising. While the age in which we’re living will be dubbed many things: the Age of Information, the Digital Revolution, the Social Media Era and other names of the like, it is without a doubt in my mind that an unavoidable byproduct is the New Age of Advertising.

I say “new” because I believe society has already experienced an ignition in this category. In the late 19th and early 20th Century, the total advertising volume in the United States increased by fifteen-fold. The reason? Roughly, the events occurring between the years of 1880 and the 1930s. Particularly, the Industrial Revolution and the Great Depression. These two movements, bookending the 50-year span, largely contributed and laid the groundwork for today’s advertising efforts. Walking through all of my reasoning would take, well, too long. I believe, for my purposes here, that it can be boiled down to just a few synopsized points:
power loom, Photograph, from Encyclop√¶dia
Britannica Online
, accessed March 20, 2012,
  • The Industrial Revolution incited mass economic growth, mass population growth, and mass emigration into urban environments through, specifically, the developments of transportation, electricity and industrial processes. Such occurrences demanded merchants to compete with one another in highly populated environments, thus creating the modern, brick and mortar retail industry.
  • America’s participation in the Great War promoted patriotism, created more jobs that surrounded those major inventions from the Industrial Revolution, and most importantly, altered their international position: for the first time, relocating them from a debtor country to that of a net creditor with New York usurping London as the center of the world’s capital market1. We had arrived.
  • The Great Depression created a sink-or-swim ultimatum for retailers. The swimmers? Those that employed aggressive advertising strategies and tailored their campaigns for those seeking better deals, which was, practically everyone. (Note: Also significant is the pattern of great companies birthed in the times of economic decline: GE in the panic of 1873, Disney in recession of 1923-24, HP in the Depression and Microsoft in the recession of 1975)2.  
Now, what does this history lesson have to do with you and me? Call me crazy, but I see a pattern. Over the last decade, combatting and acclimating to the current recession has put us in a unique position as members of the retail industry. It’s almost as if we are living in a time that combines all of the above eras into one, and then some. Allow me to audaciously present some parallels:
  • The Industrial Revolution bore technological innovations that revolutionized every aspect of daily life. Today, the Internet comes to mind – and by “Internet” I don’t mean just emails or desktop browsers. I mean the ubiquitous digital platform that it has come to be. For example, how you can find a good sushi bar in Seattle using your mobile phone. It’s not just the Internet; it’s a digital ozone.
  • The War in Iraq, when paired with the current economic recession, or namely, the Lost Decade, has not produced the usual economic positives associated with warfare. However, what we have learned is that we’re not immune to recession as some economists thought in 19993. For the retail industry, the last decade has forced the brick and mortar store to reevaluate how to survive in a modern-day economic crisis while simultaneous combatting eCommerce and online shopping.
  • In order to successfully achieve survival, the retail industry has found itself in another sink-or-swim scenario in which it must reconsider how to maintain customer acquisition and retention rates. Just as they did in the Great Depression, marketing efforts have become more consumer-centric, yet today, new modes of communication are forcing retailers to rethink how, when, and where they market themselves… and to whom they’re marketing. 
And who’s the “whom”, you ask? The New Consumer.

The New Consumer is a product of the Lost Decade. They’re technologically savvy, research-oriented prior to purchase, and know the information is at their fingertips. They are the majority, and looking back, the companies that thrived and survived the Great Depression were those that catered to the majority, not the affluent.

Retailers, today, are experiencing a similar beckoning as our advertising forefathers, but it isn’t just about delivering a consumer-centric advertising campaign, it’s how and where and when. Multi-channel consumerism, online shopping, Wi-Fi, smartphones, tablets, social networks, apps (must I go on?) are delivering sought information to the New Consumer at any time and from anywhere. And it’s the ubiquity and the accessibility that has constructed the digital ozone in which we live. The New Consumer breathes it in, it penetrates and metastasizes every aspect of our daily lives. So how does that affect the retail industry? In every possible way imaginable.

The old school of thought, or practice, involved funneling information down to consumers from a golden pedestal. However, the New Consumer, and their ideologies, won’t stand for that anymore. Therefore (hopefully), retailers now grasp the ineffectiveness of talking at their audiences, which then of course dovetails into the disadvantages of also talking to them. We, marketers, are no longer gods, nor are our customers merely mortals. So today, most retailers have built their communicative efforts around talking with their shoppers. But frankly, and sorry to disappoint, talking just with them won’t work either.

The issue here isn’t the preposition. It’s the verb. Stop talking. It’ll get you nowhere. Instead, be available; co-exist. Breathe in the digital ozone—embrace the new ways in which your consumers are approaching you, and be proactive in your response without being disingenuous. Companies that are interacting on social networks as people talking to other people and not as sellers talking to buyers are engaging with their consumers in a more honest and interesting way. Target’s Facebook page has over 10 million followers and intermixes promotions with wit and daily updates (one post reads, “Fat Tuesday fanatics, meet Wednesday’s best friend” and promotes antacid tablets… hilarious!) So, we have to be funny. We have to be engaging, humble, and honest.  And, we have to be as technologically savvy as they are with an effortlessness that won’t disrupt the experience.

I know I sound as though I’m about to start preaching, “Make love, not war” and invite you to frolic barefoot with me in fields of dandelions. Don’t worry, I’m not. (Though, would you be that surprised?) I’m merely trying to convey the cross-lateral nature of retailer-consumer communication and how the dynamics have shifted over the last decade, and point out that we’ve seen and experienced something similar before.

Social Networking Networks
Courtesy of http://kikolani.com/becoming-accessible-
Anne Helmond, 2009
Consumer-centric marketing campaigns that are transparent, eye-catching but not disrupting, and speak in a manner in which a majority of people can relate (people who also happen to be your audience) will capture those desired acquisition and retention rates. If you have their best interest in mind, they’ll know, and they’ll start doing all the talking—not to you, but to that incomprehensibly extensive network on which they’re participating. While you may be living in the digital ozone, the customers are breathing it in and have all the say in that arena. You can’t “like” them; they have to “like” you.

Lastly, it’s a common perception that the power of advertising depreciates traditional word of mouth conventions. I mean, when we get down to brass tacks, one of the fundamental functions of advertising is to influence buying decisions and leapfrog word of mouth. The advertiser’s goal is to exploit the subconscious desires of the masses through painted scenarios and transform amenities into perceived necessities. However, since word of mouth extends far beyond speech nowadays—functioning, and arguably more powerfully, as status updates, tweets, emails, shares and more, it would be a gross understatement to say that customers’ audiences are extremely larger than they once were and that word of mouth is easily overcome.

If your advertising campaigns aren’t already considering those expanded audiences, then you should be. Imagine the power of delivering a transparently worthwhile promotion that inspires your customers to TALK about it for you—that looks great and inspires mention. Now, that’s a machine that’ll move all on it’s own, my friends. Take a big, fat whiff of that digital ozone and show your audiences that you’ve learned a thing or two from our advertising forefathers, but more importantly that you’re as loyal to the needs of them, the New Consumer, as you’d like them to be to you. That intersection is trust.


Blogged to you by:
Dean A. Sleeper, CEO and the Very Potentate of the Eternal Order of AccessVia
Dean's 25+ years of experience in the retail industry has constructed a keen eye when it comes to recognizing what works in retail and what doesn't, making his honed perspective a crucial asset. His input, as both poignantly accurate and insightful, delivers applicable truths about what is happening in the retail world with a hit of sardonicism when necessary. He embodies our slogan: Lift Sales. Cut Costs.

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