At the tender age of 16 I took my first job: pumping gas at a service station. While the adjoining carwash was already automated, the idea that I might no longer be needed came as a surprise. My initial response was, “No way are people going to pump their own gas and stick a credit card in a machine.”
Fast-forward to today, and it’s a shock there isn’t a sketch of my adolescent self in the dictionary next to the word naïve. While pundits have a tendency to focus on the technological side of such a change, they don’t often put as much emphasis on the changes required in consumer behavior. In the case of self-service gasoline, it was initially the perception of cost savings that motivated drivers to fill up themselves. The cost impetus soon resulted in a paradigm shift throughout the sector.
Such change is afoot in virtually every business category, because each behavior—once learned—leads to another. This continuous, evolutionary flow in consumer behavior affects how we communicate, consume media, and especially how we buy, posing a host of ongoing challenges for marketers.
Examining the past and present of such behaviors, and anticipating their future, is worthwhile for those who want to stay ahead of the curve. Here are just a few of many shifts that have occurred over the past several years and have changed the way we do business:
Crowdsourcing has remade word-of-mouth. Word-of-mouth is still the best advertising, but now instead of talking to your neighbor over the fence, consumers engage with hundreds or thousands of opinions that are crowdsourced with ever-escalating speed across the globe. The Waze app even crowdsources traffic information and offers alternative routes so drivers can avoid congestion. If the avoidance of car accidents can be crowdsourced, what’s next? The answer is everything—we may see the day when opinion is sourced dynamically in real time, like the stock market, and all is readily available in the palm of your hand.
Participation is superseding interruption. Amid the opinion-mongering, there is a grand irony: On the one hand, consumers want to avoid advertising messages, but at the same time, they have never had a stronger desire to participate in spreading those messages. Hence, the interruptive model of old—the TV commercial that breaks up your favorite show, for example—is being replaced by content that people willingly share on the social media.
Call it narcissistic, but these “influencers” have a desire to be at the front end of trends, and it’s never been easier for them to spread the gospel. What is the implication for marketers? You’d better have a solid tribe of evangelists willing to get the word out to an audience that’s more willing to receive the message than those who are passively sitting on the couch. And you’d better have a plan for attracting them, not just through solicitation, but also through more organic means.
Programming length is now elastic. With on-demand content and ever-briefer pieces of video content being served up and shared, there are no longer any rules governing program lengths. Even cable TV shows on networks such as AMC vary in length. Simply put, the audience doesn’t care as long as they have a satisfying viewing experience.
What does that mean? That marketers should no longer feel bound by old ideas such as an infomercial needing to be three pods and three calls-to-action. Yes, broadcasters prescribe ad lengths, but advertisers should consider different ways of delivering their messages, such as using shorter lengths to stoke interest and drive consumers to the web, or repeating content within a half-hour block. The question shouldn’t be “How much time do I have to fill?” Instead, it should be, “How much time do I need to accomplish my communication goals?”
The incredible shrinking attention span will keep getting smaller. Online, there is a cause and effect for everything. Questions, whims, and other communications are often microseconds away, conditioning consumers to not just expect, but demand instant gratification. Sociologists (and moms) can complain all they want about the implications of a world where cliques of people interact with screens instead of one another, but the ramification for marketers is that there’s less time to grab attention.
Texting and apps such as Vine and Snapchat only exacerbate the ability to get a quick fix. Perhaps the old DRTV hook—starting a commercial with “Are you tired of [insert problem]?”—can provide a valuable lesson. How will marketers similarly break through on screens where the amount of real estate available is shrinking as fast as the ability to focus? And how will they create engagement and relevance with an increasingly jaded audience?
Our kimonos are already open. “Transparency” is a word that gets thrown around a lot these days. What it means is that the veracity of your claims, the quality of your products and services, and the soundness of your business practices such as payment programs and return policies must be easily understandable and equally defensible. Otherwise, a marketer risks having consumers see through them in a negative light, and that’s the kind of lucidity that will bury an advertiser.
Much of the power once held by advertisers now lies in the hands of the consumers, and that empowerment has spawned self-reliance among consumers. The public no longer relies on brands to tell them what to feel or do, let alone how to do it—so they book their own travel instead of relying on a travel agent. They have shoes sent to their homes to try on risk-free, instead of letting a shop salesperson guide them. And soon, in the wake of a $15 minimum wage, they’ll likely be pecking out their own fast-food orders on a touchscreen.
Back in my gas station days, I used to wash a customer’s windshield without asking, in anticipation of their needs. Now everything has to be done from the same side of the screen; marketers have to guide prospects to sell themselves on a product or service, and it’s no easy task. So ask yourself: How are you going to do that?
Rick Petry is a freelance writer who specializes in direct marketing and is a past chairman of ERA. He can be reached at (503) 740-9065 or online at rickpetry.com and @thepetrydish on Twitter.
The above originally appeared in the July-August 2016 issue of ER magazine.