The Myth of Owning Online Customers

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At an Internet marketing industry conference, I heard the director of a large consumer packaged goods company's Internet marketing group claim, "We are going to own the Internet consumer by 2002!" I should have stuck around to hear how he planned to execute this strategy since most savvy Internet marketers agree that "owning" the online consumer is impossible.


Forget owning online customers. You cannot own them. You have to make them want to own you. The rise of the Internet has resulted in the largest paradigm shift in marketing since direct marketing one-upped mass marketing in the 1970s and 1980s.


The Internet shifts control from the marketer to the consumer. The Internet is a medium built on choice and control - of content, of context and of message. Internet users choose what they want to see and how long they will entertain it.


Consumers have been quick to grasp this shift in power. This sea change is evidenced by a pattern of lower click-through rates, rapid site shifting and consumers losing the tendency to surf as their tenure online increases. Consumers also show a distinct lack of interest in sites that offer information that is marketer-centric, not consumer-centric. The painful reality for marketers is that in this medium, you have to become so compelling that consumers will choose to interact with you.


This is a challenge for many marketers who are used to talking at consumers.


New technologies capture data on consumer preferences and habits in order to build profiles of individual consumers. That allows marketers to serve up the right product at the right time to the right person, instead of forcing the consumer to surf through a site to find items of interest.


For example, cookie technology allows retailers to feature items that may be of interest to you each time you come back to the site, based on previous shopping and buying habits.


But technology alone does not address all the issues that plague marketers.


Consider product sampling, long the budget bane of brand managers. Conventional methods focus on pushing product samples to the customer. Delivery costs, lack of accurate lists and the inability to capture data or measure success plague the process. The loss involved when samples go to unqualified recipients also must be considered.


A large, national lawn-care company recently sent samples (at a cost of $10 each) to every resident of a large condominium village in Florida - none of whom had a lawn to care for. That one mistake totaled in the millions of dollars.


The Internet can be used to help marketers place product in the right consumer hands, but it takes an understanding of the shift from marketer-centric thinking to consumer-centric thinking. Marketers have to move from push marketing to pull marketing.


Several players have emerged to address this problem, by creating Web sites that exist to create consumer pull.


Online sampling sites such as StartSampling.com, YourFreeStuff.com, FreeSamples.com and WinFreeStuff.com allow marketers to spend less money and court the right target consumers in an environment that is consumer-driven.


In addition, some of these sites allow marketers to gather pre-sampling and post-sampling data from an enormous pool of registered users with known demographic and psychographic profiles. This allows marketers to refine the marketing message and future product development on an ongoing basis.


Consider the benefits of using a sampling site on the marketing cycle:


Awareness. The consumer is introduced to the product or brand prior to trial, providing an opportunity for building pretrial associations. Pretrial gathering of consumer feedback allows marketers to understand barriers to purchase, category and brand impressions as well as current behavior patterns.


Consideration. Consumers have willingly chosen samples that are of interest to them, resulting in fewer wasted samples. Building a base of target consumers who anticipate delivery of a sample is far superior to pushing product at uninvolved consumers.


Preference. Consumers try the product and buy it if they like it and if the perceived value or utility of the product meets or exceeds its price point.


Buy. Consumer-directed sampling can boost conversion, especially when combined with creative sell-in tools such as coupons or other promotions.


Post-trial. Some sites allow for post-trial gathering of consumer feedback, allowing marketers to refine the marketing message and to collect data for future product development.


Aggregated consumer data. The ultimate value of sampling sites lies in their market research capabilities. This includes data mining to determine which other products may appeal to the same target. Through effective use of data mining, effective programs in co-branded sampling and affiliate marketing can evolve.


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