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Marketing in the Age of the User

The Internet’s back! Actually, for those of us who have been here the whole time, it never went away. But it seems that both the popular and the business press have turned around and noticed us again.

They have noticed that the number of people using the Internet continues to rise and that some businesses successfully sailed through the bubble burst. Internet retail numbers continue to climb, and we see innovative services emerging, such as search engine marketing and social networks.

OK, so we’re in the middle of a rebound, but what’s it going to take this time around to make it better, stronger and more sustainable? There is no shortage of opinions, but I think it boils down to one key insight gained during the past 10 years of serious Internet marketing: The user is in charge.

As basic as this may seem, it was sorely missed during the first Internet business boom. Today, businesses are building not only their Internet strategy but their entire business around this simple notion.

I was in San Francisco recently to participate in a panel to discuss marketing in the Age of the User. Two legendary thinkers joined me on the panel: Jakob Nielsen, a respected expert in the field of usability; and Tim Smith, founder of Red Sky Interactive, an interactive agency renowned for pushing the limits of what Internet technology could do for brands. Gary Stein, senior analyst at Jupiter Research, moderated the panel. Here are some of the key points.

The force of gravity: Users pull. We call this the Age of the User because the user is in the driver’s seat. The point was emphatically made by my co-panelists that the time when marketers could deliver a message simply by placing it in the middle of sought-out content is ending.

Smith used the example of TiVo and other personal video recorders. Though the household penetration rate of PVRs is slow (Jupiter Research estimates that we won’t see 25 percent penetration until 2006), the idea is out there that individual consumers can use technology not only to skip commercials, but also to arrange content any way they see fit.

Speaking of fit, that’s just what we imagine some traditional agencies are having as they try to figure out how they can morph their model — built for the broadcaster-controlled media — to this new era. Nielsen suggests they look in the direction of search engine marketing. Google, Overture and other players in the SEM space have found a great way to market products: show ads only to the people who specifically request information relating to that product or service.

This is the ultimate in user-pull. In the interactive universe, the user is the most important player because he or she is the only one who can set things into motion. It became clear in our panel that this is the basic building block of a new-era Internet business strategy.

Don’t fight the tide. An interesting question arose for the panel. Just because the user is in charge in this new era, should businesses simply go along for the ride? Business leaders tend to be mavericks — people for whom the status quo is generally unacceptable.

Will this group stand for a world in which consumers can so easily and powerfully steer away from their products and services? And, as I’m sure you’ve noticed when visiting Web sites, not all advertising is patiently waiting for an interested consumer to ask for it. There are pop-ups and pop-unders, page takeovers and road blocks — ads that may draw your attention away from the content you seek.

Whether this is a good idea was addressed directly by Nielsen, and I’ll quote him: “… if marketers are fighting against the nature of the medium, they may succeed if they fight hard enough. But it’s so much easier to fight with the nature of the medium.”

This is a critical point: It’s possible for companies to fight against the control that the Internet and interactive technology give users. Besides using technologies that circumvent user powers, companies can launch lawsuits and injunctions to stop the spread of enabling devices and systems.

The force of history gives credence to Nielsen’s point. But the second part of his quote is really the interesting one, and the one that I think is going to require the most faith on the part of business leaders.

By fighting “with” the medium, Nielsen is calling upon us to find ways to let consumers use their power with us. We need to find ways — and this is a core theme — to structure our businesses so that consumers can get right in and help shape our products so that they fit their needs.

When that happens, you can almost guarantee that sales will follow. After all, it is easier to sell someone something they had a hand in developing. Sometimes this will be a finished product (think about the proliferation of configurators on car manufacturer sites). Sometimes the “product” will be simply the ongoing relationship that a customer has with the company.

Travel with the user. Even in an age when users lead, marketers need to be proactive. Simply being there and waiting to be found will not work. Yes, users need to be given free-range access, but businesses need to be smart enough to ensure that they’re in the right places, well in advance of users. Sound difficult? You bet, but it’s easier than trying to force a consumer down a particular path.

Speaking from his agency experience, Smith suggested the need to create marketing materials that not only communicate a value proposition but actually “have” a value proposition. That means any advertising unit needs to be worthy of being sought out and consumed. This can be achieved a few ways.

On television, for example, Smith noted that what’s winning is screwball comedy like that seen in some Super Bowl commercials and which are often sought out and discussed. But how long can the competition for the best joke be sustained? Besides, these commercials often are disassociated from the product itself. The purpose of advertising is not (let us all remember) to have the best commercial. The purpose is to have the best commercial that sells the product!

In online marketing, however, being clever isn’t the top priority, being relevant is. But relevance isn’t a project that is undertaken, completed and then reused. Not in the Age of the User, because users — customers — are agile and mobile, and marketers need to be prepared to find and follow them if they’re going to stay relevant. Research becomes critical for online marketing, as companies find that their customers frequently have quite rich conversations in surprising places.

Is there a users group for your product that trades messages via a bulletin board? Is there an evangelist on one of the social networking sites? Is the top listing for your product’s name in a search engine actually the site of one of your biggest critics? On a site that solicits public opinions and rankings, how is your product faring?

These are the customer issues that companies need to face in the Age of the User. In the past, only the company itself was able to do one-to-many communications. Consider your biggest critics. Not your competitors, since they (presumably) operate under a strict set of communications guidelines.

Think rather of a single customer who for whatever reason does not like your company, or even the category you operate in. In the past, he would tell a few colleagues. Potentially he would get a letter printed in a trade magazine. Today, he puts up a site with a blog and starts an e-mail list. We talked about that on the panel: in the Age of the User, anyone can achieve that one-to-many status.

Savvy companies understand that the game of advertising and marketing is no longer about putting out messages and waiting for customers to show up. It is about being tuned in to messages and customer attitudes. Smith made the comparison to judo, the martial art where you work with the strength of your opponent and his momentum. The same principles apply with business today. Companies need to think not only about their own sites, e-mail lists and campaigns, but also track what the community at large does and says.

Use the Internet as a test bed. One thing you can say about users — they find things. Not only that, they find things, tell you what they think about them and often reconfigure them to suit their needs. Much about the Age of the User is about companies finding ways to relinquish control and let their customers lead them. It’s the hardest thing to do, but it can be the most rewarding.

I believe that companies wishing to adopt a user-centric strategy need to do so throughout the entire company. The team that publishes the Web site can’t be the only ones who get it. Everyone with a management position needs to understand that the Internet is the community of customers, listening and responding in real time. To make the most of this unprecedented access, companies should be ready to use the Internet a bit like a test bed for new ideas.

This is especially true in marketing. Far too often, companies find themselves stuck in the decision-making process when it comes to fielding ad campaigns, executives debate which feature would be best to highlight; what photos are most convincing; which particular offer will compel the most action. You know what the answer is to all these questions (and many more)? Test it! Put it out there and see what happens!

The Internet is the ideal medium through which to do this. With online marketing, you can turn things on and off practically at a moment’s notice. If you have two offers and are unsure which will prove more compelling, field both and see which draws more sales. This is the dream of DM professionals: the ability to methodically move through options, precisely determining the message composition with the greatest likelihood of success.

With performance-based marketing, those executions that succeed are the only ones you pay for. It hearkens back to the earlier point about feeling confident to test. There’s every reason in the world to test when you pay only for success. As performance-based marketing continues to expand as a way of doing business on the Internet, executives should find more confidence to explore and test and discover.

This can happen on a much grander scale as well. The process known as the Public Beta Test is a great example. Hundreds of companies have found customers this way and evolved the product precisely to fit their needs.

The idea is simple: Users want to use things … so, give them something. Take your innovations and release them while they work, even if they are not complete. Invite users (i.e., prospective customers) to register and begin using the service, and invite feedback (you’ll get it). At the close of the beta test, you’ll have a solid finished product fueled by the insight of the community of users.

Clearly this is possible only in a corporate environment where the notion of working with the user and his or her power has been embraced at the highest level and shot right through the entire organization.

Making it work. Embracing the Age of the User and letting it flow through your organization isn’t easy. It requires a lot of faith, not only in your users, but also in the people with whom you work. The best thing you can do is begin to listen, hear what your customers say, and also hear what your sales staff and support personnel tell you.

Often they’re the ones engaging in conversations with users, and they’re the ones who can best tell you what your customers seek. The Internet is a powerful medium, but — at its heart — it’s a method of communicating. When you plan your user-centric strategy, start by remembering that people use the Internet to communicate and then build from there.

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