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Reach consumers who friend before they spend

Sean P. Egen
Reach consumers who friend before they spend Sean P. Egen

Ever scoured the web for information about a brand of shampoo you've been considering using? Did customer reviews on Overstock or Amazon play a role in any of the purchases you made this past holiday season? Have you "Googled" a date's name before, or after, going out with them? You may be a New Info Shopper if... (read doing your best Jeff Foxworthy) you answered yes to any of these questions. And, according to a recent online Wall Street Journal article, advertisers and marketers looking to improve their bottom line may want to start paying closer attention to the way you and your fellow NISs operate.

Finding, then seeing, is believing
E. Kinney Zalesne, who co-authored the WSJ.com article, along with the book Microtrends: The Small Forces Behind Tomorrow's Big Changes with Mark J. Penn, contends that this new breed of consumer primarily trusts information it finds on its own -- not necessarily what you provide in your outreach. The Microtrends shopper's survey conducted for the January 8 article found that 92 percent of those surveyed believed information they got on their own over information they got from a salesperson or clerk. And 78 percent of the respondents felt television ads don't contain enough information to make a purchase decision.

"That's really a profound shift in attitudes towards shopping," says Zalesne, who attributes at least some of this shift to a decrease in the power of branding. "I think part of what we're seeing in the New Info Shopper is that people are not as willing to rely on brand. And they're not as willing to assume that a fancy name, or a popular name, will be the right product for them."

Andrew Monfried, CEO of Lotame, a firm specializing in monetizing social-networking opportunities, agrees that this new type of shopper is out there, adding that social media sites are one of the most fertile information-gathering grounds available to the NIS. "People are reading comments by other users or other consumers in a community to make their purchase decisions. That's why the premise of people who are doing commenting, uploading, blogging, sharing, and rating is the new metric for brands on how they should be targeting."

Are they really all that new?
But didn't this kind of shopper already exist? Certainly anyone who's purchased a new car prior to having internet access can recall poring over Consumer Reports and automotive magazines, gathering brochures, and talking to salespeople, trying to glean any information on the model(s) they were considering.

"To us, the New Info Shopper is not really new, but they were super-enabled by a lot of the tools the internet provided," says Daphne Kwon, CEO of ExpoTV, a social-networking site featuring thousands of consumer-generated video product reviews.

Penn and Zalesne acknowledge that this type of consumer existed prior to the advent of the internet, but that extensive product research was usually reserved for big-ticket items, like a house. They assert that, these days, an NIS may spend nearly as much time researching a tube of toothpaste. Sam Decker, CMO of Bazaarvoice, which hosts and services user-generated content on client websites, agrees with this assertion. He argues that not only will consumers do their homework on smaller-ticket items, they'll also take the time to review them, citing a 99-cent Petco dog treat that received over 700 customer reviews.

What is truly new about New Info Shoppers is that many of them have never really known shopping -- or other activities -- without the internet. "That's important," Zalesne says, "because it shows that this is even more likely to be a lasting trend. This is an ingrained habit for young folks, and they're not likely to drop it in favor of in-store sales people or something when this is how they're learning to shop."

But Hilary Weber, director of internet marketing for Kaiser Permanente, which markets heavily to baby boomers, doesn't think doing extensive product research before making a purchase is limited to younger shoppers. "It [the WSJ.com article] was so much in line with the description of how boomers use the web. They don't use it the way the younger set uses it, for entertainment. It's really a tool to get things done." She suggests that, since quality and value of a product/service typically rank as top considerations with boomers when making a purchase decision, ascertaining that quality and value logically requires more research -- and boomers are increasingly turning to the web to do this research.

"I think people are working as hard as they can to get that information by proxy," Zalesne says. "In other words, if they can't 'test drive' it, they can really scour the sites that offer expert reviews and consumer experiences. And the more real those reports sound, the more compelling their stories are, the more consumers feel like they have done the test drive themselves."

Relevant, credible reviews and information are critical
Daphne Kwon makes the point that, when it comes to product information, relevance is a major factor in the purchase-decision equation. She says not only do consumers want to hear what others who think and act like they do have to say about a product, they also want more relevant information from advertisers.

"Advertisers are trying to tell you what they consider the most important, salient facts about what you should know, and that's not necessarily what I want to know," Kwon says, wearing her consumer hat. "It's a piece of it, but not all of it." She believes both expert- and user-generated information about a product are necessary for a shopper to make a truly informed purchase decision, citing the example of a keyboard: A shopper might locate lots of information from a manufacturer on why its keyboard is designed a certain way, but she also needs input from people who've actually used the thing -- and spent their hard-earned money on it.

"There's a problem not only of getting the right content out there," Sam Decker says, "but also in putting it in a way that matches what the customer needs." Decker believes advertiser's words need to both inform and resonate with consumers. "It depends what they put out there and how they write it as to how credible or impactful it will be…There's a growing skepticism of claims made by advertisers and marketers. But doing demonstrations, showing this works with this, or showing specifications or applications of how something can be used, how-tos, things like that, all of those things are much more credible, because it's just objective information about the product."

But, as advertisers supply more information and details, is there a danger that already-skeptical NISs will discount the value of this information? Hilary Weber thinks consumers, especially boomers, appreciate this additional info from advertisers -- but only if it's credible. "What really moves the needle is credentials," she says. "Some kind of proof that there's a reason to believe this person." For Kaiser, that meant adding content from real doctors dispensing real advice to its website.

Zalesne believes skepticism of advertiser-supplied information gets worked out in the wash as NISs satisfy their need to dig deeper. "In a sense, what we're talking about here is an intense desire to ferret out the right information," she elaborates. "So, I think people will become better and better skilled at knowing what's real and what isn't. That's the whole point of doing information-based research."

Any advice for advertisers?
If you're an advertiser, what can you do to curry favor with these educated, empowered, savvy shoppers who are growing in number?

"The more information they can give -- along with a little bit of inspiration -- the better advantage they will have," Zalesne says of advertisers. Introducing an element of "inspiration" is especially apropos for advertisers of products heavy on user experience and not so much about performance. While nearly all of the products in the Microtrends shoppers survey contained a performance element (shampoo, cars, easy chair, etc.), Zalesne believes advertisers that don't have a lot of product-specific information to share can still benefit by putting out tangential information related to the product. "I still think the differentiating factor in that competitive space can be a couple of facts: What does this really do for my body? What does it really do for the environment? What information can tip this one over the edge rather than just create a vague sense of emotional attachment and sort of affective attraction?"

"You can get user-generated content tangential to the product performance but very relevant to the brand," Sam Decker says, making the point that "inspirational" information is particularly powerful when it comes from consumers. Decker's firm, Bazaarvoice, believes so strongly in the power of user-generated tangential information that it offers a product called Stories, consumer narratives related to their purchase and/or interaction with a particular brand. Decker also believes there will be a trend toward "micro user-generated content," a lightweight form of consumer contribution/participation -- similar in format to the popular website Hot or Not, where the appearance of men and women is rated by visitors.

Zalesne also believes aggregation sites will play a larger role with New Info Shoppers in the future, but feels most of them currently have a long way to go. She suggests that more sites should take a one-stop-shopping approach, so a consumer can find expert reviews, user comments, product info, videos, and more all at one website. "If there were more sites that aggregated that kind of stuff, instead of making consumers find it piecemeal, that would be of great value to shoppers," she explains.

However, Lotame's Andrew Monfried doesn't see much of a future for aggregation sites; he envisions a consumer's "community" playing a much larger role instead. Monfried recommends that advertisers "work with a company that's an expert in social media and can help you understand the buzz, the audience, and the behaviors of consumers that touch your brand directly -- and then one degree away tangentially -- and influence your brand, and then figure out how to have a conversation with them."

Daphen Kwon agrees that having a dialogue with consumers is critical to advertisers, as is partnering with a company focused on establishing and maintaining that dialogue. "The companies we believe will be the market leaders in the future are the ones that are very proud of their products now and are unafraid to find out if the consumers feel the same way," says Kwon. "Those are the brands we believe are really going to break through to a different plane of marketing."

Hilary Weber sees respect as the key in reaching this new type of shopper, or any shopper, for that matter. "I think the bottom line is you really need to remember to treat all audiences, but in particular this audience, with respect…don't stereotype. Just respect their unique qualities, and then you might find there's a hidden benefit there. You'll connect on a different level that maybe other companies haven't done."

Finally, Ms. Zalesne suggests that advertisers consider a whole new approach to accommodating the NIS -- one not from the pages of the traditional agency playbook. "Rather than just thinking of what's the coolest, hippest tagline, or the hottest spokesmodel, they're going to really want to start backwards from the point of view of the consumer and think, what does that person want to know, not just what does she want to feel or what will move her in the 30 seconds of the ad, but what does she want to know about this product? Start backwards from there and then create a comprehensive PR campaign that will reach that consumer at every level."

There you have it: forward-thinking advertisers needing to start backwards in order to move forward with New Info Shoppers. Now that's what I call things heading in a different direction.

Sean P. Egen is a freelance writer and filmmaker in Orange County, Calif.


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