For marketers today, everything begins and ends with consumers. Understanding consumer preferences and behaviors is essential to developing a successful campaign, brand, and product offering. Consumer trends tell us what habits or behaviors are becoming more prevalent. They help us track what people buy, why they buy, how they use products, and how they communicate about brands.
Trends are driven by basic consumer needs and desires (think Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs), coupled with short-term or long-term cultural shifts, driven by economic undulations, new technology development, politics, or even popular culture. With consumer behavior and preferences changing faster than ever, businesses are seeking to regularly research, understand, and apply consumer behavior trends to digital marketing efforts.
So what makes these four consumer trends so actionable? They're backed by burgeoning usage numbers, and while these trends may have started as just a spark, they are already making a major dent in consumer behavior.
Personalized content curation and consumption
This reorganization and repackaging of the web's growing content is an example of the consumer's desire for personalized experiences. Consumers are no longer reliant on brands or news outlets to satiate their intellectual curiosities. Instead, we are seeing the rise of user-centric platforms that discover, reformat, and organize a myriad of digital content outlets. Spawned from crowd-shaped content discovery tools like Digg, BuzzFeed, and Reddit, the next generation of content consumption platforms is highly personalized, catering to users' interests, social networks, and preferred learning style.
Consider Flipboard, the mobile application that lets users aggregate content from the news, blogs, and their social networks into a magazine style format, heavy on visual and sensory cues. Upping the ante of content personalization, Flipboard recently purchased Zite, a competing content curation platform that relies on algorithms and user feedback to personalize the stream of articles displayed to users. On the other end of the content customization spectrum, there's the app Umano. Serving the busy lives of consumers on the go and catering to audiophiles, Umano reads articles aloud to users so they can catch up on the news at the office, while driving, or while working out. The iPhone app relies on a mix of behavioral algorithms and editorial oversight to curate important news stories each day and then has voice actors record audio clips of top stories. Another interesting upstart in the space is Wibbitz, an app for iOS that creates short video summaries of news articles, combining the key points in the article with easily recognizable images.
"Flipboard recently hired its 100th employee and surpassed the 100 million-user mark."
-- Mashable, 10/2013
[Left to right: Wibbitz, Flipboard, Zite]
Implications for marketers
Brands should strive to become both creators and curators of great content. Understand that there is diversity in not just the topics that users enjoy but also the formats. In creating great content, experiment with different styles and presentations, including long form text, audio recordings, videos, and slide shows. Include images whenever possible, but don't rely on them, as many of today's content consumption apps are reliant on text to repackage content for users.
Become a part of the content ecosystem by sharing and aggregating great content from others. The most successful curators, including The Huffington Post and Mail Online, do not rely solely on in-house content development resources. They create some original content, but they also utilize user generated content and curate/discover content via manual and algorithmic discovery.
Internet of things
The internet has allowed consumers to manage and automate the flow of massive amounts of information and communication. Smartphones have enabled them to bring the power of the connected universe with them wherever they go. As a result, many consumers have come to expect all experiences to be as automated and convenient as their smartphones and PCs. This expectation has led to the rapid expansion of the internet of things, where many of the products we will soon purchase will be connected to the internet through Wi-Fi and mobile networks. Consumers, though sensitive about privacy, will welcome more and more connected objects into their lives to help them get things done, save money, and improve their health and fitness.
"In 2009, there were 2.5 billion connected devices, most of these were personal devices such as cell phones and PCs. In 2020, there will be up to 30 billion connected devices, most of which will be products."
-- Gartner, 10/2013
"The wearable technology market will ship at least 20 million units in 2014 and reach $4.5 billion in revenue. Over 100 million units will ship by 2020."
-- Deloitte Consulting, 1/2014
Right now, many home electronics and appliance companies, including Samsung and LG, are scrambling to ensure their products are as connected as the phones in consumers' pockets, launching a full line of Wi-Fi enabled "smart" appliances, including televisions, refrigerators, and washing machines. Other companies like digitalSTROM and Plugaway retrofit "smart" capabilities to existing products. Using Plugaway and digitalSTROM, anything with a plug can be connected to the web, controlled remotely via a smartphone, and monitored online.
[Image: Samsung LCD Refrigerator]
Further extending the possibilities of the internet of things is the convenience of wearable technology, including accessories like glasses and wristbands that enable a more seamless connection with the internet, infusing the technology into the human experience. Connectivity will soon become contiguous with consumers wherever they are, whatever they're doing. Currently the wearable market is dominated primarily by products that are health and fitness focused, including Nike+, FitBit, and JawBone, as well as products like G-Shock's Bluetooth Watch and Pebble, which allow users to connect to an existing smartphone. But Samsung, Google, and Apple are all racing to develop smart watch technology that could potentially change the way consumers connect to their smartphones.
Implication for marketers
The internet of things is expected to produce enormous amounts of data previously unavailable to marketers. Keen brands and agencies should take advantage of the opportunity and consider harnessing the data to create applications that benefit the end user by adding genuine value in the form of task automation, rewards, and information. The Nike+ API, for example, connects application developers with users' activities, including the type of sport, distance traveled, calories burned, and location. Imagine the possibilities. Would a runner wearing a smart watch want to know if vitamins are on sale at her local store? Would a biker wearing a fitness tracker want to know if there is a special discount on granola bars at a health store nearby?
Although the vast majority of retail sales are still made in-store, online shopping is grabbing market share at an explosive rate. As consumers become more reliant on online shopping, the demand for expedited shipping will continue to grow, especially for high-income tech-savvy Millennials. Major tech companies and retailers are taking notice and scrambling to meet the demand. eBay, Google, Amazon, and Walmart are all actively testing same-day delivery offerings.
"KeyBanc retail analyst Ed Yruma thinks the need for speed in delivery will only get stronger, with rapid shipping replacing free shipping as almost a requirement for consumers."
-- CNBC.com, December 2013
In late 2012, eBay launched eBay Now, allowing consumers in targeted metro areas to receive products from local merchants, including Target, Best Buy, and Walgreen's, within one to two hours for $5 per order. Orders are delivered by the courier closest to the merchants in question, and users can track the delivery's progress and phone the courier directly. While it's currently available in just four metro areas, eBay has plans to expand the service to over 25 cities in 2014.
[Image: eBay Now]
Amazon charges $8.99 for most same-day delivery purchases, or just $3.99 for Amazon Prime subscribers, who already receive free two-day shipping for their $79 annual membership fee.
Same-day delivery is available as long as the item is in stock at a nearby warehouse or a third-party seller can quickly send the item. To further improve delivery time, Amazon is building new warehouses, adding refrigerators and robots to existing warehouses, and routing deliveries through multiple carriers, including FedEx, UPS, and now the USPS for Sunday deliveries.
Implications for marketers
Shipping and delivery times will become a much more important incentive for marketers to use in converting shoppers into buyers. E-commerce and brick-and-mortar retailers will need to cater to demanding consumers by shortening fulfillment and shipping times, along with concrete delivery dates and times. There is an opportunity to work with established shipping services (e.g., UPS and FedEx) or integrate third-party crowdsourced services like PostMates, Deliv, Zipments, or WeDeliver. Deliv, for example, connects e-commerce retailers with local crowdsourced delivery personnel to allow online shoppers to receive their orders in hours, not days. Postmates, on the other hand, serves local brick-and-mortar retailers by offering delivery from any local store or restaurant within an hour.
Consumers will also place increasing pressure on retailers to offer universal free shipping for all non-expedited orders. For years, e-commerce retailers have fought offering free shipping on all purchases due to costs, but with the advent of same-day and near-instant shipping options, consumers will further question the value of paying for regular ground shipments. Retailers will need to adjust their strategy or lose the business.
The entrepreneurial consumer mindset
Now more than ever, consumers are clamoring to be involved with and purchase pre-launch products and services that connect them to the cult of entrepreneurialism. This is demonstrated by the explosive growth of crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, which have become virtual marketplaces for purchasing pre-launch goods and services.
"Kickstarter passed $1 billion on March 3, 2014... pledged by 5.7 million people ... More than half was pledged in the last 12 months alone"
-- Kickstarter, 2/2014
What's driving this consumer trend? Among other things, the entrepreneurial consumer mindset is driven by a need for status and belonging. Consumers gain status when they purchase pre-launch products by being able to talk, tweet, and post about their find. That story is even more potent when it conveys a sense of belonging or connection to a niche cause, or even a broader movement such as crowdfunding. The trend is most prevalent in Millennials, who witnessed the global financial crisis of 2008, ensuing unemployment, and fiscal debt at a formative time in their maturation. Millennials learned to idolize tech entrepreneurs like Mark Zuckerberg and Sergey Brin and eschew the (in)stability of established brands and institutions.
Brands are taking notice of the entrepreneurial consumer mindset and are using this trend to reach new consumers and deepen relationships with existing customers by allowing them to help shape their products, services, and advertising campaigns. Meow Mix recently launched Catstarter, a Kickstarter platform for cat lovers. The platform allows fans to vote on their favorite cat-related inventions and submit ideas for improving the lives of our feline friends. Honda's Project Drive-In launched in late 2013 as a campaign to help struggling local drive-in's switch to digital projectors to prevent them from going out of business. The innovative campaign leveraged crowdfunding platform Indiegogo and encouraged users to pledge to visit their local drive-in theater on Twitter and Facebook.
Implications for marketers
Brands looking to connect with and engage entrepreneurial consumers should start to consider reaching them through crowdsourcing methods. Allow them to vote on their favorite ideas and give their opinion on your advertisement before it launches. Encourage them to participate in the formation of new products. Not only will you build a stronger connection with customers, you'll also create a highly cost effective market research and R&D lab. Another opportunity for brands is to partner with independent designers and businesses to launch new products and services. Allow your customers to choose the best offering and go to market. Finally, brands should consider pre-selling or beta testing new products whenever possible. Pre-sales help build die-hard brand advocates, and consumers may even be willing to pay more for the privilege of early access.
Careful evaluation of consumer trends is an essential first step to uncovering innovation opportunity. Consumers around the globe are looking for innovative businesses to serve their evolving preferences and desires. Brands and agencies should be excited by the potential offered by consumer trends and use them to inspire new marketing campaigns, products, and experiences.
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"Girl with shopping bags" image via Shutterstock.