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Business, Featured - Written by on Wednesday, August 11, 2010 8:49 - 2 Comments

Denis Hancock
Questioning the idea that ‘the customer is now in control’

As I scan articles about the impact of social media on marketing, I commonly come some variant of the statement “the customer is now in control.” But the more I research and think about this statement, the less I believe it – and the underlying message being sent to marketers – is. So today I thought I’d explain why.

My first issue is with the word now. From my perspective, the customer has always been in control – the fate of companies providing products and services in a capitalist economy is ultimately determined by what customers choose to buy. In turn, the analysis shifts towards social media somehow giving customers slightly more control than they had before – a small, but important, distinction.

The typical argument is that as customers have connected with each other through platforms like blogs, Twitter, and Facebook, the opinions they share amongst themselves have increased in importance, while the typical “broadcast marketing” approaches have decreased in effectiveness. While I do believe there is some truth to this, there is another way to look at what’s happening.

For starters, if customers only wanted to hear each other’s opinions, they could do so without engaging companies at all – either in somewhat self-organizing fashion through Facebook and Twitter, or “neutral” services like Yelp. But many, many customers are also opting to directly connect with companies – liking, following, lurking in communities, etc. – through these very same platforms. In doing so, many are effectively asking companies to engage with them.

Second, being “in control” takes time and effort. I would argue that many customers may want to “take control” in relation to certain product and service decisions, for many others they are happy to be passive recipients of messages (and offers) from their preferred brands. For example, the #2 reason given for becoming a Facebook fan (based on a survey earlier this year) was to receive coupons. And while I don’t have time to go into it here, one of the consistent findings from my research is that customers like being “broadcast” to on social media more than many people think.

On a related point, I believe that many customers are being overwhelmed by all the brand-related conversations taking place. For example, many brands on Twitter now commonly send 30+ messages a day, responding to specific people. Many consider this to be engaging. But if you follow (say) 30 such brands, that’s over 900 messages a day – most of which will be of absolutely no interest to you. Perhaps the method will persist for many more years, but perhaps not.

Finally (at least for today), as “word of mouth” marketing has moved online, and more and more data is generated, it’s becoming ever easier for brands to monitor exactly what people are saying, thinking and feeling about various things. I personally believe that all this information points towards a world where many brands can be far more “in control” than they’ve ever been before.

Tying it all together, I’ve taken to asking what someone like Don Draper – the lead character on Mad Men – would think about the rise of social media if he was ported into 2010. Would he look at all the new tools and behaviors and say “wow, I can’t control anything here!” Or would he say “wow, I can influence, monitor and control things more than ever before!”

My sense is that it would be the latter – and many companies would be well served by taking a similar line of thinking. After all, to be in control implies having power; it is commonly said that knowledge is power; and all this information is giving companies more knowledge than ever before.


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Carlos Hidalgo
Aug 11, 2010 9:58

Great post and some very valid points. I think when we discuss the shift in power to the customer it is less about them engaging with a company and more about where they include sales in that engagement. Whereas it used to be sales was part of the process immediately, customers are looking to them much later in the process.

The customer has been and always will be in ultimate control, as they ultimately own the dollars, but the shift is away from sales and focused on engagement at a more macro level i.e. with a company instead of a sales rep.

Stu Goldstein
Aug 11, 2010 12:58

Today’s Social Customer wants to be included in the Collaboration Value Chain (CVC) and participate WITH the company in providing feedback, product ideas etc… The creation of customer portals with KB and customer communities proves that customers want tools provided to allow them to control their experience.

The voice of a customer is getting more attention from social media sites, and customers are expecting to recieve a response from a tweet. As leading customer centric companies provide real-time support for social media channels, the concept of multi-channel customer support will have to expand.

The organization will need to change from a command and control strategy to a collaborative value chain strategy. This strategy provides customers, vendors, and employees more access to tools and content.

Organizations need to remember, customer will continue a relationship with a brand or a company if they are appreciated, treated with respect, and provided options to interact with the company that match a customers preferences.

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