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The customer is in charge: The future of the digital experience


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The customer is in charge: The future of the digital experience by Jeff Mancini

In recent years, the proliferation of social networking and its attendant technologies has shifted the online space from a productcentric model to a customer-centric one. As a result, a new level of transparency is now required between businesses and customers and there’s an even greater focus on the role of the brand in online business. Unfortunately, the majority of businesses miss the opportunity to adequately engage with consumers online. It isn’t that corporations aren’t there – it is that they don’t have a clear brand strategy for their online channels. Online and the customer experience In a recent study*, 78 percent of major corporations said they are using social media, but only 41 percent of those surveyed said they have a strategic digital plan in place. This leaves nearly 60 percent of these companies sending mixed messages from various departments and outside agencies. As a customer, it’s difficult to know which story to believe. It seems that the biggest mistake brands make when it comes to the digital experience is the oversight of the customer experience online.

Meanwhile, those companies that build brands around the customer experience modify perceptions more effectively – driving choice, loyalty and premium prices. Staples, for example, promotes and delivers on “easy shopping.” This builds on a key consumer insight that shopping for office supplies can be hard to manage. You can find proof points of this idea throughout its customer experience – both online and off. By comparison, Staples’s competitors have not created any compelling idea around their brands and often resort to price discounting in lieu of meaningful messaging. The financial results speak reams: in the past five years, Staples’ revenue has grown from US $3 billion to US $8 billion, which is four times the growth of their competitor Office Max**. Other companies that deliver a phenomenal brand experience include Amazon.com and Apple. Amazon.com builds loyalty and advocacy at unprecedented rates by continually improving every touchpoint along an end-to-end customer experience. Apple customers will line up down the block and pay premium prices for a chance to be part of the brand phenomenon. Consider the last time you saw an iPhone on sale.

Mapping the customer journey One of the most effective ways to see the big picture in a branded digital experience is to create a customer journey map. This provides a framework for analyzing how customers engage with a brand, establish the most relevant touchpoints and quantify them through research. When comparing this journey to that of competitors, it is easy to identify whitespace opportunities for the brand and potential digital applications. Once the key customer segments are established, each individual journey is examined as it exists today, as well as an ideal state. Each segment is explored across three phases of the journey in order to gain a complete understanding of how customers engage, how they buy and how they commit. Only by seeing the entire process that a customer goes through in choosing brands and becoming loyal to them are we able to empathize and communicate in a relevant way. What is historically known as the “purchase funnel” has always been more complex than brand marketers realize. Historically, it’s been taken for granted that a single


The customer is in charge: The future of the digital experience

message fostered along a single channel will find and draw its target audience. Today, customers take full advantage of easy access to multichannel information – online and televised, via mobile devices and social networks. This means that brands need to be where their customers are and able to learn from the signals they are sending. Let’s look at one of my favorite purchase categories as an example – kitchen equipment. I am a big fan of the OXO (Good Grips) brand and have just about every gadget they make. Here’s how my journey toward OXO loyalty went: I heard about the brand from my wife, who heard about it from a friend. I asked another friend about OXO wares, and she confirmed that these were great products. Not long afterward, I came across the Good Grips garlic press while shopping in Target. After inspecting the package and the famous “grip,” I bought one and tried it out. I was pleased with the quality, performance and aesthetic. I went to the company’s website to see the complete collection and found there a fun personality, interesting staff, a great tagline (“Tools you hold onto”) and a slew of the most prestigious industrial design awards in the world. Turns out they have designed over 800 products. Impressive. Facebook wall? Even more impressive: loyal fans from coast to coast. I signed up for new product alerts, of which there are plenty. Since this experience, I have bought dozens of their products from various sources. I don’t really need to “touch and feel” anymore, since I know what to expect from them. If I find the products to be cheaper

on Amazon.com than in a store, great, but that’s not what made me choose the brand in the first place. In fact, I often need one of these products the day I’m preparing a dish, and can’t wait for the free online shipping from my Amazon.com Prime account, so I buy it in a local store. The point here is that my purchase decision is not about buying in-store versus online. I have been building loyalty to this brand over several years and over multiple channels and many great experiences. This nonlinear path is what brands need to understand and follow. They need to listen to the conversations customers are having about their market and their competition, as well as their brand. If customers don’t believe what you have to say, you will hear about it quickly – you just have to listen. Storytelling vs. marketing As digital communications become more and more social, we need to look at them through a different lens. Social media is a storytelling medium and one that will not support traditional, sales-driven messages. Storytelling is a natural format for sharing information: it is the innate way we communicate with each other and is a highly engaging form of messaging. In order for stories to spread, we all need to know the characters and whether or not the plot is real or fake. While brands jump into personal territory without invitation, armed only with some polished copy and a few discounts and promotions, customers are getting ever more savvy at distinguishing truth from fiction. Social media has allowed customers to peer directly into the windows of companies and see the people who work inside. Since

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so many brands have opened their blinds to show what they are all about, the view inside has set “table stakes” for building meaningful relationships with customers. However, most companies won’t allow their employees to look back out at customers. This creates a new tension in the workplace, where employees feel not only disconnected, but mistrusted by their employers. The flip side of this presents a tremendous opportunity to galvanize employees with some basic digital communication tools. Employees equipped with the proper brand voice and knowledge of how the company works will create just the right scene to be viewed by anyone peering into the window. The writing on the wall There are many digital tools available for listening to and measuring the millions of customer commentaries that are created every minute. However, if you don’t have a strategy for comprehending and reacting to the chatter, the volume will deafen you. The strategy for understanding customer conversations begins with your brand. That is, you need to know what people are saying about you and determine how distant that is from what you say about yourself. This is particularly hard if you don’t have a clear understanding of your own messaging objectives. This concept ties directly into the customer journey. The words customers use are just as important as their purchase behaviors. Take click-throughs or shopping cart abandonment, for example. These behaviors are telling but leave no indication of why a customer drew nearer or left for another option. This has bred a new method of

Social media has allowed customers to peer directly into the windows of companies and see the people who work inside.


The customer is in charge: The future of the digital experience

monitoring customer behavior, called Social CRM. Unlike its traditional CRM, the social version allows the customer to have a voice in the decision-making process. Brands must do more than push a message and test response rates if they want to be competitive and win loyal customers. Along with relationship management, Social CRM connects the people within your company to your customers. When employees link with customers, they become part of a culture of knowledge-sharing that can ultimately break down silos. Even more so, it can dramatically increase employee engagement by fulfilling the human desire to connect with others. Unfortunately, according to Gallup Polls, only 29 percent of the U.S. workforce is actively engaged with work, and 71 percent are either “coasting” with a wait-and-see attitude, or worse, are actively disengaged – meaning that they are undermining and dismantling the efforts of the other employees. Estimates say that employee dissatisfaction and disengagement cost American businesses billions of dollars every year. What every brand should be doing about their digital experience Start a digital task force within your organization. Get very familiar with your customers and employees and create a story that will motivate them to enter a dialogue. After all, building a group of loyal followers inside your company is the first step toward building one outside it. Let’s look at the steps: 1. Identify influencers from all parts of your organization whom people respect and are loyal believers in your brand. Give them new responsibilities and privileges for participating in this effort. 2. Give these people the tools to manage internal communities and rally the troops around the brand and its story. This will foster internal collaboration and strengthen your products and services. 3. Connect them directly with your customers. Train them to help customers and share your story with their friends, family and colleagues.

Word of mouth has long been a driving force for successful brands and is even more so today. Under the new social microscope, brands need to be far more personal, honest and relevant than ever before. Customers are in charge of their own destiny now and are not just passive participants in the marketing process. Their journeys are happening all around you, and if you don’t look up and listen, they will pass right by you. ■ *Digital Brand Expression study, June 2010 ** Goldman Sachs DotCommerce Research, March 23, 2010

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Jeff Mancini Jeff Mancini is Interbrand New York’s Senior Director of Digital Strategy. Jeff drives the digital practice at Interbrand. He focuses on extending a relevant brand voice to the web and emerging digital platforms.

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