Yet despite their fickle nature, millions of marketing dollars are spent trying to understand and predict consumer behavior. It's as though they're still chasing June Cleaver when neither her modern counterparts nor today's consumerism as a whole bear any resemblance to the past.
So what can marketers do? They can start by grasping the profound societal and technological changes that define today's new consumerism. Rather than predicting a consumer's next move, marketers should focus on forming meaningful brand relationships by listening to and actively engaging consumers.
The fact that no two consumers are exactly alike is a given in marketing. And now, marketers are starting to realize that individual consumers bring with them a whole new set of complexities; individuals themselves have identities that shift with context.
Consumers may represent themselves one way in the LinkedIn business network, and another on Facebook with friends. Each of these unique identities has its own idiosyncrasies, so when they are in one context -- e.g., a busy mom chatting on onechicmama.com -- they're more receptive to some brands, perhaps recipes from Kraft, and totally closed to others.
In order to understand the busy June Cleaver, marketers need to listen to her. Listening is critical for a more meaningful relationship between brands and consumers. Before this happens, however, brands must embrace today's cultural shift toward more open and adaptive communications across the social Web.
What Won't Work
Traditional research is no longer well-suited to understanding and engaging consumers on the open, flexible Web. In order to build relationships with ever-evolving, persona-shifting consumers, marketers need new strategies and approaches that are built around continuous and programmatic listening.
For companies getting started, it is important to determine how to sustain continuous connections to customers. Would a purpose-built social network or public online community work? What about an integrated marketing campaign that uses state-of the-art Web and site analytics along with newsletters and customized email? While these approaches can be part of a larger marketing effort, they can't help brands truly understand, engage and sustain long-term relationships with today's multi-contextual consumer.
What Does Work
If you want to understand, engage and sustain, you'll need to embrace three tenets of new consumerism: listening, relationship-building and empowerment.
Marketers too often confuse willingness to buy as evidence of a relationship; it's not. Brands must earn the right to have meaningful relationships with their consumers, and this isn't accomplished by special offers and personalization alone. Like personal relationships, brand relationships are built upon trust that is earned over multiple exchanges and eventually feels natural instead of contrived. If you establish intimacy with your customers -- providing an ongoing, intimate forum to dig deeper and share the many facets of their different personas -- you're entitled to ask more of the relationship. You've earned that.
Listening -- real listening -- is one of the most powerful and often misunderstood "disciplines" of marketing. Social media monitoring, for example, is a great early warning system, but it isn't really listening. Effective listening can't be keyword-driven alone; it must be done with sensitivity to nuances and with a finely tuned ear for discovering unexpected insights.
One way to effectively listen to customers is through private online communities where brands can begin to understand how customers negotiate changes in their lives. Through communities, brands - like never before - have the means to be with consumers over time, building relationships and isolating the multidimensional voices of the consumer and being present so that they can really listen.
Empowerment is the final misunderstood tenet of new consumerism. Giving consumers a public forum to voice, vent or vindicate -- perhaps a public social network or your blog -- seems like empowerment, but it's not. When you master listening and build a relationship with a consumer, you owe them something in return. And, contrary to conventional wisdom, what they want isn't coupons or free stuff; they want to impact your brand. That's real empowerment for today's consumer.
In the end, consumers are most engaged when they realize a brand -- perhaps yours -- is actively helping them negotiate the changes in their complex lives, from how and where they communicate to what they consume. Give them this, and they'll be empowered to dig deeper and explore more on your behalf. This also means that eventually you'll offer more than simply a product or service to them; you'll become "their brand."