Embracing Consumer Skepticism & Empowerment

2009 marked a critical year where mass awareness and adoption of social media collided with a global financial crisis. The result? Consumers became more skeptical, conscientious, and empowered -- all at the same time.


Case studies about the influence of this new breed of consumers on businesses are piling up. The Powermat, for example, had a good PR launch and received some favorable reviews in the media. Only a few years ago, this would have provided the requisite foundation for a successful launch. Today, complaints about compatibility issues and customer service problems have led to a 2-star rating on So, conversations by disappointed customers, that would have died in living rooms before the advent of social media are now thwarting otherwise successful product launches.



So, in a world where consumers are increasingly skeptical, conscientious, and empowered, is the answer really to develop marketing activities that engage more consumers through more channels?

No. The answer lies in embracing these consumers and giving them outlets where they can exercise this newfound empowerment.

In his blog post titled "The platform vs. the eyeballs," Seth Godin writes that in a world where media companies build large audiences and allow you the opportunity to engage with those audiences through advertising, "You, the marketer, don't care about the long-term value of this audience. It's like a rental car. You want it to be clean and shiny when you get it, you want to avoid getting in trouble when you return it, but hey, it's a rental."

While Facebook, Twitter, mobile, or any other emerging platforms may be part of our efforts, they are not the foundation. As we think about the current frenzy around emerging channels, we must accept that -- at the core -- nothing has changed. Marketers are excited about these environments because they represent new roads to massive audiences. Some of the rules may be different, but we are still riding on the coattails of others.

That is where the idea of building our own audiences comes in -- and email marketers have a leg up on other marketers in this capacity. We know how to create programs that deliver the right message to the right person at the right time. We know that getting people to sign up with us means that we need to convey the value subscribers will receive in exchange for their personal information. Now we need to figure out how to transform this knowledge into creating audiences that are truly engaged. Not engaged meaning they are opening and clicking our email newsletters, but engaged meaning they are contributing to our platforms.

One company that achieved this goal was Scott's Miracle-Gro, whose almost 10-year-old email program delivers seasonally relevant content tailored to subscribers based on where they live, the type of grass they have, and their level of expertise. (Disclosure: Scott's is a client of my firm.) About a year ago, company strategists launched a community-focused Web site.  By providing a site dedicated to solving lawn care issues through blogs, online communities, forums, and photo galleries,  they created a logical next step for newsletter subscribers. Enthusiasts now have a place to show off their gardening skills.

Also interesting to note is that the company saw a few of its newsletter subscribers opt-out of the regular program, but this has not been a concern. After all, those former newsletter subscribers are now online community members. They are still interacting with the brand. The difference is that these consumers are now more engaged with the brand as they receive email updates related to the online community itself. Even in these instances, Scott's isn't necessarily sending less email, just different email. 

By building communities that allow customers to show off their lawns and build their own green-thumb brands, Scott's has shifted its marketing efforts from selling to facilitating. Consumers are actively contributing to the Scott's brand experience.

The company has  taken Godin's challenge to move on to the next, albeit expensive and challenging, phase of marketing. These audiences will never be as big as the audiences we can rent, but as Godin concludes, "embrace these people and shoot for 90% conversion, not .5%. Like most good investments, it's expensive and worth more than it costs."

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