It seems that everywhere you look lately, you see terms like cross-channel, multichannel, omni-channel, cross-device, and online-to-offline. It's enough to make a marketer's head spin. With the proper context, however, these terms aren't nearly as intimidating or confusing as they appear at first glance. Simply put, consumer behavior has changed and these terms all describe our attempts as marketers to catch up.
How is Consumer Behavior Changing?
At their base, consumers themselves haven’t really changed all that much. They always sought greater convenience, better flexibility, and more options when it comes to the products and services they buy. But let’s think about the average consumer way back in, say, the year 2000:
For marketers, those were much simpler times. There were fewer options and more limited experiences for consumers. But all of that has changed.
Today, nearly 70% of the U.S. population owns a smartphone, prospective purchasers frequently conduct research on multiple devices, and the border between online and in-store experiences continues to fade. It’s not just marketing channels fading away either; national borders are as well. A consumer in the U.S. can discover a U.K.-based brand and shop and receive goods as easily as he or she does with a domestic brand. In the age of the hyper-connected consumer, no audience is unreachable.
By now, most brands have accepted this evolution. The most successful ones are focused on building loyalty by allowing consumers to determine how they want to make their purchase. Apps and mobile-optimized Web pages have eased consumer paths to purchase; and gone are the days of “sorry, you can’t return that in the store because it was an online purchase” and “this offer is only good in-store.” The channel distinctions we’ve known for so long are slowly but surely going the way of Web 2.0.
What’s the Problem?
You might think this hyper-connectivity would make it easier to reach your target audience. After all, consumers are spending far more time online. But with this opportunity come new and significant challenges. As consumer browsing and buying habits evolved, targeting the right ones and reaching them through the proper channels became a far more complex and involved endeavor. To reach consumers with a specific attribute, like “outdoor/active” for example, you can’t just buy a placement on outdoormagazine.com and call it a day. Instead, you have to find them across the hundreds of blogs, forums, and deal sites that continue to pop up daily. (If you don’t, you can be assured that your competition will). Of course, niche sites aren’t new, but niche is the new norm.
So how do we identify where our new customers are coming from, how do we attract even more of them, and how do we measure the impact of our various efforts so that we may optimize future ones? This brings us back to the buzzwords referenced above: cross-channel, multichannel, omni-channel, cross-device, online-to-offline, etc. These terms are all attempts by marketers to describe how consumers are now engaging with brands and represent a movement away from spray-and-pray approaches founded on educated guesses and towards a more data-driven strategy.
What This Means for Affiliate Marketing
In the age of the empowered consumer, data unification and the centralization of measurement capabilities have become key initiatives across the digital marketing landscape. Affiliate marketing is no exception, as companies have been employing various methods to solve this puzzle, from building out in-house solutions to shelling out for DMPs, DSPs and a slew of other technology-based solutions.
While we can use various market signals to see where affiliate is heading, anyone who tells you they know exactly what affiliate will be like in five years is lying. What we do know is that affiliate will be moving away from defining value via business classifications and will place increased focus on the consumers themselves. Who they are. What they buy. When they buy. Where they buy. How they buy.
By putting consumers at the center of our ecosystem, our marketplaces and networks will naturally facilitate better partnerships and drive greater results. When we finally ditch the boxes we’ve put up around our customer segments and begin to reach each one as an individual, we’ll be on the right track.