When Media Misses The Point

  • by November 22, 2005
There is an alternative medium that doesn't get the attention it deserves: point of sale. Obviously, it's a consumer touch point and a setting for merchandising and transactions. But it's a medium, too. Approaching it as a medium involves a whole new way of thinking about how to interact with consumers wandering the aisles. It's not just about retailing. It's also about communication.

Broadly speaking, media are vehicles by which marketers reach consumers with messages and offers. Many media include content, too, but not all (billboards, for example). Marketing communication, not content, is the defining characteristic of media.

Media do many things in addition to marketing communication, such as entertaining and informing. So just because point of sale is a retailing environment doesn't mean it isn't a medium as well. Indeed, in the consumer marketplace of today and tomorrow, point of sale may well become the most important medium.

Increasingly, consumers are evading marketing communications delivered in the traditional modes of intrusion, interruption, and saturation. Our research has documented record levels of disaffection and active marketing resistance among consumers. Over the last three years, one marketing conference after another has brought together leading thinkers and practitioners to debate not the viability of the classic marketing model but the best ways to move past it.

What consumers want most is relief from clutter. They want marketing communications to be relevant, not an imposition on their time. And they want more control. They want the power to determine when and where they will be exposed to marketing communications. Point of sale offers both relevance and power.

People are in the market for something at point of sale. Their priority is buying or browsing, so sales messages are relevant to their immediate interests. Consumers have the power to be there or not, so they are in control of their exposure. Yet, for the most part, point of sale is under-used as a venue for relevant, empowering marketing communications. That's not to say that no marketing goes on at point of sale. Shelves and aisles are crowded with displays, signage, and promotions. But these are just a few of the many important things marketers might communicate. Point of sale can and should do more.

Marketers are becoming more attuned to the potential of relevance and empowerment. For example, search-based advertising is booming because marketers have discovered the boost in value that comes from delivering messages and offers tied to people's interests in ways that give consumers direct control over access and exposure. Point of sale can be the same sort of marketing communication vehicle.

Point of sale and Web search engines both facilitate a sort of permission marketing. The objective of permission marketing is to allow consumers to opt into what interests them, which ensures relevance. In different ways, both point of sale and Web search engines put consumers in charge, thereby heightening the relevance of what consumers see and hear.

Yet what makes point of sale so attractive as a high-impact medium for overcoming consumer resistance also runs the risk of worsening it. New digital media that give consumers more control also give marketers more ways of reaching consumers with still more messages and offers. The increase in control is often overwhelmed by the increase in saturation. There is a balance that needs to be struck, at point of sale no less than online.

Much point of sale today is far from a compelling package in which to place a strategic branding campaign. But that simply defines the opportunity ahead. As with the early days of TV and the Internet, the ground yet to cover with point of sale is no indication of the ultimate potential. New tools and more creative approaches will, and must, transform point of sale.

More and more, point of sale will become one of the most significant vehicles for marketers to effectively and productively communicate with consumers. Point of sale will be the mass medium of tomorrow. It will aggregate and deliver a large, attentive, and interested audience in a manner best suited for the burgeoning marketplace of complete consumer control.

J. Walker Smith is president of Yankelovich Partners and the coauthor of Coming to Concurrence: Addressable Attitudes and the New Model for Marketing Productivity. (

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