Connecting with the ever-changing consumer – why making a noise just won’t cut it

It’s not a major surprise that UK consumers are spending huge proportions of their spare time online. According to Experian Hitwise data UK Internet users made 2.2 billion visits to search engines in February 2012 and this figure continues to grow.

What’s interesting to us as marketers, however, is the back story. When we delve deeper we can see that consumer behaviour is changing in reaction to the booming quantity of content available to them.

Session times are decreasing and consumers are becoming more and more selective about the brands and content that interests them. Social networks are key beneficiaries of this trend (because, to an extent, users regulate the content available to them) but moves to introduce an ever-expending list of apps, games, services, timelines and content mean that even these walled gardens can become unmanageably overgrown.

When faced with diversity, people seek one of two paths; they graze, or they try to focus. Content needs to lure in the grazers by standing out, and it needs to hold the interest of those who seek a less cluttered world. But this is no easy feat.

In a recent poll of more than 2,300 Facebook users commissioned by Experian, 27 per cent said that they regularly unsubscribe from emails that no longer interest them. Meanwhile, 18 per cent of users said that they regularly unlike Facebook pages that are no longer of interest, while 14 per cent said they would stop following a brand on Twitter if they thought content had become irrelevant.

While these figures may sound low, imagine a quarter of your audience walking out on you mid-presentation. Flight in volume can appear unsettling, but context is key. If the people that walk away have never or will never engage with you in a meaningful way, it’s actually a desirable move. Banks have long tried to proactively rid themselves of unprofitable customers. But if 30 of the 150 users who turn away are potential customers, or are influential within their peer group, then you’ve lost out on potential sales and recommendations.

As marketers, we work hard to get people to listen to us. We therefore cannot afford to lose the attention of the customer we have already engaged. As Victoria Ransom notes in her post earlier this year, if 2011 was about building an online following, 2012 is about engaging them. And achieving continued levels of engagement is a daily struggle. We need to keep customers interested at every touch point.

This all needs to happen within a market that is becoming adept at saying no, and which is increasingly willing to try out multiple content streams in order to select the one which best matches their needs.

As I have already outlined, people will unlike or unfollow a brand if it isn’t offering them what they want. In addition, we are also seeing people align themselves on social networks to multiple brands from the same industry (e.g. to Pepsi and Coke, Samsung and Sony) to almost play them off against each other.

Some might call this behaviour fickle. I’d argue that it’s an attempt to make sense of the barrage of content out there today and then to slim it down to manageable levels.

The temptation here is to view this behaviour and rush headlong into making your marketing as big, brash and exciting as possible in order to attract attention. But creating relevant, engaging ‘sticky’ content does not begin with the creative. Too often in marketing we fall in love with our ideas and try to push them through. Engagement is not about creating a one-off wow-factor; it relies on insight. What do we know about these people, and how do we make our interactions relevant, meaningful and exciting? It has to be driven by the data.

This starts with understanding your customers and linking your data to create actionable insight across all channels, to deliver a meaningful and comprehensive customer view.

From a marketing perspective, social channels have given us a huge wealth of additional information about our customers, what their interests are and what type of content they want.

Analytics tools are a good place to delve deeper into this, but too often they are focused on a single engagement point e.g. Facebook, or mobile, or email. Today’s consumer accesses information from a whole range of devices, in an array of different formats, and their behaviour differs across each one. They are also human beings in their own right, with lives outside the digital world, so physical factors (demographics, spending power and so forth) need to be taken into account.

Once all of this data is collected and linked, you can start to deliver actionable insights across channels.

Marketers who can build a picture based on all of these factors are closer to knowing their customer and delivering what they want, in the right format at the right time and across the right channel.

It may seem a big leap at the moment, but it has to be the aim. As attention spans dwindle and the amount of content available grows exponentially, no longer will the best ideas always win. Instead, it will be the most relevant, targeted and timely campaigns which strike right at the heart of individual preferences, needs and aspirations.

It’s time to adapt to the new dynamic. If we don’t, we only ever have a limited, fleeting relationship with our potential and actual customers. And ultimately, we’ll just become part of the noise.

Jon Buss, MD of Experian Digital Services