Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Web as The Source: Consumers, Information, and Trust

As we’re poised to watch a whole slew of expensive Super Bowl ads, undoubtedly focused on entertaining and emotionally enticing viewers, it’s worth stepping back a moment and considering that as fun as these ads might be, lately most people are making purchasing decisions using their brains and not their feelings.

Whether you consider this a new insight or a basic tenet of human consumption in the market era, consumers are becoming more focused on gathering information about products and brands. To me, it’s no surprise, but the accessibility of knowledge via the internet and social networks makes this a whole new ballgame for marketers and retail sales. Certainly there’s a glut of information out there -- and people struggle to decide what counts as an authoritative voice to guide them through purchases. (You can even see the Madoff debacle as an extreme example of how easy it is for the unbelievable to appear ordinary). One result of the current economic situation is that discernment is rising to the top of desirable skills for consumers. No one wants to make mistakes when they’re on a tight budget.

In a recent survey of consumer micro-trends, Penn, Schoen, and Berland Associates find that consumers no longer trust television ads or news as a means of gauging a product – and they’re more likely to trust online sources than store clerks for information. Again, no surprise when most retail outlets don’t work to create the sense that their sales force is there for the consumer rather than the company line. As I’ve pointed out in prior posts, those that do (Apple, for instance) are more apt to generate consumer loyalty. Blogs that provide retail insights (like this one, we hope!) are also a growing influence. Not that we have a buyer’s revolution on our hands, but it’s about time advertisers jettisoned their outdated notion of what consumers are really like.

Just to keep things in perspective, keep in mind that the micro-trends survey finds that most people are spending less than half an hour in product research online. That’s not a huge amount, but it also probably depends on the item in question. It also appears that it actually works when companies don’t presume that consumers are ignorant of technical information. Penn et al explain:

“Information-seeking is not just an activity, it's a way of looking at the world. New info shoppers are proud of the progress they have made in putting facts over pablum. More companies should treat their customers as Dyson did and let them in on the secrets of their unique success. And they should invest more than ever in helping form their consumers into citizen corps, arming them with PCs, cameras and even asking them to use the phone's new video cameras to document their product usage and put them online.”
The biggest obstacle in advancing a new approach seems to be the antiquated notion that an informed consumer is an unwilling consumer. Trust, it seems, is a two-way street.

Image source: Smart Shoppers in the 1940s, The National Archives.

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