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How marketers can manage super networked consumers

Managing the complex and super networked consumers

Dealing with the demands of the new-age connected consumer is getting to be tough – she is vocal on social media and believes her peers and friends more than any advertising or celebrity ambassador. As part of The Drum’s Globalization Deep Dive, Dr Renuka Kamath digs deeper into what marketers must do to connect to this complex consumer in a world that is becoming more globalized.

Jaya is planning a short vacation in India with her colleague who is visiting from Norway. She does the most obvious searches online and asks her social media ‘friends’ for options and advice. Her friends and extended community oblige by not just making suggestions but by helpfully providing links to locations, blogs, travel sites, YouTube videos. Some also design a cool itinerary for them, on which many other friends comment. These online friends, from as far away as Norway, also caringly provide them with spots with cuisine her colleague would be familiar with. She finally decides on a location and designs her holiday, partially at a homestay, then a resort and the rest at an Airbnb, all online from the comfort of her home. As they take off for their vacation, she and her colleague are forewarned in advance about the food, travel etc, with good advice even about which cook is the best and where.

The famous author Thomas Friedman wrote the book The World is Flat way back in 2005 when he used it as a simile for a levelled-up seamless world between countries and their people. In this seamless world, the one function that has been impacted phenomenally is marketing. Consumers, both digital natives and digital migrants, are savvy, leaving data bits online with every transaction – monetary or not. Rules of the game have turned on their head and the firms and brands now have to keep pace with consumers. Traditionally, it was the other way around – brands stated their purpose, told their story and impacted their consumers in the way they wanted.

Who owns the brand?

It is said that brands exist in the minds and hearts of consumers – while firms may ‘own’ them, brands reside with the consumers. Never has it been so true and explicit! One can go as far as stating that consumers have grabbed brands with both their hands, shaping, moulding and at times tossing them. We are no longer talking mass marketing of one to many. So while traditionally spatial connectedness was once key, now marketers need to be always on their toes. The proverbial marketing funnel takes on a completely different avatar due to consumer networks and interactions. Imagine this world of interconnected consumers forming a network between themselves on social media platforms, forums and online communities, forever connected not just in one country but globally. Market formation and structures are changing.

Evolving face and shape of marketing

Consumers today are no longer acquiescent, buying just a product or service, but proactively want to contribute to brands, shape them by enthusiastically commenting, posting, even having fun with the brand. It is a complex relationship when firms find consumers involved in creatively innovating content. Let’s face it, consumers like the feeling of participation in building a brand. They appreciate brands that reach out to them for their opinion and contribution. As you can well imagine, slowly and steadily, there has been a tilt in the equilibrium of power between consumers and the firm, from the earlier firm-centered approach to a more user or consumer co-creation approach. Brands are on their way to becoming joint creations.

However, this as many brands have discovered can be a double-edged sword – a bane and a unique opportunity. In these days of social networks and user-generated content (UGC), how easy is it for a brand to manage its identity and image? It is almost as if the narrative is slipping past marketers’ hands faster than they can keep pace. The pandemic has amplified this paradigm for marketing, especially for brands, due to consumer connectedness.

Consumers as partners, but with mercurial loyalty

At a very basic level, consumers are now able to contribute to ideation for the product or the campaign and also choose from the ideas within a community. Brands encourage it, making it conducive for consumers to contribute. This has become an effective channel for firms to engage the network of consumers where they interact with each other, with almost a feeling of a community.

What are the consumers looking for in return? What makes them a partner? Consumers love the limelight and recognition when their posts or feedback get traction. There is far higher trust in each other’s reviews and posts, while some even get financial rewards if their ideas get selected. Consumers persuade each other and now there are ‘influencers’ with a massive following, whom brands woo.

Challenges of new-age marketing

All this comes with its challenges. Maintaining the momentum isn’t easy and consumer complaints that go viral need extremely nimble redressal. Brands too have to manage consumers on various social media platforms differently – on Instagram and Twitter, for instance, they have to be cryptic, funny and nippy. LinkedIn, a bit sombre and professional. Then there is Snapchat, Tumblr, Reddit, Quora, Pinterest, TikTok, Flickr, WhatsApp, etc to be managed. The mercurial nature of consumer loyalty is reflected in conversations, putting brands in the spotlight, which can be both good or not so.

Meanwhile, Jaya and her Norwegian colleague are back, leaving data point trails of reviews, feedback, uploaded pictures and comments from both Bangalore and Oslo. They uptick the helpful reviews and thank the reviewers, completing the circle and beginning a new one for brands to follow them. And we haven’t even gotten started on artificial intelligence and machine learning, which are picking up their data points for marketing!

The author is professor of marketing at SP Jain Institute of Management & Research, Mumbai.

For more on how technology and trends are bringing the world together, check out The Drum’s Globalization Deep Dive.

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