February 22, 2010

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Talk to Me People crave human connection. A new survey of 1052 online customers by ATG concluded “live voice is still the preferred method of communication for most online buyers in most situations.” This validates the long held “high-tech/high-touch” idea that first surfaced in the 70s. And its not too far fetched. As things become faster and more complex, the need for help, clarity and real-time answers increases. Customers are tired of phone trees, FAQs, IM and e-mails that are too often ignored. It’s a no-brainer that human intervention helps convert browsers into buyers, especially if they can get questions answered accurately and quickly or have fears allayed by a soothing voice. We consistently underestimate the power of the human voice to build connections and credibility. Have you noticed that older people (35+) still make calls while younger people duck any opportunity to speak on the phone by heavily utilizing SMS, IM and even social media? Maybe things are changing, but there is no substitute for one person talking to another. It’s the oldest and most persuasive form of communication and the human voice, even disembodied, has unique powers that marketers shouldn’t take for granted. Lest you think this is just my preference, consider data from Genesys and Greenfield Online that estimates the cost of poor customer service – missed connections and unsatisfied customer interactions – at 83 billion dollars each year. And the biggest losers are the “usual suspects” cable companies, financial services marketers and consumer products firms who cheap out on live voice interactions in favor of excruciating phone trees, never-answered e-mails or even Twitter. The absence of human connection breeds brand defection. Interestingly the biggest switchers are customers 27 to 42. Immediacy and customer control seems to matter. In the ATG survey, click-to-chat and click-to-call work differently than a simple 800 number. Why? Because the newer technology promises greater customer direction and control and does not yet have the expectation of a complicated phone tree and/or a long wait on-hold. Between half and two-thirds of survey respondents sited the need for instant human interaction and ranked voice interaction as one of the top 3 features desired on a web site. Seventy percent said click-to-call would be “very/extremely” useful when making an online purchase. The preference numbers increase as the price of the service, the complexity of the offering or the sensitivity of the information (i.e. social security numbers) escalates. This feels right to me even though ATG is hawking click-to-chat and click-to-call functionality. The bottom line: “Broadly speaking consumers prefer a live voice in a majority of situations” because talking to a real person makes customers feel understood, humanizes and speeds up the process. Even in the Twitter era the old saw is true – people buy people and then the transaction begins.
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Identifying Influencers Word of mouth marketing rests on the premise that certain individuals can influence others. Marketers and Malcolm Gladwell have long sought to identify either confirmed influencers or the characteristics that predict which individuals in any given population segment or market niche are likely to sway their fellows. It’s still a moving target. Classically “influencers” leverage experience or expertise, authority, social or commercial position, powers of observation or articulation or proximity to source data establish baseline credibility which can then be built, enhanced or extended by circulating opinions via a personal network or by access to media. We are influenced by Peter Greenberg on the TODAY Show, the Gadget Guy, Dr Oz, Oprah, The Gawker, Scoble, Kawasaki and the next-door neighbor who is a camera, home theater or stereo fanatic. Theoretically influencers create brand awareness and convert that awareness into brand preference and purchase intent. In some cases, influences drive customers directly to buy. The intensity and credibility of their messages correlate – in theory -- with the business result. The trick then, for marketers, is to capture the influencers with the most mojo with their target audiences and use these people to drive most cost-efficient sales In politics, the influencers sell ideas and candidates rather than gods or services . The evolution of the blogosphere and social media has empowered legions of mavens to spread the word and their reviews of products, services and people far and wide. Marketers hoping to capitalize on this multiplier effect are assessing influence by searching for keyword sentiment, counting followers, tweets and retweets, monitoring user-generated reviewers and studying community designations or badges awarded to frequent, skillful or expert content creators. (Think about the stars assigned to Amazon reviewers.) In fact the hardest thing to figure out about online and user-generated content is who really knows their stuff and who doesn’t. The difficulty with review sites and web-based recommendations is the inability to assess the credibility, reputation or accuracy of those posting. Everyone has had a great experience and an awful one. Nobody has devised a method to discern one from the other in advance or even on a particular site. Into this fray comes Forrester’s new analyst Augie Ray, a digital entrepreneur and social media veteran, proposing a taxonomy for “Tapping the Entire Online Peer Influence Pyramid”. You just gotta love this kind of hyperbole. Augie argues that influencers come in three tiers. Elite Social Broadcasters have wide reach and can effectively impact awareness of programs and products. Mass Influencers, estimated at 28 million in the US, dominate online discussions about products. With a smaller reach they divide into those who present themselves as mavens and those who are quick to connect and pass-along information to others. Last are potential influencers, those millions online with tight connections to small groups of friends who genuinely listen to what they say. This feels closest to real friendship so the promise is to harness a zillion small networks “rich with trust.” Augie says marketers must engage each segment on their own terms and pick their shots in terms of collecting and motivating influencers. In all cases influencers have to perceive the idea as their own and have the requisite tools to pass-along or broadcast their opinions. It’s an interesting proposition. I’ll be eager to see how it compares with other approaches to mapping or enrolling influencers. But so far the details and the supporting arguments are only accessible to Forrester clients or those willing to shell out $499.

Danny Flamberg

I am a veteran marketing consultant working with leading and emerging brands

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