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Guest Column: Last Word: Digital and the Age of Eternal Tension: Unny Radhakrishnan

19-March-2015
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Guest Column: Last Word: Digital and the Age of Eternal Tension: Unny Radhakrishnan

The dynamic tension between two conflicting states and the need for an ideal balance is often considered a requirement for a system to move forward. For instance, the tension between change and stability; freedom and order; and innovation and efficiency and so on. So what do all these have to do with marketing? That digital and the connected consumer have disrupted marketing is an understatement. There is a cry that old rules need to be rewritten, and a defense that the fundamentals will remain the same. (The only fundamental that will remain the same is that brands and consumers need to be connected.) While the jury might not be out on this, the fact is that such tensions will continue to exist, and it is from those difficult balancing acts that the best ways of marketing and consumer engagement will emerge.

This piece takes a look at four such tensions created in this digital age.


1. New Products & Platforms: Jump Vs Wait

As technology becomes pervasive, more products and platforms get launched in rapid succession. Some are launched initially with a consumer need in mind, and with huge growth, start attracting advertisers, while others are launched primarily with advertising in mind. And, many of them fail too fast. The mobile advertising space is a graveyard of many such products, mostly those of the second category. SMS 2.0, Blyk, MadCalls, and Idle Screen advertising are just a few examples.

The revolution of wearables, quantified self, body-hacking, and the like is on. But 50% of the wearable fitness band users do not use them after 6–7 months. The consumer- level tablets have been in the market only for the last 4 years, but have already started loosing its sheen.

Some of these products fail because they are ahead of its time, trying to trigger a behavior shift, or they are not yet perfect, or the behavior shift adds no real value to the consumer.

Does all this mean we do not experiment with any of them? Some of these products at some point (before failing) connected brands and consumers. The tension is of balancing between jump and wait.


2. Unchartered Waters Vs. Benchmarks

New products and new habits also mean new ways of connecting brands and consumers. At times, old, comfortable questions on measurement might not work. Recently, someone posed a question on an online forum: “How many clicks by a user on average will convert to sale in furniture category?” The most popular answer from a practitioner was ‘zero to infinity.’ Yes, an average of zero to infinity! Consumer journeys are no more linear. With multiple touch points, multiple choices, and multiple influencers, it will only get more complex.

Adding to it is the speed of change, which makes benchmarking even more difficult. For the last couple of years, many marketers struggled and tried perfecting the art of measuring Facebook (FB) posts as engagement scores, PTATs, and the works, while also trying to crack the code on best time to post, best headline, best composition of the image, and so on. Then, FB makes algorithmic changes to make organic reach to near zero. A best part of measurement now becomes dependent on paid media spends. This complete story of FB started, evolved, and sort of concluded in a span of 3–4 years. So much for best practices and benchmarks!

But does this mean we will stop measuring? The tension is at play.

3. Data Vs. Emotion

As people, we interact with multiple digital channels multiple times a day, and thereby, leaving a huge sea of behavioral data. Marketers slice, dice, and interpret these data in a way to create more demand and sell more products. In the debate of whether marketing is science or art, some companies are tilting in the favour of science. However, most studies show that all decisions are emotional rather than rational.

Is persuasion about a strong emotional communication or story, or is it about giving a message to the right consumer at the right time at the right place, or both? Do virals become viral because of the inherent story, or its distribution is scientifically planned, or is it a combination of both?

Balancing this tension between data and emotion will remain a challenge. More data will also give avenues to do cognitive experiments, but as the backlash on FB’s experiment shows that it raises serious ethical questions. Matt Walleret, a behavioural scientist at Bing, says “I think there is a very real danger that psychology becomes an arms race between marketers and consumers.”

4. Brand Loyalty Vs. the Right Product

In the age of nearly perfect information, and a huge range of choices and distribution channels, consumers are empowered like never before. With a smartphone and perfect information at hand, brand choices flip right in the aisle. Do brands matter?

Researchers Itamar Simonson and Emanuel Rosen in their new book Absolute Value, track the shift in consumer decision making. In the absence of perfect information, we had reference points while choosing a product—previous experience, brand name, where it is manufactured, and so on. But in a world where there is absolute information, “influencing through relative tactics and indirect clues such as brand and price becomes much harder.”

James Dyson, who launched the first bag-less vacuum cleaner (after making 5,127 prototypes) and who took on all the established brands and built a hugely successful business, says, “There is only one word that is banned in our company: brand. We are only as good as our latest product. I don’t believe in brand at all.”

Marketing, perhaps, was always a balancing act. The connected consumer in the digital age has made it all the more complex. The beauty and excitement in this for all of us as marketers is that we are constantly challenged to keep both our left and right brains active.

Tags Unny Radhakrishnan

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