The age of the empowered customer is here—fueled by the widespread adoption of cloud, social, and mobile technologies, and by buyers who have access to more information, more choices, and more opportunities to broadcast opinions than ever before.
The result has been a shift in the balance of power between companies and customers—and customers are winning. While the arrival of empowered customer presents a threat to companies unwilling to redefine their relationships with buyers, it also presents an unprecedented opportunity to engage with them to help build better products, provide better services, and deliver better business outcomes.
New times demand new strategies. Brands that survive and succeed will respond to customer empowerment in the following ways:
1. Learn from customers: In today’s competitive landscape, customers are no longer students; they’re teachers. Companies must be open to learning what their customers want in order to deliver the products and services that they truly need.
Look no further than PepsiCo’s DEWmocracy campaign, launched a couple of years ago, as an example. By turning to its customers to help Mountain Dew create the “Voltage” flavor, PepsiCo embraced the potential of the empowered customer. And it paid off. PepsiCo’s chief consumer engagement officer has gone on record calling the project one of the most successful product launches in PepsiCo beverage history.
2. Be open about the good and bad: Empowered customers have a wealth of information at their fingertips. Whether addressing crises or crafting marketing strategies, companies need to be honest and act with transparency when engaging with their customers. Why? Because customers reward companies that own up to their mistakes.
When Buffer, a social media monitoring company, suffered a security breach in 2013, the company acted swiftly. Avoiding the blame game, Buffer owned up to the problem and communicated frequently and openly with customers through social media and its blog. Transparency helped assuage people's concerns, letting Buffer take control of what could have spiraled into a bigger issue.
Ultimately, transparency builds trust between companies and their customers. It also facilitates open collaboration, leveraging the power of the hive mind to solve problems, improve processes, and build better products. To succeed in today's era of the empowered customer, successful companies will be generous with information and open about both successes and failures. Openness encourages a culture of collaboration built on trust.
3. Don't wait to react to the crowd: No matter how big or small the issue, timeliness and responsiveness are essential to a company’s success. Like time, the empowered customer waits for no one. Companies that engage with their customers on a regular basis, in a timely fashion, will capitalize on opportunities rather than watching them zip by.
Years ago when one of BP’s oil wells in the Gulf of Mexico began spewing crude into the gulf of the Louisiana coast, the company was faced with a serious problem. Slow to react, BP began addressing the public a full month later, requesting ideas and seeking feedback on how to solve the crisis. Beyond failing to establish an immediate connection with the public, it has been said that when it finally did, BP’s communication and engagement strategy felt stilted, dishonest, and callous to the real suffering caused by the rig explosion and spill.
4. Trust your audience to love your company: If a customer is to engage productively with a company over the long term, trust—from both sides—is paramount. Coca Cola depended almost entirely on the empowered crowd to promote what became one of its most successful marketing efforts: a commercial dubbed “The Happiness Machine.” With a hidden camera trained on a heavily trafficked thoroughfare on a college campus, the company installed a normal-looking Coke machine that dispensed not only a single bottle of coke, but many cokes, plus pizza, flowers, a balloon animal, and a submarine sandwich. The key turning point in the commercial is the moment when a girl at the Coke machine finds she can no longer hold all of the Cokes being dispensed and starts handing them out to strangers—a scene that evokes a strong sense of community.
That community aspiration—the relationship between the customer and the company and the customer and her neighbors—is what made the commercial emotionally resonant. Coke spent nothing on promoting the ad. It put up one post on its Facebook page and tweeted one tweet via Twitter. Coke trusted in its customers to make it go viral. The ad went on to win industry awards and has been viewed more 6 six million times on YouTube, not counting the various spinoff ads Coke produced around the world from the related Happiness Truck project.
Mapping a plan to not only respond to the customer revolution, but taking advantage of it, is paramount. Building a collaborative culture of trust, openness, responsiveness, and transparency with customers in order to engage and learn from them is the best way forward.