The ‘rules of engagement’ between buyers and sellers have changed dramatically in recent years. It used to be a straightforward two party exercise: the seller telling (via advertising) a potential buyer about a product or service, with the latter choosing, or not, to agree with the former’s claims. Now, thanks to the social media revolution, it’s a three-way relationship between the seller, the buyer and the ‘reviewer’.
In short, self-interested advertising is countered by disinterested and hugely influential ‘word of mouth’ commentary from users. The consumer experience has changed forever: there is no longer a linear path to purchase. Instead there is a cycle in which each consumer’s experience feeds into another consumer’s decision process. And it’s down to companies to adapt their marketing methods to exploit this new commercial environment.
Why has the path to purchase changed so dramatically? Essentially, it’s down to three linked developments. First, greater access to information has empowered consumers. For example, in 2014, 32% of consumers chose to book with a particular travel company because of detailed information on the destination, hotel etc. Consumers, particularly those considering major expenditure, rarely buy on impulse. They can still be inspired, but they usually start with detailed research to ensure they are making an informed decision.
Second, social media has encouraged consumers to seek advice and, crucially, assurance from their peers. Trip Advisor is the obvious example: it’s only natural that people want to hear about the ‘user experience’ before they spend any money.
Thirdly, consumers now have a plethora of channels and devices on which to conduct their research: 72% of consumers research destinations online when planning a holiday across multiple sites and sources*.
So how should companies respond to consumers’ increasing empowerment? Well, they could start by maximising their use of User Generated Content (UGC). It’s been around for years, but UGC is only just emerging as a marketing and advertising tool. Twenty five per cent of holiday makers shared holiday or travel pictures on social media in 2014* and this number will only increase. The most successful travel companies are not just encouraging their followers and consumers to share their experiences with them, but are also filtering this content across all of their platforms, whether displaying on their website, in their advertising or as a major part of promotional campaigns.
And that is just the minimum that brands should be looking to do. There is now the technology to make sure that whatever a consumer looks at online, they are targeted with appropriate UGC that will inspire them to progress to the next stage of their path to purchase. By actively encouraging consumer sharing, there is a wealth of content at brands’ fingertips that is yet to be exploited.
*Deloitte: Travel Consumer 2015