Tapping into a consumer’s mindset during the buying process is akin to guessing what’s inside a locked safe—you have a few premonitions about what could be inside, but you’ll never know for sure until you have real, tangible evidence.
Though marketing experts everywhere think they have a handle on consumer behavior, it’s been proven year after year that the consumer can smash marketers’ predictions at the flip of a switch. All it takes is one little push in a new direction—technology has mainly been behind these swings in the past 10 years.
So, it can be tough to anticipate consumer buying trends. But with all the data available to marketers these days, there is, at least, the possibility of compiling and analyzing market trends as they’ve happened in the past. Forecasts are born.
This idea of technology being used in the marketplace (both on the consumer and the sales side) is perhaps best summed up by Greg Chambers’ sentiment: “The robots are helping us.”
Chambers, President of sales-and-marketing consulting company Chambers Pivot Industries, laughs when he mentions the robots, but in a cautious way. He knows it sounds ridiculous, but he also knows it’s our society’s current truth.
As we round out 2017, robots are being used everywhere in sales and marketing. The chatbots on websites are one of Chambers’ favorite examples—when the chat window pops up, it usually has a picture of a person’s face, complete with a name and passably “human” vernacular. While some of these how-can-I-help-you chat box operators can be actual humans, Chambers warns that companies are becoming too comfortable with using robots.
“I don’t think we’re ready for AI,” he says. “So many companies are creating personas and creating people behind them and tinkering more with tech.” He offers the example that one company went so far as creating a LinkedIn profile for their chatbot.
He rightfully asks, “Are we ready for the consumer backlash?”
But that’s just one example. The robots are also being used for good, like collecting data about customers.
Similar to the way Facebook capitalizes on its user base and continually collects information about them, Chambers says, “people are giving their information away” when they use technology. That means it’s much cheaper to collect consumer behavior information than it used to be—there is a significant ROI when you use technology to get inside consumers’ minds.
Niche is the New Normal
Because consumers are providing details about themselves through tech, smart marketers are able to segment them into niches. According to Business Training Works President Kate Zabriskie, as well as Chambers, niches are one of the biggest consumer trends to look out for in 2018.
“Customers will continue to expect it their way as companies will continue to customize, tailor, and accommodate a wide range of consumer interests,” Zabriskie explains. “Niche is the new normal.”
Chambers continues, “Especially when it comes to the print business, it seems direct mail is back en vogue because we’ve gotten so good at segmenting.”
The other two trends, Zabriskie anticipates, will be more focused on the way consumers choose to buy. Technology is at play yet again.
Bye Bye, Big-Box
“Price shopping for goods is not going away. ‘I can get it for less online’ is here to stay,” she says. “Unless a mall is special, expect more doors to close in 2018. People will continue to pay for new and different experiences.”
However, even though a lot of shopping is done online, Chambers believes there is still some merit to a brick-and-mortar establishment.
“As big as e-commerce is, most commerce still happens offline,” he offers. “The only way to be exposed to these things is by walking around and bumping into them.”
Chambers references online-first glasses retailer Warby Parker, which has opened up a few small stores around the country over the last couple years. His point? You cannot replace a physical buying experience. Though consumers may be almost done with big-box stores (like Zabriskie’s point about malls closing), Chambers says intimate, tangible experiences like pop-up shops will continue to be in high-demand—a prime example.
Speaking of intimacy in the buying experience, Zabriskie points out the new way brands have learned to communicate with their customers, much of which has spawned from social media’s sense of immediacy.
“Consumers feel entitled to a dialogue with companies large and small, and they will still want an instant response from the brands they talk with… They will continue to use Facebook, Yelp!, and other tools to express their satisfaction with the people who serve them,” she says.
Customers, after all, buy from a company less because of loyalty and more because of what they believe the product can do for them. Chambers says he thinks we overstate how much brand loyalty people have. For example, many print companies do not differ in the materials or products they sell; what differentiates them from one another (besides price) is how they appeal to their customer—how they can help the individual who is buying from them.
Zabriskie’s company helps businesses define their ideal customer experiences and puts the people and processes in place to deliver on those promises. She says, though the way customers buy and why they buy has changed faces over the years, the basic premise has remained the same:
“People often buy or don’t buy because of the way they are made to feel by others or how they think they will benefit from the product,” she explains.
Will this product make my family safer? Will it make me more likable? Will it make me like everybody else? These are all possible questions a consumer may ask his or herself throughout the buying stage, and an eventual purchase usually depends on the conclusion derived from the most important needs for that individual.
Though that explanation may make selling seem much more difficult, Zabriskie offers sound advice.
“As marketers, we need to understand what people say they want and what they really want. Next, we need to explain how our product or service meets or exceeds that need. Finally, we need to remove any barriers (such as slow response time) that would cause someone to walk out the door.”
People may have greater access to information, and they may be able to compare prices, but at the end of the day, humans want to buy from humans. Robots can’t replace empathy.
Imagine the productivity you can gain by using a smart chatbot to communicate with customers. Now imagine the immense backlash and loss of trust you’d deal with if your customers found out Sally Stewart was a robot all along. Not good.
Marketing and sales are about being human, and Zabriskie says you need to pay attention to your customers if you really want to get them to act.
“Walk in their shoes,” she suggests, “look at what matters to them, feel their pain, and then do something about it.”
The year 2018 in marketing will be defined by data collection, customized consumer experiences, and technological advances that will continue to change the way people buy. But even in embracing those trends, it’s important to implement the most effective marketing strategy of all: being human.