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As consumers, we are all extraordinarily powerful these days. The wonderful web offers us the chance to hunt out the very best bargains, to research our purchases thoroughly and to read up on what other consumers have to say about products.

It's an excellent time to be a shopper and service user, but for retailers and service providers this presents many new challenges. Some businesses have embraced the way the web has transformed their customer base but others have been slow in catching up.

Now more than ever, a company that fails to engage with consumers in the ways they expect and to the ever-rising standards they demand risks obliteration. It is simply too easy for customers to go elsewhere.

So, how has the average shopper changed over the last five years and what does this mean for marketing?

Consumers demand discussion, not dictation

The internet has empowered people to put forward their opinions, share information and engage at a previously impossible level and this has changed the way they expect to be marketed to.

So, you can no longer simply tell a customer why they need something in your marketing endeavours. The overused but important word is engagement: people need to feel involved and not dictated to.

There are many ways of doing this and none of them are easy. As more and more consumers use the web, however, this trick of capturing consumer interest will become increasingly essential.

Consumers loathe jargon

If you are an empowered customer, happily researching your products and potential buys, you do not want to suddenly find yourself floundering in a sea of jargonese.

That doesn’t feel very empowering at all; it is frustrating, alienating and damned annoying.

Previously, companies could bamboozle customers with an array of incomprehensible terminology in an attempt to impress them. Now they are no longer impressed, they are irritated, and if you indulge in too much jargon, you will find your customers flocking to your competitors.

I think this point is especially true in the world of search engine optimisation (SEO). Some companies use language like PPC, meta tags and SERPs so continuously that they risk leaving legitimate clients far behind and losing them to more approachable firms.

Consumer choice needs respect

I often write about building brand loyalty and it is an important aim. However, companies must recognise that the web has transformed the deal.

Clients can compare competitors more easily than ever before and their loyalty will not last long if they feel their provider is ripping them off. Businesses must not rely on their big name or brand to retain consumers; they must keep up with the competition in terms of what they offer and for what price.

They must also resist the temptation to offer new clients better deals than existing clients. Loyalty works both ways, and consumers will feel disparaged and discarded if they are not treated as well or better as new clients.

Consumers care about ethics

Whether they are blogging about Esso’s ethics or creating Facebook groups condemning high street use of child labour, these empowered consumers are coming together and demanding higher levels of corporate responsibility than ever before.

On one hand, this is an excellent way of driving ethical business practice, on another, it is a damned good reason not to behave badly. Having millions of consumers wired up to the web is like having millions of investigative journalists, all keen to expose bad business behaviour.

One thing to be wary of, though, is greenwashing. Many firms try to appear more environmentally concerned without taking any action and consumers are rightly scathing of such behaviour when it is inevitably found out.

Consumers like the personal touch

Interacting via the web can create two possible outcomes for people. If their interaction is positive, they can feel engaged with a firm; if it is negative, they can feel ignored and isolated from the company.

This means a generalised approach to clients is not appropriate. Personalise services and responses wherever possible. If you are an online book retailer, do not send out a message to all your clients letting them know you are now offering the new James Patterson novel, use the data you have stored to let them have relevant communications.

Good personalisation is easy with technology. Companies that do not get this right soon will be left behind for firms that recognise the individuals behind their sales figures.

Kevin Gibbons

Published 23 June, 2009 by Kevin Gibbons

Kevin Gibbons is UK Managing Director at digital marketing agency BlueGlass. He is also known as an SEO speaker and can be found on Twitter and Google+.

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