If you can’t sing over them, get them singing your song

The collective voice of consumers has never been louder, the battle for the largest, favourable share of the voice has begun

For decades, “share of voice” has been a critical consideration for marketers. Among the cacophony of marketing messages our there it’s hard to get noticed, especially if you are small. If you want to grow, you need to punch above your weight. But now, share of voice may be gaining an important new meaning.

In the world of communication, virtually every business model innovation and technology advance over the past few hundred years has pushed us ever further along the same basic trajectory. From William Caxton to satellite and cable TV, we have continually improved our ability to produce and distribute information, without any parallel advances in our ability to consume it. We can print and distribute millions of newspapers or pump a TV programmes and ads around the world to billions of people in a matter of seconds, but audiences – whether as readers, listeners or viewers – have remained more or less exactly the same.

But now a worm is turning at the very heart of our communications set-up. Increasingly, individuals can now access tools that enable them to search, access, download, gather, store, filter, fillet, slice and dice, edit, pass on, share and publish the information they find interesting, amusing or useful. The technologies of information consumption are beginning to catch up with those of information production.

New technology tools
At the same time, the directions in which information flows are changing. For the last few hundred years, information has flowed “top down” – from centralised information producers (media owners, governments, brands) to dispersed and disaggregated individuals. It was the job of readers, listeners and viewers to receive information, not to send it. However, a small army of new technology tools is changing all that. The audience is discovering its voice.

One small example of this emerging trend of consumer voice is user-generated content (UGC). This type of content is interesting and it has a role in the future of buyer-seller relationships. But it doesn’t deserve its current feverish excitement. Media owners and advertisers are vexed by its rise because they are still mesmerised by the audience assumption. They fear they their ability to get their message through to audiences may be waning. They are still focused on their own share of voice.

Canny marketers, however, are beginning to spot a new opportunity. A new battle for share of voice is beginning. This time it’s not over which brand can shout the loudest, but over which brand can earn, or win, the biggest share of the customer’s voice.

The customer’s voice can take countless different forms. A search term is a form of voice: it lets the individual say “this is what I’m interested in”. Opt in and opt out boxes are a form of voice: they let people say “I don’t want this but I do want that”. Then there are online forms, instant messaging, text, images and video uploaded on to the Net, and so on.

Now consider the sorts of information these different forms of voice can transmit. At the most mundane level, it can be factual “here I am” data. “This is my name, my address, my credit card number” and so on. Data that oils the wheels of efficient transactions.

Then, on top of this, there’s a host of ways individuals can also say “this is what I want”: search terms, orders, requests for proposals, expressions of interest, specifications and so on.

And then, on top of this, individuals can also say what they like and don’t like. They can make complaints or suggestions, write reviews, recount experiences, or simply declare a preference.

And then, on top of this (if they see good reason for doing so) they can also announce plans and intentions: “Some time over the next three months I plan to move home/buy a new car/get married.”

They can also expose their doubts and uncertainties – things they would like to know but don’t – by asking questions, expressing concerns and so on.

Separately, each one of these different types of consumer voice are interesting. Together, they are the source of unimaginable marketing riches. Think about it. Separately and together they help answer the three questions every business has to ask: Where do my current operations fall short and what improvements should I pursue? What new forms of value should I develop and bring to market? How best to bring them to market so that I can connect with the right people about the right things in the right ways at the right times?

But there is a big if (and “if” is always the biggest word in business). This will only happen if organisations find a way of eliciting the different forms of consumer voice on a mass scale, by making it ridiculously easy for consumers to have their say. They also need to gather the resulting information in a systematic disciplined way, to analyse it to reveal the real nuggets of insight, and of course, to act upon it. This is a gargantuan challenge, especially when you remember that each different type of voice is likely to be triggered in a different context, associated with different emotions, expressed for different reasons and via different mechanisms. Making a complaint is different to announcing a plan, which is different to volunteering some factual data.

A worthy investment?
Also, it will only happen if individuals see the point of investing their voice in the brand or organisation concerned. Every smidgen of consumer voice is an investment of personal time, attention and effort, and individuals will only bother making such investments if they get a decent return. In other words, not only will organisations need to learn how to elicit the various forms of consumer voice, they will also find themselves competing with each other to offer the highest “return on voice”; to win their fair share of the customer’s voice.

Brands and organisations that fail in this new battle for share of customer voice will risk choking the flow of the information they need to continually improve their operations, innovation and marketing.

Our current media landscape is the product of hundreds of years of evolution. Its in-built momentum and legacy strangleholds are awesome. But for all that, we have reached an evolutionary branching point where new and different considerations are emerging. The market for the customer’s voice will take many years to mature. But if you fail to clamber on to the learning curve soon, you may find it hard to play catch-up.

Alan Mitchell www.alanmithcell.biz

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