Public relations gets personal

This is an article by Professor Steven Van Belleghem.
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Professor Steven Van Belleghem’s report on The Future of the Customer Relationship has much to say about digital marketing, and some profound implications for public relations. Van Belleghem tells Behind the Spin:

“PR agencies really need to rethink their role in building the customer relationship of the future. It’s not just about spreading messages out there anymore, it is about offering relevance at the right time in the right context. The traditional approach of PR will probably decrease in value in the next few years while the new form of PR, offering value in customer relations, will be more needed than ever.”

Adoption of new technologies ‘on speed’

The Future of the Customer RelationshipI’m a big fan of Rogers’s adoption curve. His book ‘The diffusion of Innovations’ has a played a crucial role in my life so far.

I’m sure we’re all familiar with the classic adoption curve consisting of innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority and laggards. Every manager, marketeer and entrepreneur refers to this body of thought from time to time. More than ever, people are aware of what’s available.

50% of the general public know about Google Glass. 54% are familiar with the concept of a smartwatch. 33% had heard of Nike’s Fuelband. These are extremely high figures for new products and technologies. Never before has the public been so aware of the new possibilities that are coming their way.

Apart from awareness, the intention to actually buy all these novelties is very high. I remember studies from the early 90s where respondents were asked about their intention to buy a mobile phone someday. The most popular answer was a firm ‘No!’

Ten years later the mood had changed completely. That’s how it usually went with new concepts: the average Joe or the so-called ‘early majority’ failed to see the point of the proposed new technology. Reactions today are very different: for instance, 66% say they are interested in buying a smart TV one day.

One in two are actually looking forward to the introduction of smart cars. Smart shoes and refrigerators are slightly lower down on the wish list but the idea of a smart thermostat is very popular.

The adoption curve ‘on speed’

I’m ashamed to tell my children that we owned the same telephone for the first 18 years of my life. You know what I mean, the kind with a cable that ran to the wall… Today, a mobile phone has become one of many Fast-Moving Consumer Goods. The average consumer replaces his smartphone every 18 months. The tablet was launched in 2009. In just five years this product has changed the world. Things are going fast. Very fast.

The classic Rogers adoption curve probably still exists although its upward or downward tilt is probably slightly more pronounced than before. Life is faster nowadays and that includes new technologies. Also, products often become obsolete faster than before.

The rise of the digital offline customer relationship

Classic retailers are afraid of showroomers. These shoppers look around your store and ask for your expert advice only to go home and order the product online. This fear is justified: a study has shown that 46% of Americans have been known to ‘showroom’. However, the same study also revealed that ‘reverse showrooming’ is an even bigger trend. 69% of consumers research products online and then visit an offline store to order the product of their choice.

In our study on the future of the customer relationship one of the aspects takes a closer look at changing consumer expectations with regard to the offline shopping experience.

The results are clear: consumers expect the online and offline worlds to integrate in the near future. Our study shows that consumers expect an increasing level of interaction and digitization in the offline sales outlets.

63% expect stores to install interactive screens enabling consumers to look up more details on specific products during their visit. 64% want the option of ordering a product online right away if it’s not on stock. The latter figure illustrates the evolution of offline toward online and back again. What’s more, 73% of consumers feel it’s a plus when an online store also has an offline sales outlet. Flexible pickup and delivery options will become a crucial part of any retailer’s online strategy.

Please recognise me anywhere!

A growing percentage of people – currently one in three – expect sales personnel to know that they checked out a product on the website prior to their visit. The key issue for consumers is to be recognized as a customer across all channels.

Consumers exhibit a growing aversion to repeating themselves. They want to hear the right answers right away without having to tell the same story over and over again. Strikingly, this phenomenon is roughly the same all across the globe. There’s the odd exception here or there but all in all the major trends are comparable worldwide.

Use data to benefit the consumer

A large portion of the public are still clueless as to what companies can use their data for. The answers to our questionnaire revealed very little opposition to the possible use of consumer data for specific purposes but, at the moment, only a limited number of consumers are clearly in favour of such practices. Most consumers are neither in favour nor against and have adopted a ‘wait & see’ attitude.

If consumers had their way, companies would primarily use their data to send them personalised information, something that 46% of respondents would welcome. It’s striking to note that the Dutch, who are traditionally front runners in the field of digitization, are the most sceptical about the corporate use of personal data.

A mere 30% of Dutch consumers are OK with companies using their data. Countries such as Belgium, Spain, Italy and also Singapore are much more open to such strategies: over 50% of their consumers expect better service through the use of consumer data.

The personal digital world

Never underestimate real peopleWe are living in a digital world. Several years ago, Peter Hinssen wrote that ‘digital is the new normal’. More than ever this is now a reality.

Still, it would be premature to write off everything situated in the ‘human’ and offline realm just because the digital society has become a reality. Quite the contrary!

Consumers all over the world share that same basic concern: ‘yes, we’d like to build a great digital relationship but interpersonal, human contact is still extremely important’.

As always, there are exceptions to the general rule. You’d be right in claiming that companies like and are hugely successful despite a minimum of human interventions. Google is another case in point but ask yourself this question: ‘How many companies can do today what these leading companies are doing?’

The answer lies in their exceptional DNA. Also, they have an excellent track record when it comes to customer interaction so it’s easy to see why they are exceptions. A company like Coolblue has made a very conscious choice to cultivate human contact. When an online player opens offline stores and records videos of employees recommending the company’s services, this is a well-considered and very intelligent strategy.

The personal touch is key

Never underestimate the impact of real people. Human contact is crucial in most customer relationships, even in our digital world. 73% like to have the option of talking to a flesh-and-blood person from time to time even when the digital channels are working perfectly. The simple fact that this possibility exists creates a peace of mind that many people still value.

The personal touch is in the little things. One in two consumers like it when a company addresses them by name. Get to know your customers and personalize the customer experience. 54% like to be recognized across the various channels.

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