There is a notion that pervades marketing circles today, a notion of mysterious ethereal creatures who exist in a hyper-connected, multifaceted cyber-world of their own. They are an enigma: they speak a different language, communicate in ways we don’t understand, and they’re turning the world of marketing on its head. These are the ephemeral, wraithlike ‘digital consumers’, who slips effortlessly through the marketer’s grasp. Digital consumers are different, we’re told – but are they really?

The Digital Consumer revealed

The first thing to realize about digital consumers is that there’s basically no such thing. The customers and prospects you encounter online are the very same people who walk into your store every day, call you on the telephone, or order something from your mail-order catalog. There’s nothing dark, sinister, or mysterious about them. They’re people – like everybody else. ‘There is no great mystery about how [digital consumers] think and what they want, maintains interactive marketing expert.

These consumers are doing exactly what people have been doing for thousands of years – communicating with each other. The fact that technology is enabling them to communicate with each other faster, over distance, over mobiles and in 3D worlds is being perceived as something dangerous, unique, and extraordinary, something that needs to be controlled and pinned down. People talk to each other – they always have.

Making the Web their own

 Consumers, whatever their ‘flavour’, don’t care about the way marketers define what they do. Concepts like above the line, through the line, below the line, digital, traditional, experiential, linear, analogue, mobile, direct, indirect or any other ‘box’ we care to slip our marketing endeavours into are completely meaningless to them.

All consumers care about is the experience – how the marketing available to them can enhance the experience and help them to make more informed decisions. People are the single most important element in any form of marketing. That’s just as true in the digital space as it is in any other sphere of the discipline. As a marketer you need to understand people and their behaviour – and here’s where the notion of the digital consumer does carry some weight, because consumer behaviour is changing, and it’s changing because of the pervasive, evocative and enabling nature of digital technology.

Digital marketing allows us to build uniquely tailored ongoing relationships with individual customers. Marketing in the digital age has been transformed into a process of dialogue, as much about listening as it is about telling.

I don’t know you and you don’t know me

Perceived anonymity is another online trait that can have a profound effect on consumer behaviour. It liberates consumers from the social shackles that bind them in the real world; online they are free to do and say as they please with scant regard for the social propriety that holds sway in ‘real life’. In a bricks-and-mortar store shoppers will wait patiently for service, and will often endure a less-than-flawless shopping experience to get what they want. Online they won’t; they demand instant gratification and a flawless customer experience. You have to deliver, first time, every time. If you fail to engage, retain and fulfill their expectations on demand, they’re gone, vanishing into the ether of cyberspace as quickly as they came, the only trace a fleeting, solitary record left on your web server’s log file.

Key traits of the Online Consumer

Well, there’s something about the immediacy and anonymity of the digital experience that has a similar effect on people. It’s always risky to generalize and make assumptions about people – especially in a field as dynamic and fast-moving as this one. The only real way to know your market intimately is to conduct original research within your particular target group. That said, a lot of research work has been done (and continues to be done) on the behavioral traits of online consumers, and a broad consensus has emerged around the key characteristics that epitomize digital consumers:

Digital consumers are increasingly comfortable with the medium:

Many online consumers have been using the internet for several years at this stage – and, while the user demographic is still skewed in favor of younger people, even older users are becoming increasingly web savvy. As people become more comfortable with the medium they use it more efficiently and effectively, which means they don’t hang around for long: your content needs to deliver what they want, and it needs to deliver quickly.

They want it all, and they want it now:

In the digital world, where everything happens at a million miles per hour, consumers have grown accustomed to getting their information on demand from multiple sources simultaneously. Their time is a precious commodity, so they want information in a format that they can scan for relevance before investing time in examining the detail. Designers and marketers need to accommodate this desire for ‘scannability’ and instant gratification when constructing their online offerings.

They’re in control:

The web is no passive medium. Users are in controll – in the Web 2.0 world more than ever before. Fail to grasp that simple fact and your target audience won’t just fail to engage with you, but they will actively disengage. We need to tailor our marketing to be user-centric, elective or permission-based, and offer a real value proposition to the consumer to garner positive results.

They’re fickle:

The transparency and immediacy of the internet don’t eradicate the concept of brand or vendor loyalty, but they do erode it. Building trust in a brand is still a crucial element of digital marketing, but today’s consumers have the power to compare and contrast competing brands literally at their fingertips. How does your value proposition stack up against the competition around the country and across the globe? Your brand identity may be valuable, but if your overall value proposition doesn’t stack up you’ll lose out.

They’re vocal:

Online consumers talk to each other – a lot. Through peer reviews, blogs, social networks, online forums and communities they’re telling each other about their positive online experiences – and the negative ones. From a marketing perspective this is something of a double-edged sword – harness the positive aspects and you have incredible viral potential to propagate your message; get it wrong, and you could just as easily be on the receiving end of an uncomfortable online backlash.

Using influencers to help spread the word

 There is one particular category of users online that warrants special mention when it comes to defining your digital marketing strategy.  Dubbed ‘influencers’, these early adopters are online opinion leaders. Through blogs, podcasts, forums and social networks they harness the power of the web to extol the virtues of products and brands that they like, and equally to denigrate those they find unsatisfactory.

Why are influencers important to you as a marketer? Because they have the virtual ear of the online masses. People read and listen to what they have to say; they value their opinion and trust their judgment. These online influencers have already won the pivotal battle for the hearts and minds of online consumers. Engage positively with them, and you essentially recruit a team of powerful online advocates who can have a potentially massive impact on a much wider group of consumers.

This is the online equivalent of ‘word-of-mouth’ marketing, on steroids. Of course, give them a negative experience and, well, you can guess the rest. But how exactly will you recognize these online influencers? A December 2006 report by DoubleClick (‘Influencing the Influencers: how online advertising and media impact word of mouth) defined influencers as people who ‘strongly agreed’ to three or more of the following statements:

  • They consider themselves experts in certain areas (such as their work, hobbies, or interests).
  • People often ask their advice about purchases in areas where they are knowledgeable.
  • When they encounter a new product they like they tend to recommend it to friends.
  • They have a large social circle and often refer people to one another based on their interests.
  • They are active online, using blogs, social networking sites, e-mail, discussion groups, online community boards, etc to connect with their peers.

Identifying the influencers within your market sector, analyzing their behavior, and tailoring part of your digital campaign to target this small but influential group can result in disproportionate knock-on benefits. Don’t neglect your core market, of course – but certainly consider targeting influencers as part of your overall digital marketing strategy.