The 21st Century Consumer
Written by: Ryan Flannagan
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Chapter 3: The Modern Consumer


Chuck said, “It’s so frustrating. We had this dialed in ten years ago, six years ago, even five years ago. But now we’re hemorrhaging sales and I don’t know what to do about it.”

“Well, what’s the first thing you tell a new member of your sales team? Or the first thing you ask an experienced interviewee about sales?”

“We talk about customers.”

“Right. Because it’s important to understand your customers. The degree to which a salesperson understands a potential client is the degree to which the sale is likely.”

“Yes, exactly,” Carole said.

“So, what if I told you that you no longer understand your customers”

“Yes, we do. Carole gave you key customer profiles when we had our first informational meeting.”

“You did, and yours was better than most. But there’s an aspect of most customers out there today that your profiles and approach miss.”

“And what is that?”

“Digital consumers.”

“Sounds like a buzzword.”

“A little bit, but it’s not. You know about digital nomads?”

“You mean telecommuting workers who travel around the world, and turn in their assignments from places like Bali and Amsterdam?”

“Yes. It’s a real thing, and benefits both employers and employees. Understanding the digital consumer trend is a lot the same. Here, let me explain…”

“Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer” is an old saying, but you should keep your customers so close that your friends and enemies seem far away by comparison.

Marketing, no matter in what era, is only as effective as your knowledge of who’s going to buy your product. As I said in the last chapter, today’s potential clients are a completely different animal from those of the last decade. That new animal is…

  • Busy
  • Empowered
  • Mobile
  • Social
  • Impatient

Each of these traits represents a shift from the 20th century, when consumers accepted the interruptive marketing model. Those consumers had more free time, less access to information, and fewer social connections. They had just one screen in the living room, and would watch commercials if they didn’t want a snack or need to pee.

But what do these changes mean in terms of measurable results to build a strategy around? What can they tell us about how to change our business development focus? How can they predict what consumers will look like twenty, ten, or even two years from today?

Busy Consumers

Recent research into consumer time shows us an interesting paradox. Compared to 40 years ago, people in wealthy countries like the United States work about 10 hours less each week to pay their bills. However, poll after poll finds that people feel like they have less time than ever before.

Ask 100 different experts why this is, and you’ll get 100 different answers. Some posit that more time spent being social online gives less time for engaging in the “real” world. Others suggest that it has to do with off-hour commitments to hobbies, child-rearing, and other pursuits, leaving everybody working more even though they’re not getting paid for that work.

Whatever the underlying reasons, there’s a takeaway from this paradox: consumers feel like they have less time. Less time for sleep. Less time to exercise. Less time with their families. Less time for vacation, reading, television…

…less time to waste being interrupted by marketing.

Consumers will spend two hours deeply researching a potential purchase, and resent a 30-second ad spot that pops up for the very product they’re researching.

Before you create or approve any kind of material, ask yourself if it provides value or simply blares your message while stealing a potential buyer’s dearly held time.

Empowered Consumers

There was a time when a broadcast commercial claiming that 9 out of 10 doctors recommended a product would convince people to buy that product. It worked because that ad spot was the only easy source of information about the product. That is no longer the case.

With instant access to vast amounts of knowledge available day and night, every day of the year, today’s consumers will see those ads and immediately grab their cell phones. They will message two doctors they’ve friended on Facebook to see what they think of the product. They’ll look at Amazon reviews of the product and check the company out with the Better Business Bureau and They’ll Google the study, find out which 10 doctors participated, and how much the 9 were each paid to give that particular opinion.

A partial list of the resources instantaneously available to modern consumers includes:

  • Wikipedia
  • Google searches for reports
  • Amazon product reviews
  • Blogs on industry topics
  • Videos and podcasts
  • Consumer watch sites
  • Government record reports
  • Social media reviews and conversations
  • Direct interaction with representatives of products
  • Direct interaction with former employees of companies

Few things demonstrate how powerful this new access to information more than the existence of the term showrooming.

Showrooming is coming into a store for the sole purpose of checking an item out in person before ordering it online. In 2013, a Gallup poll showed that 40% of American consumers said they had showroomed at least once. Conservative estimates put the cost to physical retailers in the tens of millions annually from lost potential sales.

If people are willing to use the tools at their disposal for items they’ve already decided to buy, they can’t be relied on to just accept the assertions of your marketing material about things they might not even want.

This change in the relationship between consumers and information demands a reciprocal change in marketing strategy. Make it easy for digital consumers to confirm that your business is trustworthy and transparent. Build deserved trust and thought leadership to convert modern buyers from skeptical observers to brand evangelists.

Mobile Consumers

Mobile devices represent the most profound change in the nature of marketing since the invention of movable type, and have increased tremendously since the advent of the iPhone in 2007. Between 2009 and 2013, ownership of smartphones grew by 300%, and tablet ownership went up by twice that amount. Each month, typical Americans use smartphones for just over 34 hours to browse the mobile web or engage with apps.

Forget empowerment about what kind of information consumers can access. The advent of mobile devices lets consumers decide exactly where and when they avail themselves of that access.

For example, the modern living room has in it, on average, a number of screens equal to or greater than the number of people currently in the room. If what’s on the TV isn’t topical, useful, or engaging, consumers will just look down at their phones and find something that is.

In 2013, the Nielsen media survey stopped asking if consumers used their phones or tablets during commercial breaks. Instead, they started asking what they did on those mobile devices during commercials. The question itself tells us a lot about consumer behavior in this decade, but some of the answers gave us even more information:

  • 41% of tablet owners looked up information on actors, plotlines, and other facets of the shows they were watching.
  • 23% emailed, texted, or messaged friends about the programs.
  • 18% read discussions about the shows on social media.
  • 14% bought products or services being advertised during the shows.

For companies clinging to the old interruptive model of advertising, mobility is a death sentence. It means nobody can be forced to interact with their content ever again.

But for those who understand and implement value-added, well-engineered marketing strategies, mobility gives consumers the ability to continue interacting with your content whenever the mood strikes.

Your job is to keep them in the mood.

Potential clients want information about your product, not only when and where they want it, but also in the format they like best. Make sure you convey your value-added content in a variety of media, and that your website is responsive to all types of devices.

JotForm, for example, has been around for over a decade and they took on mobile platforms with their new app Mobile Forms according to the new consumer needs.

On April 21, 2015, Google launched an update to their search engine algorithms that significantly penalizes websites unresponsive to mobile devices. That means if your site won’t work well on a phone or tablet, you don’t exist for Google.

Social Consumers

Nearly half of smartphone owners visit social networks daily, and almost two-thirds of social media users say they use those platforms every day. This goes far beyond just cat photos and food porn.

A variety of studies over the past five years have demonstrated the extensive influence and power of the social community on buyer behavior:

  • 71% of consumers report being more likely to make a purchase if referred or recommended via social media.
  • When American Eagle added a Facebook Like button to every product on their site, they saw a 57% increase in average purchase size.
  • Products with 50 or more reviews on popular consumer sites like experience 65% more sales than comparable products with fewer than five reviews
  • Facebook is the #1 influencer on consumer decisions about baby products, with Twitter #1 for electronics and YouTube #1 for music.
  • 70% of social network users shop online, which is 12% higher than the general average.
  • 84% of millennial shoppers say consumer-written content influences what they buy.
  • Mobile shoppers who view customer content reviews have a 133% higher conversion rate than those who do not.

The power of social media for engaged brands is nearly impossible to overstate, as is how disruptive and destructive ignoring the power of social communication can be. As a manager or business owner, you don’t need to know the details of what happens in the social space. You have people for that. But you must understand its importance, and how to read key metrics that tell you how well those people are doing their jobs.

Want the opposite of a well-thought-out social media campaign? Run a YouTube search for John Oliver’s piece on Starbuck’s “Race Together” Initiative.  It’s a perfect example of how not to engage on social media.

Impatient Consumers (Aren’t Always Impatient)

So far, I’ve painted a picture of mobile-empowered, multi-screened, web-browsing potential clients who will flit away from your content the instant it stops being of value.

This is accurate, but it’s not the whole picture.

These same consumers will spend all the time they need, ask every conceivable question, and research for months between thinking about buying and actually making purchases. Because of this, they represent both challenges and opportunities for modern business managers.

The challenges we’ve already discussed. Relying on old interruptive models that add no value will lose you any chance of beginning dialogues with them. You must understand what they need, and provide it. They want content they will read on purpose, engage with online, and tell their colleagues about. You can’t simply broadcast content – even good content – and expect it to impact them.

The opportunity here comes from the exponential power of having a bank of quality content accessible by anybody, at their convenience, at any time. Modern consumers are impatient with salespeople, sales speak, and sales pitches. They will not trust anyone who begins a conversation with an attempt to make a sale. They want real relationships with people they can see as mentors, coaches, experts, or fellow enthusiasts. If you can build this rapport online and automatically, via content that buyers find for themselves, your qualification and conversion rates will skyrocket.

Ryan Flannagan
Ryan Flannagan

Ryan Flannagan is the Founder & CEO of Nuanced Media, an international eCommerce marketing agency specializing in Amazon. Nuanced has sold $100s of Millions online and Ryan has built a client base representing a total revenue of over 1.5 billion dollars. Ryan is a published author and has been quoted by a number of media sources such as BuzzFeed, CNBC, and Modern Retail.

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