Dominating Your Market by "Easifying" the Customer Decision Cycle
*Excerpt has been edited for space and style.
In our hyperconnected society, word-of-mouth marketing can no longer be ignored. To be successful at it, though, requires a unique mindset and skill set, according to George Silverman, founder and CEO of Market Navigation, Inc. This exclusive excerpt from the second edition of his book, The Secrets of Word-of-Mouth Marketing (AMACOM, 2011), reveals some things marketers must know about today's highly connected and empowered consumers and how to turn them into advocates.
- Customers are overloaded; they're too cynical to listen to marketers.
- Customers mostly want to talk to their friends and trusted advisers.
- Customers have dozens of new ways to talk to friends and advisers with social media.
- Customers have dozens of new ways of getting product information and recommendations: review/rating Web sites, recommendation engines, and so on.
- The new media are fragmented, so masses are hard to find or attract. That's why mass media is dying.
All of this adds up to one thing: You have loads of information to give customers, but they don't want your help. They aren't listening to you touting your product! You don't need "better messages that push their hot buttons." You don't need to "refine your message." You need to stop talking at, start listening to, and then do something for your customers that will make them say (or text), "OMG!"
Is marketing needed anymore? Is there any reason for marketers to show up at work? Why write marketing messages when most people aren't listening? How do you persuade people who only want to talk to their friends? Answer: Indirectly, through their friends.
Overloaded people want simplicity, ease, and fun. In the Age of Overload, the simplifier is king.
The Function of Word of Mouth
Overloaded people are always looking to make things simpler and easier. Instead of studying all about a product and going through a difficult decision process that they may not have enough knowledge to do well, they ask someone else. They always have, but now it's so simple that it's their main method.
Why not let someone who has the skills do something far more efficiently and competently than we can do ourselves—and at a fraction of the cost? It's called division of labor. It's the age-old breakthrough that made it possible for us to move out of caves and rise to a level of sophistication, civilization, and wealth.
Word of mouth is, first and foremost, an experience delivery system.
By asking other people what their experiences were with a product and by asking them for their recommendations, we can access a vast amount of experience without having to spend time, money, or effort—or take the risks that we would by doing it on our own.
So, we not only ask what product is best, but we ask, What was your experience? What should we watch out for and what tricks and tips should we follow? How can we best try it, fix it, and teach others to use it? Who has the best prices and delivery? Who is honest? All of this saves a tremendous amount of time. We could never function in the modern world without sharing experiences through word of mouth.
You can only create the conditions under which customers are most likely to learn or buy. You can't "sell" directly.
This may sound like splitting hairs in a semantics class, but it's a very useful distinction.
When you realize that you can't sell your customers anything—you can only create the conditions under which they are likely to buy—your entire outlook changes. You see things from a new perspective with a different framework. You can now get out in front of the decision process, anticipate what the customer needs, and see a clear path toward a series of positive customer choices that lead to the purchase of your product.
Marketing changes by moving away from pushing, pulling, persuading, seducing, cajoling, interrupting, bombarding, nagging, and shouting, which are all things that you do to people. When you focus instead on how best to create the conditions under which they are likely to sell a product to themselves, you shift from doing something to people to doing something for and with people: helping, aiding, guiding, and advising. This is a lot more satisfying.
Lending someone a helping hand feels a whole lot better to everyone involved than does pushing or pulling a person down the path.
And, it's so, so, so much more effective. More than you've ever dreamed.
Marketing is not the process by which companies create customer interest in products or services, as it's sometimes defined. That's the old marketing.
This definition has it backward. It should be: "Marketing is the process by which companies create products or services that get people interested."
As we'll see, interested" means getting people involved in everything from scratching the itch of curiosity to active investigation, trial, purchase, learning, teaching, advising, recommending, and fanatically evangelizing.
You can't create involvement and interest directly. You can only create the conditions under which people will become involved. And you do that by creating product attributes, materials, and events that get customers interested, excited, then fanatical. That's why they're called "fans."
Semantics? I don't think so.
Marketers who practice the old marketing tend to focus on their materials: their ads, packaging, logos, displays, brochures, Web sites, and so on. They're trying directly to make people do things. But you can't make anyone do anything unless you force or con them to do it.
The new marketers are clearing the path to their doors. They're finding ways to produce products and services that customers and other influencers will sell for them, much less expensively and much more effectively. The new marketing recognizes that people aren't listening very much to commercial communication—and it turns that into an advantage. Conventional word-of-mouth marketing is getting people to say good things about a product through a wide variety of channels. In fact, they've built up much of an entire industry around that naive view of word of mouth. Word of mouth is so much more than the transmission of praise and positive recommendations. Yes, that could double your sales. But I'm looking for a tenfold increase.
Word-of-mouth marketing isn't just about getting people to praise your product publicly.
Let's learn how to generate word of mouth in a systematic way, while your competition goes fishing for praise.
How You Fit into the New Marketing
You are in the perfect position to exercise the new function of marketing: making decisions easier for your customers. You know the lay of the land better than anyone else. You also have a better perspective on what it takes to find, learn about, sort out, try, buy, and use your product than anyone else. You know best how your product fits into the marketplace. In fact, you could be the best guide through the burdensome decision-making process.
In this Age of Overload, that's exactly what the customer needs. The raw information she can get elsewhere. But what information does she need, when? What's the sequence? What are the best sources of information from a customer's point of view?
You are in the best position to figure that out.
Prospects, triers, customers, and evangelists need a guide through the flooded river of information the same way a Mississippi riverboat captain engages a guide to take him down the river. He doesn't give up control of the ship, but he accepts that someone else knows this particular stretch of river "like the back of his hand." He needs a guide.
What customers want is the best product they can get with the easiest decision-making process. This is a trade-off. They don't want such a simple decision-making process that much better products are overlooked. But they also don't want a decision-making process that involves protracted evaluation, requires lots of resources, and takes many years before the absolutely best product is selected, when any of the better products serve the purposes just as well.
Some of the information customers want directly from you, the marketer of the product, includes comparison charts, decision guides, product specs, tutorials, manuals, user guides (not the same as manuals), training courses, identification of the most informed "infomediaries," and information on finding ratings and reviews.
As we've seen, customers don't want certain information directly from you, particularly in areas where you are likely to be biased, don't know local conditions, don't know about specialized uses—in short, areas where truth and relevance are subject to interpretation and bias. So, you'll have to point them to independent sources—in other words, word-of-mouth sources.
Focused word of mouth from the right sources in the right sequence at the right level in the right form at the right pace is going to lead them through a very easy-to-make series of decisions, without wasting time, effort, and money.
You can guide the process and not just because that's what the customer is receptive to.
Marketing is a service that you do for and with the customer, not to the customer. Like any service, its value is to be found at the intersection of what you can do best for the customer and what the customer needs most.
In this, the Age of Overload, the service that marketing provides is to make the decision process easier for the customer, every step of the way.
Your new function is decision "easification," which means easing the burden of the decision process in this overloaded world.
There is another thing to consider: The best product does not always win; the easiest-to-decide-on product wins. I believe that this is the biggest marketing breakthrough in the last several decades. In fact, it's why all the other breakthroughs work. Needs/benefits selling, the USP, product positioning, sampling, coupons, market segmentation, discounts, testimonials, malls, money-back guarantees, and a dozen other developments all work so well because they make some aspect of the customer decision cycle easier.
The product that wins is not always the "best" product. It's the product that makes the product decisions smooth, easy, fun, and fast.
The "easy-to-decide-on" product wins because customers tend to follow the path of least resistance.
For most things, there isn't time these days to do anything else.
Your job as a marketer is to make your product the "easiest-to-decide-on" product in its field.
Next, let's analyze the word-of-mouth part of decision easification so that you can do most of what you need to do.
F.W. Woolworth, the founder of the largest retail chain of its time, said, "I'm the world's worst salesman. Therefore, I must make it easy to buy."
If you think this is just old-fashioned theory, notice how many of the most successful enterprises and products have a staff obsessed with ease and simplicity. The ones that come to mind are Apple, Google, Amazon, and Bose.
Why are ease and simplicity so powerful? Because ease increases the speed of the decision cycle. And why is that important? Because increasing decision speed is the most effective way to increase sales revenue.
But isn't sales volume (as well as frequency and price) the best way to increase sales revenue? For decades, marketing gurus have pushed the idea that there are only four ways of increasing sales:
1. Increasing unit volume (i.e., more unit sales to new or existing customers)
2. More frequent purchases
3. Larger orders
4. Higher prices
In other words, to increase sales revenue, sell more stuff to more people more frequently at higher prices.
That's what every business school in the country teaches.
But it's wrong because it's incomplete.
Many years ago, I asked the "stupid" question, "Is there something more fundamental that increases sales?"
I discovered that there is a more fundamental way of increasing sales that makes the other four things happen almost automatically: increase decision velocity.
To increase unit volume, frequency of purchases, sizes of orders, and prices, increase decision velocity.
How Decision Speed Multiplies Sales
Even if people don't decide your brand is better—"brand choice" is the focus of almost all of marketing—even if people make whatever decision they're going to make about your product in significantly less time, you will accumulate customers at a much faster rate and become the market leader.
Accelerated decisions are in a different class from other marketing program adjustments. While most marketing changes, at best, provide incremental market share increases (typically 10 to 30 percent), faster decision cycles can improve market share by orders of magnitude. In other words, faster decision cycles can increase sales threefold to tenfold, or more, faster.
Why Speed Equals Multiplied Sales
Suppose there are five similar products competing in a new category. All things being equal, they will each eventually capture a 20 percent market share. Say the decision cycle time for these products is approximately one year.
Now suppose you find a way to make several of the time-consuming steps in that decision cycle easier for your prospects, thereby cutting the decision time in half. What happens to your market share and those of your competitors?
Obviously, if your product achieves its expected one-year market share in six months, it will have effectively doubled the market window of opportunity, giving you the time and resources to capture another 20 percent market share in the remaining six months. This would give your product a 40 percent share at year's end, with the four other competitors sharing the remainder at 15 percent each.
But that's not the whole story. When you cut the decision time in half, you not only get customers sooner, but you turn those customers into zealous advocates for your product before competitors have a similar opportunity. Why would your user endorsements be any better than those of your competitors? Because they are not only available sooner, but they are also the result of the extraordinary support that you provided to shorten the decision cycle in the first place!
With this kind of decision support, the first marketing months can generate such evangelism among early adopters that a 40 percent market share is almost certainly too conservative a goal. A more usual outcome is a 60 to 80 percent market share for your product, a 10 percent share for product number two, with the others splitting the remainder. This isn't pie in the sky. Most marketers will recognize that this is the pattern for most product categories.
Take the example of the iPhone (which wasn't the first smartphone) and the iPad (which was the first viable tablet computer). The iPhone was easy to learn about (it was on every TV station) and also easy to learn to operate (in comparison to clumsy smartphones of their day) when you played with it in the Apple or AT&T stores. In fact, you had a feeling of competence right away. In addition, it was so easy to sign up for service and get one's phone number transferred; to decide on a simple plan; to modify through iTunes, which almost everybody was using by then because it made it so easy to organize their music; to buy apps; to get delivery (automatic); and to rave about it and demonstrate it to your friends. On the downside, it had a long list of disadvantages and deficiencies, which the technophiles were quick to point out, and was even disparaged and ridiculed in some quarters. In fact, many predicted (difficult to remember) its failure. But the negatives had little impact, because the iPhone made every choice, every step of the decision process, ridiculously easy, especially for a highly technical product. It even made its operating system invisible: It has no menus, no stylus, and only one button! That's the ease of use that everyone thinks about. But it has also made the other steps easy. It's sold by a company (Apple) that you trust will treat you right and fix any problems.
And it's the same with the iPad.
Word of mouth is even overcoming the barriers to switching from PCs to Macs, the difficulties of which Apple doesn't fully understand, but its customers do: (1) the enormous pain of learning all of the small changes and improvements that technophiles love, but average users hate; (2) the disorienting nature of new structures and new terminology; (3) the new look—pretty but disorienting; (4) the new terminology; (5) the worry that they will do something terrible that will cause their system to "blow up." (I'm not kidding.) Ordinary people have trouble with a new toaster.
Your Decision Easification System
To make decisions easier, think of every aspect of your marketing program not as marketing communication, but as a Decision Easification System for your customers and prospects. Make it into something that people will want to talk about every step of the way.
To turn marketing into a decision easification system:
- Make the benefits, claims, promises, and value propositions so surprisingly clear and compelling that people will talk about them.
- Make the product information so balanced, honest, and credible that people are shocked into talking about it.
- Make open comparisons with the competition that are meaningful in the real world. Invite head-to-head comparisons. Openly show where the competition is better and where you're better. Such open comparisons will get people talking about how confident you are and how you have nothing to hide. Act as if the truth matters. That's in itself so rare that people will talk!
- "Easify" and "funify" the process so that people will want to invite their friends to do it also.
- Make sure that the trial can be interpreted, that the evaluation period before and after purchase is supported in a way that makes people feel competent and cared for. Then, they will trust you to treat their friends right.
- Make the guarantees so ironclad and generous that they know that you believe in your product so much that you are willing to take a big chance on customer satisfaction.
- Make sure that the testimonials about your product are informative and worth reading. Don't hide them on a separate Web page. Sprinkle them across the decision process at just the places where information is needed.
- If a customer can say something, don't you say it! Did you know that under the right circumstances, customers will write your manuals and training materials, and even do the training?
- Make sure the delivery, training, support, and everything else along the path to evangelism is filled with pleasant surprises, not the kinds of "gotchas" that many banks, rental car companies, and phone companies use to fleece their customers.
In other words, go down the decision path and turn every possible stumbling block into a pleasant surprise, a little victory for the customer.
If you do it authentically from your new marketing mindset that declares customers are your appreciated friends and that you're helping one another out, people will not only talk, they will evangelize! (By evangelize, I mean zealous, proactive advocacy.)
That's why Apple—which pleasantly surprises customers even with its packaging—has fans that non-Apple customers can only scratch their heads over. That's why the lines for its new products make the evening news. It's not just about the products, which are dazzling. It's not just the ease of use at the user interface. It's that the whole user experience at every choice point in the decision process makes the customer feel that Apple is looking out for them.
If you take the systematic approach I've been advocating, you can do it too.
When customers have information that makes a decision easy, they make it quickly.
When a company makes it easy for people to decide on its product, not only do they buy the product, they also feel gratitude and a sense of loyalty to the company that gave them the easy choice. Full, balanced information about a product or service—including clear product comparisons, guarantees, and a commitment to support, all provided in the right sequence—enhances the value of the product and gives it a competitive advantage. That advantage is often called "honesty." Stated another way, the product with the easier decision-support system often has the competitive edge, even if the product, considered apart from that system, is not superior. The fact that it's easy to decide on becomes an actual feature of the product.
Everyone knows that "ease-of-use" and "customer experience" are product attributes that override almost everything. In fact, they are subcategories, parts of the overall decision experience.
Imagine what would happen if you easified everything!
You'd be the Apple, Google, or Amazon in your category.
Woolworth's famous, self-deprecating quote, "I'm the world's worst salesman; therefore I must make it easy to buy," mentioned previously, isn't just theory. It's a fact of life for every product or service, whether it's a simple consumer packaged good or the most complex medical, industrial, financial, or agricultural product. If you make the decision easier, more prospects can select your product more quickly and with greater confidence. Overwhelming market dominance is often the result; not just market share increases of 10, 25, or even 50 percent, but 10, 25, or 50 times the expected market share. For the very few who have discovered it, it's the best-kept secret weapon in marketing.
Sometimes a product comes along that is so obviously superior that it seems to "sell itself." Even then you could say that it sold itself because the decision was so easy. But most buying decisions take time and effort. If the information provided by the seller is inadequate, we must go searching on our own to make up the deficits. At best, the days, weeks, or months lost by those delays cause confusion (a form of decision friction) and thereby slow the product's growth, making it share the market with all its competitors. Your advantages get lost in the shuffle. These friction points accumulate, causing prospects to drop out of the decision cycle, and often spell disaster for the product's success.
The adoption decisions are much too important to leave to the customer.
You need to structure the decision process for customers and guide them through the twists and turns. Without active guidance, they will falter, flounder, and drown in a sea of information (and misinformation).
The marketer can make the decision road a superhighway or a neglected, pothole-strewn backroad. If the road smooths the way for prospects, the speed limit goes up. The result: enormous market-share gains. This makes decision acceleration through decision easification the most critical element on the road to market success.
How to Do It
Go to some of the better Web sites, such as Amazon or Zappos. These Web sites are not only giving information, they are guiding people through the decision process. This means that they have different tracks for beginners and experienced users, they offer comparison charts and rating sheets, and they make the information easy to understand. They are models of simplicity and relevance. They have case studies and genuinely useful information from customers. They have discussion groups, toll-free numbers to get questions answered, ways to download trial software, application examples and help, and examples from industries like yours. Yet, they aren't complicated. They appear simple and friendly to the customer. Most other sites overwhelm you with a tidal wave of information, presented from their point of view, not from the struggling customers' perspectives. There are no signposts, no organizational help, and no easification. You need to stop spending your money on making your Web site flashy and start spending your money on making your Web site simple—a very difficult task.
Now we are ready to look at word of mouth in a whole new light. Instead of focusing only on word of mouth as the most credible form of marketing, we are going to take a different approach.
Approach word of mouth as the best tool we have to make every choice at every fork in the road toward becoming an evangelist for your product easier than the other choices. In broad terms, word of mouth is going to make your product easiest to find, learn about, select, try, buy, and rave about.
Cut Decision Time in Half
It's difficult for most marketers to believe that you can dramatically shorten the time through the decision cycle because speed can rarely be addressed directly. Easification and simplification are the processes by which speed is accelerated. Almost everyone knows that almost everything can be simplified and made easier, once they realize its importance and put their minds to it. Everyone who's been in a traffic jam knows that multiple barriers slow things down, and the slowdowns compound until the cars are at a standstill. They also know that when multiple barriers are removed after the road has been repaved, traffic flies over the newly smoothed road.
The overwhelming probability is that every single step on your customers' decision path is needlessly rough, complex, and strewn with potholes. But you don't see how hard it is for customers because you have "Expert Blindness," the extreme form of "Knowledge Blindness," which means knowing everything about your product except one thing: what it's like to know nothing.
I believe that every future marketer will be an expert on the product/service/idea decision process, particularly in how to make it easier. In fact, I predict that Decision Easification will become an entire industry. And remember, I predicted the rise of the word-of-mouth marketing industry.
I believe that that's what you need to focus on now.
From The Secrets of Word-of-Mouth Marketing, Second Edition, ©2011 George Silverman. All rights reserved. Published by AMACOM Books (www.amacombooks.org).