When brands talk to consumers, not data

Recently, I had the opportunity to connect with Zach Simmons, founder & CEO of Discuss.io. With over 15 years of experience designing, building, shipping and marketing software products Zach is on a mission to fundamentally change how brands get to know their target audience. After landing nearly $5 million in additional funding the first half of this year, Discuss.io how he intends to do so.

Zach shared with me his perspective…

“Take a minute to think about your favorite product, commercial, or ad campaign. Ask yourself: What made it memorable? What did you like about it?

Research is a critical part of the formula for success for any brand. Long before you ever see it, brands are asking these same questions. Going through multiple layers of consumer research to make sure that their products and marketing will resonate with consumers before releasing anything to the public. Now, in a move to deepen the consumer connection, brands are expanding far beyond their original product-testing mandate. Simply put, brands are trying to understand consumers themselves, not just what tradition research tells them.

Understanding consumers can be one of the biggest hurdles for brands. You might not think that this would be the case, given the fact that we’re living in the age of Big Data. Even though brands are swimming in data about consumers’ habits, it turns out that consumers and their behaviors aren’t so easy to pin down. Consumers are much more complicated than their buying habits might indicate. After all, consumers are just regular people who happen to be somewhere in the purchasing process. No one’s life is cut and dry, so why would their purchasing habits be any different?

While price is one of the most common factors driving purchases, many other factors come into play when consumers are deciding what, when, and where to buy. Many of these factors have to be understood contextually and culturally, which requires brands to gain a bigger picture of consumers’ lives. This happens at both a societal and individual level. In order to do this, they have to speak directly with the consumers themselves.

Maybe talking directly to consumers sounds obvious to you, but it’s not a widely practiced approach because traditional methods are expensive and time consuming. However, the growth of digital has created opportunities that didn’t previously exist for brands. Those on the cutting edge of innovation are now able to leverage all that digital technology has to offer when it comes to connecting with their consumers. Connecting to them quickly and at lower cost.

Unilever is a great example of this. For years, their Consumer & Market Intelligence (CMI) team has been actively engaged in understanding consumers through a Consumer Connection program. In 2016, hundreds of Unilever employees (including Unilever CEO Paul Polman) conducted thousands of consumer connects around the world. Case in point, Unilever is ranked as a Fast Company’s “Most Innovative Companies” for its work in “prioritizing sustainability throughout its portfolio of brands.”

As a multinational company, it’s important for Unilever to understand all of their markets and consumers within those markets. This means that their teams have to connect with consumers from all over the world. However, some markets are a lot less accessible than others for research. For example, Unilever has historically had a harder time connecting with consumers in Africa due to occasionally precarious infrastructures, challenges with travel, and a dispersed and sometimes rural consumer-base. Nonetheless, Unilever was committed to their commitment to connect with consumers around the globe and decided to face this challenge upfront.

Fortunately, we live in a digitally connected world. As technologies continue to become more robust, brands are shifting typically offline practices, like conducting research in person in focus group facilities, online. Unencumbered by travel, Unilever’s Africa team is able to speed up the research process and reduce costs, while also drastically expanding their global reach. By traditional methods, they would have had to have their teams travel to multiple countries over the span of many weeks. In each country, they would be limited to speaking with consumers in select cities, due to time and travel constraints. By connecting with African consumers online, they are able to expand their global reach and create deeper connections with consumers in order to gain a richer understanding of their lives, without pouring an exorbitant amount of resources into the endeavor.

Connecting with consumers allows brands to understand societal shifts and emerging trends. In order to demonstrate their understanding of consumers and their habits, brands’ communication with consumers will change as well.

Consumer connects are an ongoing initiative, so it’s important that brands like Unilever can access consumers whenever necessary. The tools that they use for this, therefore, have to be on-demand. Unlike even 10 years ago, today we’ve all grown used to living in an on-demand world. With continued evolution and digitalization of consumer lifestyles, the way that organizations work, think, and connect with consumers must also evolve to most effectively connect with consumer behaviors and compete for their attention and loyalty. Today, brands are able to connect with consumers directly through their desktops. Using ubiquitous technologies and tools like webcams, web browsers, WebRTC, VoIP, Social Media, NLPs (the list goes on and on), the research process can be dramatically simplified. Simplicity reduces the learning curve and increases adoption. Simplicity is greatly facilitated by automation, which in turn, increases the speed at which research can take place, giving brands more opportunities to connect with consumers.

Remember the product or ad campaign that you visualized at the beginning? When brands talk to consumers, they build better products and launch more successful campaigns, much like the one you’re picturing right now. It’s a win-win!”

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