It’s 2012, Don’t Be Afraid To Invite Scrutiny And Comparison Shopping

Patrick Spenner and Karen Freeman are managing directors at Corporate Executive Board. The consulting company recently completed a global study of consumers and marketing execs, and found that “the rising volume of marketing messages isn’t empowering—it’s overwhelming. Rather than pulling customers into the fold, marketers are pushing them away with relentless and ill-conceived efforts to engage.”

More findings from the study are available in Harvard Business Review. Spenner and Freeman came up with something they call the “decision simplicity index,” which measures how easy it is for consumers to gather and understand information about a brand, how much they can trust the information they find, and how readily they can weigh their options. The easier a brand makes the purchase-decision journey, the higher its decision-simplicity score and the more likely it is to be purchased, repurchased and recommended to others.

The authors argue that their findings indicate the need for a profound shift from marketers. If simplifying the purchase-decision journey is the goal, it means brands need to do more than convey product attributes. The order of the day is to also provide specs on competitive products. It may seem counterintuitive, but the prospective buyer is going to seek out that information, with or without the aid of the brand under consideration. By providing an honest assessment of the competition, a brand says to its prospects, “we are not afraid of the facts, and we’re here to help you make the best decision, regardless.”

Clearly this approach will scare many brand managers off, but Spenner and Freeman do provide examples of companies on the edge of the new frontier in radical transparency. They don’t point to any brands doing the kind of comparison shopping online that Progressive Insurance is known for, but they highlight companies where customers share tips and insights with one another. J.C. Penney and American Eagle, for instance, have capitalized on the “haul video” phenomenon by hosting unbiased haulers on their sites and in their digital communications. Neither retailer requires that the haulers show only brands purchased at its store, and the haulers are transparent about their links to the companies (Penney, for instance, gives its star haulers gift cards).

I’m slightly freaked out by the haul video concept, but I’m not a digital native, nor a teen girl. Clearly, making video confessionals is common today, and young ladies want to discuss their purchases. So, who am I to judge?

What about the world of advertising agencies? How can business-to-business buyers of marketing and communications services get the scoop on the agencies being considered for a project, or for AOR status? As far as I know there is no place to get this kind of online peer evaluation for agencies and design shops. I guess Chief Marketing Officers still do it the old-fashioned wat — they call their business school buddies and attempt to get a read on a shop’s reputation and capabilities. Should there be an Angie’s List for professional services like advertising and design? Probably. I did check to see if Yelp had any local returns under “Advertising” and it turns out Yelp does. Both Wieden + Kennedy and Leopold Ketel & Partners are listed, and both have at least one review on their Yelp page.

I can’t imagine agencies working to easy the purchase-decision journey for prospective clients by hosting community dialogue on their sites, where current and former clients (and possibly staff) would be encouraged to talk, and perhaps break down what’s right and what’s wrong with the place. Agencies, like all companies, want to protect their image and they don’t want to invite comparison shopping. But it might be time to consider a new way of doing things, because it is impossible to deny that the comparison shopping will go on, particularly for high dollar items. Of course, it is a bit scary to consider, but I believe good things can come from embracing and facilitating the journey prospects actually take.

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