Woo skeptical consumers with increased respect

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Eighteen months ago, when I chaired the Future of Advertising Stakeholders Summit at Procter & Gamble Co., a mantra emerged from the marketers, advertisers and Internet technologists who took part: "In this era of the Internet, the consumer is king."

Participants agreed that for the first time in modern history, consumers are in the driver's seat because of the Internet's unique capabilities. Their power is far deeper than the thrill of electronic coupons and the ability to shop from home 24 hours a day.

In simple yet very profound ways, the Internet is changing how consumers do business and how they interact with business. They can now switch company loyalty instantly, with a keystroke or mouse click. They can spread their opinions about products and services the way they circulate e-mail jokes from Maine to Arizona. Their complaints and compliments have become "viral," passed easily from one person to another and raising the stakes for companies to address service.


This new consumer trend challenges many of the existing assumptions and notions about traditional and online advertising. And it raises a question: Is the business world truly embracing the "consumer is king" philosophy that emerged from the FAST meeting in August 1998? Are we really letting the consumer drive?

Look at what's happening. Advertising has infiltrated American life, from interruptive banner ads on computer screens to corporate sponsorship of seemingly every sporting event. Consumers on the marketplace highway can't follow the road for all the flashing signs and honking horns. They feel as if they're being cajoled, begged, distracted and teased into buying. It's a wonder any consumer can work up the energy to listen and pay attention. How soon before they tune out?

Consumers may have only a hint of their newfound power, but they are not unaware. Just as they are thrilled with new buying options, they are equally concerned about privacy. They wonder who's watching. And why? There are valid arguments to be made on all fronts about how data are -- and should be -- gathered about online shoppers, but this much is clear: No matter how much we debate and promise to protect privacy, consumers are skeptical. They worry that helicopters are circling above, ubiquitously watching their every turn, detour and stop.

Their skepticism also influences how they communicate with companies. Only one in 25 consumers inclined to give feedback to a company actually follows through because of too many roadblocks. They don't have time, find it too inconvenient, are cynical about the outcome or don't know whom to contact.

What does this mean? In a consumer-centric world, loyalty will have to be earned, not captured. Business winners in this new Internet space will understand and respect the new rules of consumer empowerment. They will develop marketing and advertising programs that make consumers better drivers, not tailgate them to the point of frustration and road rage.

Businesses will place privacy first, giving consumers total control of their online encounters. They will be obligated to explain to consumers how data are gathered and used. "Opt in" -- the philosophy that each online transaction requires the willing participation and approval of the consumer -- will rule. "Opt out" -- the practice of gathering marketing data about consumers unless they specifically ask not to be included -- will become a remnant of an early trial-and-error approach to Internet market research.

Astute businesses will know how to accept, manage, evaluate and respond to the consumer feedback they receive. They will use it to retain loyal customers and lure new ones. They will create an Internet environment that feels comfortable and safe.

I left Procter & Gamble Co. to launch PlanetFeedback, a consumer-to-business Web site, out of a desire to reclaim the road for the average consumer. PlanetFeedback creates a megaphone for consumer opinion -- a barrier-free, ad-free environment to send feedback of any kind to companies. Time will tell whether this model flies, but I think it clearly puts consumers back in the driver's seat and is a direction more marketers must pursue.


Privacy is an area where everyone can make immediate differences, well beyond loading Web sites with privacy "seals of approval." At PlanetFeedback, for example, we've created a Privacy Pledge in addition to a standard privacy policy. Each time PlanetFeedback has the opportunity to collect data about a site user -- an e-mail address, name, personal information -- a reminder of our privacy pledge pops up, and the language is free of jargon and easy to understand. We've listened to hundreds of consumers and met with dozens of consumer groups, and they value a listening ear.

Looking ahead, groups such as FAST-Forward and the Privacy Alliance need to develop industry standards that put a premium on proactive consumer education and respect.

At the end of the day, marketers in this new space need to renegotiate their contract with consumers and heed the new rules of the road, rules that put consumers in the driver's seat. This isn't a threat. It's an enormous opportunity.

Mr. Blackshaw, formerly director of interactive marketing at Procter & Gamble Co. (P&G was 1999 Ad Age Interactive Marketer of the Year), is founder and CEO of PlanetFeedback.com, Cincinnati, a Web site that gives consumers direct e-mail access to businesses for all types of feedback.

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