Another social media trend I’m following:
I mentioned in my last post that certain conversational trends emerge in the first few days of tracking any particular market, but that deeper and often more significant trends only appear when you follow a market over many different channels over a longer period of time. The deeper trend I discussed last time was the globalization of market conversations, and how that’s impacting consumer awareness and preference. There’s another closely related trend that is also having a big impact on consumers, and that’s the broadening of participation in openly accessible discussions, which I believe will make the market increasingly smarter.
Off the Internet, there are a lot of dividing lines between different groups of people that might converse about a given product or market. Market insiders have their associations and professional networks where they talk shop; enthusiasts have their clubs and conferences; general consumers have their friends and family, and sales associates. As these conversations have moved online, the biggest change has been in the consumer category, where people can vastly extend their research beyond friends, family and sales associates to talk with like-minded consumers who have experience with every conceivable product. Market insiders and enthusiasts have mostly just recreated their existing networks online.
When you track market conversations over many channels and over a sufficient amount of time, it becomes apparent that these previously well segmented groups are beginning to blur in places, aided primarily by the power of search. It often isn’t obvious at first–you simply notice that there are many people engaged in the broader dialog with different levels of knowledge and understanding about a given product or market. You find people who are obviously new to the dialog, people who are informed, people who are know-it-alls.
It’s often difficult when you first start tracking the conversation to distinguish between people who are really well-informed and people who just like to spout what they think they know. But if you follow the dialog over time, you realize that right alongside the newbies and know-it-alls, there are often people weighing in with substantial insights, including industry executives, market analysts, economists and engineers. I’m not talking here about the vaunted blogs of industry experts–but about insiders who join the fray, hobnobing right alongside consumers on some of the broader discussions without trumpeting their status.
Most often you find this broad mix of participants in discussions that focus on industry news and trends, while technical product discussions tend to segment into the traditionally stratified groups. But the impact of this mixing in the broader dialog is an obvious increase in the sophistication of conversation. When a consumer Googles a product they want to purchase, along with the focused discussions on features and benefits they’ll also find discussions about the latest product and market news. And when they tap into those discussions they start reading dialog in which experts often drop substantial insights about what’s shaping the market–from technological advances to impending regulation.
For some consumers that might just be noise, but the more complex or expensive the purchase decision, the more likely that added information will be influential. I first saw this play out in the automotive market, where I found automotive engineers engaged in conversation right alongside consumers about the implications of the next generation of hybrid vehicles and when they might be expected to roll out. For a consumer considering a $25-30k purchase, knowing that an improved hybrid technology might be only a few months away can make a huge impact on when and what they buy. But it turns out you’ll find similar conversations happening all the way down the line to a $300 cell phone/PDA.
Why, exactly, apparently high level market insiders are sometimes anonymously engaging in dialog on broad discussion boards is an interesting question–you often can’t even tell they’re insiders until you follow the dialog long enough to pick up on something that gives them away. It may be they find the broad dialog about market trends compelling to engage in but don’t want to be known, it may be they want to demonstrate their expertise, it may be they are motivated to be a knowledge provider, it may be they want to engage with a broader swath of the market beyond their professional echo chambers, it may even be they want to seed the market with information beneficial to their business interests.
Whatever the reason, you can find them if you look, and they’re often quietly adding information far beyond product features and benefits that can shape consumer attitudes and purchasing behavior. The result is a greater likelihood that your customers and prospects are going to have access to more information about the market than ever before. It’s hard to imagine that kind of trend leveling off any time soon, as social media continues to grow and as indexing of content penetrates more types of social content.
The obvious counterpoint to the notion that consumers are becoming more informed is the increasing noise factor of superfluous dialog, misinformation and shilling, which some say will even dampen participation in social media. That’s a long post on it’s own, but I’ll say that from what I’ve seen I think the evolution of online dialog is quite Darwinian. Consumers are learning quickly from direct experience what level of trust to put into what they read online, and they’re developing skills to read more effectively between the lines. Again, I think this points to the long-term development of a more sophisticated and more informed consumer.
What do you think? Will a smarter breed of consumer affect your market?