The most universal factor in marketing today is that consumers are busier than ever and their attention more taxed.
While Esther Dyson  points out that attention is not truly fungible, it serves as an outstanding macro indicator of today’s changes in consumer behavior. And any imbalance of this magnitude invariably results in a correction.
This correction is manifesting itself in the profound re-assertion of word-of-mouth marketing as the dominant factor in purchasing and brand relationship, at the expense of other marketing. While word-of-mouth has always been at the center of smart campaigns, four factors conspire to amplify its impact and importance today:
- Plumbing: The Internet, especially social media, now provides the plumbing for word-of-mouth to drive consumer action more expediently.
- Links as currency: The highest volume of word-of-mouth today is a link, the Trojan horse for word-of-mouth. People on Facebook share approximately 1 million links  every 20 minutes. We live in a social and economic environment driven by the electronic sharing of links and messages. As a result, people don’t seek information; information seeks people.
- The messenger matters: Given the abundance of media (Gen Y interacts on average 11 hours a day with connected screens and devices ), consumption is most influenced by recommendations from friends, with upwards of 70% of shoppers  stating that opinions from friends/family sway their decision-making. The trust in friends’ recommendations, their brands, encourages consumers to self-select word-of-mouth over company marketing.
- A Millennial shift: Digital natives, those born in the digital age, now make up 25% of the general population  and represent $890 billion  in purchasing power.
Coincidentally, the increase of attention deficit disorder diagnoses (up 22%  from 2003 to 2008) and the dramatic increase in prescriptions of SSRIs such as Lexapro correspond to this increase in media. Did the condition demand the science, or did the science drive the condition? Regardless, recent studies demonstrate the physiological effects on the brain itself as a result  of competing attention.
In other words, our brains are changing and actually evolving (or devolving, depending on where you stand in the debate).
As a result of all this, core consumer buying behavior has been irreversibly altered in four ways:
1. The path to purchase is becoming distributed and social--not a clean funnel. Today’s consumer journey does not have an epicenter--not the website, not the advertising, not the social channel. Marketers must be present and relevant (with engaging content) in more places at more moments, and recognize that consumers increasingly want to engage (and buy) at the moment of emotional connection, regardless of the environment.
2. In today’s distributed consumer journey, paid, owned, earned, and bartered media all intersect. The consumer chooses where and how they engage by consuming and sharing media, and successful media must increasingly be filtered through the lens of word-of-mouth (sadly, it is not). So, we must fix the marketing organization by eliminating silos between marketing disciplines, and collapsing the planning process to combine creative/production and distribution/media from inception. Marketing can no longer stomach dead ends. Why would a television ad not drive to an online experience? Why does a print article not continue the story online? I have never heard a satisfactory explanation.
3. Throughout the journey, brand is diluted by several influences. A friend’s ‘brand’ means more than the company’s brand in today’s social contracts. Brand also becomes less relevant in algorithmically driven search and social environments, with time in social environments accounting for upwards of 20%  of users’ online time. Google and Facebook command undue sway over consumer access to brands. Companies must integrate input from customers into product development, marketing, and packaging.
4. Customers are the best marketers. The Law of Social Sharing, Y = C *2^X [X is time, Y is what you share and C is a constant] is essentially true right now, although we really do not yet understand its sustainability. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg believes that the amount of content we share will double every year. As Chris Dixon points out , sharing 1,048,576 (2^20) times the information in twenty years from now seems incredulous, but not impossible in a frictionless information future. Marketers must genuinely engage their customers now, because friends and technology increasingly share ownership of their brand.
This is not a fad. Consumer behavior is changing. So what happens to the classical marketing funnel and the customer’s path to purchase? As McKinsey  and others postulate, the funnel becomes a repeating loop. And this loop is increasingly rooted in word of mouth, and the sharing of links in social.
- Awareness is less important because attention is gained and lost more quickly in the exchange of links between factions in the mob and crowd;
- Consideration is always only a click away across this more distributed customer journey (email, tweet, short message, OPA banner ad);
- This enables acquisition to occur within any media, on any channel, much more quickly than ever before, and at the moment of emotional engagement;
- Through the data captured in the consideration and acquisition process, the brand drives loyalty through recurring engagement across all of its touch points--from receipt to mobile to Facebook to website to in-store iconography. Separating digital and in-store channels is foolhardy, because they are both part of the same connected journey;
- Brand advocates share links and messages to personal and brand content to expand the loop to new prospects within their respective affinity communities, allowing the loop to repeat and expand.
So, we end up with a marketing loop looking something like this:
The entire marketing loop speaks to the triumph of influence over reach.
Consumer action is increasingly dependent on influence, which consists of popularity plus virality plus authority.
Map your influence, and you will be better able to forecast your reach, especially if you were smart enough to build your campaign around word of mouth.
And use all of this data from acquisition and engagement to forecast behavior, capture sales from alternative channels, and mine social conversations for leads.
The quickening of attention spans will usher in pay-per-view television, sixty minute average movie lengths, and five-second commercials.
In the end, the salvation of all marketing is the investment by customers in assisting their favorite brands to promote the brand and buy the product. We are getting closer to giving consumers a frictionless customer journey across channels.
Stop doing what you have been doing because you have always done it that way. Embrace disruption, manage change, and look to your customers, not your creative, for inspiration.
[Image: Flickr user Shan Collins ]