Today, many companies have happy customers and a sound business model, and they are confident that social media will have a nominal impact on their organization. If this sounds like your enterprise, beware! This was the mindset of companies like Borders and Kodak at the dawn of the Web era, but these organizations scrambled--and failed--to catch up to competitors that were quicker to understand, invest and evolve into new business models.
Whether your company will be Borders or Amazon (or Blockbuster or Netflix) (or MySpace or Facebook) will depend on whether it is willing to continually invest and adapt to fundamental changes in consumer mobile and social behavior over the next decade. Here are eight ways the business landscape will change:
- Your purchase funnel becomes more complex and mutable: We already know that social media is affecting the way consumers become aware of products and narrow their consideration set. Brands like McDonald's, Ford and Kellogg's have made social media a substantial part of their strategy to raise awareness in the early potion of the funnel. As an example of using social tools to improve the end of the funnel, Forrester (my former employer) notes that USAA (my current employer) is effectively using ratings and reviews to increase conversions. (Sorry, a subscription is required to read the Forrester report.)
Some say the funnel is dead, flipped, irrelevant, a maze, or a dozen other analogies. They are all right and they are all wrong, which demonstrates the complex, ever-changing world in which we operate. Attracting and binding consumers to your brand will take far different strategies than have worked in the past. The brands that succeed will be the ones that recognize they need agile strategies to capture different customers in different ways and to exploit moments of opportunity as they arise. Think Old Spice, which realized it had a hot property with Isaiah Mustafa's TV spots and rapidly deployed a real-time social media campaign that doubled sales.
Inflexible multi-year marketing plans that focus on traditional tactics and media and that do not connect directly to product development and customer service will result in a disjointed and anemic funnel for the enterprise.
- Your employees need new skills: Today's employees, who seem to spend every waking moment updating their Facebook wall or Twitter stream, may seem like they possess the skills your enterprise needs in the social business era. That assumption is wrong--it is akin to saying that people who text friends on their cell phones are prepared for the mobile technology and business models of the future.
A skill gap is forming. Take the banking industry, as an example. For decades, the single deciding factor that people used to select a bank was the location of branches and ATMs, so banks put the vast majority of their channel dollars into branches. Times are changing quickly, and most banks are not altering their strategies accordingly. In Branch Today, Gone Tomorrow, Brett King predicts the number of bank branches will shrink by 50% in the coming years. Few of today's banks are prepared to differentiate on the products and services they furnish in mobile and social channels rather than the location of or service in their branches.
What new skills will today's change-counting, window-staffing branch employees need tomorrow, and what will happen to employees who do not develop the right skills? Tough times are head for some. Brett King points out that the four largest banks employ just under 1 million people in North America while the three top tech firms manage with only 150,000 employees--and the tech firms earned 37% more profit last year. The employees of banks contribute $22,256 each to the profit of their employers, while the tech employees contribute $195,973 each. Banks must shrink, and they are not alone, so the imperative to adapt or be left behind is no less pressing for individuals than it is for organizations.
- You must be (or try to be) early adopters or face dire consequences: Social and mobile technologies are increasing the speed of business. Though many firms identify themselves as "fast followers," the speed of today's business has killed this concept. Today's true "fast followers" are companies that thought and invested as if they would be a leader but got there behind a speedier competitor. If a firm thinks it will sit on the sidelines, watch what develops, and start to invest after new business models and processes are proven, the best they can hope for is to be a laggard and not dead. The business cycle will be increasingly unforgiving to companies who try to follow rather than lead.
We live in a world where consumers on social networks expect answers in hours and where PR disasters evolve in real time. However, this is not just about the speed of your PR and customer service; it is also about the shrinking life cycle of your products.
In 2006, Pure Digital Technologies unveiled the Flip Video camera, and product reviewers and users quickly hailed it as an amazing and revolutionary innovation. In 2010's Empowered, Josh Bernoff and Ted Schadler shared how one employee armed with a cheap Flip video camera rewrote the rules of training at Black & Decker. Yet in April 2011, Cisco announced it would cease to produce the Flip. Forget the "hype curve," this is the survival curve: From groundbreaking, jaw-dropping innovation to yesterday's stale product in just five years. How will your products keep up in the future?
- Your products must be social: Social is not something you turn to at the end of a product development cycle merely to promote your new product. In the future, if your product is not innately social, it's nothing. Admittedly, it is difficult to make consumables like chewing gum or bananas more social, but what about the durable goods with which we interact every day?
Cars seemed like an unlikely product for the integration of social, yet innovative automakers are leading the way with social technologies built into their product. You have already seen ads promoting cars such as the Chevy Cruze that permit drivers to interact with social networks. Even more ground breaking is Mercedes-Benz' new telematics app, CarTogether, which allows drivers to find people with whom to share rides and helps to cut down on emissions by reducing the number of car rides people have to make.
Too many brands seem to believe that inserting a "Share This" button or implementing a Facebook widget on their site makes their brand social. Instead, they need to consider why consumers share, when they are most likely to share, and how the brand can facilitate this process from within the product and service experience. For example, after you book a restaurant through OpenTable, the company sends a timely email asking if you would consider rating the restaurant while your memory is still fresh. Another example is Amazon, which gives customers a one-click method to share their recently completed purchase with friends. The key to social won't be to have the most creative social media marketing campaign but to make it easy for your customers to share from within the product or service experience.
- You must prepare for significant shifts in people's perceptions of ownership and status: In the Western world, things have come to define us: our address, the car we drive, the clothes we wear, the computer we use. (Everyone wants to be Justin Long and no one wants to be John Hodgman--except me, apparently.)
The status of things will not go away, but today's teens are demonstrating different priorities--they get status from their networks and access to things, not just ownership of things. Ask a parent of a teen what their child's attitude is towards driving, and you are likely to hear a different story than when you were young. A study by the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute finds that the percentage of 19-year-olds with driver's licenses dropped 14% in the past 18 years. Younger teens have seen an even greater decrease; today 33% fewer 16-year-olds have their driver's licenses compared to 1983.
The decrease in driver's licenses for teens may be due to legal or parental restrictions, but a study by ZipCar suggests that teen and young adult attitudes are considerably different from prior generations. Millennials are twice as likely to be open to public transportation, car sharing and carpooling as seniors. More than half of Millennials drive less in order to protect the environment. In addition, almost seven in ten Millennials say they sometimes choose to spend time with friends online rather than driving to see them. Finally, 18- to 34-year-olds are roughly twice as likely as those over 55 to participate in media sharing, car sharing or home sharing programs.
Can we still call consumers "consumers" if they are actively adopting ways to consume less? And what does this mean to your business model?
- You must show consumers what you stand for, not just what you sell or make: Anyone in the world of brand strategy knows that consumers have always considered what your brand stands for when evaluating competitive products. That much is not new, but it has changed in two ways. The first is that who you are has never been more important. As Bob Garfield and Doug Levy shared in Ad Age, the 2006 Edelman Trust Barometer demonstrated that "quality products and services" was the top response in identifying the standard of trust, but by 2010, "quality" had dropped to the third slot. "Transparent and honest practices" is the new number one, with 83% of respondents citing it.
Not only is your reputation more important than ever, your organization has never had less say in your reputation. In the mass media era, your organization was largely defined by your advertising and PR in few tightly controlled media channels. Today, consumers define your brand with their interactions in social networks, rating sites and other online communities (not to mention their face-to-face influence in the real world). Bank of America invested $1.9 billion in marketing in 2010, yet it could not defeat a cost-free groundswell of angry consumers led by a 22-year-old nanny and a 27-year-old gallery owner.
Apple will make an interesting case study in the years to come. To date, it has been the gold standard for how your brand benefits when it means something more to consumers. Apple is the most valuable company in the world, yet for all its wealth the company has escaped the indignation heaped on rich corporations by the Occupy movement. That may be about to change--recent articles have questioned Apple's environmental policies and a blistering New York Times article last week made disturbing accusations about Apple's treatment of workers overseas. Apple CEO Tim Cook has refuted the article, but some observers fear Apple is following a traditional course of PR management by denying the accusations and responding narrowly.
Apple will not retain its valuable place atop the list of trusted brands without a different course of action. Even then, it will be consumer reaction to Apple's policies and not letters from Tim Cook or slick advertising that determine Apple's fate in the future.
- Your enterprise must prepare to be on the right side of a new wave of disintermediation and reintermediation: Social and mobile business will affect every enterprise, but some will be more impacted than others will. I predict three broad groups of businesses will be affected sooner than others:
- Companies that own assets and make them available to consumers for rent: Hospitality and car rental companies face new competition from peer-to-peer models. In New York, hotels now compete against 10,000 rooms, apartments and even spare couches offered by consumers on Airbnb. (I find Airbnb's self-reported claim that the average New Yorker is making $21,000 per year renting on the social service highly dubious, however.)
For most consumers, their car is one of the most expensive assets owned, yet the average consumer uses their car just 8 percent of the time. It is this low utilization that is leading some to offer their cars for rent, and RelayRides reports the average person using the service makes $250 a month renting their car. (I find this claim less dubious but still would like to see the data.) And as consumers get access to the cars they need when they need them, ownership becomes less attractive; one study found that people who use car sharing services were 72% less likely to buy or lease a car in the future.
For both hotels and cars, more supply means lower costs for consumers and less revenue for providers. In addition, the new social business competition has a vastly different cost structure from traditional providers--Airbnb and RelayRides do not need to purchase, own or maintain assets, while IHG Group holds more than $1.5 billion of fixes assets and Hertz owns more than $13 billion of fixed assets.
- Companies that facilitate business between consumers: If you are in the business of earning fees to take something from one customer and get it to another customer, social business models will challenge your business. I am not talking eBay or Craigslist--they already are the standard for peer-to-peer (P2P) disintermediation and reintermediation, having killed newspapers' classified ad business.
Instead, look at banks, which take money from savers and lend it to borrowers. Today, savers get little, but this is not the case for folks lending money on Prosper and LendingClub. Yes, the risks are higher, but so are the rewards (which, any economist will tell you, is the basis for capitalism.) While the regulatory hurdles for being a "bank" are high, companies are skirting the regulations and bringing down costs to consumers with new mobile wallet, P2P money transfer and P2P lending models.
- Companies that manufacture durable goods: We have already discussed how younger consumers are less interested in obtaining drivers licenses and prefer to meet friends online and to decrease miles in order to save the environment. It is clear that P2P and sharing business models will affect the auto business (and related industries such as auto parts and auto insurance).
The buck does not stop there, however. Take, for example, garden and home tools. Some people are avid gardeners or DIYers around the house, and these people will want to own their own tools. But what about the average consumer? Must every household in every neighborhood own a circular saw or hedge trimmer--equipment that the owner uses for just a handful of hours each year? Today, many neighbors borrow from one another, but watch for social business models to put this on steroids. If consumers can share what they own more easily, widely and with a profit motive (and not just a neighborly intent), ownership of some durable goods could drop.
It would not surprise me if in ten years Home Depot or Lowe's (or some upstart competitor) made more money from renting or facilitating P2P lending of equipment than from selling durable goods outright. While retailers that move quickly can have a key role in the future of social business, what about manufacturers? What does it mean if the market changes so that millions go from wanting to own an underutilized piece of equipment to merely wanting to rent it in real-time? Answer: Fewer items manufactured and sold and a shift in the market toward commercial-grade products that can withstand more punishment and usage.
- You must prepare for consumers empowered with greater information about you, competitors and their own money: Social and mobile business models have a way of empowering consumers to make better decisions. For example, as car owners, we tend to think of short trips as cost free, but this is not the case; we give little thought to how each trip means more costs for gas, maintenance and insurance, so the cost of a single trip is not immediately obvious or relevant to our decision to make that trip. Conversely, when we rent a car and must pay for the trip immediately and directly, the cost becomes a significant part of our decision.
People who rent cars through car-sharing programs make better decisions, combine trips and find alternatives. This is the finding of a ZipCar study one year after introducing the service in Baltimore. The company surveyed customers and found that the number taking five or more car trips in a month decreased from 38 percent to 12 percent, and the number driving fewer than 500 miles per month increased by more than 17 percent.
Mobile wallet applications will have the same affect on consumers by allowing constant monitoring and control of credit card and checking balances. Today, consumers spend by swiping a card, with no immediate feedback; tomorrow, each swipe of our NFC-enabled phone will show our credit balance rising or debit balance falling. In addition, applications can help us track spending to budget, manage cash flow in real time, collect discounts, create more usable records of our spending and furnish a host of benefits that permit better control of our money. In addition, using our phones as barcode readers holds can furnish real-time access to competitive prices, product reviews and, perhaps, to additional information such as the environmental or labor policies of the manufacturer.
Social and mobile business tools hold the promise of making consumers more aware of the effect of each spending action. Will this newfound power overcome the innate human desire to impulse buy? Who knows, but it seems we will all be more empowered and informed in the future.
I am excited about the next decade. Better-informed consumers will have more access to information in real time and can avail themselves of new social and mobile business models that save money. Companies will scramble to keep up with lean new competitors and consumers' rapidly changing technology habits and sharing behaviors. The companies that quickly create a vision and begin to invest against it are the ones who will succeed, but the organizations that take a wait-and-see attitude put their stakeholders' interests in considerable danger.