Discuss: Does multi-product, multi-platform marketing surround and engage the consumer at each point of their information search?

Sound like an old-timer, don’t I? I admit I’ve been around for a while, and I do get a high percentage of my information from the web, but I continue to believe in the power of marketing campaigns that surround and engage the consumer in multiple media.

This belief is a by-product of direct observation, common sense and independent research.

The question came up recently internally. Several of our team members have had daughters who got married. They’ve been able to watch a passionate and intense search for products and services unfold before their eyes. .

The process was described to me by a colleague like this:

Our daughters use printed magazines to browse and dream and the Internet for deep searches on specific products, like gowns or cakes.

What’s the value of the printed product when all of the deep work will get done online, you ask?

This is the same thing that we hear from clients who say they aren’t going to use any traditional media, because the Internet works best.

How do people search for information about a purchase?

When researchers look at how consumers engage in searches for major purchases, they identify several different approaches to information acquisition.

3CEB251C-9F4C-4D46-B5C3-5A9294B7D385.jpgThe more important and significant the purchase, the more a consumer turns to external information sources to help them organize and define their search. Our own research shows us that when consumer is searching for a house or an apartment, they turn to multiple information sources in order to get a feel for the market and then get more specific information.

In focus groups, if you ask them what sources they used, they say “The Internet.” When you hand them a printed magazine, they say “And, I used this product too.”

Consumer Behavior: The Psychology of Marketing outlines the implications of marketing to a consumer who is conducting an external search for a significant purchase: Invest in making your information available widely.

Internal search involves the consumer identifying alternatives from his or her memory. For certain low involvement products, it is very important that marketing programs achieve “top of mind” awareness. For example, few people will search the Yellow Pages for fast food restaurants; thus, the consumer must be able to retrieve one’s restaurant from memory before it will be considered. For high involvement products, consumers are more likely to use an external search. Before buying a car, for example, the consumer may ask friends’ opinions, read reviews in Consumer Reports, consult several web sites, and visit several dealerships. Thus, firms that make products that are selected predominantly through external search must invest in having information available to the consumer in need—e.g., through brochures, web sites, or news coverage.

Our core business model is designed to give an advertiser multi-platform distribution of their content at one fixed cost. The premise is simple: we’ve built a database engine that allows us to send content to our web listing engine and to our print advertising product. We believe that our best service to the advertiser is to give them the broadest distribution possible at the most efficient price. We want to deliver as much of the market as possible to them.

Do we ever stop printing magazines?

As long as we can charge a reasonable fixed cost for the multi-plaform distribution, I don’t see why we would. Take the resale home market for instance. Distributing magazines in a local market gives us a number of advantages: we put the advertisers’ messages in consumers hands as they go through their day; we give consumers an opportunity to get a look at the best real estate agents and a representative sampling of homes in the market; and we have a bigger local footprint that any other media vendor serving the market.

How is that possible? Combine our 8 million or so magazines and our 1+ million visitors online and we are interacting with more consumers than any single web service…even Realtor.com. You can’t match the total market impact you get with a multi-platform solution. Nor can you match the lead production.

In the comments of another post on this blog, one of my readers succinctly summarized the reasons for using multiple media in a marketing campaign:

Your thoughts (and results of the research) are right on. I’m coming from a solution provider standpoint, where we purchase advertising, and use various mix and match of media and lead gen to track interested customers from their initial slight interest to their final buying decision in order to assist them and frame their thinking about their pains/needs, etc.

And this is where my personal experience supports your research results. Print advertising (for example in your, Kerry, Folio pub) generates much more initial interest/curiosity/less targeted traffic. No other campaigns (online, tradeshow, PR, twitter) can generate this much of initial interest.

On the other hand, once initial interest is created, more advanced mixes of media/technology are needed to satisfy customer’s hunger for information about our products. Here the best results will be yielded by a smart mix of print, email, online, and in person marketing. Keeping on using just print at this stage is like shooting with a high caliber gun, where sniper rifle is needed.

At the final stages of research/purchasing process, the buyer needs much more precise, targeted, refined content, approach and actually good salesguy’s facetime.

As OlegR points out, no other media can generate as much interest as print. We are able to measure this in several instance in our markets: a multi-platform print/Internet ad drives 3x the business activity of an Internet-only ad.

If This Conclusion is True, Why Doesn’t it Feel Satisfying?

This conclusion doesn’t feel very satisfying in the face of the vivid and dramatic change as is currently going on in media. Consumers are leveraging online information tools to shop better; marketers are leveraging online to broaden their presence and their influence. Each one of us can feel the shift in the momentum of the media business. What is it that has changed?

Two things have changed: the expectation of the advertiser and the consumer.

Let’s take the consumer first. They have an impulse to pick up the print product; in markets like housing, autos, remodeling and bridal goods, for instance, the impulse is to organize and orient themselves to begin an effective search. They want to narrow the parameters of their search and make their entry into the deep dive search more effective.

As media providers, we have to ask ourselves how our products have changed in response to that desire? I don’t know that we’ve done a good enough job of evolving our product in order to keep it focused on the specific aims of the consumer. This doesn’t mean a radical redesign or refocusing — the core approach of our print product is utilitarian and solid — but it does mean looking at incremental changes with a fresh eye.

For the advertiser, I believe the biggest change has been in the relative value of a lead, and the relative reward of standing out from the crowd. The economics have changed, largely because the macro-economic environment has changed.

The explosion of content and data on the web has increased the number of times that a consumer can stumble across a market participant. This increases the number of leads a participant will get as their fair share of the activity that goes on in the market. For instance, the 48 million or so people who are interacting with real estate content online are going to come across listings that satisfy their needs and they will reach out to realtors as a result, whether or not the realtor is spending additional money on advertising and marketing.

picture-202I took a stab at showing this relationship in a recent presentation I gave at the Kelsey Group conference group, as shown in the table to the right. An agent who makes $100,000 is paying about $20 for each lead, assuming about 1/5 to 1/4 of their leads come from word-of-mouth and other marketing activities. (That doesn’t include their personal web site, by the way.)

Activities like social marketing and blogging are tools that supercharge word of mouth — the best kind of referral that a marketer can get. The credibility and authenticity that accompanies good content creation help to establish a different kind of relationship than advertising and traditional marketing can. But, common sense tells you that cultivating these relationships will take time and energy, and there is a limit to how many you can cultivate. For purposes of my discussion, I made a wild guess that these network-generating activities can increase word-of-mouth referrals by 10%.

The result for the provider of the multi-platform solution is that the price he has been charging for business activity is looked at by the marketers in a different light. Marketers question whether they need the volume of business activity delivered by the multi-platform solution. Ultimately, they are looking for the cost of acquiring the business activity to average down. (After all, they are doing so much of it themselves.)

We’ve experienced this a number of times in the apartment industry. A company decides to eliminate print in order to reduce their overall marketing costs. Then, when they need a volume of leads to support a community, they come back to print.

The answer isn’t total commitment to one media channel or the other. The right answer is for marketers to use the different channels available to drive the right amount of leads, at the right times, for their businesses. That means moving budgets in and out of different media, and it puts pressure on media providers like us to offer more variably priced packages with different media weights (more print, less print, more online, etc.)

This pressure to make advertising spending go down intensifies during a market disruption. People just don’t feel confident spending money.

A company like NCI can respond in three ways. The first is to provide better measurement and higher accountability around the business activity that we produce, and engage the marketer in a conversation about all of the things that they spend money on and how much business activity they get. This conversation requires a high level of engagement and openness. The second is to create less expensive ways for marketers to participate. And the third is to focus sales and marketing activities on those players in the market who need the volume of business activity and the ability to stand out in order to sustain their earning levels. That means focusing on the market leaders.

This creates a situation where we need to find the capital, energy and resources to innovate even as our business is contracting. And, all the way through, we need faith and confidence in the things that we have always done. Those tools, and all those skills, are still relevant and still needed. The environment is just more challenging and the scope of opportunity more constrained because of factors beyond our control.