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Flourishing in a decision-support world

Posted on: Monday 27th of April 2015

A core trend in today’s business environment is the growing importance and influence of consumer decision support services. It’s easy to see why this trend is gaining ground. Just ask yourself two simple questions. Over the next three to five years, will consumers want:

1) to be making better or worse decisions?

2) their decision making processes to be easier or harder?

Of course, the answers are obvious. It was ever thus. The difference now, however, is that new technologies and data are making it possible to turn decision support into a fully fledged consumer service. Which is why it’s is such an important trend right now.

Given the trend towards decision support services, how should brands respond? In a world where consumers’ instinctive first move when considering a purchase is to consult a decision support service (including peer and expert reviews, price comparisons and so on) – rather than consult the brand itself – where does this leave brands and their marketing?

We are entering a strange new period when, potentially, brands are last  in line for consumer advice about buying them: because the brand has a vested in promoting itself, anything it says risks being dismissed under the rubric “they would say that, wouldn’t they?”


Alternative strategies

How can brands promote themselves successfully in such an environment?

First point to note is that there are a number of countervailing forces.

1)      Awareness advertising works regardless of and despite the existence of decision support services, because it breeds familiarity and that reduces perceived risk. Even in a decision support environment most consumers want to buy from a brand they know.

2)      There are many occasions and situations where sophisticated decision support services are not needed. Like buying a cold drink on a hot day, or replenishing an item you are familiar with (the target of Amazon’s Dash replenish button).

3)      With most decisions in highly competitive markets, many choices are more or less equally ‘good enough’. That being the case, marketers focus more and more on tie-breaking inducements: the extra discount, the added feature or function.

Each of these countervailing forces survive in a decision-support dominated environment. This means that the new world looks pretty similar to the old: viewed superficially, a high proportion of marketing activities look exactly the same.


Deeper shifts

But underneath these superficial similarities, markets – and marketing – have reached a pivot point. When consumers no longer look to brands for assistance in making decisions about that brand, marketing has to adapt. But how?

Ctrl-Shift sees two core answers. They both involve embracing decision support as an opportunity rather than a threat.

First, turn the brand’s specialist domain expertise into a customer decision-making resource. For most brands, the product they are selling is just one small part of a bigger consumer task. Brands are experts in the category they work in. They can repackage their domain expertise via new advice for consumers about the job as a whole, not necessarily the product specifically.

They can also offer extra services around this job. Say you are an airline selling flights. You’re already doing what you can to improve and differentiate the flight experience, but consumers’ first port of call when choosing a flight is a price comparison service.

OK. But as a travel company you know a lot about the destinations you fly to. So you can provide decision support services to customers around hotels, restaurants, sights to see, pitfalls to watch out for, and so on. Likewise, say you are a mortgage provider. You could offer decision support around every aspect of the home moving process.

There are two key advantages of such strategies. First, they turn your marketing into a customer service. When brands provide such decision support customers have good reason to engage, pay attention and even seek out the advice – much better than intrusive, interrupting advertising that irritates the hell out of people. Second, it opens up new revenue streams as decision support leads to purchasing decisions.

Seen from this perspective, the rise of decision support may be a positive opportunity to grow into new adjacent markets while simultaneously offering customers new dimensions of value and brand experience.


A new channel to market

The second option is to embrace decision-support services as a channel to market. If decision support services are a natural first port of call, they are doing the hard work of attracting audiences keen to know about your brand at exactly the right time – when they are actively considering a purchase. To this degree,  the decision-support service is doing much of the grunt work of marketing (attracting audiences and engagement) for you. So seize this opportunity to engage with customers at low cost.


Back to basics

There is one final, obvious, way to turn the rise of decision support services into a brand advantage. If consumers are being helped to make better decisions, if your brand is the best decision for them, then the more powerful decision support services get the more customers will come flocking to you. For free.

In a world of decision support services you brand has to represent the best decision. Which takes us back to good old fashioned competition.

With these four factors – countervailing forces, decision support around the broader task, decision support services as a new channel to market, and good old fashioned competition – most brands will be able to find a way to flourish in the new environment. Where the emphasis lies depends on the brand’s particular situation. Trying to pretend the world isn’t really changing, or that somehow consumers’ desire for decision support can be resisted, is a mistake. Decision support services’ power and influence can only go one way – up. But with the right response this is much more opportunity than threat.