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What the Walking Dead taught me about the future of consumer loyalty

The digital revolution has eroded my attention span. It’s made me impatient. It’s saturated my waking hours with distractions, media, advertising and content. I live in a constant barrage of stuff, vying for my attention around the clock.

But I’m starting to fight back. I don't want to just react to what’s pushed at me. So I’m reclaiming my focus, and my choice.

I’m becoming more discriminating in where I choose to spend my time and attention. Frequently, that means choosing not to engage, to view, to consume.

And I’m coming to realise that I have the same control when it comes to brands, too. I’m in control. I have more choice than ever over where I spend my time and money.

And I think, maybe, this is the beginning of a revolution. Let’s explore.

There’s more stuff than ever

We live in an age when there are more films, television series and books being produced than ever before - and the rise of new platforms and mediums has made the cost and effort to create, distribute and monetize content lower than it’s ever been.

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Figure 1: IMDB, films per year, via https://www.quora.com/How-many-films-are-produced-each-year

The old guard - the tv networks, theatres and the Hollywood production line - still wield incredible budgets and influence (and are, arguably, still the de-facto hubs for mainstream media). However, we’re increasingly seeing that the creation, consumption and success of content is becoming more democratised and widely distributed.

Specifically, platforms like Amazon’s e-book ecosystem, YouTube, Spotify, Patreon and Kickstarter enable individuals and independents to create and take their ideas directly to market. Twitter, Facebook and Instagram (to name just a few) can connect that content directly to audiences, whilst also acting as a natural quality filter to surface the best material.

Conventional ‘production line’ content models, eg., relying on studios and publishers, are being disrupted by independents taking advantages of new routes to market.

At the other end of the scale, the big digital content platforms - like Netflix and Amazon Video - are increasingly using their budgets and intelligence to produce designed-for-purpose media. Engineered, data-driven and guaranteed-to-perform content is being produced at a higher volume than ever before. They’re getting smarter, and more consumer-centric.

So there’s not only more content, but in theory it’s getting better - review ecosystems, social propagation and peer review mechanics, and the intelligent use of big data and machine learning processes are breeding competition and quality.

We’re saturated with stories.

The importance of differentiation

Yet, the theory goes that there are only seven (or maybe nine) types of story, and that most films (and games) follow an almost identical structure. It suggests that all storytelling is derived from a handful of basic tropes, which are sliced, diced and recycled.That means that, even with a prolific amount of new content being created, regardless of quality and targeting, it’s all largely… samey.

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Figure 2: One of the nine basic story types, from http://www.how-to-write-a-book-now.com/basic-plots.html

It means that Romeo & Juliet, Dune, House of Cards, Game of Thrones and Star Wars are all shadows of the same kind of "boy meets girl" story framework, and only really separated in the details.

Even beyond the obvious examples (like how closely Avatar resembles Pocahontas), a brief exploration of the TV Tropes website, for example, quickly reveals just how repetitive and indistinct our media often is.

Much of the meat of our content, whether it’s a film, a book or some other format, is just...filler.

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Figure 3: The four quarters in a typical feature film

That means that, frequently, most of our content experience is largely undifferentiated. The story itself is just a necessary vehicle to deliver a payoff.

In fact, it’s only the use of, for example, different perspectives, an unexpected twist, or a combination of production techniques which separates Star Trek from Star Wars. These stories are often, at a macro level at least, very similar. They’re constructed from the same kinds of building blocks, then given different treatment.

What makes us interested, divides us, compels us to discuss, and turns us into content evangelists are the elements which are different in the content which we enjoy.

Our excited conversations about Star Wars and Star Trek rarely focus on how they both feature planets, or that they’re set in space - rather, we pick out and champion the elements which surprised, shocked, amused, or otherwise resonated with us, which made the content stand out from the crowd.

And whilst context often plays a role in these preferences - where a film, a book, a work of art or a piece of music might gain disproportionate cut-through because of factors like time, place, or culture - these scenarios are hard to deliberately engineer, and are often only apparent as the catalyst for success in hindsight.

The thing which matters - which increases the chance of content being broadly consumed, shared, distributed and commercially successful - is differentiation.

Finite attention, and infinite choice

Increasingly, in a world saturated with media, I find myself craving differentiation. I’m bored of samey content.

I imagine that, in a time with less media, I might have been less picky. I might have happily sat through a long film for a comparably average payoff.

But now, with all of these options, I’m discovering that my time has a price.

In fact, there are films produced as recently as in the 90’s (say, The Sixth Sense, with its famous twist) which I don’t think I’d bother watching if they were produced now. I wonder if the value exchange of my time and attention for the limited payoff - when there’s other media available, and I have more choice - would feel like it was worth it.

For the same reason, I’m a few seasons behind on The Walking Dead, and I gave up on Stranger Things after only a few episodes. In both cases, in my opinion at least, it’s because too much of the story feels like filler. There’s a lot of repetition of old tropes and time spent investing in a slow build towards something - for a theoretical payoff - which may never come, or might not be worth it when it arrives.

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I’m bored of waiting for a twist, a clever idea, or a unique plot device which I might have been able to have got elsewhere, more easily. In fact, I’ve come to consciously resent the time I’ve put in so far, for what I’ve got out. And so I’ll watch, read, or consume something else, in the hopes of a better effort to reward ratio. There’s plenty out there.

I also concede that my behaviour may be, in part or whole, the result of an eroding attention span - that the barrage of YouTube videos, clickbait articles and cat memes has made me less patient, and has conditioned me to expect an immediate (but shallow, and precisely engineered) payoff - but even if that’s the case, it doesn’t change the outcome. The principles are the same. If I don’t feel like I’m getting value (or if the promise of the value exchange feels imbalanced), then I’ll look elsewhere.

And whilst I’m not enjoying, bought into or committed to my current experience, I’m more receptive to other ideas. I’m more inclined to actively explore, research and consider other options. I’m more likely to seek peer review and recommendations, or to respond to advertising and direct marketing. I’ll seek out new options which promise surprise, delight, and differentiation.

That’s the salient point - I have choice. If the value exchange isn’t right, I’ll choose to go elsewhere. In the world of content and media, for the organisations and individuals who produce it, my loyalty (i.e, my sustained preference) is the battleground.

It’s the same with products and services

The thing is, I suspect that this behaviour isn’t radically different to how I interact with many brands and organisations. I’m impatient. I’m looking for value. I’m seeking differentiation.

This is crucial in an age where the cost and threshold of entry to market is ever decreasing (with lowering costs of storage and transport, the commodification of data processing, new platforms and mechanisms for engaging with consumers, etc). As a result a proliferation of new and small businesses has created more choice for the consumer than ever before.

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Figure 4: New companies registered in the UK (representitive of broader, global patterns) from 2004 to 2014

So, in the same way that there are only a finite number of types of story, I posit that there may only be a limited number of types of business.

This has significant implications on how we should design, create and manage brands, and how we as consumers interact with them in our lives.

Most businesses are functionally the same

Regardless of what differentiates a company behind the scenes (e.g., the organisational structure, operational processes, and traditional USPs, etc), as a consumer I only engage with the tip of the iceberg; the moments of truth where I research, consider, and purchase (or convert).

So for the most part, consumer experiences are comparable and largely undistinguished beyond the type of business and platform (e.g. all fashion ecommerce websites are generally comparable, but are distinctly different to the experience of visiting an electronics retail store - which in turn are largely comparable).

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Figure 5: Category pages for "jeans" from three major high street fashion ecommerce retailers.

Because, within any given sector, the product and proposition of each company is generally constructed from the same basic building blocks (e.g., price, market, product type, colour, size, etc), and the only real difference is - again - the treatment and presentation. These organisations and their propositions are largely undifferentiated.

And, because of this - as with my choice in which media and content I consume - I’m getting picky about which brands I invest my time (and money) with.

In the same way that watching yet another cheesy vampire film makes me crave a new or exciting plot device, evaluating the product and proposition of yet another identical insurance company makes me crave differentiation in what I buy and the services I use.

Consumer loyalty is key

In a saturated market, consumer choice determines who wins and who loses. Brands need to attract new prospects, and to retain existing customers if they wish to maintain and to grow market share.

But as with our media and content choices, it’s differentiation which determines the brands we choose, or the brands we continue to shop with.

Whilst hard limitations like price, availability and proximity still frequently play a role in our research and decision making processes, the digital revolution erodes these traditional USPs - these are yesterday’s differentiators, and their time is limited.

Because, increasingly, everything’s available everywhere: all the time, on demand, at a comparable price. When all else is equal, the brand I choose to engage with will be the one which surprises, delights, compels, or resonates with me.

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Figure 6: A vision of a world saturated with augmented reality layers and advertising, where everything is available, everywhere, all the time. From hyper-reality.co.

Brands which are undifferentiated - or who are trading on legacy USPs - risk competing only on price, or slipping into being little more than a listing on a comparison website.

I should point out that, for some brands, that’s okay - brands which are designed to compete on price in commodified marketplaces and comparison sites can still do well, fighting to grab consumers attention and cash, but not necessarily their loyalty. Often, they rely on capitalising on scenarios where brands have failed to gain consumer loyalty, or operate in verticals where differentiation is sometimes less important than cost.

However, many brands - particularly those who seek and value longevity and sustainable growth - are realising that they need to invest in the loyalty of their existing and potential new consumers.

Because low levels of loyalty make audiences more susceptible to competitive advances from other providers, or - as with our media choices - increases the likelihood that they will actively seek alternatives.

High levels of loyalty, however, can raise the threshold at which I might otherwise become susceptible to competitive messaging, and might also mitigate against past or future undifferentiated experiences. High loyalty will forgive friction, or disappointment, and stops me switching when I’m price-sensitive.

In the same way that I might forgive a beloved author if I’m disappointed with a book in a particular series, I’m more likely to forgive a brand for a poor product or experience when I’ve built up trust and loyalty over time.

Businesses need to tell a story beyond just reflecting their ability to fulfill demand for a reasonable price with reasonable convenience - loyalty born from convenience or commodity only lasts until another brand is more convenient.

As products and services become increasingly commodified, and as markets get busier and noisier, differentiation is one of the only scalable, lasting tools which businesses can use to attract new customers and to grow loyalty. Differentiation is, by definition, how you stand out.

Standing out

To fail to stand out is to be overlooked by consumers as they research and choose the brands they’ll build relationships with.

Of course, whilst it’s easy to state that businesses need to be unique, interesting and differentiated, the reality is that creating and maintaining that distinction is challenging. Traditional companies in particular - those built on the back of traditional USPs - may struggle to identify or create distinguishing factors which set them aside from their competitors.

Surprisingly, though, many longstanding organisations who appear undistinguished on the surface, hide surprising stories and values which they simply fail to bring to the market.

Some years ago, I consulted for a seemingly generic insurance company. It turned out that, as a minor feature, they automatically increased the value of goods they covered in your home during the festive period, to account for you storing friends and relatives gifts. But this was only mentioned in the small-print to existing customers. That’s differentiated, but lost in the noise.

Similarly, a home improvement company who marketed entirely on price made the same misstep. They produced a product of such a high quality that the industry ratings system had to be frequently revised to reflect their value; this information barely featured as a footnote, too late in the conversion funnel to win the hearts and minds of high-funnel researchers.

My point is that, maybe, differentiation isn’t necessarily that rare. Maybe it just needs extracting and putting into the spotlight. Businesses need to look inwards and discover the ideologies, features and principles which can make them stand out.

Because, in a crowded market of largely similar businesses, you only need to be better than your competitors. That might be as simple as having less friction than other options, having better customer service, or more streamlined processes than others.

That level of differentiation is almost always achievable, even if what you sell or do isn’t unique.

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Figure 7: "How to come up with a value proposition when what you sell isn't unique", from conversionxl.com/how-to-come-up-with-a-value-proposition-when-what-you-sell-isnt-unique/

But there’s a risk to differentiating. By highlighting and positioning yourself as something different, you risk alienating some of your potential audience.

Everything to everyone = Nothing to anyone

In the same way that I have preferences and biases towards the kind of films, music and books I enjoy, the same applies to the brands in my life.

Personally, for example, I’ll naturally gravitate towards brands which utilise clever technology, or those which have synergies with other brands or products which I have relationships with. Conversely, I’ll avoid many lifestyle, fitness and ‘sporty’ brands because their messaging or storytelling often fails to resonate with me.

Differentiation, by its very nature, attracts or repel consumers with different preferences. and will do so with varying degrees of impact.

The challenge is that, in our paradigm, the "mega-brand" is king. The aspiration and "end game" for most large brands is to utterly consume their market - to grow, and grow, until they have an incontestable lead and market share. The dream of success is, frequently, a single logo on a myriad of market-winning products which meet the need of every customer in their sector.

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The fear of negative perception from some potential consumers, then, is one of the things which most frequently prohibits differentiation. Brands don’t differentiate because moving away from an inoffensive middle ground could polarise their audience. Alienating part of an indifferent target market appears risky and often overshadows the potential of more engaged and loyal customers.

And differentiation can create friction for consumers, too. There’s a real risk that the different, or the new, is often less comfortable or easy to consume than the norm. For most brands, though, the benefits of cut-through will outweigh the costs of that friction.

I should point out that some brands will struggle to move away from this middle ground because of the sectors they work in, and the restrictions that places on them (e.g., the strict content policies on medical or finance websites). In cases like this, they’ll often attempt to achieve competitive separation by creating sibling and child brands. This allows them to create an alternate treatment and presentation layer for their services and target a slightly different demographic with each. Whilst this can go some way to out-differentiating competitors in a largely static market, it doesn’t solve the underlying problem; they’re all doing it, and it’s all samey.

There are big wins, then, to be had by the brands willing to be more ambitious and aggressive in their differentiation. Standing for something, and standing out, builds more loyalty and sways consumer decisions more than minor distinctions in messaging or functionality. To target and engage a smaller fraction of the potential consumer base, but with a relationship orders-of-magnitude more sticky and loyal, will become increasingly important in our new, digital, consumer-first world.

Technology is widening the gap

None of this is new thinking. Brands have always fought to separate themselves and to stand out, whilst minimising the risk of alienation. But the cost for failure has never been so high as it is today - the pace of change in consumer behaviour, technology and marketplaces is accelerating and we’re about to hit a critical point.

New interfaces like voice search, interactions with chatbots, and intelligent personal assistants (IPAs) - which are set to become the norm for how we interact with technology - are changing the way in which we select products, services and brands.

If I need a new washing machine, if my insurance policy is due for renewal, or if I want to order a pizza - if these devices have enough information to be able to make a reasonable choice (the intersect of price, proximity, availability, etc) - then, increasingly, they’ll just choose for me. Increasingly, there’ll be scenarios where devices like Siri, Alexa, and Google Home will make consumers less involved in their own purchase decisions.

And if you’re one of the brands who wasn’t chosen, you’ve lost that consumer. They won’t see your advertising, because they never entered the marketplace or spent time researching their options. They’ll never visit your website, or be swayed by your special offers. In these cases, the consumer never enters your funnel at all.

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In a market where most brands are undifferentiated, and applications find the ‘best’ solutions for us automatically, the role of storytelling, of loyalty, and differentiation takes on new importance. We’re moving from a world where you need to influence consumer preference and decision, to one where you need to influence machine choice.

When they’re ready to buy, you’re already too late

At the point of consumer need, these devices and systems will look for clues and signals which will help them make the best brand, service and product decisions.

They’ll examine past behaviour. They’ll consider peer behaviour and influence. They’ll look for evidence of preference towards certain brands over others. They’ll consider where you are, what they know about you, and use all of that context to make a decision on your behalf.

As consumers, every piece of content we consumer (or don’t), the actions we take, and the signals we leave are tracked and monitored. All of this information is being recorded. Your reactions, responses and interactions - and those of and between your peers - is building a profile of your preference and loyalty, which will be used by IPAs and other systems to act on your behalf.

Specifically, IPAs will use engagement and alignment signals as a proxy for preference.

If a user has already interacted with your brand, your app or your content (and if your brand is in the right place, at the right time), then you’re more likely to be the chosen solution.

That means marketing to and building relationships with consumers before they enter the funnel.

It means that our conversion-centric focus needs to change radically - to consider that, if we don’t capture consumer interest and generate evidence of loyalty and engagement before the point of need, those potential customers will never see our brand.

It means that channels which can reach consumers early in their lifecycles - like organic search, or social media - need to shift their focus towards creating evidence of preference. Because trying to capture consumer demand when it manifests only works if there’s a route to engage with that consumer. And that will no longer be the case.

In this world, first-mover advantage is critical.

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Figure 8: Amazon Dash is already creating engagement signals for commodity purchases, which will drive future automated purchase decisions.

Once a consumer already has a preferred provider for a certain solution (consciously or otherwise), it’s hard for other brands to dislodge that preference. Unless the customer has a bad enough experience to proactively send them to researching their options, they’re unlikely to enter other purchase funnels, see competitor advertising, or make their own purchase decisions.

The key, then, is to identify ways to create and grow brand currency within your marketplace; to identify potential customers long before they enter a need state, and to create usage and preference signals which can be cashed in later (either directly, or by inference) for preference at the point of need and transaction.

It’s also worth considering that many companies do a poor job of maintaining great relationships with consumers. Budgets and preferential marketing tactics often focus on acquisition, at the expense of retention and delighting existing customers. In a marketplace where competitors are attempting to earn brand currency, a consistently average or innocentive relationship might make me receptive to competitor propositions.

It’s not enough to differentiate and tell a story to win a consumer - you have to follow-through, and maintain that dialogue. Brand currency decays with time, and with poor experiences.

If engagement is a proxy for preference, brands should fear boredom.

You need to start now.

Emerging technologies, personal assistants, and the increasing commodification of goods and services has already made inroads into the traditional marketing model.

You can no longer rely on advertising and marketing to the masses, in the hopes of building a funnel from awareness through to conversion.

Now, you need to identify (or create) differentiating features, and pivot your focus to using those features to build relationship signals. You must create content and undertake activity which earns evidence of brand currency/loyalty/awareness, and positions you as a solution before consumers enter need states - otherwise you won’t be in the consideration set when they’re ready to purchase.

Practically, this means working out how you turn your differentiating factors into opportunities to engage, converse and build relationships with consumers which positively impact their experiences. Depending on your sector, that might mean supportive content and resources, or it might mean practical applications and in-person support for tangentially related topics and services. You’ll need to find and/or engineer your thing, and to start converting capability into upstream loyalty.

The measurement, attribution and business processes required to enable this kind of behaviour are challenging, to say the least. Marketing teams will need to be judged on concepts like brand affinity, rather than conversions, as lack-click and even multi-touch attribution won’t come nearly close to understanding how, when are where brand influence occurs, or lead (directly or otherwise) to a sale. These metrics, aren’t impossible to track (e.g., models like net promoter score measurement can be adapted to understand affinity, etc), but they’re a fundamentally different way of thinking about acquisition and retention.

The old model of "spend money on marketing, get and attribute sales" doesn’t work in an age when there’s no single attributable trigger for a conversion, and where the consumer isn’t the decision-maker.

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Teams and businesses will need to focus on the ownership of consumers and their preference, within a sector; it simply won’t be feasible to optimise towards or measure the individual sales and conversions which occur as a result of (frequently machine-inferred) brand preference. All activity will need to drive towards growing awareness and affinity, and retaining existing consumer preference - otherwise competitors will win consumers before they even enter the market, and all you’ll see is diminishing market share.

Seize the opportunity.

Consider, as a consumer, which brands you have relationships with, which span beyond just the transactional.

Which companies produce interesting, compelling content? Which engage with you outside of your predictable purchase patterns, to offer something more than special offers and discounts? Which stand out from the crowd, because they’re different and they resonate with your preferences and ideologies?

I’d be surprised if you can identify more than a handful, and shocked if you can name one in each vertical which you transact in as a consumer.

But these are the brands which will continue to stand out, to earn brand currency, and to be chosen (by individuals and IPAs).

That means there’s a gap, and an opportunity. Mostly, because this is a hard shift to make. New businesses and disruptive startups often lack the brand currency to quickly and effectively establish relationships these kinds of relationships (and monetize them in a viable timeframe), and most established, larger organisations lack the flexibility to change their operating structures and processes to think and behave this way.

In the short-term, that means that there’s money left on the table, for those who are willing to stretch themselves and become more consumer-centric. Simple differentiation and a focus on building loyalty and brand currency can make the difference between being just-another-brand, and leading in a sector.

In the mid to long-term, things get more complex. You need to consider that, if a machine had to pick your service over another, for a consumer, what signals would it evaluate, and what decision would it make?

And if you can’t answer that question today, then you’re already losing market share to brands who’re built on differentiated problem-solving, and you’ve got some catching up to do.

Because, in 2016, I already have an application which automatically manages my mortgage for me, based on preference signals, as well as one which automatically evaluates the gas & electricity market for me and automatically changes my account - based partially on price, but also on stated and inferred preference.

These systems exist today, and they’re already removing consumers from the marketplace. If you wait until they reach your sector, somebody else will already be entrenched and own your consumers.

How will you differentiate, earn and maintain loyalty, and create preference?

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Published on Nov 11, 2016 by Jono Alderson