If you want to understand the modern consumer, don’t mistake the technology for the trend.
What matters more: changes in technology or changes in people? To casual observers, it’s easy to think these are one and the same. Isn’t studying the changes in technology the same as understanding the changes in people?
To some degree, the changes in how people people live their lives can be understood by examining the tools they use. Archaeologists often learn a lot about ancient peoples by looking at the artifacts they left behind. In modern times, we’ve often marked changes in our society by the “release dates” of significant tools like the train, television, atomic power, and of course, the internet.
The tools people use, however, are more often the “results of changes” that have already occurred in people’s way of thinking and living in the world. More specifically, new tools come into being because of how people desire to live in the world, and with each other. So, changes in how they think about work, play and expression become embodied into the tools and techniques they use to interact. It’s more accurate to say that our tools reflect a change that has already taken place in people’s thoughts some time before – at least long enough ago that the tool could be invented and adopted.
It’s an age old paradox: Which came first, the Twitter or the tweet?
Does it matter? Yes, because it’s a mistake to think someone simply invented Twitter, which then “caused” millions of people to want to communicate in 140-character grunts. Properly understood, Twitter is simply another in a long line of tools that reflect how people’s communication styles have been changing over the last 25 years. Tweeting is not much different than CNN’s “Headline News” which was introduced nearly a decade ago; Headline News itself reflected a change in people’s desire to watch a hour of news (or read an hour of newspaper). We might trace these trends further back to Jack Webb’s preference for “Just the facts, ma’am.” Thus text messaging, Facebook and the entire language of “status updating” is best understood as the result of – not the cause of – changes in modern life.
Many of us reverse these two, and therefore misunderstand our customers (and each other) as a result. We might say young people can’t hold a conversation because they use text messaging too much; yet their desire for quick, staccato interaction with others is more likely the result of how we taught them in school to focus on the answer to quizzes, rather than reflective comprehension. We complain that modern customers won’t talk to us on the phone, because they can get just “information” by email or a website. This, too, isn’t much different than preferring fast food to a seven-course meal. We can’t understand why don’t ready our intelligent newsletter but watch a silly YouTube video millions of times, yet how many more viewers does the Jersey Shore have over Masterpiece Theater?
It’s not the tools. It’s who we have become, that matters.
Our strategy to grow our businesses and earn the trust of the modern consumer can become reversed, as well, if we misunderstand that the preference for tweeting preceeded the actual invention of Twitter. In a recent poll by Pew Research, 44% of younger people said they preferred using text messaging rather than talking to people face to face. But text messaging wasn’t around when we Gen Y was were forming their preferences for passive-aggressive social interactions. They preferred it first, then invented a tool to meet that preference.
Examples in modern times abound. Saturn automobile dealers didn’t haggle with customers because customers evolved from hagglers to accepters. Ebay simply took that one step further, making it possible for consumers to not even show up in person to make a purchase. Neither Saturn nor Ebay created the unwillingness in the consumer to engage face-to-face; instead, they plugged into a change that had been slowly happening over time.
For business professionals, understanding that “tweeting preceeded Twitter” can help us understand what’s happening in our customers’ minds. It focuses us beyond technology itself and into their view of the world. We are forced to ask, “Why do they like to use a particular tool?” If we answer this question, we can get closer to understanding what it is customers really value.
That’s the ultimate goal, said Peter Drucker, so many years ago: Understanding customers’ values so well that our products and services fit them perfectly and virtually sell themselves. If we only see Twitter and texting and online video as another advertising tool, then we’ve missed the really important data about customers who prefer them over the email, telephone and photos. Then we’ll miss the opportunity to innovate – to change the way we build, offer and price our products and services to remain “of value” to the modern consumer.
When we figure out why people use a certain technology, we learn what they hold valuable. Our job is to then build those values into our own products and services, to remain relevant to those people.
One of these days, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube will disappear, just as one day long ago people threw down the pen and picked up the telephone. What was important wasn’t the invention of the technology, but the evolution of people’s values. The telephone succeeded because it was an innovation that reflected what people had come to hold important: speed, connectedness, time. For businesses today, it’s not about embracing social media or texting that’s the correct goal. It’s understanding the values social media plays for modern consumer’s – and then building those same values into our own products and services – that we must grasp. Creating a Facebook page alone won’t get you engaged with your modern customers. You need to get into their heads.
In the meantime, we finally know the answer to the age old question of which came first: And it looks like it said, “tweet, tweet, tweet.”