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The silent consumer is gone: Welcome to marketing in the digital age

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The digital revolution has not only changed the way we communicate, it has also changed the way that we engage with the world, purchase goods and services, and get information. The implications that this has for businesses and brands is immense. There was a time when a person could only make a purchase by physically going into a store. Now, consumers can go online to buy goods and products from online stores. Not only can they make purchases, they also have access to comparative prices, digital catalogues with product comparisons, and online reviews that allow them to get real time feedback from others who have used those products or services.

Even the way we consume arts and music has changed. There are now TV shows that allow for user interaction. On shows like Big Brother, audience participation influences the outcomes of the programming. A lot of people now watch the latest Nollywood flicks on YouTube channels, and some of the most popular comedians with massive followings, are online. Many musicians now release their albums online long before they are released in the stores. Even politics and governance is not left out. Many politicians and political parties now launch their campaigns via digital platforms like YouTube and social media platforms; and governments are increasingly going online to increase awareness of their initiatives.
These are immense changes, with immense implications for businesses and brands. If they fail to adapt to the technological changes that are sweeping through, they will find themselves becoming obsolete and losing ground to sometimes smaller, but nimbler competitors, who are more open to embracing the changes that are occurring.

The required changes that established businesses and brands must make to thrive in this new age are simple. Businesses create products and services and make information about the value that they can offer available to their customers through marketing efforts. Traditional marketing assumed that a consumer would either be sitting in front of a TV screen, reading papers and magazines, listening to the radio, or glancing at a billboard as they drive along in a car. As a result, the tools of traditional marketing, were mostly limited to advertisements on TV, radio, Newspapers, magazines and roadside billboards. They offered no opportunity for feedback from the client, and reviews were often limited to mouth to mouth feedback from friends and family. The new digital age has upended that paradigm. Now, the potential customer can search online for the product they are interested in. They can get reviews about the quality of service that can be expected from businesses that they are considering engaging with. They can check out pricing and compare them across various retailers. They can go to the social media pages of influencers and get their views on various products and services.

The age of the silent consumer is dead. Now, consumers are speaking, digitally, to millions of people around the world, and those conversations are shaping what they buy, when they buy it and who they buy it from. Far from being a lamentable fate, however, this new phase of marketing in the digital age offers exciting, profitable opportunities for businesses that are ready to adapt to meet the needs of their customers. The static and silent consumer is a dying breed. The long-held notion that brands can control the customer’s perception of a product or service is finally giving way to marketing in the digital age: user-generated content and social advertising. Static marketing is declining as peer reviews and consumer feedback have now taken centre stage.

This is hardly surprising as a substantive amount of the world’s population now holds a powerful decision-making tool in the palm of their hands. By 2020, there will be five billion internet users worldwide and 10 billion on mobile phones. In Africa, it is expected that we will have 650 million internet users and 500 million of these will be on mobile phones. From this small handheld device, potential customers can make product comparisons, search reviews, and have questions answered by fellow consumers before making a purchase; particularly in the moment of need.
The advent of social media means users are a lot more empowered and engaged, able to give direct feedback and have their voices heard. More than ever before, they are able to establish preferences and register protests. The average consumer’s attention span is now limited in order to cope with the overload of information. Responsive brands stay ahead of the curve by seeing this change as positive and utilising various consumer apps to shift from one-way broadcasting to dialogue.

This paradigm shift affects Africa too, but comes with its own unique digital technology characteristics. Brands and businesses on the continent must adjust and create local solutions to meet this global trend. Africa is a mobile-first digital environment. Brands must create user-friendly applications that are responsive, lightweight and rugged, able to work with minimal data consumption, lower screen resolutions and limited levels of customisation. Companies, brands and service providers must ask themselves: what does success look like in the African market? Who are our customers? Which section of the demographic engages? Where do these potential customers come from? What are their interests? What problems do the providers seek to solve and how will technology play a role in the solution? Digital technology is critical. Bringing data and insight into any commercial concern is pivotal in staying ahead.

The biggest change that brands and businesses must make is in how they attempt to reach their customers. The needs that marketing must address haven’t changed. Good marketing must take the branding message to the customer – wherever they are. Now, those customers are increasingly online. They are glued to their phones, constantly browsing, and increasingly have the ability to search online. Marketing must also become increasingly digital and follow these consumers to the places where they can be found. Tomorrow’s competitors look nothing like yesterday’s competition and providers will have to employ analytics and data mining to compete in this new environment. Companies that get this right will be at the forefront of transformational results; providing solutions for the next billion users.

Juliet Ehimuan is Country Director at Google leading Google’s business strategy in W/Africa and Next Billion Users initiative in Africa. Named Forbes top 20 power women in Africa, featured in the London Business School Review as one of 30 people changing the world, and also featured in BBC Africa Power Women series; Juliet is a thought leader on digital business strategy and leadership. She is the Founder of Beyond Limits Africa, a leadership and organizational capacity building initiative.


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Digital ageJuliet Ehimuan
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