Straight Talk: J. Walker SmithConsumer Whisperer
Described by Fortune magazine as one of America's leading marketing analysts, J. Walker Smith, Ph.D., president of branding and marketing consultancy Yankelovich, has built a career on tapping into the complex mind-set of consumers. At the recent American Association of Advertising Agencies (AAAA) Conference in Miami, Smith presented a new Yankelovich study that indicates consumer skepticism is at an all-time high. He now pauses to reflect on the study, the adverse effects of spam, and the desperate need for campaign relevance and precision.
PB: In your estimation, is the current resistance from consumers more related to privacy issues or the growing intrusiveness and irrelevancy of
JWS: Broadly speaking, it's driven by the growing intrusiveness of various kinds of marketing solicitations. One of the more important studies conducted in the past was an AAAA study, "People's Attitudes Toward Advertising." In that 1964 study, [AAAA] found that people have a love-hate relationship with advertising. The one thing that people hated about advertising in 1964 was its level of intrusiveness. The one thing that has changed since then is that marketing and advertising has become more intrusive. In fact, when we ask people about that today, we discover that [their] dislike of that intrusiveness has grown significantly. But there are a variety of dimensions to this notion of intrusiveness, and privacy is certainly one of those.
PB: How has spam affected the way consumers feel about legitimate marketing solicitations, either online or offline?
JWS: It's actually worsened it. In [Yankelovich's] research, we found that 53 percent of the people we interviewed said that spam has turned them off to all forms of marketing and advertising. People are finding that spam and certain types of telemarketing are making them fed up with all of the hard-sell messages that surround them. I think if we could be effective as an industry at getting better control over spam, people's attitudes about marketing as a whole will improve.
PB: How have the personal consumer data that marketers collect hurt them during these highly skeptical times?
JWS: [Marketers] haven't done the right thing with the data. What we've done is collect all this data on people in a way that guarantees a negative response when people find out about it. Because we do it in secret, behind people's backs. And then when people find out about it somehow, they get concerned about it, because they didn't know we had all this information about them. ... People, however, will [provide] this information as long as [we] give them something in return. But we haven't engaged in any kind of value exchange with consumers. We've kind of taken this information about them for free, and put it to use, without them getting any of the benefits of us having access to this information.
PB: In short, what are some things marketers can do to reverse consumer resistance?
JWS: Precision and relevance. We've got to get more precise in our targeting, so that every time we execute a campaign, we're not contributing to clutter. And we've got to get more relevant in the kind of messages that we deliver to consumers, so that they find real value in what we're saying to them.
Also, power for consumers and reciprocity for consumers. We've got to put consumers in control, to the extent that they want to be. And then, we've got to be willing to pay people for the time and attention they spend with us. Not promise them a great product [for] just reading this direct mail piece and then responding, but [offer] something in the piece that gives them value right then and there, for the time they spend with us.
Also, if we could target people with the right attitudes, we'd go a long way towards reducing the amount of clutter people see. ... One of the tools that we need is [one] that enables us to get attitudes incorporated into our databases, because that's going to enable us to take a big step forward in terms of addressing some of the things that consumers are saying to us [about what] they're looking for.
PB: What was the last piece of direct mail, or e-mail, you responded to, and why?
JWS: E-mail, I pretty much ignore. But for direct mail, it probably would be something from Delta Airlines. I've got a relationship with Delta; I'm a heavy traveler on Delta. I know that there's always going to be some information in there that has some value to me, so I'll pay attention to that.