Online Marketing: Interactivity

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How much Interactivity does Online Marketing need?

We hear it all the time: Online marketing gives us “interactivity” with our clients.  It provides a chance to not only tell our story, but to listen to the stories of our customers.  Via various e-marketing applications, we can open up “a dialogue” with current and potential buyers.But is interactivity in online marketing being oversold?  How much interactivity actually takes place?  And how much interactivity does your online marketing need to reap the benefits of various e-marketing tools such as social media, mobile apps, smart devices, behavioral advertising, and even just “old-fashioned” websites?

The Selling Points of Interactivity

Ever since the early days of the internet, marketers were excited that instead of just sitting in front of a television, potential customers would be surfing, searching, and socializing in a manner that allowed consumers the ability to self-select advertising messages, thus increasing the effectiveness of each particular ad that a consumer encountered.  As more interactive communication tools were developed, marketers dreamed of a world where every consumer would be their “friend” and billions of conversations would lead to more connectivity, positive affect, and brand loyalty.

Marketers built websites that did more than just present information.  They allowed visitors to play games, build potential products, and visualize products in various environments.  They invited consumers to interact through email, chat, discussion boards, feedback forums, and wall postings.  And they begged these same consumers to tell their friends of their excitement for the brand via votes, rankings, shares, likes, diggs, tweets, etc.

Marketers based their excitement for interactivity on the idea that more interaction or engagement would bring consumers psychologically closer to the brands that were being marketed, and that consumers would start to have some degree of loyalty toward the brand akin to one’s loyalty toward friends.  But that’s not always how it worked.

The Problems with Interactivity

There were five main problems with the dream of online interactivity:

  1. Interacting with consumers takes a lot of time, and time means money.
  2. Interaction is not always positive.
  3. As more companies interact, your particular brand isn’t so special anymore.
  4. Once you start a consumer “friendship,” it’s hard to stop.
  5. Consumer interactions with each other may damage your brand image.

1. Interacting with consumers takes a lot of time, and time means money.  The first problem with interactivity, that it takes much more time than first thought, is a deal-breaker for a great many firms these days.  In the earlier days of online interactivity, marketers sent out an email or two in response to an online consumer inquiry.  As interactive methods were developed, the scope and intensity of interaction grew as well.  Now, with thousands (or millions) of consumers following a particular brand on Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and elsewhere, it’s nearly impossible to respond to all posts much less read what is said about the brand.  Quite often, firms use algorithms to sort through comments or tweets to determine trends (whether positive or negative) without having to read each post.  Regardless, the promise of interaction has come to represent a fairly heavy financial burden on brands that truly want to interact on a one-to-one basis.

2. Interaction is not always positive.  When a customer sends a letter or an email complaining about a particular aspect of your brand, you have the opportunity to reply (if you have the time and labor force) in an attempt to resolve the complaint.  Fortunately, whether or not the complaint is resolved, the communication typically remains between the brand and the individual consumer.  The use of social media as an interaction tool, however, has opened up negative communications to other customers and, quite often, to the general public.  When marketers are slow to address negative comments, there is the risk that such comments will snowball and pull in consumers who may have similar tendencies toward negativity, but who were not prone to act upon that negativity in a manner that hurts the brand.  Although many optimistic marketers will suggest that any such avalanches of public complaining behavior provide an opportunity to improve the product offering and resolve the complaints, quite often the damage of a slew of negative commentary is hard to overcome.

3. As more companies interact, your particular brand isn’t so special anymore. When you’re the first in your market to respond to a consumer’s desire for interaction, the effect is likely quite positive.  But the current state of the marketplace allows companies both large and small to interact with individual consumers at a relatively high frequency.  In other words, those consumer friends you were trying to bring to your lunch table are being wooed by a number of other suitors who may be having something better for lunch.

4. Once you start a consumer “friendship,” it’s hard to stop.  For many early entrants to the consumer interactivity game, the significant increase in employee or contractor time to interact with clients became unwieldy.  As new marketing metrics were developed, brand managers often found negative returns on the interactivity investments.  This resulted in decreased funding for interactive marketing.  It wasn’t that brands wanted to say “goodbye” to their new consumer friends, but just that they didn’t have so much time to talk anymore.  Unfortunately, many clients had become accustomed to the high levels of interaction and when interactivity declined, the potential for consumer disappointment became greater.

5. Consumer interactions with each other may damage your brand image.  Positive word-of-mouth has always been appreciated by savvy marketers.  The advent of interactive e-marketing brought with it the potential not only for interactivity between the brand and the consumers, but between consumers as well.  While this meant a greater potential for positive word-of-mouth (or in its ultimate form, positive viral marketing), it also meant that negative talk could also be propagated.  In its innocent forms, this meant that disgruntled consumers could spread the word quite easily to other consumers about a particular negative aspect of the brand.  In its more sinister forms, it meant that competitors could infiltrate your brand’s consumer base and make trouble like never before.

How much interactivity is needed?

Clearly, the answer to the question of how much interactivity is needed depends on the firm, the industry, the market segments to be served and their expectations, the competitive environment, the available technology, and the costs to interact.  Time and time again, marketers are quick to promote the idea that interactivity is the holy grail that will elevate a brand to highly profitable levels.  However, most marketers are slow to embrace the need for clear metrics to measure costs and benefits of interactivity.  But that’s a topic for another day.

In the meantime, let’s follow the premise that interactivity, at least to some degree, is sensible.

Be sensible,
Anthony Miyazaki

A few more things to peruse:Kim, Ryan (2011), “Badgeville Turns Any Website into a Social Network,” Gigaom(September 12), http://gigaom.com/2011/09/12/badgeville-turns-any-website-into-a-social-network/.

Napoletano, Erika (2011), “How Two Small Companies Are Driving Revenue Using Social Media,” Entrepreneur (September 26), http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/220354.

Stead, Sylvia (2012), “As Online News Changes, Interactivity Becomes Important,” The Globe and Mail (April 2), http://www.theglobeandmail.com/community/inside-the-globe/as-online-news-changes-interactivity-becomes-more-important/article2389762/?utm_medium=Feeds%3A%20RSS%2FAtom&utm_source=Home&utm_content=2389762.

Zooppa.com, Inc. (2012), “Traditional Advertising Lacks ‘Creative Interactivity’ According to Online Creative Community Survey,” GlobeNewsWire (March 13), http://www.globenewswire.com/newsroom/news.html?d=248899.

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