How has the internet changed consumers over the past 10 years and how can brands make the most of it for their image? Part 1

November 13, 2014

Written by Yasmine Najjar

    The last decade has definitely changed the world we live in. Internet tremendously impacted our daily life and changed our behavior as consumers, the brand-sphere, its marketing strategies and operations consequently had to adapt dramatically. We were able to notice every year the shifting in power from companies towards consumers especially thanks to the emergence of web 2.0. Now, people don’t just read information but interact and share experiences about products and brands notably. In the virtual world, perception of brands personality is influenced by many factors, brands are not anymore in control. Companies have understood this reality for a while now and, like consumers and customers, use the broad range of tools that internet offers in order to face it. But there is quite a difference between doing something and be good at what you do. As consumers, we have all experienced the difficulties brands sometimes face to manage their image. Everyone said to himself one day “Ouch, this is an unacceptable response” while reading the brand’s response to a complaint on their Facebook page. Being on the internet is very demanding for brands, it does not take much (a negative story one day) for a company or brand to see its image damaged. On the other hand, internet offers lots of opportunities for a company to grow its brand, to build a unique personality, to create a “real” bond with its customers. But first of all, they need to understand the major change in consumer behaviors and to leverage new technologies. What is internet about today? What portrait can we produce for 2014 consumers? What are the opportunities and risks brands have to deal with to manage their image? How to make the most of the internet to protect and build brand image? Many questions we’ll try to answer in this paper.

      We are now 2.4 billion internet users around the world, and this figure doesn’t stop growing. The first version of internet, Web 1.0, was mostly about websites where people were limited to passive viewing content. The current version of internet has nothing to do with this anymore: it’s about learning in a very active way, interact and collaborate with each other.

     Every moment of our lives ends up on the internet: we picture, video, click, share thanks to social medias. In 2010, the Chartered Institute of Public Relations defined social media as the term commonly given to websites, online tools, and other interactive communication technologies which allow users to interact with each other in some way, either by sharing information, opinions, knowledge, or interests (Papasolomou & Melanthiou, 2013). In daily life, we usually use the term “social media” to speak about social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. These are also called consumer-generated media (CSM) e.g new sources of online information that are created, initiated, circulated and used by consumers (Blackshaw & Nazzaro, 2004 in Papasolomou & Melanthiou, 2013 ).

     Blogs are also considered as CSM: more and more consumers write about their opinion about brands and theirs products on their own dedicated space. They share experiences; give feedbacks to other consumers, usually in a “specialized” field that they have a strong interest in. These blogs have become a phenomenon especially in the fashion or cosmetic field which even got a name: the beauty-sphere. It is quite hard to know the audience of each blog, but it can be thousands and more people following the same blog every month. Blogs audience keeps growing but more importantly their influence has become substantial. According to Technorati’s 2013 Digital Influence Report, blogs would even outrank social networks for consumer influence (31,1% for blogs vs 30,8% for networks are most likely to influence a purchase).

    What is the place of brands in this virtual world? In the old days, brands would build their image through advertising campaigns and consumers experience of their products and shops. Internet has been an “important communications revolution” for brands (Scott 2011), that offers a wide range of tools to communicate on their image and identity. Moreover, with the emergence of social media, companies are now going beyond simply maintaining a website for basic transactional purposes and traditional promotion. They are rather finding new ways to interact with customers, in search of a more long term relationship rather than a one-way communication which most websites are confined to (Papasolomou & Melanthiou, 2013). One specific way to foster relationships with customers is to create brand fan pages on social networking sites. Companies place brand posts (containing videos, messages, and other material) on these pages. Customers become fans of these brand fan pages, and subsequently indicate that they like the brand post or comment on it. This liking and commenting on brand posts reflects brand post popularity (Vries, Gensler and Leeflang, 2012). and are a good way to see if people adhere to a brand identity and what it reflects. Building relationships with bloggers, who are customers but with influence, also starts to be important for brands image. Combined with good products, these relationships usually built on trust, human and partnerships are always a great booster for brand image.

        As Christoloudides pointed out in 2009, the internet and its related e-technologies have to a large extent upset the asymmetry of information that for so many years worked in favor of brand managers. In effect, with the diminishing information cost and the large number of information you can find on internet nowadays, consumers are better informed. Internet allows them to get the information from multiple sources, particularly in the web 2.0, whereas in pre-internet era brands were the principle source. Today, people actually exhibit a preference for consumer-generated content in online communities relative to other online sources that are viewed as being directly controlled by a firm (e.g., a firm's website providing product-related information) (Varadarajan & Yadav,2009). Brands must realize that consumers are turning away from traditional elements of the promotion mix, by reducing the reliance on advertising as a source of information (Papasolomou & Melanthiou, 2013). It not only enables them to express their identity and reinforce their individuality, it also allows them to satisfy their social needs through sharing of consumption related experiences (Christoloudides, 2009). Suspicious of brands honesty, consumers seek for one another opinion when they want to make up their mind on a brand’s identity or product. This behavior is further shifting the balance of power from firm to consumer (Bernoff & Li 2008, in Christoloudides 2009). An illustration of this customer empowerment is that more and more brands involve the consumer in fundamental stages of the brand building process which shows that companies are aware of the change.

      The monologue that many firms were used to practice towards consumers has been replaced by a many-to-many communication where consumers not only interact with the firm but also with other consumers (Hoffman and Novak 1996 in Christolidoudes 2009). The consumer empowerment doesn’t come that much from the multiple sources of information but much more from the e-WOM, word-of-mouth on internet. Word of mouth, or WOM, is the influence of someone’s informal opinion about products and brands derived from consumption experiences (Sen and Lerman 2007 in Sandes and Urdan (2013)). Internet is great to share your insight as it offers many tools to do it: social media platforms (Facebook, Twitter…), forums and blogs. As Levine et al (2001) said ‘There are no secrets. The networked market knows more than companies do about their own products. And whether the news is good or bad, they tell everyone”. The web gives the floor to consumers, the liberty to give their opinion without any fear of judgment as they are behind a computer, so in a very honest and easy way. This e-WOM can be a great opportunity for brand image but also a high risk that they need to address.

    In the context of Internet, consumers are very busy and solicited therefore more demanding towards brands. They expect brands and their companies to engage with customers and their fans (Papasolomou and Melanthiou, 2013). They expect “more and different”. As a brand,  it is necessary to stand out to attract them and then make a great amount of efforts to build this strong bond that will create engagement and loyalty on their part. They need a good reason to go on your Facebook page and a much better reason to stay on it. They need innovation, unusual, entertainment to be attracted. They also embrace a visual culture, where pictures and videos have sometimes much more influence than words. But the most important thing to know about those customers: they want human. Internet is definitely the place where brand needs to be personified. People need to know the people working behind these brands; brand identity, positioning, brand messages need to be strong and honest so that people can bond with the brand. Furthermore, they expect true exchange and not a one-way communication (brand towards customer).

    Internet is full of great tools to communicate on brand identity and build relationship with customer. Brands don’t always realize the opportunities it offers but also the damage it can be for their image. When they do realize it, lots of them don’t know how to make the most of it. We will address this matter in the second part of this paper: between risk and opportunity, how to make the most of internet for your brand image?