Saturday, 20 June 2009

Business 2.0: Consumer Culture in Australia

How does Australian consumer 'culture' impact upon a businesses' ability to engage with customers using new media?

I recently wrote about Australian civic culture, so today I take a look at Australian consumer culture. Let me make it clear that when I talk about 'culture', I usually mean 'the way things are done around here'. If you have ever tried to introduce new ways of doing things in your work (or any group setting for that matter), you have probably heard the cultural context expressed as 'that is not the way things are done around here'. When businesses try new approaches to customer engagement, the phrase is not uncommon, too. So I have penned a few thoughts below on consumer culture in Australia and how businesses might be able to overcome some of the barriers. It is not an exhaustive examination but this might be a worthy future research project.

Some initial observations concerning consumer culture in Australia:
  1. When I first wrote a pdf newsletter (years ago) for a professional organisation and emailed it to members, there were many complaints. 'Take me off the email list'; 'The file is too big and it took me X hours to open my email app'; 'How did you get my email address?'.
  2. In a community forum, the culture was so constrained you had to be very apologetic if you dared to have a voice. It was OK to advertise the latest cookie drive, but not to advertise a discount on a commercial product or service - that was just plain 'wrong'. But the culture is changing rapidly.
  3. In most government forums, anything which is slightly commercial is usually unwelcome. There is a time and a place for marketing (unless you are a major sponsor, of course).
  4. On most new media apps, everybody is an expert in making you money online. Predominantly from overseas. Indeed, it might even be legitimately 'unAustralian' to market oneself as such.
  5. If you have ever hear an acquaintence mention 'I would like to discuss a business opportunity with you', you now know which firm they are talking about and you haven't gone back for a second take.
  6. The Do Not Call register was so popular the server crashed in the first few minutes of operation. But then again, so did Canada's.
  7. When a company launches a consumer information campaign in Australia, it is deemed to be 'corporate propaganda' (but public-funded advertising telling us how good a new policy will be hardly gets a mention).
  8. The traditional media is quick to point out when new media 'fails', especially if it can be construed in such a way as to support so-called 'mainstream' views of the world.
  9. On some new media forums, so-called 'businesses' will follow you, only to unfollow you once you follow them back. This annoys me no end.
  10. I cringe when I buy a pair of cheap sunglasses and the salesperson says 'the system won't let me complete the sale unless you give me your address and telephone number'.
So how are 'things done' around here? I am convinced that the first hunch is not necessarily correct. It is important to take an objective view of things.

For example, to test the community view of things in (2) above, I set up a voluntary survey using VotApedia. The results were surprising: the apologists achieved only 35% in favour of the conservative, polite approach to broadcasting information. It seems that in many ways the 'culture' may have been the domain of the vocal minority. The culture has changed since others have become confident enough to have a voice. We need to conduct more research into the dynamics of online engagement and take the findings seriously.

But how does this relate to business?

First, I think it is important to acknowledge that one negative comment from a customer, journalist, participant or other observer is not necessarily representative of the group. If the 'negatives' happen to be very vocal, it is easy to develop a skewed view of the whole. Adequate market research is the key.

Second, managing customer expectations is essential. Customers want everything, right now, for free. You can never meet all their desires, but you can manage what they expect from you. This is where new media represents a major improvement on the old-style engagement mentioned in (1) above. Email provides a sense where we must respond or at least take some action (such as deleting the email), whereas it is too easy to ignore something that is not interesting in new media forums.

Third, it is difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff. Points (4) to (9) above make this a difficult task. Competition is great for consumers, but how can the average consumer make an informed decision when there is too much information? Information must also be comparable and the dilemmas created by 'fine print' make the task very difficult, even if a customer wanted to engage with a business. Conversely, if a business tries something new and the news media takes a particular view of it, then things can go publicly wrong. I am hoping this will change as the number of participants increases.

Fourth, the artificial delineation between business and government suggested in (3) above is really just that: artificial. To say that business is not a legitimate participant in a liberal democracy denies the actual role of the liberal democratic state. I am certainly not a proponent of free markets, but markets exist because of the state. To think otherwise is simply naive - companies should not have free reign but neither should governments. Indeed, such naive views tend to be counter-productive by creating a culture which restricts civic participation, reduces innovation and prevents new ideas or new players from entering the marketplace.

So what can businesses do?

I argue first that businesses must establish their legitimacy. Point (5) suggests that sneaky marketing practices will lead to short-lived business opportunities. Twitter, for example, is looking into a beta version of Verified Accounts to deal with the issue of legitimacy. Establishing legitimacy takes time, too, but there must be an element of 'genuineness' about the process. New media provides numerous opportunities for customer engagement.

But how can a business be genuine with customers? I think the first step is to engage online with existing customers, rather than using new media as an opportunity to gain new customers. This would, in my view, overcome the appearance of being 'spammed'. And it must be more than an attempt to collect information from customers without offering something in return - see point (10) above. I happily use Google's tools because I get access to a capability by simply sharing my data and I know others do the same.

Another area which businesses tend to overlook in Australia is educational institutions. Sure, there are plenty of Australian Research Council linkage grants designed to encourage greater interaction between researchers and business, but these are for the most part the domain of the superstars only. I often draw upon educational material from North America and advertising is a part of the material. I doubt North American students would moralise the use of advertising funding for educational material production, but I can imagine the furore such an 'innovation' would cause in an Australian university!

I have also found that it is useful to 'interconnect' the face-to-face experience with the online experience. I have written about this elsewhere on social policy engagement with youth online. There are many opportunities for businesses but I think it will take some time before Australian consumer culture views customer engagement as more than just a way for businesses to increase sales. The involvement of businesses in the higher education sector, in particular, would demonstrate a more meaningful connection with society. Getting a foot in the door would be another matter, but this has already happened in terms of email outsourcing and so on, so why not in teaching?

One observation of using new media in my teaching suggests that there must be an equal amount of openness on the part of both lecturer and student. While some of my colleagues' research suggests that students see lecturers online as an invasion of privacy, I have not had this experience. When we tried Facebook as a teaching tool a couple of years ago, the student satisfaction correlated with the number of students who opted to use Facebook. But I (and consequently my tutors) tend to be quite open in the online environment. Where the lecturer acts as a 'lurker', rather than a participant, the results tend to reflect my colleagues' findings. I would not be surprised if a principle of 'equal openness' could equally be applied to a customer engagement model.

Some hasty generalisations

It is difficult to make an empirically-verifiable generalisation about consumer culture and how this might affect businesses' ability to engage with Australian consumers using new media. Nonetheless, I will make a few 'hasty generalisations':
  1. Businesses must establish themselves as legitimate participants in the online environment.
  2. Australian consumers tend to view attempts by businesses to engage online as a an infringement on consumers' personal time, especially when the engagement is unsolicited.
  3. There should be 'equal openness'. If the customer must provide all their personal details and contribute to marketing statistics, then the business must give something in return.
  4. Businesses should be given more opportunites to participate in the higher education system, and not just with the superstars. After all, businesses are the real customers of universities (if you think this statement is incorrect, see my earlier comment on the role of the state).
New media provides many opportunities for businesses to enagage with customers, but there are a few issues which must be addressed. Rather than viewing these as cultural impediments to businesses, it is arguable that businesses have a duty to amend their practices to suit the consumer culture. That is not to say that businesses need to meet the unreasonable demands of consumers, but at least meet the realistic expectations of consumers (avoiding unsolicited spamming is an obvious example). But on reflection, I think that Australian consumer culture is less of an impediment to customer engagement than civic culture is to citizen engagement. But while the stakes are higher in the latter, the benefits might just be more tangible in the former.

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