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Algorithms Are the New Content Gatekeepers: An Introduction

Palace GuardPrior to the Internet, if you had a movie you wanted to make, a book that you wanted to write, a song that you wanted people to hear, or you wanted to take part in just about any other creative endeavor, you had to find the right person or company to help you get your work in front of the right audience.

Even people with everyday products would have to find someone to help spread the word about their products so that people would purchase them.

In other words, whether you wanted to distribute your content or market a product or service, you had to get the attention of the right gatekeeper who would grant you access to the media channels needed to reach the people you wanted reach.

Then the Internet was created and the game changed. Or did it?

The Death of the Gatekeeper

In the early days, people were praising the Internet for the way it helped content creators who might never have been discovered make a living doing what they love because they could now connect with their fans and customers directly, thus bypassing the gatekeeper.

And, these people were and still are correct.

As a 2017 post on the strategy& website points out, “The amount of digital content created, exchanged, and consumed is growing by the day across the world, and because the Internet has democratized access to creation and distribution tools, boundaries between professional and amateur content are blurring across all parts of the creative sector.”

The post introduces a report released by strategy&, part of the PwC network.

According to the report, “Increasingly, the power is shifting to the consumers, who decide what they want to make, what they want to consume, and how and when they want to consume.”

Keep in mind, the old gatekeepers still have a role to play, they just have more competition.

As the study points, “Traditional media players must now compete with purely digital brands and platforms for the time and attention of the consumer.”

In other words, content creators can now avoid the traditional gatekeepers if they want to and still reach the right audience.

Long Live the Gatekeeper

While traditional gatekeepers have lost some of their power, thought leaders are beginning to warn us of a new gatekeeper that might have even more influence over what we consume.

While content creation and distribution tools are now becoming less expensive and are open to nearly everyone, some of these same tools are making it increasing difficult for some content to reach its intended target audience.

The reason for this is due to the fact that discovery of new content on many online platforms is controlled by algorithms that tend to reward certain behaviors and therefore don’t always highlight the most important or best content.

Part two and three in this series of posts will provide further explanation about how algorithms control what gets seen by consumers and how it can have an impact on society, as well as some additional business implications for your brand.

Additional posts will highlight some specific case studies and give possible suggestions about what we can do about it, both as content creators and content consumers.

Photo credit: Brian Teutsch on Flickr. (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic — CC By 2.0)

Chad Thiele

Marketing analyst and strategist, content curator, applied sociologist, proud UW-Madison alumnus, and an Auburn-trained mobile marketer. My goal is to help businesses identify trends that will help them achieve their marketing objectives and business goals. I'm currently looking for my next career challenge. Please feel free to contact me anytime at: chadjthiele@gmail.com.

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New Research Reveals How Many U.S. Adults Currently Own Smart Speakers

Two smart speakers on a tableAccording to the Smart Audio Report Spring 2019 that was conducted by NPR and Edison Research, only 21 percent of Americans age 18 or older own a smart speaker. This translates to roughly 53 million people.

Interestingly, about half of American adults who own smart speakers report that they own more than one, with 30% reporting that they own three or more.

According to the report there was a 78% increase in the number of smart speakers in U.S. households, increasing from 66.7 million in December 2017 to 118.5 million in December 2018.

The fact that many people own more than one smart speaker partially explains how we can have such a dramatic increase in the number of smart speakers in U.S. households and still find that only about one in five American adults own them.

Interest in Smart Speakers Among Those Who Don’t Own One

When the researchers asked people who don’t own a smart speaker whether or not they are interested in owning one, 11% said that that they were very interested and another 9% show some interest. In contrast, 43% said that they were not at all interested in smart speakers.

The report also points out that adults age 18 to 54 show more interest in smart speakers than their older counterparts.

Reasons Why Interested U.S. Adults Who Don’t Own Smart Speakers Haven’t Purchased One Yet

The report also asked U.S. adults who said that they are interested in owning a smart speaker but haven’t purchased one yet the reason for not owning one.

The most common response was that they worry hackers could use the smart speakers to get access to their home or personal information. In total 63% gave this response in 2019 compared to 41% in 2017.

Other common responses included the fact that it bothered them that smart speakers are always listening (55%), voice-enabled speakers are too expensive (53%), and that they worry that smart speakers could allow the government to listen to their private conversations (40%).

As the report points out, people who currently own smart speakers share some of these same concerns, but choose to use the technology anyway.

The Smart Audio Report 2019 Webinar

What follows is a webinar that was created by Edison Research and NPR and was posted on YouTube in June of 2019.

In the webinar, they summarize the report and provide a lot of other interesting information about the ways people use smart speakers.

Additional Resources

I plan to write more about this topic in future blog posts. When I do, I will update this post and include links below.

 

Photo credit: BestAI Assistant on Flickr.

Video credit: edisonsurvey on YouTube.

Chad Thiele

Marketing analyst and strategist, content curator, applied sociologist, proud UW-Madison alumnus, and an Auburn-trained mobile marketer. My goal is to help businesses identify trends that will help them achieve their marketing objectives and business goals. I'm currently looking for my next career challenge. Please feel free to contact me anytime at: chadjthiele@gmail.com.

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Voice Search Is Gaining Popularity, but Not as Quickly as Some People Think

Voice assistantThere are a lot of people still spreading the news that comScore predicted that by 2020, 50% of all searches will be done via voice search.

Marketers who have yet to consider voice in their marketing efforts might panic after hearing that statistic. After all, comScore is a reputable media measurement and analytics company. If they are predicting this, there must be some reason for it.

The problem is that it doesn’t look like comScore ever made that prediction. I searched several times and couldn’t find a comScore article reporting this stat.

It appears that as often happens, people are not checking with the original source. In their defense, people often link back to a trusted media website that focuses on marketing, advertising, and media when citing this statistic. However, while it is generally okay to cite a trusted source, often going back to the original source is advisable.

Furthermore, it looks like even after someone highlighted the error online, people either aren’t aware of it or ignore it and continue to share the erroneous statistic anyway. This happens a lot on social media and the Internet, in general.

Econsultancy Uncovers the Erroneous Statistic

In an article on the Econsultancy blog published in July of 2018, Rebecca Sentance wrote about several errors that she found regarding this statistic. The rest of the post that you are currently reading highlights some of the findings that she uncovered. If you get a chance, the whole series of articles that she wrote on voice search is worth reading.

The first thing that she found was that the statistic was actually based on something that Andrew Ng, then Chief Scientist at Baidu said in an interview with Fast Company. Again, in reality, it appears that comScore was not involved at all.

In the Fast Company article, Ng is cited as saying that “in five years time at least 50% of all searches are going to be either through images or speech.” The quote was then cited by Mary Meeker in her KPCB Internet Trends 2016 report and the “In five years time” got changed to “2020.”

As Sentance points out in the Econsultancy article, Ng’s estimate not only includes voice, but image search and voice search. This is the second error with the original statistic.

Sentance then goes on to make a back-of-the-envelope calculation that at the time her article was published only 13% of Google searches were made by voice queries.

That means that there is a wide gap to be filled in just a couple of years.

The Econsultancy article does give some insight into what Andrew Ng might have been thinking by highlighting a tweet that he wrote that stated, “As speech-recognition accuracy goes from 95% to 99%, we’ll go from barely using it to using all the time!”

“So, Andrew Ng believes that sheer accuracy of recognition is what will take voice search into the mainstream,” writes Sentance. “95% word recognition is actually the same threshold of accuracy as human speech (Google officially reached this threshold last year, to great excitement), so Ng is holding machines to a higher standard than humans—which is fair enough, since we tend to approach new technology and machine interfaces with a higher degree of skepticism, and are less forgiving of errors. In order to win us over, they have to really wow us.”

She then goes on to point out some other potential barriers to voice search adoption. However, that is something that I plan to take up in another post.

The Timeline Might Need to Be Adjusted

Voice search will be more important as time goes on. That is a bet that I’d be willing to make.

It’s just that 50% of all searches by 2020 is a prediction that probably won’t come to fruition. However, as we’ve learned, it doesn’t look like we can’t blame comScore for this one.

There is a prediction made by Gartner in 2016 that can be documented that says, “By 2020, 30% of web browsing sessions will be done without a screen.”

If Rebecca Sentance’s assumptions are correct, then even this number is a little optimistic.

However, only time will tell.

Photo credit: iphonedigital on Flickr.

Chad Thiele

Marketing analyst and strategist, content curator, applied sociologist, proud UW-Madison alumnus, and an Auburn-trained mobile marketer. My goal is to help businesses identify trends that will help them achieve their marketing objectives and business goals. I'm currently looking for my next career challenge. Please feel free to contact me anytime at: chadjthiele@gmail.com.

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Marketers Should Still Bet on Mobile Devices #Mobilefirst

Iphone computer deskIn the quest to be the first to reach customers with the latest technology, some marketers are downplaying the importance of mobile devices or even predicting their demise and are moving on to other technologies (e.g., voice-activated technology, AR, VR, MR, etc.)

In some cases, they are using what Google is doing to justify adjusting their priorities. However, Google itself takes mobile friendliness into account in its ranking algorithm.

Furthermore, as the statistics that follow highlight, mobile devices are still extremely important.

This is not to say that the other technologies aren’t important.

The point is that it is way too early to abandon mobile devices.

In fact, there are still a lot of improvements that many businesses can make to enhance the user experience on mobile devices. This is generally what people are talking about when they mention mobile first design.

Some Statistics to Consider

According to the Pew Research Center, at the beginning of 2018 nearly all U.S. adults owned or used a cellphone.

However, the more interesting statistic is that 77% of U.S. adults owned or used a smartphone in 2018. This compares to 73% of U.S. adults who owned or used a desktop/laptop computer.

It is also interesting to point out that this gap widens among U.S. adults ages 18 to 49. When examined among this age group, 99% used or owned a cellphone and 91% used or owned a smartphone, while only 77% used or owned a desktop/laptop computer.

Pew Usage Stats Jan 2018

Although it varies by source of the data, it is clear that when we examine time spent on each type of device, people spend more time on their mobile devices than they do on a desktop/laptop computer.

In fact, according to the Q1 2018 Nielsen Total Audience Report, only live television takes up more of the average U.S. adult’s day than apps/web on a smartphone.

When looking at website traffic, Statista found that about 40 percent of website traffic in the U.S. originated from a mobile device. Moreover, nearly half of all website traffic worldwide is coming from mobile devices.

Furthermore, over half of organic searches on Google were conducted on a mobile device.

These stats all reinforce the fact that mobile devices are still very relevant today.

Keep an Eye on the Horizon

The numbers just cited mostly compare mobile devices to laptop/desktop computers.

Some people would argue that both of these technologies will be replaced in the near future.

However, as of yet, no solid competitor to the mobile device has emerged.

We also need to remember that many of the new technologies can be accessed using a mobile device.

In the near future, we will hear a lot about these new technologies. In fact, I plan to write about them on this blog.

These other technologies should be researched and experimented with.

However, we shouldn’t abandon mobile devices… yet.

Photo credit: John Beans on Flickr and myfriendscoffee.com.

Graph credit: Pew Research Center.

Chad Thiele

Marketing analyst and strategist, content curator, applied sociologist, proud UW-Madison alumnus, and an Auburn-trained mobile marketer. My goal is to help businesses identify trends that will help them achieve their marketing objectives and business goals. I'm currently looking for my next career challenge. Please feel free to contact me anytime at: chadjthiele@gmail.com.

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ICYMI: Google Updated the Test My Site Tool to Help Businesses Provide a Faster Mobile Experience

For quite some time, we have known that Internet users want websites to load quickly. In fact, in many cases, if the website loads too slowly, users won’t stick around.

Since Google constantly strives to improve user experience, it is not surprising that website speed influences how Google ranks your site. This is now true when users access your site from a desktop computer or a mobile device.

In order to make improvements to meet Internet users’ expectations when they are using a mobile device, and therefore improve your mobile search rankings, you need to know how well your mobile website is performing.

To assist in this effort, Google has updated a tool that measures the performance of your mobile website and then recommends how to make improvements.

Speed as a Ranking Factor

Back in 2010, Google announced it would use site speed as a ranking factor.

At the time, Google stated, “Speeding up websites is important – not just to site owners, but to all Internet users. Faster sites create happy users and we’ve seen in our internal studies that when a site responds slowly, visitors spend less time there.”

However, until July of 2018, Google did not include speed as a ranking factor on mobile searches.

With the Speed Update, businesses now need to ensure that their mobile websites are fast as well.

According to an article on Search Engine Journal, “Now the speed at which a piece of content loads is a consideration when ranking mobile pages. Obviously the faster the better.”

The article states that this is the most important thing for SEOs and site owners to know about the update. However, the article also points out that the update will only affect really slow websites (i.e., those that take several seconds to load on a mobile device.)

The article also points out, “Relevancy is key, as Google always says. So if a slow loading page happens to contain the most relevant content, according to a user’s query, then it may still rank favourably in search results.”

The New and Improved Test My Site

In February of 2019, Jerry Dischler, Google’s VP of Product Development, announced the update to Test My Site on one of Google’s blogs.

“Because mobile is where most people turn when they want to know, go, do or buy, it’s important to deliver the kind of mobile experience that people expect today: one that’s fast, engaging and doesn’t get in the way of what they want to accomplish,” writes Dischler. “And because Google is deeply invested in the success of marketers and brands, we never stop looking for ways to develop and support new tools and innovations than can move the industry forward.”

“One of the mobile era’s clearest lessons has been that the foundation for any great mobile experience is a fast mobile experience,” Dischler continues.

To help businesses deliver a better and faster mobile experience, Google updated Test My Site to report the speed of both the entire site and individual pages, whether their site speed ranks Fast, Average, or Slow, and the potential impact of site speed on revenue.

Other key updates include a detailed list of recommendations to increase speed on up to five pages and a sharable report.

While Test My Site isn’t the only product out there to help businesses improve their mobile website speed, it is one that businesses should consider looking into.

After all, if you want to reach customers by ranking higher when they search for relevant topics on Google via their mobile devices, doing what Google suggests is a pretty good place to start.

Test My Site TWG

Chad Thiele

Marketing analyst and strategist, content curator, applied sociologist, proud UW-Madison alumnus, and an Auburn-trained mobile marketer. My goal is to help businesses identify trends that will help them achieve their marketing objectives and business goals. I'm currently looking for my next career challenge. Please feel free to contact me anytime at: chadjthiele@gmail.com.

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Ways to Use Podcasts to Reach Your Target Market

Podcast setupPodcast consumption is on the rise.

With this in mind, now might be the time to start using podcasts to market your products or services.

This doesn’t always mean that you need to dedicate your time and resources to creating your own podcast. There are great ways to use podcasting to reach your target market without starting one.

That said, it’s worth noting the benefits of starting a podcast so that you can weigh all the options.

Podcasting to Market Your Products and Services

Some businesses have added podcasting to their content marketing efforts in order to become known as the go-to business for information about a particular topic that is relevant to the business’s customers and prospects.

However, the benefits of starting a podcast don’t stop there.

A recent post by Seth Resler points out some of the ways to make money by podcasting.

According to Resler, “The vast majority of money revenue generated in the podcasting space right now is made through advertisements.”

If the business has created its own podcast, the costs associated with advertising on the show should be minimal, if any.

Resler also suggests that some podcasters are using their podcasts to get movie, television, or book deals, while others are generating revenue by selling tickets to watch the podcast be recorded live or by selling merchandise to fans. If this becomes an option, your business will definitely have other opportunities beyond the podcast to reach potential customers.

Podcast Marketing Without Starting a Podcast

Don’t have enough time or staff start your own podcast? No problem.

As Seth Resler already noted, one of the most common ways for podcasters to make money is through advertisements.

In fact, the amount of money that is spent on advertising on podcasts has increased dramatically in recent years.

This makes sense, since advertising on a podcast can be an effective way for a business to reach its target audience.

In a post written by Kate Harrison on Forbes.com, Seth Greene, author of five best-selling marketing books including Market Domination for Podcasting, points out that, “Podcasts offer advertisers the ability to hyper target.”

Greene goes on to point out that, “Research can pinpoint the podcasts that are just right for your message.”

Podcasts can also give the business a chance to reach customers on a more personal level.

If a certain podcast is of particular interest to a business’s customers and prospects, establishing a relationship with the show’s host can be a great way to connect with them. In fact, a personal recommendation from the show’s host that is woven into the show might be better than a traditional interruptive ad.

However, no matter how it is done, advertising on a podcast can help keep the show going. This is something that the business’s customers and prospects might appreciate, particularly if it is a niche show that is only of interest to a specific audience.

If the company has experts on staff who have useful information to share, getting them invited as guests on several podcasts is also a great way to get in front of the right audience. Beyond the exposure that being featured on a podcast brings, being a guest on a podcast can also provide SEO benefits.

“iTunes is a Page Rank One website, and every episode usually links back to both the show’s website and the guest’s website,” says Seth Greene in the Forbes article mentioned earlier. “Get booked on a handful of shows, with links back to your website for the right keywords, and watch what happens.”

Getting influencers to mention the business’s products or services on podcasts can also be a way to reach potential customers.

These are just some of the ways that your business can use podcasts to market its products or services and possibly make additional income in the process.

And given the increase in the number of podcast listeners, this emerging medium should only become more lucrative in the future.

Photo credit: Sergey Galyonkin on Flickr.

Chad Thiele

Marketing analyst and strategist, content curator, applied sociologist, proud UW-Madison alumnus, and an Auburn-trained mobile marketer. My goal is to help businesses identify trends that will help them achieve their marketing objectives and business goals. I'm currently looking for my next career challenge. Please feel free to contact me anytime at: chadjthiele@gmail.com.

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The Rise of Podcast Consumption and Why It’s Important for Your Business

PodcastsSteve Jobs was extremely adept at predicting what consumers would want even before they knew they wanted it.

It’s therefore not surprising that Jobs was bullish on the future of podcasting early on.

According to a Forbes article, “Back in the summer of 2005, Steve Jobs and Apple announced they would support podcasts on iTunes. At the time, podcasts were considered somewhat niche, but Jobs was adamant they were important.”

“Apple is taking Podcasting mainstream by building it right into iTunes,” said Jobs in a 2005 press release. “Podcasting is the next generation of radio, and users can now subscribe to over 3,000 free Podcasts and have each new episode automatically delivered over the Internet to their computer and iPod.”

Research published by Edison Research in 2018 indicates that, once again, Jobs was correct.

The Podcast Consumer 2018 – Research from Edison Research

Each year, Edison Research publishes a study on the current trends in podcasting in the United States.

In 2018, the study included findings from the Infinite Dial 2018 study (conducted in partnership with Triton Digital), The Smart Audio Report from NPR and Edison Research, and the latest findings from Edison’s Share of Ear Research.

Because the 2019 version of the report should be released soon, I don’t want to spend too much time on the specific findings from 2018.

That said, because it is the latest data currently available, there are some interesting trends that they uncovered that are worth pointing out.

The video embedded at the end of this post is also definitely worth watching if you are interested in this medium.

More People Are Listening to Podcasts and They’re Spending More Time Doing So

As I mentioned in the beginning of the post, Steve Jobs and Apple recognized the potential of podcasting in 2005.

With this in mind, it is interesting to note that according to Edison Research, in 2006 only 11% of Americans ages 12 and older had ever listened to a podcast. This percentage has slowly increased to 44% in 2018.

The more interesting number, however, might be the percentage of Americans age 12 and older who had listened to a podcast in the last month. This percentage increased from only 9% in 2008 to 26% in 2018.

Furthermore, when the research was conducted in 2018, 17% of the population of Americans age 12 and older had listened to a podcast in the last week. This is an estimated 48 million Americans.

Among those weekly podcast listeners, when compared to earlier years, the average time listening to podcasts increased in 2018.

Overall, weekly podcast listeners listened to an average of seven podcasts per week in 2018.

Infographic: The Steady Rise of Podcasts | Statista You will find more infographics at Statista.

Why Podcasts Are Important for Business

As with any medium, podcasting might not be a good fit for your brand.

However, because more people are listening podcasts, the likelihood that your customers and potential customers are among those consuming podcast content has increased.

It is interesting to note that current podcast listeners make more money than the general population, tend to be more educated, and are more likely to have a full-time job. This makes podcast listeners very attractive to marketers.

It is also noteworthy that Americans currently listen to podcasts most often on their smartphones, tablets, or other portable devices.

As smart speakers become more common, it only makes sense that more people will start listening to podcasts on these devices.

And, as Edison Research pointed out, “In-car listening is growing, and represents a major potential source of new listening.”

All this data indicates that podcasts might be a great way for some brands to connect to consumers.

At the very least, it is something that your brand should consider.

 

Photo credit: Casey Fiesler on Flickr.

Infographic credit: Statista.com.

Video credit: edisonsurvey on YouTube.

Chad Thiele

Marketing analyst and strategist, content curator, applied sociologist, proud UW-Madison alumnus, and an Auburn-trained mobile marketer. My goal is to help businesses identify trends that will help them achieve their marketing objectives and business goals. I'm currently looking for my next career challenge. Please feel free to contact me anytime at: chadjthiele@gmail.com.

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32 Things to Watch in 2019 and Beyond

Google Maps NavigationAs I write about each year, success in business often requires predicting what potential challenges and opportunities the business will face on the road ahead.

Currently, we don’t have an app that will tell us everything that we need to know.

Therefore, business leaders need to navigate the old fashioned way even if their business is driving full-speed ahead into the future.

This thought process is what inspires one of my first blog posts each year.

It all started in 2012 when I highlighted some of the recommendations that JWT Intelligence thought would be important. Then in 2013, I started to track a list of my own.

Most of the things that I thought were important in the past remain important today. The list just gets a little bigger each year.

This list also helps keep me focused and serves as a public record to show whether or not I am watching the right things.

The Things to Watch List 2019

This is the list so far [with the year that the items were added]:

1) Rapid advancements in technology [2013]

2) Mobile (user experience and marketing) [2013]

3) Mobile payments [2013]

4) Mobile-influenced merchandising [2013]

5) Privacy issues [2013]

6) Emerging markets [2013]

7) The Internet of Things [2014]

8) The evolution of retail (including omni-channel retail) [2014]

9) A global marketplace [2014]

10) 3D printing [2014]

11) Cyberattacks [2014]

12) Ethics [2014]

13) Online video [2016]

14) RFID, NFC, and beacons [2016]

15) Augmented reality (AR) [2016]

16) Virtual reality (VR) [2016]

17) SEO for the Internet of Things [2016]

18) Experiential marketing [2016]

19) Wearables [2016]

20) Dynamic pricing in brick-and-mortar stores [2017]

21) Machine learning & artificial intelligence (AI) [2017]

22) Voice-activated technology [2017]

23) Business collaboration with the competition [2017]

24) The evolution of work (changing skillsets required and the influence on the economy) [2017]

25) Robotics [2018]

26) Subscription business model [2018]

27) How online communications influence public opinion [2018]

28) Market research techniques for the 21st Century [2018]

29) Influencer marketing [2019]

30) Accessible marketing for people with disabilities [2019]

31) Sustainability brands [2019]

32) Health-conscious brands [2019]

Why These Things Were Added

As I mentioned, my list was actually inspired by a list that is published each year by JWT Intelligence.

A lot of the items on the JWT Intelligence list this year focus on ways to help people create a healthier lifestyle. This not only means creating a healthier life for the people who might buy the products, but also helping create a healthier planet, as well.

Creating marketing that is accessible for people with disabilities just makes sense and should be a best practice. Furthermore, not making your website or mobile app accessible to people with disabilities can actually result in a lawsuit.

And, as for influencer marketing… it really should have been added to the list years ago. However, there are also some new areas of influencer marketing that make it worthy of adding now.

There are also things like self-driving cars and changes in product packaging that could have been added to the list. While these things are subsets of items currently on the list, they might get added to the list in the future.

Additionally, there are some things that digital marketing experts were talking about 10 years ago that should be revisited. These basics don’t get talked about enough now even though there are new business leaders entering the market each year. (It’s not always safe to assume that they learned about these things in college.)

So there you have it. If I missed anything that you think I should have included, please let me know in the comments below.

Photo credit: freeimage4life on Flickr. (Creative Commons CCO 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication — CCO 1.0)

 

 

Chad Thiele

Marketing analyst and strategist, content curator, applied sociologist, proud UW-Madison alumnus, and an Auburn-trained mobile marketer. My goal is to help businesses identify trends that will help them achieve their marketing objectives and business goals. I'm currently looking for my next career challenge. Please feel free to contact me anytime at: chadjthiele@gmail.com.

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The Future of the Retail Sales Associate—Another Reason Why Retailers Need to Provide More Mobile-Optimized Content Online

The Future of Retail Sales AssociatesThe way customers shop, in general, is changing with more and more customers going online to research and buy products. Furthermore, smartphones have also modified the way customers shop in brick-and-mortar stores.

This means that retailers are going to need to rethink everything. And, that means everything.

For store employees, this means that their world is going to be altered dramatically.

In 2014, Doug Stephens, one of the world’s foremost retail industry futurists, wrote a very informative blog post that predicts what a “typical” retail sales associate’s job will look like in the near future.

In the post, he predicts that in the near future there will be fewer humans working in brick-and-mortar retail stores, with technology there to fill in the gap.

In the post, he cites a study from Oxford University that estimates that there is a 92 percent chance that retail sales associates will be replaced by technology in the next decade. (Keep in mind, this was over four years ago. Therefore, if the predictions are accurate, retail sales associates should be retraining for other positions now! Even if it takes a little longer than experts think it will, the world that they are predicting will arrive someday… soon.)

While this is an alarming figure, people who want to work in retail stores should be heartened by the other prediction that Doug Stephens makes—that those employees who do survive will be paid much higher than they currently are. But this is going to mean that they also are going to need to get a lot more training.

Other sources again support his position.

Some of the recent articles that discuss retail trends point to the fact that there will always be a need for some human salespeople at most brick-and mortar stores. However, they will have a slightly different background.

As far as I can tell, four types of non-management employees will emerge to replace the generally unskilled workforce that currently fills many of these low-paying retail sales associate jobs.

Professional Salespeople—The Customer Service and Product Experts

In the blog post mentioned earlier, Doug Stephens writes, “Although retailers will point the finger at price as the smoking gun behind showrooming, research shows that in fact, it’s more often the pursuit of adequate and accurate information that drives customers online.”

Therefore, in order to compete with online retailers, brick-and-mortar stores are going to have to hire a core group of employees who really know their stuff.

These employees won’t be the ones who check people out at the cash register.

They will be like the salespeople of old who thought of their position at the store as a career, not just a place to work until they find other jobs. These employees will be experts in customer service and they will know everything about what they are selling.

The stores that realize that there is a need for this type of employee and hire and train people who really want to excel at their job will be the stores that will succeed.

As Doug Stephens also points out, the people who fill these positions will be paid more than the average salary of a retail sales associate today.

This probably means that stores won’t hire many of these employees, if they still want to keep their costs down. But, the employees who are hired to fill this type of role will be an invaluable resource to customers and the store.

To be qualified for this role, the employee will also have to invest in additional training.

Organizations like the National Retail Federation (NRF) are already recognizing that this type of training is needed and have begun offering it at a reasonable price.

Part-Time Associates—Knowledgeable Salespeople Augmented With Technology

This group of employees will most resemble the current retail sales associate.

They will be the young adults who are working their way through high school or college. They will have some basic product knowledge and business acumen. And, they will have grown up using technology, therefore they will be very comfortable assisting less tech-savvy customers with the technology that the store will use to assist in the sales process.

They will also use technology (e.g., smartphones, tablets, etc.) to access mobile-optimized content that will answer the product-related questions that customers have.

Because these employees will be in the process of completing their training, these positions will probably still be on the lower-end of the pay scale. However, to attract the best employees, retailers will still have to pay more than minimum wage.

With technology to augment the sales process, fewer of these associates will be needed on the sales floor of tomorrow.

Temporary Workers—The On-Demand Workforce

The gig economy is here, with some employees being hired to work for only a short duration of time to fill a specific business need.

As a Washington Post article points out, it is already changing the workforce in many mainstream restaurants (e.g., Five Guys, McDonald’s, Papa John’s Pizza, etc.)

Will brick-and-mortar retail stores be next?

Retailers have always hired temporary workers around the holidays. This would just take this concept to the extreme.

It is entirely possible that stores could hire employees for one or two days to staff a large sale similar to those on Black Friday.

And, again, if stores bring in the right technological solutions to assist with the sales process, these temporary workers could be quickly trained to work the cash register or again help the less tech-savvy customer in the shopping process.

Some retail experts say using temporary workers is a bad idea. But, the reality is that only time will tell.

Non-Human Employees—Mobile-Optimized Online Content and Other Technological Solutions

The fourth type of employee that will replace the current retail sales associate is not a human at all. However, in many cases technological solutions will be able to do the same job… maybe even better than the current retail sales associate can.

As mentioned above, customers are already reaching for their smartphones to get product information while shopping in brick-and-mortar stores. In fact, some customers would rather use their smartphones to find product information than talk to the retail sales associate on the sales floor.

This might be because they often get incorrect or incomplete information from improperly trained retail sales associates. Therefore, we might have a chicken and the egg situation at play.

Either way, the one thing we do know for certain is that customers want to be able to quickly and efficiently find product information either online via their smartphone or by talking to a retail sales associate.

Having the right information available online is going to be a must for the retailer of tomorrow. And, as mentioned above, it will also help human salespeople do their jobs better.

As Doug Stephens points out in his post, there are companies like Hointer that are working to bring additional technological solutions to market to help automate the retail sales process even further.

However, I will leave that topic for future blog posts.

Final Thoughts

In order to compete, brick-and-mortar stores will need to be able to provide customers with the same accurate and complete product information that they can find on Amazon or other online retailers.

If the brick-and-mortar store provides the information first, customers will have one less reason to visit another store’s website or mobile app, and therefore will be less likely to use the store as a showroom only to buy the product elsewhere.

This can be accomplished by having better trained retail sales associates and by creating the right mobile-optimized content that customers can search for on their smartphones and tablets. Furthermore, other technological solutions like “smart mirrors” in fitting rooms will also be used to deliver product information to customers.

Given the changes in the marketplace, it’s not a question of whether to invest in employees or in technology.

Successful stores will do both.

In fact, technology will help less knowledgeable retail sales associates meet the needs of the store’s customers more efficiently and effectively. In other words, in many cases technology and humans will work together to provide a better shopping experience.

Note: This is a very general prediction of what the “average” retail store of the future will need to do in order to meet the needs of its customers. There will be variation based on the products and services sold, who shops at the store, the store’s location, etc.

Photo credit: Zepfanman.com on Flickr. (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license – CC BY 2.0.)

Chad Thiele

Marketing analyst and strategist, content curator, applied sociologist, proud UW-Madison alumnus, and an Auburn-trained mobile marketer. My goal is to help businesses identify trends that will help them achieve their marketing objectives and business goals. I'm currently looking for my next career challenge. Please feel free to contact me anytime at: chadjthiele@gmail.com.

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Fashion Retailers Could Benefit by Providing Basic Fashion Tips Online

Fashion TipsIt has been well documented that consumers often turn to their smartphones while shopping.

In fact, according to a study conducted by Salsify in September of 2016, 77% of all shoppers report using mobile devices while shopping in a brick-and-mortar store. In comparison, only 35% say that they would turn to a salesperson to obtain similar information.

As a Salsify press release published in April of 2017 states, “With so many turning to mobile while shopping in-store as well, the need for strategic and informed product content has never been more essential. In fact, 87 percent of consumers say accurate, rich, and complete product content is very important when deciding what to buy.”

A study conducted by Retail Dive examined how consumers use smartphones while shopping in a brick-and-mortar store. The most common response to the question was to research products and/or look up product information (58%), followed by checking or comparing prices (54%), accessing or downloading digital coupons (40%), accessing a specific retailer’s mobile app (33%), and scanning a QR code (22%).

The type of product information that retailers will want to provide will vary from store to store based on the products and services sold, the customers it serves, the time of year, where the store is located, etc.

While some content could be expensive to create, sometimes providing basic information could be enough to help convince the customer to make a purchase.

For fashion retailers it could be as simple as providing basic fashion tips to customers.

Insight From the Sales Floor

Recently, I have spent some time selling men’s clothing at a department store just outside of Saint Paul, Minnesota. In that time, I have witnessed many customers using mobile devices while shopping in-store.

While it appears that many of these customers are taking photos to send to another person to see if they approve of a purchase, I would venture a guess that other times customers are using their smartphones in the ways reported in the studies that I wrote about earlier in this post.

If the questions that customers ask associates is any indication of the information customers are searching for on their smartphones, then providing basic style advice should be something that fashion retailers would want to provide on their mobile websites and apps.

Suit photoIn particular, online fashion tips could be extremely useful to customers who are purchasing clothing that they don’t often purchase (e.g., suits, ties, dress shirts, etc.) This would include explaining the correct fit, as well as letting customers know what articles of clothing compliment each other.

And, if the information provided online is optimized for search, customers might find it while shopping in a competitor’s store. While this might seem like you are helping the competition, just think about where the customer will turn to if your competitor can’t deliver the goods. My guess is that those customers would at least consider shopping at the store that just provided the information that they were looking for.

Providing this type of basic information wouldn’t cost the company that much.

However, a quick search on Google brings up a lot of information from fashion bloggers and websites like Esquire and GQ, but not much from major department stores, fashion retailers, or even the top designer labels.

Either they are not providing this information or they are not doing a good job of optimizing their content for search engines. In their defense, I did find some information from Macy’s and Nordstrom. However, they didn’t show up in all searches that I did. Furthermore, I think that additional information might be useful.

Keep in mind that I only searched for information on men’s suits. It’s possible that they provide more information for other types of clothing. Additional research would be required to get a more accurate picture of what information fashion retailers are providing their customers online.

Final Thoughts

Studies show that finding the right online content is very important to consumers who are looking for product information when they are deciding what to buy.

Because consumers are now searching for that information while shopping in-store, a time when they are actually going to make a purchase decision, providing the right information is now even more important than ever before.

If the questions that customers ask sales associates is any indication of what information customers are looking for, then fashion retailers and department stores should be providing basic style advice and fashion tips to customers. This is particularly useful for products that customers don’t buy often and are being purchased for specific important occasions (e.g., weddings, school dances, graduations, etc.)

Since department stores can’t control how customers search, this information should be available to customers in as many ways as possible. This would include on mobile apps and on the mobile web. Letting customers know that it is available through notifications on in-store signs might also help increase conversions.

Sales associates could also help get the word out that this type of information is available to customers who don’t want to engage in a conversation. This information could also be used as a visual aid when associates are helping customers.

Finally, don’t forget to optimize your content for search. Because if customers can’t find it, then it doesn’t exist.

Photo credit: Angelbattle bros (Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license – CC BY-ND 2.0.) and Banalities on Flickr. (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license – CC BY 2.0.)

Chad Thiele

Marketing analyst and strategist, content curator, applied sociologist, proud UW-Madison alumnus, and an Auburn-trained mobile marketer. My goal is to help businesses identify trends that will help them achieve their marketing objectives and business goals. I'm currently looking for my next career challenge. Please feel free to contact me anytime at: chadjthiele@gmail.com.

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