Customer Information Power: An Obvious Illusion


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The Chevy Nova failed with Hispanic car buyers because the nameplate—no va—had the unfortunate coincidence of meaning doesn’t go in Spanish. Proctor & Gamble’s Ivory Soap owes its buoyant characteristic to a serendipitous production error. Coca Cola’s 1985 introduction of New Coke was a marketing ploy to increase sales for its predecessor, Classic Coke.

As we say in sales, “if you believe that, I have swamp land in Florida to sell you!” Each story has been debunked on Snopes.

Another myth belongs in the same group: “In today’s environment, information power lies firmly in the hands of your prospects and customers.” It’s hard these days to read a marketing, sales, or social media blog that doesn’t include a flavor of that proclamation. Vendors must crave being whipped into submission, and bloggers are eager to oblige. “I cannot understand why marketing and sales folks continue to think and act as if they had the power,” marketing strategist Rebel Brown wrote in 2012.

Forget the popular hype—vendors still have information power, and plenty of it. In the battle for information supremacy, I’ll choose PhD data scientists, petabytes of customer information, and sophisticated predictive analytics over Joe the Purchaser, his access to online product reviews and his trusted social connections.

Recent news stories underscore this point. Customer information power? See if you can find any:

What Cruise Lines Don’t Want You to Know. If it’s safety-related, plenty. At a recent US Senate hearing, cruise expert Ross Klein, a professor at Memorial University in Newfoundland, said 79 fires have broken out on cruise ships between 1990 and 2011.”Most of these fires have received little coverage in the US press. It is a topic that the travel publications avoid and travel agents do not like to hear,” according to an article on Information avoidance means less searchable content. At least Mr. Klein’s website,, includes data about accident reports and ship inspection scores from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

But what if you wanted to learn more by looking elsewhere? Just for the heck of it, I checked the website for The Cruise Line Industry Association, which represents 26 companies, including the biggest, Carnival and Royal Caribbean. It offered no results when I entered ship fires in the search box. Amazing. (Interestingly, the word fires yielded some great travel destinations, but alas, no safety information.)

The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food. (The New York Times Magazine, February 20th, 2013) Author Michael Moss wrote a sentence that jumped right off the page and hit me in the head: “What follows is a series of small case studies of a handful of characters whose work then, and perspective now, sheds light on how the foods are created and sold to people who, while not powerless, are extremely vulnerable to the intensity of these companies’ industrial formulations and selling campaigns.” The not-powerless-but-extremely-vulnerable part struck me, especially in the same sentence as selling campaigns. And what is a selling campaign without asymmetrical information?

The article quotes Bob Drane, Oscar Mayer’s former Vice President for New Business Strategy and Development, and creator of the popular Lunchables product line: “What do . . . MBA’s learn about how to succeed in marketing? Discover what consumers want to buy and give it to them with both barrels. Sell more, keep your job! How do marketers often translate these ‘rules’ into action on food? Our limbic brains love sugar, fat, salt . . . so formulate products to deliver these. Perhaps add low-cost ingredients to boost profit margins. Then ‘supersize’ to sell more . . . . and advertise/promote to lock in ‘heavy users.’ Plenty of guilt to go around here.”

Push to Gauge Bang for Buck From College Gains Steam (The Wall Street Journal, February 12, 2013) “High school seniors now trying to decide which college to attend next fall are awash with information about costs, from dorm rooms to meal plans. But there is almost no easy way to tell what graduates at specific schools earn—or how many found jobs in their chosen field.” “Was college worth getting in the amount of debt I’m in?” one student asked. “At this point, I can’t answer that.” Pop quiz: who has the information power in this scenario?

“Last spring, the Obama administration began developing a ‘College Scorecard’ that would add salary information for graduates and average debt load to existing data . . .” the Journal article says. My home state of Virginia is one of the first states to publish salary data for graduates from its colleges and universities. According to one senior, “It’s much easier to plan when you have this information.”

New Vehicles Collect Data, the Destination of Which is Yet Unknown (The Washington Post, March 7, 2013) “Cars have long gathered data to monitor safety and performance. But their new found connectivity may allow a range of parties—automakers, software developers, perhaps even police officers—new access to such information, privacy advocates say. Because few US laws govern these issues, consumers have little control over who can see this data and how it can be used.” One Ford technologist attempted to allay consumer concerns: “We assume that you’re comfortable with whatever privacy policy [an application] has.” Thank goodness! For a second, I thought I lost my information power!

“The widespread embrace of social media has put even more information – and ultimately power – in the hands of the buyer, and that has drastically altered the jobs of the salesperson and the marketing professional,” Marketo’s Phil Fernandez wrote in a blog, What the iPad Revolution Means to The Future of Sales and Marketing. An exuberance that contributes to the myth of customer information power, and leads to another confusion: information access doesn’t equate to information power.

Steven Rosenbush and Michael Totty wrote in today’s Wall Street Journal that “companies have access to vastly more information than they used to, it comes from many more different sources than before, and they can get it almost as soon as it’s generated.” According to the article, Facebook’s daily data analysis generates about 500 terabytes of new information every day. Against the corporate nuclear arsenal of Big Data, Joe the Purchaser’s online searches via mobile web browser compares more to a pea shooter.

On beyond Facebook! “Businesses in a slew of industries are putting [big data] front and center in more and more parts of their operations,” the article reports. Meanwhile, the power challenge facing consumers is less about a lack of information than structural impediments to uncovering, organizing, and interpreting what they find. Then there’s that nagging question of personal will. How inclined is a high school student standing in front of a vending machine to look up nutritional information about the bag of Doritos she’s about to purchase right before volleyball practice? She’s carrying an iPhone, but she needs a snack and has three minutes before she has to be on the court. “Insert $1.00 and press U-5.” Sold!

I find customer information power more theory than reality. Snack foods, higher education, personal transportation—huge mature industries, each one. In 2011, there were 16 million cruise bookings worldwide. Today, you’d expect customers to be information-power dominant, especially given the ballyhoo over Customer 2.0, and the ubiquity of web access.

But there are plenty of impediments that make customers decidedly un-powerful. Choppy regulatory oversight with higher education and the cruise industry. Tight vendor control over product information with snack foods. The question of data ownership in automotive and personal transportation. Not to mention the flying mallet called Big Data that has swirled into the picture. For now, vendors—not customers—own that hammer. And that’s a huge advantage.

Customer information power? I don’t see it. But don’t take my word for it. Wait a month or two, and you can check it on Snopes.

Republished with author's permission from original post.



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