I like to argue that media doesn’t change anything…

As a dyed-in-the-wool direct marketer, I’m using the same core techniques and motivators as direct marketers were using 100 years ago in mail order.

The people we’re selling to are a few generations removed.  The media we’re using is more 1s-and-0s than paper-and-ink.

But the genetics and the core drivers and motivators of human behavior haven’t moved a smidgen in that time.

What motivated humans in 1917 and even 1817 and even the year 17 still remain the core motivators of our behavior today.

Sure, things around us have changed.  Technology is most certainly different.  Culture and civilizations have changed a bit.  (Although the more we start to understand ancient cultures, the further back you have to go before things look all that different from they look today.)

And yet, there has been one major shift-change in marketing that I believe has completely rewritten the rules of business, and will continue to do so on an even grander scale as we go forward…

Social proof has become truly social…

In Robert Cialdini’s classic, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, social proof was named as one of the core “Weapons of Influence” that the world’s most persuasive people wield to devastating effect.

This reaffirmed the use of testimonials, case studies, and other customer-sourced assets in marketing.  It drove marketers to talk about how many people were following them, how many customers they served, and so on.  And if they were doing all of this before, they doubled down.

But here’s the thing.

Influence was originally published in 1984.  The first Mac was released that year — it wasn’t until the next year that Microsoft Windows was first released.  The World Wide Web was still 10 years away — Prodigy, the first consumer online service, launched that year.  Most people used either broadcast or print media — both marketers and their prospects.

And the thing about this traditional media is that it was controlled by the media companies and the marketers.  Not the consumer.

This has always been the case, throughout all of human history.

There were media producers.  And there were media consumers.  It was a one-way street.

Then, the internet came.

In 2002, as most of the world was still just really starting to wake up to the internet, there were 5 billion gigabytes of information created by all of humanity throughout the entire year.

By 2010, humanity created that much information every week.  By 2012, we were generating that much information every 48 hours.  That’s the latest stat I could find in a quick search — but I can conservatively estimate the trend continued, and today we create more data per day than we did during the entire year of 2002.  Before long, that will be our per-hour number, then per-minute.

With the rise of the internet and modern tech, media creation has moved out of the hands of traditional media creators.  There’s far more media (social media posts, YouTube videos, emails, etc.) created by consumers and small independent media sources (like yours truly) than traditional media can ever keep up with.

Control of media has moved to the hands of the consumer.

Even though we still go to traditional media to get a lot of our content, that model is being forced to shift to new realities as consumers adapt to the infinite options that are now a Google search, Facebook scroll, or smart phone notification away.

Which has given rise to a new behavior…

It’s becoming more and more rare to buy anything without reading the reviews first…

I remember back around 2007 or so, trying to convince the IT training publisher I worked for to implement a star rating system, like I was seeing at Amazon.

He wouldn’t have it.  He argued that as a retailer, Amazon did it because their products were sourced from everywhere.  That his customers trusted him to curate quality content, and so his training didn’t need star ratings.

He was wrong — and mostly I believe he was protecting his ego from the possibility of negative reviews.

However, at that time, he was able to get away with it, because Amazon was still ahead of the curve in offering it.

Today, the competitive market has changed.  (And in looking at that company’s website today, I see they’ve added star ratings for their training, although I’m dubious about them because I can’t find anything other than five stars.)

Today, 92% of consumers read online reviews before making a purchase.  Not only that, star rating is the number one factor used by consumers to judge a business.  88% of consumers now trust online reviews as much as a personal recommendation.

(And notably: 95% of consumers suspect censorship or faked reviews when they don’t see bad scores.)

This is social proof going social.  Not only do customers want to see the experience of other customers before making their purchase, they want to feel that the details of that experience are direct and unfiltered.

United breaks guitars, beats up doctors, and kills fluffy bunny rabbits…

Let’s put United Airlines in the crosshairs, since they’ve made themselves such an easy target recently.

They were one of the first huge brands that got hit hard by consumer-generated negative social proof.  This was way back in 2008.  Canadian musician Dave Carroll sat in his seat, on the tarmac, while he watched United Airlines throwing his guitars around as they were being loaded onto the plane.  They were broken, and he wrote a song and created a YouTube music video about it.

Dave had tried to solve it with United, and they were unbudging.  So he took it into his own hands.  When the video launched, United’s market value plummeted by $180 million.

Then in the last month, United employees forced Dr. David Dao to deplane when nobody would get off voluntarily to make room for the United staff the airline prioritized over customers.  The doctor didn’t want to go, and got bloodied in the process.  Another PR disaster.

And in the last 24 hours or so, a big fluffy bunny, the offspring of the current world-record holder for world’s longest rabbit, was killed on a United Airlines flight from the UK to Chicago.

Before the internet, none of this would have made headlines, and nobody would have been any wiser.

After the internet, people are cutting up their United credit cards, forfeiting miles, and choosing other carriers.

Will it make a dent long-term?  Probably not, because few airlines prioritize much better service, and those that do don’t compete with United on price.

But in other industries where there’s less regulation and more room for healthy competition, these disasters could be brutal.  Deadly, even.

All this to say, there’s a new standard in product and service creation: 5 stars or death…

Perry Marshall wrote the book 80/20 Sales and Marketing, in which he popularized the concepts of 80/20-squared, 80/20-cubed, and so on.  As well as the shifting curve of 80/20.

One of the important points Perry made was that on the internet, it’s less 80/20 and more 90/10, 95/5, and even 99/1.

More is going to less.  And that’s happening in part because of this trend of consumer control.

In traditional media, I could rent a direct mail list, and show up in anybody’s mailbox in the same way any of my competitors could.  I could use my best testimonials, and you’d be hard-pressed to get a real balanced perspective on any claims I made in my marketing.

Today, if my competitor has 100 true 5-star reviews and a trickling of other lower reviews, I can’t duplicate that.  And the more they get, the more they’re going to get — because consumers are using these socially-generated social proof elements to help them make their decision.

If I start off with a few bad reviews, it’s incredibly difficult to recover without rebranding completely.  No matter how much I may improve my product in response to those reviews.

To launch a product on Amazon today, you have to get a bunch of 5-star reviews out of the gate, or you’ll get lost in the 99% who are fighting over 1% of the spoils.

The same thing is going to happen with every website, in every industry, as this trend continues.

It’s increasingly imperative that you deliver a 5-star experience, or you’ll be fighting for scraps.

If you didn’t think customer experience was a core marketing function before, you better believe that it is now, and will become more so into the future.

Yours for bigger breakthroughs,

Roy Furr