The time of printed and broadcast media being the driving force of marketing and advertising appears to be in the past, as indicated by plunging ad revenues for newspapers, magazines, and TV and radio stations. That said, are modern communication technologies that come in their stead strong and versatile enough to offer a viable alternative, both in terms of commercial marketing and marketing research?
There are a number of reasons why instant messaging is considered among the most effective forms of online communication available. For one, it allows real-time interaction compared to which even frequent e-mails (more than one daily between the same two individuals) might seem impersonal. In other words, IM comes as close to a real communication as it can without the two interlocutors actually seeing – or even knowing! – each other. It is not surprising that in terms of customer service, consumers prefer phone communication and IMing the customer service representative to e-mail or snail mail methods of communication. The immediacy of response and the continuous nature of back-and-forth, especially when conducted in a courteous manner, is the best tool in promoting goodwill and ensuring that the consumer will continue doing business with the marketer.
This type of close personalization is also important when conducting brief questionnaires, for example. It is much harder to say no to answering a few questions in the impersonal environment of an e-mail communication than it is to turn someone down who is in real-time conversation with you. Real-time interaction also offers flexibility to the marketer, who can adjust responses and messages immediately based on the responses received.
While effective because of its real-time nature, instant messaging is not as useful because it often limits the number of people with whom a marketer can communicate at the same time. First of all, even though practically all IM services available today have a functionality using which a single user can communicate with a potentially unlimited number of IM ‘buddies’ at the same time, in practice the number is limited to the marketer’s ability to hold multiple conversations simultaneously. At some point, even the most gifted human being would become overwhelmed with all the IM windows on one’s screen. As responses slow, his or her interlocutors would feel neglected, which potentially would lead to negative feeling and ultimately to the breaking off of contact altogether. Furthermore, instant messaging by itself makes it difficult to concentrate the message to those individuals who would be truly interested in it. It would have to be used in conjunction with a social networking site, or the marketer would have to rely on his existing IM ‘buddies’ to invite more like-minded people.
Text messaging has the potential to be useful for marketing researchers if the campaign for its use is built properly. Very few people appreciate unsolicited text marketing messages sent to their mobile phones, which is only slightly less annoying than cold-call sales. However, text messaging has been shown to be effective in some marketing situations. For example, the reality shows in which the viewers vote, or game shows in which the viewers play using their cell phones have experienced tremendous use of text messaging as a marketing device. True, in both cases, text messaging piggybacks on an actual television program and is closely associated with it in future use as well. But even if just for this specific TV program, the marketing potential of using text messaging is tremendous. Even if a viewer for some reason is unable to view the next installment of the program, he or she will receive the results as a text message on his or her cell phone. This keeps the viewers’ interest high and accounts for a very high likelihood of repeat viewing of this particular program in the future.
The benefits do not stop there, however. The more general interests of the audience also can be gauged by analyzing how many text messages are received from each particular phone number. In other words, marketing researchers would be able to answer questions like: “This person who watches ‘American Idol’ regularly also watches ‘The Biggest Loser’ regularly but does not pay that much attention to ‘Deal or No Deal’.” Additionally, since all of the programs requiring text messaging participation by the viewers are part of the larger programming set of a particular network, using text messaging creates opportunities to market the rest of the network’s lineup by subtly connecting it to the program in which text messaging interaction is needed.
Chat rooms also can be useful for marketing researchers, for a number of reasons. For one, they combine the real-time interaction of instant messaging with the capability to converse with a large group of people at the same time, while also seeing any side interactions that may occur among the individuals participating in a chat room. In essence, a chat room can be equated to a focus group meeting. If properly controlled and conducted, a chat room can be a great asset to a marketing researcher, as he or she can conduct surveys, polls, and even short-term case studies in this environment. It is important, however, for the marketer to be not only the participant and leader of such a session, but also the moderator with the power to remove and block some participants from the chat room so as to avoid unnecessary distractions, like the ones described below in the chat room drawbacks.
Another benefit of a chat room, and one thing in which they positively differ from instant messaging, is the ability to easily customize the chat room by topic. Each chat room must have a name, and this name can signify exactly what the main theme of the discussion within it will be. While this cannot guarantee that a disinterested person does not ‘drift’ into the chat room simply out of boredom, it is considerably more likely that the individuals who enter the chat room will be genuinely interested in the topic of the chat room as indicated by its name. This allows for strong message concentration, which should be the goal of any marketing professional.
Chat rooms are not without drawbacks of their own, however. For one, it is possible for one person to dominate the conversation with the marketer to such a degree that all other chat room participants would quickly feel neglected. Unlike instant messaging, where every individual sees only one’s own communication string with the marketer, in a chat room, everyone can see all the communication strings. In fact, it is possible for a chat room session to degenerate into a conversation between consumers, with the marketer being completely shut out. While there are still some useful things that can be taken out of such an environment, the loss of control by the marketer means that the conversation will go in any direction other participants would want to take it, which does not necessarily mean that it will go in the direction in which the marketer wants it to go. The situation may become particularly troublesome if the participants decide to ‘gang up’ on the marketer. In such an environment, constructive criticism can quickly become nothing more than vicious and often baseless attacks, and nothing good can be salvaged from such chat room session. Another drawback of the chat room environment is that, because all the communication strings are available for viewing for all the participants, a problem encountered by just one individual can quickly become known to all the participants, which can potentially lower their opinion of the marketer’s product, service, or policies even if they themselves have not experienced any negative effects of it.