Mass media is dead—and with it mass markets. We now live in the era of mass connections and mass handselling. This new reality changes everything we have known about conducting business over the past 75 years.
This transition comes with significant and painful—and mostly unanticipated—consequences. The Internet Revolution promised us a new interconnectedness of mankind and an end to the differences that divided us. Instead, the more connected we get, the more divided we become.
Given unlimited power to form their own social groups, people actually do so in highly discriminating ways. While we marvel at the nearly uncapped capacity to "friend" others on social media utilities such as Facebook and LinkedIn, the reality is that these loose affiliations are low-commitment affairs and less useful than one might assume. Studies of user activity show that regardless of how many friends we advertise, only a select few get most of our attention. Moreover, the real action comes in small, emotionally connected groups where consumers find both refuge from noisy markets and kindred spirits to help make sense of the world. These small groups are trust-based, referral-driven, and closed to unwanted outsiders.
Mass connectedness brings its own marketing opportunity. The question becomes: If consumers—thanks to their new social networks—are becoming accustomed to being the center of their own universe, of receiving experiences designed specifically for them, how can one ever again get their attention with any marketing message or sales pitch?
To answer that, we have to look back a couple centuries to before the era of mass production, to the age of artisanship and craft guilds. Products and services of that era were sold to consumers by direct, one-on-one contact. A shopkeeper or salesperson modified the order to the customer's wishes in what has been called "handselling."
Other than a few luxury goods and services, handselling disappeared a long time ago. Advances in mass production—and the arrival of mass media—made it more economical to shape and satisfy mass tastes rather than serve niche ones.
Overcoming Choice Overload
But with the death of mass marketing—and the rise of mass connections—the widespread use of new technologies and tools such as smart phones, mobile computing, and online social networks, and most of all, the shift to a customer-centric economy, suddenly this obsolete way of doing business looks appealing again. Just as important, it looks feasible.
Call it mass handselling. Not only does it use the same technology that has led to this shift in customer expectations toward personalization and control, but it also overcomes a disturbing new trend facing consumers: choice overload.
The typical consumer today is inundated with marketing messages, sales pitches, and outright threats the moment he or she turns on the computer. That great new global Web marketplace may be exciting and appealing, but it is also chaotic and overwhelming—and few people would ever willingly spend all of their time in it. On the contrary, feeling they have less and less control, companies and consumers are backing away, throwing up every filter they can find, and retreating into small, safe online enclaves with other like-minded people.
These micro-niche markets are among the most important new business phenomena of the 21st century. Once again, they harken back to the world before mass production and the mass marketing needed to support it, to the era when a neighborhood or a village, with its unique mores, traditions, and attitudes (not least a strong reaction to "outsiders") represented an entire market for a vendor.
Indeed, the economic world seems to be becoming not "flat", or simply "global," but infinitely bumpy and bipolar—an unprecedented combination of an international, Web-driven bazaar and hundreds of thousands of small, hermetic micro-economies, each filled with about 150 people (that being the natural, manageable human group, according to sociologists) and dedicated to a common interest.
Each of us probably already belongs to a half-dozen of these groups: bowling leagues, collectors associations, parent-teacher groups, etc. And as these institutions become more robust, enjoy greater purchasing power, and increasingly serve as havens of the like-minded from the crazy outside world, we'll probably belong to a score or more. As a marketer, to enter one those groups, you will need a referral, and you will have to earn the trust of the other members—as in the villages of yore. But once you are in, you will have access and friends—or customers—to whom you are tightly linked.
All of this suggests that every business, big or small, local or international, will soon have to make a decision between two almost mutually exclusive business strategies: either to compete in the vast, undifferentiated global market, with its unpredictable competition, changing rules, fads and fashions, and the potential for huge rewards or instant failure; or to build a business through the enormous effort of cobbling together hundreds, even thousands, of these little micro-niche markets—and ultimately enjoying deep and enduring customer loyalty.
Our view is that most enterprises, at least those being built to last, will choose the latter. And that in turn will require them to use all the tools of the modern digital age, from social networks to blogs, to massive parallel databases, to consumer tracking software, in order to learn everything they can about these tiny individual markets and their members. Most of all, it will require time—time to understand these groups, time to prepare products and services, pricing policies and servicing programs to meet their unique needs … and most of all, time to earn the trust of these groups.
This is mass handselling—and like the handselling of old, trust is once again the coin of the realm. Those companies that understand this first and earn the trust of their customers will be the big winners of the new economic era to come.
How to Mass Handsell
• Recognize that your customers will be found in small groups—less than 150 people connected by affinities and passions
• Consumer groups are refuges. More than technically connected, these groups are emotionally connected. You can find them, but you won't reach them unless you're invited in.
• Marketing is membership. The key is invitation, not adoption. In order to get in, you must win over champions and "early inviters."
• Traditional media and marketing is not effective in penetrating these groups—invitation is referral-based and often done online.
• Each small group has its own rules, protocols, and etiquette: Take it slow.
• Trust is the coin of the realm: It is hard to earn, easy to lose.
• Resist the tendency to dismiss these micro-niches: When aggregated, they are huge, loyal, global markets