Sunday, 20 March 2011

Subscribers: The new consumers

For ages we've known that the word 'consumer' is not quite doing its job. It isn't explaining the kind of relationship that exists between someone who produces a product and someone who consumes it. That's partly because 'consumption' is often of something that is informative, experiential and participative - it is no longer the usage or 'wasting away of' a physical product.

The new world is going to see us selling a lot more of the former, and a lot less of the latter. The type of product we're selling and people are buying has changed. Forever. And we are as much asking them to buy into the value of our service, as we are asking them to buy into the values of it. Because we all now inhabit the world of experience rather than the world of transmission, because the experience is the communication, we are more likely to be asking people to buy-in to values, beliefs and communities than we are to be asking them to buy our products, packaging and proofs.

And here is the big shift. We've been talking for ages about social media, story-telling, advocacy and earned media, and pondering where it will take marketing. But until we stop thinking of customers as consumers - and recognise the new dynamic and the new exchange, we won't make progress. the truth is, brands are no longer producers, and people who buy are no longer consumers. That model, that "dialogue" model does not work in the information age. The model is more iterative, and involves more than two players. People participate through co-creation and collaboration, feeding back, responding...and even customising the brand. They even "version" the brand for themselves, often advocating the participatory nature of the brand to others. They are not buying something 'off the shelf'. They are buying-in to something in their daily life. So then they are not consumers.

What they are doing is buying-in, and selling-on the brand to others. They are doing some marketing for you. In this way they demonstrate they believe in the same things, share the same values, and are in a sense 'at one' with the brand. Not that the brand cannot exist without them, it can. But they are happy co-authors of the brand.

Subscribing is the New Selling

If we're not asking people to 'consume' because they are in fact co-creating, what are we asking them to do? I believe we are asking them to subscribe.

It's a funny old word, and feels like it belongs to a bygone newspaper or catalogue era of The Readers Digest...but it's not a word of the past, it is the word of the future. As more and more products become services, which is what happens when they get 'digitized', the job of marketing becomes one of getting people to sign-up, opt-in, and if you like 'check-in. The job of the marketeer is one of getting so under the skin of that customer that they can serve up personalised content, at the times when it is of most the exact places it can be most useful...each time and every time. The job of the marketeer is to make the brand an habitual part of life for that consumer, and to make it unthinkable that this is a service one could ever do without. Tell me that isn't what Apple have done.

Apple don't have consumers. They have subscribers. People who buy-in to the whole belief system and community of the Apple designed world; people who are in agreement with Apple's values and its vision for the world; people who are prepared to lock themselves into a system that makes things simple for them; and people who contribute to the whole system by exchanging their data in order for their service over time to be made better and better.


1. are in agreement with a group
they become part of the audience or community that are like-minded and are signing up to the beliefs of the brand, as well as the rest of the community. They are happy to be identified as part of that community.

2. make a pledge and therefore a commitment
they are ethusiastic enough to think that they will be part of that community for a fairly long time, maybe a year, maybe two, perhaps longer. And they make a pledge, usually written, for the brand to be a part of their world for the forseeable future.

3. make an ongoing contribution
as with any relationship, they contribute, and donate things of value to it. Every month they make a payment but it goes beyond this into adding 'comments' to suggesting new products, to reviewing existing services and to sharing the brand/service with, and through, others. This all has a value.

4. enjoy a relationship that gets better through data
the more personal data that is shared, the better optimised the product will be - both for that particular subscriber but also for the total community of subscribers at large - everyone benefits from the adaption of services from the intelligent use of personal data collected. We used to offer simple personal data on a form (our address, phone number, email) but now we're subscribing to offer up data about what we do, where we go, who we're with.

5. the relationship only ends when they actively unsubscribe
the relationship only comes to an end when the brand we've subscribed to fails to deliver either on the service being provided or to uphold the values we initially bought into. The subscriber is in control. The job of the brand marketers is to never give anyone a reason to unsubscribe from that brand.

Subscription is the new business model

And that is the reason that subscribers is a word of the future. In the past we asked people to subscribe at a product level (do you want this magazine, or that TV channel) generally to receive media content of some kind. Now, we are asking people to subscribe at a brand level (do you sign up to these values, or that data which is of value) specifically to build a relationship over time. Subscription not consumption. Subscribers not consumers. That's the future and it's a long way away from The Reader's Digest.