Brand advertisers, direct marketers, multi-channel retailers, clients and prospects of Bazaarvoice, there's somebody you need to meet – Caitlin Oppermann.
I read about Caitlin just this afternoon as I was reading Boing Boing, my favorite blog. Sorry Sam! Xeni Jardin, one of BB's editors, links to a compelling story entitled "Say Everything" at New York Magazine. I highly recommend you read the story, but the main gist is that the proverbial "younger generation" is shamelessly comfortable with revealing the details of their personal lives to the rest of the world in the form of TypePad posts, Flickr photos, YouTube videos, and the agency of a thousand and one (and growing everyday) new social networking and community tools and websites. The article provides a glimpse into the lives of several of the young people driving this trend, some of which have been burned by the limelight but others that can't seem to get enough of it.
If your time is scarce, save reading the article for later and just check out the spread on Caitlin, a teen that has thoroughly documented her life (and blast-off into adulthood) on Flickr, Facebook, Vimeo, MySpace, and her own personal website. While Caitlin's portfolio of self-generated online content is impressive, she isn't an outlier. There are thousands more like her and they have been generating content for all the online world to see since their first broadband connection.
Thinking beyond the novelty of this, Caitlin is an archetype for the customer of tomorrow. Consider your customers of today and the relationships you maintain with them, in the context of your target demographics. Direct mail? Email newsletters? Loyalty programs? Now fast forward just 5-10 years and imagine competing for the attention and loyalty and walletshare of someone like Caitlin. Like her peers, she has an amazing ability to multi-task and juggle connections with real world friends, virtual IM and chat buddies, websites and online communities, brands, products, and the list goes on. Where do you fit in?
I wish I had a clear answer for you, but I don't. I do believe, however, that the starting point to building a long-lasting relationship with customers like Caitlin is to start speaking their language. They talk, they post, they share everything online. Resistance is futile. At some point, they will talk about you, your brand, your products, your services. Will it be good or bad? You can control this to a degree by striving to make every customer interaction the best it can be, with the full awareness that there is a new currency by which your success and desirability are measured. Call it buzz or word of mouth or whatever you like, but the concept is pretty simple: Are you worth talking about?
If the answer to the question above is no, the next 5-10 years and beyond won't be much fun. But my question is a bit more complex than it reads. What I really mean to ask is are you inviting consumers to talk about you? Are you encouraging, enabling, and participating in the discussion? Are you willing to take a little bit of constructive criticism along with the praise you believe you deserve? Again, if the answer is no, you may very well lose all relevance in the next 5-10 years. The customers of tomorrow, the thousands of Caitlins out there and the millions that will follow her, demand a voice. If you give them a voice, they will talk and they may just talk directly to you! If you don't, they will talk elsewhere and that may include talking to your competitors.