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Navigating the complexity of current tech evolutions can become quite daunting, making the recent past seem so simple. In fact, it wasn’t that long ago that the direct selling industry was having an internal debate about High Tech vs. High Touch and the importance of not losing sight of relationships in the business transaction. There was even a time when the argument could be made that there was a choice between fully embracing technological developments or not.
My, my, how times have changed. Consider for a moment these staggering statistics:
- 91 percent of adults in the U.S. own a cell phone.
- Since 2009, 40 billion apps have been downloaded, and
- This number is expected to grow to 70 billion app downloads in 2014 alone.
- On average, the world spends 20 billion minutes on Facebook per day.
With the start of a new year, various organizations have published their lists of tech trends for 2014 and beyond. Some predicted outcomes seem to materialize straight out of a science fiction novel—intelligent personal assistants that can “learn”; more advisors smarter than Siri; autonomous vehicles; and 3D printing capabilities that can manufacture nearly everything and anything, including car parts, a hand-powered generator, prosthetic limbs and even living tissue, something called “bioprinting.”
And forget about gigabytes and terabytes, those newish terms that describe how much storage space is needed for all the virtual data created and communicated. IT networking company Cisco, in their ongoing initiative called the Visual Networking Index (VNI) which measures the way people utilize the Internet, uses terms like exabyte, zettabyte and even brontobyte!
IT networking company Cisco predicts that in 2017 information equal to every movie ever made will cross the Internet every three minutes!
So many more people will communicate so much more data across the Internet in the next few years that Cisco predicts in 2017 information equal to every movie ever made will cross the Internet every three minutes! Just a few short years from today, this incredible amount of information will be communicated from 19 billion devices connected to the Internet—on average, 2.5 networked devices per person on Earth.
It is quite remarkable to think about every person on Earth owning a cell phone; however, it’s even more remarkable in light of a United Nations report. In 2013, the U.N. found that of these 6 billion people who have mobile phones, only 4.5 billion of them have access to toilets! The Pew Research Center has stated that, by every measure one can think of, the cell phone has been the most quickly adopted consumer technology in the history of the world.
Within the retail goods sector, and more specifically within the direct selling industry, what’s important to focus on in this dizzying explosion of technology? More devices, more software, more choices? And we haven’t even mentioned the cloud or Big Data! How can one ever keep up, let alone stay ahead and make the right choices?
The Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU) recently released a report on “The Rise of the Customer-Led Economy,” based upon its global survey of 1,300 executives representing 90 countries and 19 industries. Their report analyzes the evolving dynamic between large companies and their digitally connected customers. In its summary findings, EIU reported “A large majority of companies are fundamentally rethinking their strategies for engaging individual customers.” The rethinking comes along the lines of shifting focus from traditional push marketing and advertising (website, email) to more emphasis on customer interactions and engagements.
Additional data in the report revealed that most companies (51 percent) are still relying on their website as their main communication tool, followed by email (40 percent). Only 23 percent are using social media, with just 10 percent using mobile apps. That mix will change over the next three years. Companies in the survey say social media will become their No. 1 channel (43 percent) and their use of apps will leap fourfold.
All this data can help pinpoint a starting place for company executives wondering what to do next. There is a stark contrast between the number of consumers engaging in social media and utilizing apps, and the underwhelming number of businesses that are doing likewise. Investment and expansion in the areas of social media engagement and app development seem to have the best potential to support companies, distributors and customers, and ultimately bring more success to all. In order to make that happen, companies may have to invest in technological advancement and even consider thinking differently about the roles of their marketing and tech professionals, which are starting to overlap.
“[Consumers] expect full functionality and are not thrilled to find a company’s ‘lite’ version when using their phone.”
Back in September 2011, in our cover story “The Social Media Phenomenon,” we wrote that Facebook boasted more than 750 million active users and the average user had 130 friends. Twitter had 200 million users generating 350 million tweets per day. YouTube received more than 3 billion views per day, and LinkedIn had more than 100 million registered users. Google+ had just debuted and accrued 20 million users very quickly.
Today, at the beginning of 2014, the numbers have grown dramatically. (See chart below)
From the beginning of humanity, people have been social creatures who share things with other people. Facebook just makes it easy! In fact, so easy that companies are missing a huge opportunity if they are still resisting the need to develop a Facebook page and engage their distributors and customers.
Social media guru and author Gary Vaynerchuck believes that every company can benefit in both the long-term and the short-term by engaging its customers on social media platforms. In his book The Thank-You Economy, he writes, “Embarking on one-to-one customer engagement offers significant long-term rewards, but the company will also experience immediate benefits—greater brand awareness, stronger brand loyalty, increased word of mouth, improved understanding of customer needs, and better, faster consumer feedback—and suffer very few drawbacks.”
Vaynerchuck also has a warning for companies who haven’t yet adopted a strong social media presence, writing, “Meanwhile the drawback to resisting social media engagement is clear: The longer you wait, the further the competition can pull ahead.”
Social media has proven to be a wonderful tool in so many ways, particularly in helping distributors build their businesses and keeping every level within a company connected. Most importantly, it fosters that sense of community and furthers the one-on-one engagement for which the direct selling industry is known.
Many companies, including Mary Kay, Stella & Dot and USANA, have very robust Facebook pages where they not only post company information and products, but also have pictures of their salesforce enjoying life and utilizing their products. These pages include company information, links to training, and other pertinent information for the salesforce, but also create a personality for the company that can then be shared with others.
Rod Larsen, President and CEO of Zija International, attributes much of his company’s rapid growth to social media. As he explains, “It only made sense to dive right in and leverage this phenomenon that has completely changed communication as we know it!” Zija’s Facebook page not only includes product information and links to training information, but it also functions as a recognition vehicle for distributors who win contests and prizes. Additionally, the company posts before-and-after pictures and success stories from distributors and their customers, providing a very personal level of engagement.
Connecting with people is foundational to the direct selling industry. By easily crossing international borders and time zones, social media has helped people around the world connect in ways that simply were not possible before. USANA has created Facebook pages specific to its international markets, truly building many smaller “local” communities while maintaining the overarching “parent” identity as well. For example, the USANA Australia/New Zealand Facebook page mirrors the primary corporate page in messaging and in branding, but it posts messages and information specific to that market.
Many companies do a great job of engagement, or what Vaynerchuck calls “heart and soul.” He says, “If your organization’s intentions transcend the mere act of selling a product or service, and it is brave enough to expose its heart and soul, people will respond. They will connect. They will like you. They will talk. They will buy.”
Primerica illustrates this principle in the friendly content that it also posts on Facebook, which has nothing to do with its products. An infographic with “10 Holiday Shopping Strategies” and other basic consumer tips make the page feel comfortable and homey. The company doesn’t feel the need to make every post a call to action, which generates more trust for the overall brand among its visitors.
According to an article by Mikal Belicove, published on Entrepreneur.com, creating and maintaining a good Facebook presence can benefit your business in at least the following ways:
- Drives traffic to your website
- Allows you to engage with your community easily and more freely
- Strengthens customer relations
- Provides a platform for your brand evangelists (perfect for direct sellers!)
Each of the above is reason enough to devote time and energy to social media engagement. And where would social media be without mobile devices?
Direct selling has always been a mobile industry in the traditional sense, with the top leaders in any organization during any decade going out to the people to sell products, recruit and train others, and build relationships. Over the last several years, numerous companies have pursued mobile device technologies to empower their salesforce, and this has helped leverage the opportunity that already existed, and in a very powerful way.
Progress brings more innovation, and the types and kinds of devices will certainly continue to grow. How independent representatives and even customers access a company’s website—whether by smartphone, tablet or PC—is beyond anyone’s control, now more than ever, and who knows what could be next? Questions of type of device (remember “PC or Mac” commercials?) are a thing of the past.
So what is important? First of all, mobile is here to stay, no matter what device is used. Again citing Cisco’s VNI report, globally in 2017, smartphones will account for over 27 percent of all device connections, and for over 67 percent of total traffic on the Internet. To look at that from the other side, within four years only about 30 percent of all worldwide Internet traffic will come from a desktop or laptop computer!
So if not the device, what should a company focus on? Flexibility, responsiveness, nimbleness and adaptability—these intangibles become increasingly important. And the creation of apps for use by the consultant and the customer can satisfy some, if not all, of these intangibles.
A simple but often overlooked area to begin with is the company website. With such increased usage of the Internet from mobile devices, companies face additional challenges in how they present their websites. Doug Braun, Chief Marketing Officer at USANA, points out that consumers now expect to be able to access the same information, whether it’s from their computer or handheld device. “They expect full functionality and are not thrilled to find a company’s ‘lite’ version when using their phone.”
To ensure optimal viewing and function on all devices, designers are increasingly using responsive web design (RWD) techniques. The idea is to create a basic site for the phone first and then provide enhancements for viewing with a tablet or computer, rather than designing the site for the computer’s larger screen and then trying to degrade the images and resize the text for the phone.
However, what if a company has already developed an app? If that’s the case, it seems that making the main website mobile-friendly wouldn’t be necessary. As Michael Kopp, a technology strategist at Compuware APM Center of Excellence, points out, that would be a mistake. Although consumers tend to prefer using an app, depending on the situation they may also use the website on their mobile device, sometimes switching between the two.
The importance of developing websites for optimal viewing on various devices and creating robust shopping apps has certainly grabbed the attention of several big retailers. According to a recent Associated Press article, the likes of Target, Kohl’s, Wal-Mart, American Eagle and home-shopping network QVC have all opened technology test labs in the San Francisco area in order to stay competitive. By hiring top tech talent, these giant retailers seek to replicate the creativity and nimbleness of startups.
Mobile commerce is now mainstream commerce, and it cannot be ignored by any company.
More Apps, Better Apps!
In 2007, Apple introduced the iPhone to the world and fundamentally changed the cell phone from a talking device with a camera into a multi-function pocket computer. Once Apple equipped its new device with an operating system that supported third-party applications and threw the door wide open to creative minds, the simultaneous explosive growth of the “app” began. Primarily recognized by the square icon that appears on the device screen after download, an app is a small piece of self-contained software that has been designed to function in a very specific manner on a mobile device.
First used for such things as playing games, reading The New York Times, placing a bid on eBay or checking the weather, the app development world soon started churning out mini-software programs of great value. Direct selling companies often led the way.
The point of sale, or POS, innovations have been enthusiastically embraced by distributors from many companies. An app, along with a card-reading device that attaches to a tablet or a smartphone, can transform any party, meeting or one-on-one into a storefront opportunity. A distributor can sell a product and take immediate payment anywhere.
The app integrates payment processing with order management and the distributor’s virtual back office. Distributors can avoid “card not present” fees and eliminate the headaches of bad cards and transposed numbers written hurriedly on sales receipts. Many companies support their salesforce with this sort of technology, allowing their distributors to conduct business wherever they are.
It is critical to note that when something becomes second nature or common practice for consumers, the expectation spreads to all companies and all products and services in their world. In other words, your average consumer will come to expect his or her experience with your company to mirror or at least compete with their expectations of other retailers, even if they are not direct sellers. Mobile commerce is now mainstream commerce, and it cannot be ignored by any company.
With the amazing variety of apps that have been developed, many companies have actually changed the way they conduct their business. Instead of being stuck in an office filling out paperwork, people can complete business transactions with apps on their phone and spend much more time out in the field interacting with potential customers. Primerica has been developing leading-edge apps from the beginning, eliminating mountains of paperwork and taking their sales field mobile.
For so many direct selling companies, apps have become powerful tools, allowing them to do business, in many cases, 24/7. Also, customers are afforded more options in how they access information and make purchases. For distributors, apps enhance the personal service for which the direct selling industry is known and free up more time for them to build their business. Health and wellness companies such as Nu Skin, USANA and Vemma have used apps to bring personal trainers directly to the customer’s home and provide a daily coach that can track calories and exercise and even offer motivational advice.
Many direct selling companies have developed apps that allow their distributors to complete basic business functions on the go, such as new distributor enrollment, access to back office functions, coordinating messages to prospects, and even ordering samples at the touch of a button. Zija International’s new app for distributors includes all of the above, as well as a GPS-based exercise tracker and a built-in social wall for networking with other Zija distributors.
The specialized app that custom clothier J.Hilburn designed allows its stylists to carry an entire store as well as a showroom in their iPad. The style board portion of the app allows them to create a high-end shopping experience for a customer in his own home or office, similar to what he would experience at the more exclusive stores. In the same way that salespeople would have pulled various clothing items and had them ready when the customer arrived for his appointment, the stylist preselects items based on the customer’s taste and exhibits them on her style board. The app, coupled with real fabric swatches and the expertise of the stylist, allows men to avoid going to a store and enduring the protracted selection process, which many may find tedious.
With the rise of mobile apps, the push for social media, and a company’s marketing messaging becoming more and more intertwined with technological expertise, a wholesale change for IT departments seems to be coming.
So how have these tech tools worked for J.Hilburn? Veeral Rathod, Co-Founder and President, reports that their sales volume is about 30 percent higher when stylists use their iPads than when they use traditional methods. Men tend to be more visually oriented, and they usually respond well when tech devices are employed. As an added bonus, the iPad helps their stylists cross-sell and up-sell. They can show the customer how the shirt he just ordered would look in other colors or fabrics, or when paired with a blazer or suit. This visual gives the customer the confidence to go ahead and order more shirts or other garments.
The Tech Investment Imperative
Technological investment has been critical to growing companies for decades, as witnessed by the change in title and importance of the person in charge of the equipment—from Facilities Director to IT Director to the current C-level Chief Technology Officer. The reasons for larger investments and elevated titles have varied, though until recently most have had to do with scalability, supply chain improvement, development of efficient business processes and networking throughout the enterprise.
With the rise of mobile apps, the push for social media, and a company’s marketing messaging becoming more and more intertwined with technological expertise, a wholesale change for IT departments seems to be coming.
Apparently, this crossing over of priorities and marketing’s need to drive IT functions has caused some friction between CIOs and CMOs that didn’t exist before. In a 2014 report, titled “Top Technology Trends for 2014 and Beyond,” Forrester suggests that in this scuffle for driving strategy and taking control of business intelligence, collaboration between traditionally distinct roles will have to occur.
USANA is ready for the challenge. Braun says, “One of the most exciting and important trends that is developing is the blurring of lines between the Chief Information Officer and the Chief Marketing Officer. I see the two of them becoming a team where before they were separate departments in an organization.”
Developing a collaborative and integrated approach between IT and marketing is critical simply because a great digital customer experience is no longer an option for any company, even a direct selling company that focuses on relationship building. When consumers move seamlessly between their digital and physical worlds, they expect customer service and the customer experience to be consistent across all their chosen channels. The digital experience for a customer is now a concrete part of a company or product’s brand statement for that customer. The old adage, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression,” surely applies to a company’s digital experience for their customers.
The C-Suite of executives—CEOs, CIOs, CMOs and CSOs—may have to reinvent themselves and their roles in the enterprise in order to stay on track in the rapidly evolving technological world. Rather than a separate department focused on managing software and hardware, IT services could become the empowering force behind a marketing strategy.
While trends, devices and approaches change and will continue to change—probably with more rapidity than we would even dare to predict—the end-game for all of it remains the same: How can I make it easier for my distributors and customers to learn about my company and buy my products more often?
J.Hilburn’s Rathod plans to keep an eye on future customers and how they use the Internet. He asks, “Our current customers may be in the 30–50 age range, but what about our up-and-coming customers in their 20s? How are they using the Web and digital world? What are their shopping habits, and how will we connect with them?”
Good questions! The next wave of distributors and customers will soon enter the primary market range, so prepare to meet them on their terms.