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(originally published by Booz & Company)


Brand Transformation on the Internet

To Aaron Shapiro, CEO of the digital agency Huge, online marketing means creating immersive environments where people go to get their problems solved.

What kind of online marketing strategy makes the most of digital media? One very intriguing answer, from the proprietor of the digital marketing and design agency Huge, is the embrace of software experience. To Aaron Shapiro, companies don’t thrive by selling products or services anymore. They thrive by creating immersive experiences where people go to get their problems solved or their aspirations realized.

In his book, Users, Not Customers: Who Really Determines the Success of Your Business (Portfolio/Penguin, 2011), Shapiro offers the example of JetBlue’s website: “bargain fares in a large font on the home page, an easy-to-use flight booking tool that catered to new users but also let advanced users jump right in, and a new online baggage-check option that became extremely popular.” He also points to the Gap, the Weather Channel, Nutrisystem, and Walmart as companies that have invested heavily in simple digital environments where people can easily get what they want. The solution is first; the product or service is secondary. Most valuable of all is the ability to skip all the time-wasting, enervating detritus of shopping; to be confident that you are being directed straightaway to a better end result than you could find offline.

Hence the book title. “Customers,” he argues, are people to whom products are sold. For “users,” the company itself is the product. It’s a bit like having the company as your concierge, except that instead of a harried individual behind a hotel desk, the company meets you through (ideally) a well-designed online (and sometimes bricks-and-mortar) interface. We met with Shapiro in early 2012 in s+b’s New York offices to talk about the nature of this approach and its implications for marketing — and the rest of a company’s leadership.

S+B: How did you land on this concept of users being different from customers?
SHAPIRO: It started with our work at Huge. We’re an independent agency within the Interpublic Group [of Companies]; the main focus is full-service digital solutions for clients like Target, Pepsi, Ikea, General Electric, and Royal Caribbean cruises. We found that companies were hiring us for seemingly very practical things. We’d get a call saying, “We need to do a social media campaign” or “We need a website” or “We need a mobile device site.” But it would turn out that they were really looking for a brand transformation. They saw the businesses that they had built up very successfully over the years being hit with a digital tsunami, and realized that they’d have to reorient their entire company to be successful online.

S+B: What do you mean by brand transformation?
SHAPIRO: If you think about the history of brands since World War II, most of them were fundamentally built through storytelling. A 30-second ad would blast out a narrative for a passive audience. But on the Web, consumers are not a captive audience, so marketers need a very different approach.

People are interested in utility. When users go online, in particular, they are very task-oriented. They want to check the news, read their e-mail, or book a flight. To be sure, they want to feel good about what they buy, and they’re still looking for a connection. But they will only respond to a marketing message they think is relevant. They’re not a passive audience that will buy something after seeing a story.

S+B: So customers are passive and users are active?
SHAPIRO: I would put it differently. Users are people who interact with your company in the digital space — on your website, by e-mail, or on Facebook or Twitter. Customers are a subset of them. You could be a user of Amazon and never buy a product; you would just go to its site to read reviews, apply for a job, or publish a book. When companies focus on fulfilling the needs of this broader group of users, they are much more successful than if they just serve customers.

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