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Who Owns Your Customer?

Who owns your customer?Who owns your customer? You’d think, by definition, you do. It sure seems like a reasonable assumption, right? After all, you’ve established a dialogue with people interested in your products and services. You’ve gotten them to return to your site, provide you some information, and gotten them to pay for your offering with their money or–in the case of ad-supported businesses–attention. If you’re really effective, you’ve enticed the to return and use your services again and again.

For years, companies just like yours have worked hard to develop lasting relationships with customers to keep the profits flowing. For many companies, driving repeat business represents pretty much the entire rationale for the marketing and sales tactics so prevalent across industries large and small. Loyalty programs, frequent shopper cards, remarketing, retargeting, coupons, and on and on and on all exist to fill the top of the funnel with new customers and direct prior customers to buy once again. These businesses have created and nurtured their brands, products, and services to create a sustainable competitive advantage, limiting opportunities for new entrants to gain a foothold in the market. And when all else failed, established industry players often lobbied for legislative or regulatory barriers designed to keep new players off the field.

Despite these efforts, most businesses–hell, entire industries–find themselves under siege, facing competitive threats unimagined just a few years ago. To hear many CEO’s tell it, the biggest risk to their business isn’t some industry giant; it’s the proverbial “two kids in a garage.” Technology hasn’t just lowered the barriers to entry in many fields; it’s obliterated them. Gideon’s trumpet might have toppled the walls of Jericho, but that’s nothing compared to a couple of hungry entrepreneurs armed with a good idea, cheap Internet, and a solid helping of intelligence, ambition, hubris, and hard work.

These hypothetical entrepreneurs are teaching plenty of businesses a very hard truth: No one owns the customer. Customers are fickle. They really don’t care about you or your brand. Not because they’re unthinking, unfeeling, disloyal ingrates. Far from it. They care tremendously about their lives, their families, their children. Your brand, however, maybe not so much. It may provide value and a positive feeling to your customers, but only so long as it helps them meet the needs in their lives, for their families and children.

Think about the world in which your customer lives: She’s asked to do more with less at work, probably has to care for young children and aging parents alike, somehow keep up her head above water amidst emails, appointments, and media messages flooding her world every day, and, somehow, would like to find a moment to herself for just a few minutes each day. Realistically, your product represents a means to an end. If someone can provide a better, faster, cheaper means, then they’re going to win her business the next time. The meteoric rise of companies like Uber, Airbnb, Spotify, Zillow, and, going back a little further, Amazon, Google, and Facebook, demonstrates that competition can come from out of nowhere yet capture meaningful market share.

Yes, a good brand, a quality product, or a consistent level of service makes it easier for you to win repeat business from customers. And, even better, it’s tough for competitors new or old to break customers’ existing habits. But you still have to win that business again and again, each time your customers make a purchase decision. Otherwise, the only people who will own your customers are your competition.

And if you want to learn even more about how customers changing behavior shapes e-commerce and marketing, be sure an register to receive a special report I’ve produced in conjunction with hotel marketing firm Vizergy, “Digital Hotel Marketing in a Multiscreen World.” While it’s targeted specifically at hotel and resort marketers, the lessons apply to just about any business. You can get your free copy of the report here.

You can also check out these slides and video from my recent webinar, “Digital Marketing Directions: Three Key Trends Driving Your Marketing Next Year”:

And, finally, you might want to take a look at some of our past coverage of the e-commerce, mobile commerce, and digital marketing overall, including:

Tim Peter is the founder and president of Tim Peter & Associates. You can learn more about our company's strategy and digital marketing consulting services here or about Tim here.

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