Keeping up with Generation Ping

Wunderman's CCO on what the death of the purchase funnel really means

While researching a presentation, I stumbled upon a Harvard Business Review article from its May 1, 2012, issue titled, To Keep Your Customers, Keep It Simple. The authors of the article put forward the idea that consumers want simplicity in decision-making and argued that the classic purchase funnel was gone — replaced, essentially, by tunnel vision.

Respectfully, I think Harvard got this one wrong — very wrong. The funnel might be dead for many, but it hasn’t been replaced by tunnel vision — in fact, just the opposite. And saying people want "simplicity" may not be as simple as that.

The authors of the HBR article state that 30% of all customers interviewed for their survey study feel so overwhelmed by information that they get caught in a loop researching alternatives — and rarely purchase. And yet another 30% respond to the info-overload by not researching at all, and instead focus on only one brand and move on.

The problem? If the first point were true, we’d see a drop in consumer spending, which we don’t. If the second were true, we’d see an increase in brand loyalty, which we certainly don’t.

Common sense and simplicity might be what people want, but when it comes to purchase behavior and decisions, simplicity (according to our data) doesn’t seem to be what they need.

Those of us who are looking at data on actual behavior (as opposed to surveys, which are less reliable) are seeing something different from what the article suggests. Instead of feeling overwhelmed by information as they make decisions, customers are reveling in it. And they are not wedded to any particular brand — except in a few instances, like Apple — rather, they have a process that helps them come to informed decisions without considering every alternative.

For lack of a better phrase, I call these consumers "Generation Ping." Here’s how they work:

  1. They send out pings. They explore in many ways. They visit Web pages. They like, search, view, share, email, text, tweet or even make phone calls.
  2. They get pinged back. Their questions and explorations get responses from friends; family; trusted sources, brands; and even random folks who are, a la LinkedIn, first- or second-level connections. They read reviews, watch videos and absorb consumer-relevant content that is served up in the myriad ways we marketers are very familiar with.
  3. They build a map of the purchasing landscape. This doesn’t mean they look at every possible angle; instead, they use their pings to construct a rough map that shows them what good options would look like.
  4. This is not traditional consideration. With so much information, "pingers" are not necessarily making completely rational, thoroughly considered decisions. But that doesn’t matter. They make a solid decision based on what they’ve learned by pinging and the map of information they’ve created from the various sources — often the map consists of tested and trusted sources, but sometimes sources that are new or far outside their usual circles are included as well.
  5. They buy. Buying is also a ping. They try their purchase out, and may keep it or return it. They share their decisions and ask for feedback. They also share their excitement or disappointment with other pingers.
  6. They now become part of the pinging landscape. This is an important point. Once they buy, they become a new source of information for others and start answering pings.

So where does this leave brands? Quite simply, if you’re not pinging back, you may not be on your customers’ radar (or sonar) at all. You need to be in forums and open up lines of communication on Twitter and elsewhere. When someone pings, you should give an honest answer as quickly as you can. Remember, if your product or service isn’t right for someone, it’s better to turn a sale away than lose a customer’s trust forever.

In addition, you have to be brave. For example, many brands are still reluctant to leverage their Twitter account and other social channels for customer service. They believe the haters will pile on, making the brand look bad. Of course, haters gonna hate. But they can also share the upsides, the problem solving, the joy and fun of interacting in a very personal, albeit modern, kind of social conversation.

That’s why brands need to embrace Generation Ping in a big way. Rather than wringing our hands about the collapse of the purchase funnel, we should start asking ourselves how best to respond to a customer base that’s using pings to make decisions. This may mean big changes for some brands, but it’s always better to ask the right questions than to get the wrong answers you want to hear.

Lincoln Bjorkman is global chief creative officer of Wunderman.

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