Andrew Walmsley on Digital: Take aim at a new target

Andrew Walmsley
Andrew Walmsley

As consumers shift from planned to 'in the moment' purchase decisions, marketers must catch up.

Nowhere in the publishing world is there a more astonishing tale of survival than that of Radio Times. Far from struggling, it's the UK's biggest-selling weekly magazine by subscription, with more than 200,000 people waiting with bated breath for it to flump through their letter box every seven days.

With digital switchover nearing completion, using EPGs to navigate telly is the norm. Despite this, the publication is showing admirable resilience; buoyed up, perhaps, by people like my elderly aunt, who likes to go through its listings with a highlighter pen, planning out her week's snoozing in front of the telly.

With respect to Auntie Dot, however, she is not a valuable audience for advertisers: she watches a lot of telly and doesn't buy a great deal - and, much as the TV industry holds her behaviour up as normal, she's not the future of consumption, either.

Still immature and growing in the UK, pay-TV is declining in the US, as audiences opt for cheaper IPTV services like Hulu, Wal-Mart's Vudu and Netflix. Again in the US, iTunes accounted for 28% of the entire music market (not just of digital downloads) last year. Meanwhile, after making all the same hopeful noises as the music industry did that digital wouldn't make a big impact on its market, the book-publishing world is reeling from a takeover that has gone from virtually zero to a majority in just two years; last year eBook sales for Kindle overtook hardback sales on Amazon.com. This year, its eBooks overtook paperbacks.

It turns out that, far from 'the urge to collect', 'valuing the cover art' and 'the importance of being able to touch and hold', mass consumers don't give a damn about this stuff. Moreover, all these services deliver instantly to consumers; no trip to Waterstone's, Blockbuster or HMV. They are part of a movement that is changing consumer behaviour in relation to all sorts of products and services, eroding the habit of planning purchases.

Instant gratification has long been valued by consumers, but it is the change in their planning habits that is significant here. Its impact is spreading far beyond media as technology develops and the economy struggles on.

The travel sector is in the vanguard, with a shift to late booking being seen by many as becoming a permanent feature of the market rather than just a passing trend. Reduced information friction, driven by the web, is making consumers more confident that they will be able to find what they're looking for in the late market at a discount.

For Pontins, late bookings grew 20% in 2010; at the other end of the market, Kuoni created a late sales unit, in response to growth in this area of as much as 50% on pre-recession years.

Nonetheless, late booking is still booking. This year smartphone penetration will hit 500m and, in the most economically active segments of the population, putting availability information into the hands of the consumer on the street empowers them to make purchase decisions in the moment.

The reduced information friction that mobile can bring is starting to open up location-based services as a valuable promotional tool. At the same time, price comparison through tools such as Amazon's barcode app allow consumers to check web prices in-store, enabling informed channel selection.

There are still plenty of reasons to book ahead or to buy in-store, but technology is spawning a segment that is empowered to make or change decisions instantly; this means brands can't target them in a planning phase, but have to develop the skills to meet them in real-time. For some, there will be money to be made by targeting a group that doesn't own a highlighter pen.

Andrew Walmsley is a digital pluralist

30 SECONDS ON ... VUDU

- Vudu is a movie-streaming service that users can access via their internet-connected HDTV, PlayStation 3 or computer. It also works on Blu-ray players and iPads.

- Because Vudu is a video-on-demand service, users pay for individual movies - there are no subscription fees or contract. The cost of 'renting' a movie starts from $2 (£1.26) for two nights. Most films are made available on the day they are released to retailers on DVD.

- The films are streamed in HD quality with Dolby Surround Sound, so watching them, the company says, is 'just like sitting in a movie theatre'.

- Rather than charging 'late return fees', streamed films lock themselves when the rental period has expired, preventing further viewing.

- Founded in 2004, Vudu initially developed its own branded set-top box, but now distributes films solely through third-party devices.

- In 2007, Vudu received $21m (£13.3m) in venture capital funding and was bought last year by Wal-Mart for a reported $100m (£63.2m).

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