It is not a new observation that people’s attitudes toward companies and institutions have irrevocably changed over the last few decades.
Trust in institutions had declined precipitously, replaced by empowered consumers who increasingly rely on each other for decision-making. Perhaps not surprisingly, connected consumers are turning away from impersonal, policy-driven, product-first companies, often in droves. This represents the long-term shift underway — from “Institutional Era” to “Human Era” companies – where the rules that govern how to connect and stay relevant have changed.
We studied this phenomenon in “Welcome to the Human Era” (co-authored with Hill Holliday), in which we looked at how hundreds of brands scored in making human connections. The data show that organizations embodying more human traits — caring, authentic, vital, having a strong sense of purpose — enjoy higher growth rates and customer loyalty. But something interesting arises when you look closely at the data…
Yes, the brands you might expect on top were there — Wegmans, Umpqua Bank, Disney, USAA. They have found ways to go above and beyond to serve customers with human gestures, empowered employees, flexible policies and a commitment to a mission bigger than money. They excel at connecting in the Human Era.
But equally, if not more, we see that it is indeed the digital brands that often are the most human.
Amazon is the most human retailer, and Etsy is not far behind, above even legendary service leader Nordstrom.
Paypal is in the top three among over 40 financial service companies.
In media and entertainment, Netflix is close to the leader Disney, with no friendly park employees or characters.
Google outperforms the major media players.
Skype is ahead of virtually all of the communications players.
We know that these digital brands are winning in the market. And we expect them to do so on attributes of greater convenience, speed, choice and cost. But more human?
How is it — without the massive payroll, the retail store infrastructure, the enterprise-wide customer service training programs, tens of thousands of front line people meeting with customers face-to-face — that these digital brands are at the top? How are they perceived as more caring, human and authentic?
We obviously start with the insight these companies gain from data and the personalization they are able to achieve. Indeed Amazon and Netflix know you better and anticipate what you need. They can listen, connect and respond in real time and in more relevant ways.
But this isn’t the sole answer — nothing says institutional like an algorithm that guesses you wrong. And while Google is making significant investments and strides in answering queries in a more human way with its new “hummingbird” search engine update, creating a digital experience that is caring and human is about more than just tapping into big data.
Beyond the machine, here are four ways digital leaders really set themselves apart:
Showing deeper empathy. Netflix has a kid-friendly way to navigate content with images of characters – click on Scooby Doo if you can’t yet read. When you are sending an email that mentions an attachment but forget to append it, Google gently reminds you to do so. Skype reminds customers that you can use the service to connect without webcams, “optional for bad hair days.”
Expressing a unique personality. Netflix serves up genres with titles such as “sentimental dysfunctional family dramas.” When Google changes its logo on a regular basis, it tells users that there are real people behind the servers, with creative minds and a sense of humor. Mint’s error 404 error page features a funny picture of a nerdy guy named Justin who “likes slow cars, sharp crayons, reheated pizza and awkward silence.” Etsy’s error notifications begin with playful language like “Darn” or “Hang tight.”
Leveraging the full power of transparency. Skype uses the digital medium to be crystal clear and radically simple about how they make money and what consumers pay for. Etsy publishes statistics on the actions of its “Marketplace Integrity” team, documenting how and why the brand intervenes to protect its community. Apple’s website displays and invites customer ratings on its products, good or bad. Ally reports its contact number — and call center-waiting times — on its home page. Digital shines the brightest light on the truth.
Bringing people to you, not just products to you. The most human digital brands bring the humanity to you, and let the community give it character. Etsy puts its customers in direct contact with its sellers, who can customize their shops, curate lists of “handpicked items,” and deliver customer service with their own unique personalities. Amazon’s reviews can be a cauldron of color and personality, courtesy of the community (Remember the Avery Binder product reviews following the Romney debate gaffe: “let me just point out one glaring omission: while this is a lovely, multi-purpose binder, it does not come with women.”) Who says digital transactions are soulless? It’s a place to buy a product, but also a place to connect and smile. Brands increasingly view technology as a way to bring people to you, not cut them out. Witness Bank of America’s recent rollout of “Teller Assist” ATMs: friendly people pop up on your ATM screen when needed to answer questions. This kind of initiative is the future of digital.
The truth is that the medium actually lends itself to more empathetic and authentic connections. Faster to respond, lower cost to change, inherently version-able, and filled with limitless avenues for the human spirit to shine through. After all, Yahoo could engage millions of users in seeing and commenting on a different logo every day — not something a big bricks and mortar player can pull off.
So the next time you think that technology is making brand interactions less personal, think again. And ask yourself, are you truly recognizing the power of the digital medium, not just to providing a better or cheaper service, but a fundamentally more human connection?
Article originally published on Wired on October 11, 2013.