How the Connected Consumer is Changing the Face of Product Discovery.

Today, as consumers we are truly spoilt for choice. Yet, somewhat paradoxically, all this choice can be quite overwhelming, and it’s not unusual for it to manifest itself in frustration at the end of a hard days’ shopping after not really finding anything suitable or satisfying our needs.

Luckily, this age of oversupply comes at the same time as modern communication technology is shifting paradigms in mass media, transforming it from a one-directional broadcasting medium into something interactive, bi-directional, even conversational. Moreover, thanks to mobile communication, consumers are now connected to the internet 24/7, wherever they may find themselves.

Interestingly, universal access to the internet is not the main game changer. Instead, what’s more important is that users are becoming increasingly comfortable using this new technology in their everyday activities. The internet is becoming less and less about connected computers and more and more about connected humans.

The age of oversupply comes at the same time as modern technology is shifting paradigms in mass media, transforming it from a one-directional broadcasting medium into something interactive, bi-directional, even conversational

However, these transitions in consumer habits and behaviours imply a number of new challenges for businesses, regarding product discovery and purchase decision making, as consumers increasingly use digital and online media to discover new products and services, and to assess the opinions of others, preferably known friends, into consideration before making a purchase. The result? That consumers are not only able to — but going to — retrieve information from anywhere at any one time, and businesses must re-think the way they connect consumers to products.

So — what are the key mechanisms via which brands can leverage networked media and connect to would-be consumers?

Pull discovery.

Pull is the simplest method of discovery. When a consumer is pulling information, through a search engine for example, he or she is presented with a variety of options — so the more detailed the search, the more accurate the results.

Google is certainly the “King of Pull”. Dominating search is very valuable, especially when consumers are looking for ways how to spend their money online. Needless to say that this is why Google is making billions of dollars by facilitating a connection between those who sell products and those who want to buy them. Further down the value chain one finds so called “Vertical Search Engines” such as Popsugar or SnapFashion. These search in a specific industry or topic and compare related products. It’s worth noting that sites such as Kelkoo still catch shopping-willing consumers who are in the search and discovery mode, but they get significantly less traffic and therefore still depend on the big search engines to direct users to them. The only way of breaking loose from this dependency is for them to build their own brands.

Push discovery.

Push occurs when online users actively subscribe to information streams such as Twitter, Facebook, a YouTube channel or a blog. Through those feeds, brands can push their products to relevant users. While this method usually disrupts the user’s experience, this interruption can be mitigated if the information being pushed is relevant enough to the user’s wants and needs.

Sharing, liking or pinning acts as a filter mechanism that feeds users information in compact bite-size packages in the form of tweets, updates and pins

As the web grew to contain an immense pool of information sources, users began to filter their incoming streams of data. One way of creating order into these never-ending streams of new information is by using sharing platforms such as Twitter, Facebook or Pinterest, where sharing, liking or pinning acts as a filter mechanism that feeds users information in compact bite-size packages in the form of tweets, updates and pins. The value of these packages is highly dependant on their relevance, as long as the subscriber feels the information adds value, she will stay tuned. But as soon as she thinks she is being advertised to, she vanishes with the click of a mouse. The challenge here is to find the right blend of relevant content and new product pushing.

One way of making push less intrusive is by building a community from scratch in which members actively subscribe to those “pushes” right from the beginning — like flash sale websites like Vente-Privee or, outside of the fashion industry, Groupon. These websites exploit fluctuations in supply and demand by directing users to businesses with low sales, and/or help dispose of excess stock without diluting brand value.

Contextual discovery.

Contextual discovery is neither pull nor push because the user is not searching nor is the user experience being disrupted. Instead, the context of the user is being taken into consideration, and a “matching” marketing message is placed in that specific moment in time. This is the most sophisticated way of exposing a new product, because it involves a sort of digital “mind reading” of the user’s intentions.

Contextual discovery is probably the most exciting way to bridge the gap between consumers and products because it takes user preferences and interests into consideration. Technically speaking, it is also highly sophisticated and as technology evolves, there’s still lots of opportunity to improve it.

Contextual discovery is probably the most exciting way to bridge the gap between consumers and products because it takes user preferences and interests into consideration

Probably the best-known example of contextual discovery is Amazon’s recommendation engine. Some fashion e-commerce platforms such as Net-a-Porter use a similar mechanism. While you are shopping, Amazon compares your shopping history with other users’ shopping histories. Based on an enormous database of shopping behaviour, Amazon tries to predict what other products are likely to interest you; Amazon does this based on the assumption that your taste is somewhat similar to other people’s tastes with similar shopping behaviour. The great advantage of this system is the fact that Amazon doesn’t need to build a database that describes how the items relate to each other. Instead, users contribute to “shopping profiles” that are aggregated in the background based on their online behaviour.

Foursquare/Swarm represents another great example of contextual discovery. Without a doubt, one of the strongest contexts we as users can offer is our location: It’s not difficult to identify its long run potential — the ability to discover shops and boutiques in our neighbourhood that we didn’t even know about, let alone have an inkling that they might sell those shoes we’ve been looking for.

Looking ahead, it is clear that the opportunities for newcomers — like a fashion brand looking to establish itself in today’s digital ecosystem — are extremely exciting. In stark contrast to the prescriptive, top-down mass communication of yore, the beauty of the web as we know it today is that the audience is also a participant, and everybody — whether small business or large corporation, in far away countries or the consumers’ own back yard — gets a chance to reach a global audience at very little cost. If a piece of content is good, it will travel quickly via social media. If a product is amazing and surprising, it will catch people’s imaginations and create conversation. In a sense, this represents the ultimate digital meritocracy, and those who can adapt the quickest to this new ecosystem will emerge as winners.

About the author: Christoph Burgdorfer is Tech Director at This Place, London and Seattle based digital agency that is passionate about user experience, design and exploring the possibilities of the digital age: www.thisplace.com

This article originally appeared on Brand + Commercial in a slightly different shape.