Retaining existing customers and effectively reaching out to acquire new customers is the goal of every business, but rising costs and a persistent recession have made it more important than ever that companies of every size manage their customer communications in a cost-conscious, but highly effective way. Companies are competing for fewer available consumer dollars, and the companies that survive are those that are able to retain current customers through personalized and targeted communications and secure new customers through highly effective multi-channel advertising campaigns. Furthermore, the realm of multimedia and multi-channel delivery is expanding into new media avenues such as social networking sites and smart phones, providing opportunities to reach new and more precisely targeted consumer segments and delivering highly personalized messages through non-traditional delivery channels. The audience targeted for multimedia delivery is changing as well. As more sophisticated consumer technology becomes increasingly available to a larger cross-section of the consumer base, companies will need to develop media and delivery channels that effectively push their messages out to a broader demographic pool. Ultimately, many industries and organizations will need to fundamentally change their marketing and communications models to compete in a multi-channel marketplace.

Most American consumers have experienced the thick stack of coupons and sales flyers in the Sunday paper and realized that the splashy colors and bold writing are designed to grab their attention and, ultimately, their money. The news publishers and advertisers deliver demographically targeted advertisements in their distribution regions to maximize the value of each dollar spent with the intent of getting the right message to the right consumer. Like many traditional marketing channels, the broad-stroke delivery method puts the message in a lot of hands, but does little to build consumer trust or brand loyalty. Additionally, by being mired in a unidirectional format, this method lacks the potential for meaningful feedback to address those shortcomings.

TO REMAIN COMPETITIVE, many industries and organizations have come to understand the power and necessity of managing consumer communications through multiple channels and multiple media formats to capture their market share in an increasingly technologically sophisticated consumer base. Elizabeth Gooding, president at Insight Forums, observed that document delivery "has gone from an •OR' to an •AND' technology," meaning that consumers are becoming less and less willing to accept a single-channel push option (like the Sunday newspaper) or a single-channel pull option (like traditional website presentment). Instead, they are demanding more communication and information in multiple delivery channels. Even more so, notes Gooding, "consumers want control of their experience. They want to determine how, when and where information is delivered, and the technology must be easy to use and flexible." Still, even meeting that challenge isn't enough because opening the box to multi-channel document delivery exposes the vendor to nearly instantaneous consumer feedback with greater effect than ever before.

The push and pull of multimedia delivery has and will continue to have the effect of driving a better quality product and forcing a fundamental change in vendor culture. "Mistrust has grown over time," observes Dan Barnicle, VP, Practice Lead, Content Management & Collaboration at Sapient. "Most consumers don't trust advertisement, but most trust recommendations from other consumers." For the responsive organization, this communication between consumers can be an invaluable tool as it will drive like-minded consumers to seek their feature-rich and responsive services.

CONSUMER COMMUNICATION CHANNELS are growing into consumer communities, particularly as content providers take advantage of the growing popularity of social networking sites such as MySpace, Facebook and Twitter. Scott Quarderer, senior director of insurance services at J.D. Power & Associates, asserts that "social networking sites are on the [multimedia] radar, and we'll see continued growth in the social networking channels as a lot of industries are still lagging behind." With consumers clearly expressing and demonstrating their preference for a choice in content delivery channels, and the importance of consumer trust in creating successful multi-channel delivery experiences, organizations that understand the importance of two-way communication to build trust will migrate to social networking channels out of necessity.

Those organizations that do provide a social networking presence will likely find themselves the subject of critical scrutiny within a community of like-minded consumers and will be able to avail themselves of nearly instantaneous feedback. This will push organizations to become extremely responsive in managing their brand experience. Barnicle notes that "vendors will no longer control their brand messages [in a social networking environment]. The users and consumers will control the brand message." Over time, this will have the cumulative effect of changing the fundamental relationship between content providers and consumers and will quickly thin the ranks as non-responsive organizations will rapidly lose credibility and trust in the virtual community. Moreover, content providers and marketing organizations must continue to adopt and adapt to the growing number of document and content delivery channels to maintain consumer trust.

The growing landscape of multimedia delivery channels is not limited to any particular demographic group. Although corporate road warriors are often more quick to adopt the latest and most efficient, dependable and powerful communication technologies than other groups, multimedia delivery has been accepted and embraced by virtually every social group. "It's not just Gen X and Gen Y that are using it; retirees are going online, too," observed Gooding. The variety of content available and the prevalence of home computers and smart phones has caused business and home consumers alike to embrace multimedia channels for transactional, editorial and entertainment content. "We're seeing more and more average consumers preferring web delivery," says Quarderer. He points to choice, speed, convenience and ease of use driving the increasing acceptance of online transactions.

A KEY EMERGING MULTIMEDIA channel is the smart phone. Consumers are rapidly adopting the ability to access critical information and perform web-based transactional activities from their mobile devices. Many industries have enabled their consumer-facing transactional processes to mobile users, and those who are doing it right are seeing a "stickier" consumer relationship. Industries that have been quick to adopt the mobile channel include: insurance (policy quotes and claim services); investments (up-to-the-minute quotes and information and trading); banking (balance checking, bill-paying and money transfers); and airlines (ticketing, reservations and notifications).

As more providers adopt a broader range of mobile content channels, the demand for a more feature-rich and interactive experience will increase proportionally. In anticipation of the need to evolve multimedia delivery technology to fulfill consumer demands, the Global System for Mobile communications Association (GSMA) spearheaded the Rich Communication Suite (RCS) Initiative in August 2008. RCS is a "feature-rich portfolio of services" that will simplify and enhance the social networking and online mobile experience. It will expand the functionality of common mobile devices and simplify the multimedia communications between consumers and between consumers and content providers. RCS will provide services such as presence and capability indication, use multimedia elements to initiate communications, simplify the exchange of multimedia content during calls and messaging, and perhaps most importantly, RCS will allow the consumer to select their environment depending on their current need, whether mobile or stationary. As more and more feature- laden content tools become available to the consumer, like the smart phone, it will become increasingly more critical that providers and developers of content find innovative ways to exploit the available technologies. Industries that have followed a more traditional brick-and-mortar business model will find themselves losing market share to those companies that invest in multi-channel marketing and services and provide their customers with options for consistent, simple and feature-rich access to information and business processes.

CLEARLY, MULTIMEDIA CONTENT and multichannel delivery will continue to proliferate as the technology matures and gains increasing acceptance among consumers of digital content. Organizations wishing to retain customers and build brand loyalty will not only need to provide access to content, but will have to embellish the experience with rich, accessible and targeted information and services. Proof of the efficacy of alternative multimedia communication can be found as recently as the last presidential election, notes Dan Barnicle. Studies have shown that when candidates actually shake hands with voters, they are more likely to gain their vote. "One candidate leveraged the new reality of how we reach out to people," says Barnicle, "and he found a way to shake a million people's hands." It is clear that part of the Barack Obama's campaign success has to be attributed to his innovative use of multiple delivery channels to target voters with personalized messages.

Finally, as further proof of the efficacy and rising popularity of multimedia content, one need only consider this article. This content can be accessed via a mobile or stationary web browser, by RSS feed or in hard copy. After it has been consumed, the reader can provide instant feedback to the publisher and the author through the document website, via email to the editor or the author or through the journal's social networking presence. A community discussion can be spawned, in which consumers and vendors alike share ideas in text as well as multimedia content. Ultimately, by exploiting multichannel communications, a more complete exploration of the ideas and concepts presented can be generated, so as to expand the common knowledge farther than ever before. Not only has multimedia content changed the way we do business, it has and will continue to impact modern culture and the way people interact and communicate at every level.

DAVID MARTINA [david.martina@NEPS.com] is the vice president of systems integration for NEPS, LLC of Salem, New Hampshire, a firm that provides solutions for the automation of document-intensive business processes.

 

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