December 01, 2014
When Direct Selling Goes Digital
by Fred Bendaña and John Schnettgoecke
Adapting to a Changing Environment
“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”
We’ve entered a new era—one that requires both adaptability and flexibility above all else.
We’re currently experiencing one of the most disruptive shifts in business since the 1950s. Brian Solis, highly regarded author, marketer and futurist, has famously said that we’ve entered the era of “Digital Darwinism”—or a time when technology and society are moving faster than most organizations’ ability to adapt. Put more simply—“nature’s way of weeding out the average business.”
Perhaps the biggest challenge facing most businesses—direct selling organizations, in particular—is that of velocity. Velocity refers to the notion that the external environment now changes at a faster rate than an organization’s ability to adapt. This raises questions of relevance and focus as direct selling organizations prioritize where to invest their resources.
What’s more, there is now a stark generational gap between baby boomers and millennials—who are now starting to enter their 30s and outnumber boomers and Gen Xers by millions. For the first time in history, the shift in buying power lies with these “digital natives,” individuals who’ve literally grown up during the digital age. Most direct selling organizations now face a similar challenge—how do you unlock the hearts, minds and wallets of this massive group of consumers?
Direct sales has the opportunity to “set the standard” in a new era of one-to-one marketing.
This type of opportunity requires the ability to intimately understand the constantly evolving needs of the salesforce, relevantly market to an ever-changing consumer, improve efficiencies between distributors and consumers, effectively manage brand requirements in never-before-seen consumer channels, and provide a superior experience throughout the entire value chain.
The direct selling space has always placed a premium on high-impact messaging delivered via unique, storytelling mediums. New technologies have created a shift in power from supplier to consumer. Mediums have evolved—from print media, including catalogs and direct mail, to digital technologies, including web, email, e-commerce, push and text messaging, short codes, and digital coupons that can all be accessed anytime and anywhere.
Direct sales organizations must find new and non-traditional ways to both grow and foster meaningful relationships in places where messages are most likely to be heard and received. Very simply, direct sellers must do a better job leveraging technology to more effectively attack this massive opportunity.
Start with a shift in thinking—treat technology like a product, not an “add on.”
Most organizations can start by changing their thinking. Instead of treating technology as an “add on,” treat technology as a product. Thinking of technology as a product requires a different mindset—and, depending on the circumstances, a unique building process. When done right, organizations balance a build versus buy mentality, resulting in productive, technology-driven experiences that produce results.
Identify your objectives, then start focusing on five, immediate opportunity areas.
The exact starting points for most direct sellers will be dictated by a variety of custom variables, including business prioritization, financial feasibility, and existing tools and systems, just to name a few. Nevertheless, most direct sellers (if they haven’t already) should immediately begin to think how technology could augment existing processes or systems in order to:
Generate qualified leads and improve conversion.
Many direct sellers have introduced new tools—particularly for the salesforce—aimed at improving one-to-one communication efforts and lead generation. Lead nurturing is just as important. Once a potential lead has been identified, can that lead be quickly qualified and an appropriate course of action determined? What tools and systems exist that allow an interested customer to seek more information? What roadblocks exist that may be prohibiting conversion? Many times, a conversion optimization assessment of current tools will uncover outages and opportunities for improvement.
Improve consultant onboarding, empowering your salesforce.
The salesforce holds the proverbial keys to the kingdom. Training and engagement is the most readily available opportunity for immediate, high-impact growth to an organization’s bottom line. There are a number of both custom and off-the-shelf solutions, including a variety of “software as a service” (SaaS) platforms that can help your organization improve salesforce training.
Provide salesforce tools that enable seamless transactions—anytime, anywhere.
Consumers are now in control of information, and more importantly, which types of messages they want to see. Consumers now expect pervasive connectivity, namely, both channel and device-agnostic branded experiences. This seismic shift negates much of the advantages of interpersonal information sharing. Direct sellers must be architecting—and offering—digital tools wired for fast, accurate transactions between supplier, salesforce and consumer.
Leverage collected data, connecting the supplier, salesforce and consumer in new ways.
To think that most organizations have completely mature, integrated data warehouse systems is ambitious at best. Though a great goal, it often takes time to connect all the wires. Nevertheless, direct sellers can begin to take steps now to expose and “free” incredibly important data that can be used in current marketing efforts.
Encourage innovation and test high-risk tech initiatives in low-risk environments.
Direct sellers should intentionally invest time and resources to remain on the bleeding edge—this is called “disruptive innovation.” By introducing mechanisms that introduce new ideas, rigorously prioritize those ideas and control costs, you can limit risk and expedite results. When you choose to introduce disruptive innovation practices, you’re infusing into the way your organization thinks, acts and operates.
Don’t be complacent—adapt, flex and embrace digitally driven opportunities.
Most organizations will fall in wildly different spots on the continuum of digital and technology adoption. That’s okay. No one is doing everything 100 percent. That’s not expected, nor is it a particularly realistic goal. When and where possible, however, always consider how digital technology can augment or improve your business. If the thought of doing something makes you uncomfortable, it’s probably something you should do.
When compared to other industries, direct sellers have been slower to both pilot and adopt new and emerging technologies up until this point. Those that make a concerted investment in technology will put themselves in the best position to reap the rewards and remain relevant. Heed Darwin’s advice—adapt, flex and embrace digitally driven opportunities.
Fred Bendaña is Senior Vice President at Creative Producers Group, and John Schnettgoecke is Senior Product Owner at RevUnit. Creative Producers Group is a creative and experiential engagement agency, specializing in brand experiences and distributor engagement. RevUnit is a product-focused digital agency who helps clients innovate faster and on smaller budgets through the latest product development techniques. Creative Producers Group and RevUnit are members of the Nitrous Effect, a cross-agency collaboration across marketing disciplines that delivers powerful brand solutions. To learn more, visit www.nitrouseffect.com.