Wednesday, June 27, 2007

More is not that much

Certain words in the marketplace stand out like chocolate cake at a fat camp. Words like "Sale", "Free" and "Unlimited" grab at your attention and try to elicit the kind of spending that can only be described as Pavlovian. "Unlimited" in particular has been an industry changing term. Netflix used it to change movie rentals. In the world of talking, counting minutes becomes obsolete with Vonage and Boost plans. In music, Napster opened up 3 million songs for the taking. With the sweet whisper of "Unlimited", marketers have shifted our culture beyond buffet aficionados and towards the sinister promise of absolute entitlement. Probably not since French royalty has any group felt like they deserved so much.

The problem with all this is that unlimited is an illusion. Sure, there is the obvious fact that there is no such thing as unlimited. If you do your homework, you soon realize there are only so many movies in the library, so many minutes in the day and that there are limits to the unlimited. But even beyond this obvious fact, unlimited is actually quite a bit less than those upper reaches.

We live in a world where everything can be comfortably bracketed by statistics. I don't have to know all that much about you to be able to predict how you'll behave. I may be wrong on individual cases but statistically, I'm probably going to be right much more often than not. When marketers throw out the word "unlimited", they absolutely know that they are not in danger of everyone suddenly gorging them out of house and home. The fact is, there may be short term spikes as we get collegiately drunk on our new found freedom but after time, we behave pretty predictably. As long as the marketer has priced their offering correctly, they have no concerns of everyone going nuts. All hail the power of statistics.

When we sign up for "unlimited", surely we know that we won't be breaking any records in terms of consumption; so what makes "unlimited" so appealing? It's actually very simple. When we buy "unlimited", we are buying insurance. We are buying the safety and ease of mind that we won't get stuck with a giant bill if we so happen to go a little crazy. I feel the same way each time I get in my car.

I bring this whole thing up because I was recently working on a project that required me to think of different ways to promote an offering. Unlimited was a tempting choice. It also seemed to be the most twitchy-reflexive choice too. There has to be something more interesting, I thought. What kept coming up was this: I may have mentioned this before on Branded Newb but I truly believe the next evolution of provider and consumer relationships is one that takes a cue from investing.

The principle of investing is simple. Find something you believe in, spend money on it and if it does well, you get paid for your commitment. We are starting to see some of this on sites that share revenue from user-submitted contributions. We've also seen this at outdoor retailer REI, whose members actually receive dividends if the company does well during the year. This type of relationship is where we're headed. It has all the trademark goodness that the Internet provides:

  • Transparency - The company is trying to make a buck but so are you.
  • Exclusivity - Consumers that join set themselves apart in a community.
  • Collaboration - Everyone is working towards the same goal.
  • Entrepreneurship - Let's not kid ourselves, we want "this thing" to be huge.
It's scary to say but "unlimited" is not enough. As a consumer, I want more than what I'm statistically going to actually consume. As a business, I want more out of the consumer than the "monthly fee". We have to (and will) begin establishing closer ties to each other to really shake things up.

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