The days of herding consumers from one destination to another are long gone. Today’s consumers are free range. They move unrestricted across a varied landscape of traditional and digital media, integrating multiple sources, online and off, into their purchase decisions. Consumer choices arise now from a cat’s cradle path of inputs, from word of mouth to traditional advertisements to branded apps to third-party review sites to social media, bouncing back and forth until landing on a decision. Pinning consumer purchasing decisions to a single cause is not only more difficult but over time is becoming less and less relevant. The contemporary consumer makes buying choices like a committee reaches consensus, only with the best advice from every available group member.
 

This tendency to move freely and frequently among media has led to the era of the liquid consumer. The liquid consumer is not found in one place. At any given time, the liquid consumer is transitioning from one media to the next, and hitting this moving target requires a much more versatile and comprehensive approach. Chasing consumers is the best way to scare them off. Instead, brands and advertisers must simply exist unobtrusively and consistently where these consumers already are, and extending brands to new media while maintaining a consistent yet custom user experience across all media is one of the central challenges facing companies and advertisers today. 

While there is no silver bullet solution that fits every industry, one area on which CJRW has focused extensively is travel and tourism. Far from being unique to the tourism industry, the “liquid consumer paradigm” is a new context for creating user experiences in all industries, and insights into this evolving consumer environment have broad application in all consumer-driven industries. First, it is essential to realize that the vacation experience, as far as users are concerned, begins before a destination is selected. “Aspirational Web browsing,” particularly on YouTube and search engines, builds anticipation and can even be the catalyst for inception. In planning a vacation or business trip, almost 80% of consumers rely foremost on online research, almost twice as often as they rely on offline family, friends or colleagues for travel inspiration or advice. 

Online research is no longer limited to Google searches and tourism websites. The liquid consumer views images and videos, discusses plans and gets advice on social media, and searches branded travel and lodging sites, as well as third-party booking services. This process continues for each item on the itinerary and is ongoing. Over 90% of personal and business travelers use these same online tools during the trip to find restaurants, entertainment and directions. Both the broad strokes and the fine details are researched and decided within the same digital environment during different phases of a trip, and how brands exist within this environment determines whether or not they are considered.

A key point to remember in pursuing the liquid consumer is that contemporary consumers are not as brand loyal as their predecessors. Year to year, more users are turning to search engines instead of brand sites for online trip planning. Users search keywords related to destinations, activities and prices more often than they search for specific brands. The vast majority of travelers, 60-65% across the board, whether looking for lodging, transportation or destination activities, begin the process considering multiple brands or services. And as residual brand loyalty declines, competition will continue to increase.

Though the dust is far from settled, and the liquid consumer’s path to purchase is becoming increasingly more complex, one thing is clear: advertising has entered a new frontier. Consumers, whether they are considering travel options, political candidates or soft drinks, have taken a fundamentally different path to purchase, and previous successes are no guarantee of future ones. Consumers are no longer along for the ride. They’ve taken the wheel. And if companies and advertisers want any influence over where they’re going, now is the time to adapt. The liquid consumer is here to stay. Be where they are. Give them want they want. And stay out of their way. 

The 2014 Traveler’s Road to Decision. (2014, June). Retrieved February, 2016, from https://storage.googleapis.com/think/docs/2014-travelers-road-to-decision_research_studies.pdf
The New 'Liquid Consumer' Paradigm. (2015, March). Retrieved February, 2016, from http://www.iab.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/IAB_Marketer_Perceptions_2015_Final.pdf