In an outstanding piece on Harvard Business Review, Users Are the New Growth Engine, Aaron Shapiro warns CEOs who “won’t acknowledge the impact digital technology is having on their business,” may not be around in five years.

Companies not anticipating and recognizing the technological changes happening in the market and the attitudinal changes of the next wave of customers will put themselves at risk; it’s as simple as that.

Shapiro makes three main points:

  • Online commerce will affect more than half of all consumer purchases by 2012. Specifically, according to Forrester Research, by next year “half of all consumer purchases will be either transacted online or digitally driven in some way—influenced by search, social media, or emerging digital platforms.”
  • The next wave of consumers—today’s teens and twenty-somethings, who will drive a significant portion of both consumer and business spending within the next decade—is “post-digital.” Their world has always included computers, the Internet and cell phones. The web is, in Shapiro’s words, “the preferred place for everything…In a digitally driven economy, the preferred way for everyone to interact with a company is through Internet technologies, such as a company’s website, mobile interface, or Twitter feed.” Companies need to be prepared to serve this audience.
  • To compete in the new economy, companies will need to be “in two businesses: their core business” (the products and services they’ve always sold) and what Shapiro calls “the Software Layer—a layer of technology that surrounds the core business and serves as the focal point of interaction with the outside world.”

Much of the easy work has already been done. Most retailers have figured out how to sell low-involvement and frequently purchased products online. Even our favorite little meat market in the huge metropolis of Pierz, Minnesota (population: 1,277) has a Facebook page. The online customer experience isn’t as personal as being there live, but for common purchases, the convenience and price of online buying is compelling.

But what about the types of sales where personal interaction is still critical? The purchase of a home, car, boat, exotic trip, certain types of insurance, equipment, or enterprise software requires personal interaction with an expert. Research often starts online, but ends up in an offline transaction. What does the “software layer” look like for these businesses?

Companies that sell in what is variously termed online-to-offline (O2O) or research-online-buy-offline (ROBO) environments need to understand two areas: the interaction between their people and their online technology (the “software layer”), and one point Shapiro didn’t address about the next wave of buyers: their desire to be in control of the buying process.

That means not only providing prospective buyers with the information they need to make an informed buying decision, but also providing a convenient way to interact and bridge the gap from online research to offline buying. It requires a company putting its best people forward through web technology in a way that invites (but doesn’t demand) interaction. It means putting the buyer in control online and letting them decide when to interact, how to interact, and with whom to interact.

One example of a company doing this is the health debit card group at software giant Intuit. Through the “Connect with Us” option in their website footer, prospective customers can engage with a company expert to ask any remaining questions they have after their online research.

Shapiro’s observations about the changing nature of the marketplace and the requirements these changes place on business strategy are compelling. As he notes, “With great digital user experiences, companies can generate more levels of interaction, more engagement, and ultimately more sales. Grow your user base and customers follow.”

For purveyors or high-value, high-involvement consumer or business goods, linking web technology with their best people is critical to creating those great digital user experiences.