In today's Experience Economy we pay admission to spend time in various experiences. The consumption of such encounters goes far beyond once-in-a-lifetime trips to Africa or once-every-four-years trips to Walt Disney World. Consider the range of paid-for experiences that comprise our everyday lives.
Every day devoted customers line up to pay $3 or $4 for a cup of coffee-make that a coffee-drinking experience-at Starbucks; we go out to eat at theme restaurants like ESPN Zone, Dave & Buster's, or Chuck E. Cheese, where part and parcel of the evening is buying tokens or charging up some debit cards to play arcade games, sports simulators, or virtual reality rides; we bustle our daughters to venues like the American Girl Place and turn our sons loose in indoor skateboarding venues like Vans Skateparks; and we pay access fees to frequent chat rooms, subscription fees to join online games like EverQuest, and admission fees to create avatars in virtual worlds like Second Life or There.com.
These so-often contrived and sometimes gratuitous experiences force us to consider: What is a real experience and what is not? What is really necessary and what is not? Why do consumers so readily hire companies-who are in it for a profit-to fabricate such experiences?
We understandably question the authenticity of paid-for experiences as we participate more and more in the Experience Economy. Yet
more people are buying even matchmaking, wedding, birthing, parenting, celebrating, and death-and-dying experiences. Why? People may say they want such personal experiences to remain untouched by commerce, but if consumers want more efficiency (for cost reasons), more excellence (for quality reasons), or more sincerity (for authenticity reasons), then buying expertise and assistance often increases the real value of such life moments.
Bottom line: Can businesses help render authenticity in a world they themselves saturate with paid-for experiences? We think so, but it requires reconciling what companies offer with why people buy. Consumers will continue to purchase from others what they once did for themselves, and more of what they have never before experienced. In losing degrees of self-sufficiency, and perhaps innocence, people will seek something in return-specifically, a self more aligned with who one wants to be, a lived-in self conforming more to one's own self-image.
Rendering commerce less commercial
All these staged experiences leave many consumers longing for less-contrived encounters. The most direct way to help individuals fashion their own self-image: Let people define and even create their own offerings. When consumers design their own footwear online at miadidas.com or nikeID.com, style their own clothes at landsend.com, configure their own car at mini.com or scion.com, express themselves at cafepress.com or zazzle.com, or craft their own music playlists for their iPods, the output automatically qualifies as authentic for the consumer. It turns each individual into what Alvin Toffler calls a "prosumer," that is, a producing consumer. Rendering authenticity through customization occurs beyond online or high-tech offerings. Intentionally low-tech Build-a-Bear Workshop enables customers to make their own plush animal-more real than off-the-shelf, mass-produced alternatives.
Consumer-controlled production-offering a prosumer platform rather than a finished product-shifts attention from the supplier's moneymaking motives to the buyer's self-defining pursuits. Supply still meets demand in a commercial sale, and the interests of both parties necessarily interplay, but the buyer feels less "sold" or manipulated. More significant is that direct customer involvement in this customer-unique output yields deeper insights into personal preferences and ultimately to a keener sense of self.
There is no need to avoid staging experiences-even virtual experiences-now that authenticity has come to the fore as the new consumer sensibility. Despite the fact that prosumption is inherent in experience offerings-because every experience happens within the individual person in response to the events staged around that person-few companies allow people to define and create their own experiences. Some such offerings do exist, such as Yahoo!'s LAUNCHCast or Last.fm, which customize broadband music stations; Harrah's Total Gold program, which matches experience rewards to player profiles; and Disney, which uses RFID technology to enable "Pal Mickey," a talking Mickey Mouse doll, to respond to
individual journeys through the Magic Kingdom. But even these are early stabs at making experiences more personal, and therefore more real. Much opportunity lies ahead in helping people fashion their own experiences and thereby their own self-image.