Lost in the Amazon 

Why we start out surfing for something new and end up on the same old sites every time – and how we can change all that 

by Raj De Datta 

When I think about what’s wrong with today’s internet experience, I often remember the time I tried to plan a family vacation. 

I logged in with high hopes. 

In the old days, I might have turned to a travel agent, but today all the tools that were once the sole domain of the professional travel planner are available to me. I started using search engines, trying a variety of key words, clicking through to videos, reading reviews, scanning social media, all while separately optimizing multiple flights and hotels. I sank hours in front of the screen and all the time wondering: Am I missing something? Is there a better option out there? 

My fear was probably not misplaced. Chances are, anyone simply surfing around hoping to get what they need is likely missing something great. The internet has become that place where magic lurks behind every click and visitors wander amid the possibilities, hoping to land on the right place through some combination of luck and effort. Are we getting the best outcome for ourselves? Maybe. We live in a constant state of “FOMO” (fear of missing out).

Worse, the entire experience often becomes a huge, dull, dispiriting chore. My pleasant anticipation for a family vacation soon morphed into a screen-based slog. With so many options, I found myself forced into the role of digital aggregator. It was my job to sift through all that’s out there and make decisions. 

At some point, I stopped searching for undiscovered gems and reverted back to sites I knew, sites I’d been to before, sites that welcomed me by offering up a handy list of “best sellers” and the promise of ending my painful shopping process. 

Building a Seeker-Centric Experience

I’m hardly alone. Digital experiences, delivered by businesses worldwide, are failing us. We go to the internet for solutions and, instead, we get a digital to-do list that forces us to try to optimally select each item on the list. It becomes a routine exercise in frustration. As experts encourage us to spend less time in front of our screens, we are only spending more. We don’t know who to blame for our predicament. We’re wondering why the internet isn’t making us happier.

This is the challenge presented to digital teams. And to get rid of what frustrates us and create the winning experiences we want, the teams need a new way of looking at the problem — one that puts the seeker in the center.

We can define “seeker” as a customer or consumer looking to achieve a higher-order outcome — which then gets decomposed into a series of products or services the seeker might be looking for. The seeker then becomes a customer or prospect looking for those products and services. Seekers have a purpose they intend to fulfill, a task they want to complete. It can be mastering a skill, booking a memorable vacation with their family, feeling healthier, or buying a home. A seeker decomposes their intentions into a series of digital tasks and then becomes a potential customer of multiple products and services. Behind every customer is a seeker, calling out to businesses to satisfy their higher-order intention — to help them buy the right dress for an occasion, a gift for a loved one, the vacation of a lifetime. 

All over the internet are businesses and organizations reorienting the user experience to put the seeker at the center of their efforts. These companies recognize that, while choice is great, we can do much more to make the experience positive and productive. Some pioneers in the seeker-centric movement are deeply connected to the unhappiness that lies just beneath the surface of many internet interactions. StitchFix is a shopping service for people who are tired of how hard it is to shop. Uncommon Goods lets users match personality traits with unique gifts. Flyhomes helps prospective homeowners buy a house. What do these offerings have in common? They treat the customer as a seeker. This focuses them not just on the sale, but on the experience. 

Across all these industries, we are seeing the move from customer-centric to seeker-centric experiences. I saw the beginnings of this in the early days of founding Bloomreach. We started Bloomreach to enable the billions of people worldwide who were increasingly living their lives digitally to have the kind of magical experiences that get to the heart of what they are looking for. We fashioned our work as the flip side of the Google experience. When Google would give seven million responses to a query, our question was, “What’s the point of returning a ton of blue links if, when a user clicks through, they don’t find exactly what they are seeking?” More than 20 years after the founding of Google, search engines have trained us well. When we type in a query that doesn’t get us what we are looking for, we assume that we typed in the wrong thing and start modifying our queries. Google is culprit No. 1 in inundating us with choice rather than giving us what we seek. Search companies see that clearly and are evolving search from results to answers, the boxes of information where they aim to give seekers what they are looking for without needing to click to a website.

I see Bloomreach brands reimagining their digital experiences away from just serving the customer better to meeting the seekers where they are. They are rethinking with digital at the center by changing the fundamental questions of business. Instead of, “What do you want?” they are asking, “Why are you here?” They are shifting from a customer-centric thinking that pushed them primarily to improve the customer experience. Instead, they are digging for an underlying problem. At Bloomreach, we’ve extended our business to meet the demand for seeker-centric experiences. Search is still at the core of Bloomreach. But we have extended the capabilities of the platform to go beyond what we would have traditionally described as “search” to deeply understand who the user is and give them an experience that’s uniquely suited for them.

Becoming seeker-centric is not a simple transformation. When a business addresses a seeker, it may find what is sought goes far beyond what that business offers. Businesses may find they must look beyond a traditional roster of products and services and ask, “What could we possibly assemble, what could we possibly provide, that gets as close as possible to what the seeker is seeking so they have to do as little work as possible to achieve that goal?” It’s no small consideration.

That said, the advent of seeker centricity has opened a huge opportunity — one that startups and legacy companies alike can exploit. When we talk about who’s at the forefront now, it’s the new companies that have no baggage and no legacy. But in fact, the companies with existing assets are in a stronger position to pull this off. There may, indeed, be a bunch of companies in Silicon Valley building new insurance companies and new banks and even new grocery stores, but who better to pull off new banks, new insurance companies and new grocery stores than existing ones? Existing companies already have the customer, the supply chain and the brand credibility. In order to win, they need to stop asking, “What?” and start asking, “Why?” 

This opportunity is not just for the new startups. It’s a chance for every business to reframe its outlook and serve the seeker. It’s a chance to make a painful, slogging, internet experience enjoyable again.   

Raj De Datta is the co-founder and CEO of Bloomreach, the leader in digital and commerce experience. His book, The Digital Seeker: A Guide for Digital Teams to Build Winning Experiences (Columbia Business School Publishing), debuts in June 2021.

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