Illiteracy in the U.S. has not changed in more than a decade. The U.S. Department of Education reports some 32 million adults in the country can’t read. That equates to an unbelievable 14 percent of the population. Astonishingly, when you drill just a bit deeper, the data shows that 21 percent of adults in the U.S. read below a 5th-grade level. When you can’t read, you can’t write either. For some Americans, this is the biggest barrier to finding jobs, furthering their education and running a business – in short, improving their lives. The cycle of poverty traps many individuals merely because they can’t read or write.
During that same decade, the Internet has evolved into a global social network that connects the world. Commerce has never been so connected as it is in this new world order. The tools of the trade for social media are words and pictures. If you are illiterate, you are probably not very active on the Internet. You can’t read an email or text message; you can’t laugh at a joke on Facebook, let alone share your thoughts with friends online, as your words are locked in your brain. For several of these less fortunate individuals, pictures are the only way to communicate with peers and engage other on the Web.
I have seen these difficulties first-hand among some of our customers. While it is very common for most of us in the industry to be literate, there are always some stragglers who could buy a lot of parts but cannot do it unless they talk to someone. Written communications are non-existent for them. How can we use technology to help these folks engage with our companies online?
Pictures, like the adage says, “are worth a thousand words.” On the Internet and in social media, pictures are compelling, and in commerce, they are the fiber of any marketing message. If you are an illiterate skilled worker, say a carpenter, it will be near impossible for you to create a compelling marketing message to promote your work. However, if you take pictures of that wonderful kitchen cabinet you just finished and share it with prospective customers, you will get a chance to broadcast your message and share your “brand,” without scribbling a single letter.
The power of technology often slaps us in the face; we expect one outcome, but users inevitably come up with unexpected ways of using new tech. Case in point: reading habits. For years many authors have prophesied a severe decline in reading habits, blaming it on the Internet that has changed the way we consume information. In his 1994 book “The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age,” author Sven Birkerts shares essays on how so many of us are dropping books and newspapers for quick videos on YouTube and even more flash-in-the-pan memes on social media. So many of us get to formulate a view of the current world via the Internet vs. reading that a fundamental shift in the way we all engage each other has taken place in less than a generation.
In the past, I have written about how customers could be left behind in a connected world because they do not feel comfortable writing emails or text. These are illiterate or semi-literate folks who do not have adequate orthography. In my experience, many of these folks are incapable, or unwilling, to share anything in writing and still prefer to call us to order a part or ask for help with a lookup. Thankfully, many of these same customers do feel comfortable snapping pictures and sharing them via text or WhatsApp. Our sales force has incorporated texting tools into our many communication channels to ensure that all potential customers can reach us and ask for a part.
Nowadays, when you ask for a VIN, a production code or any other detail necessary to finalize parts lookup, often the customer ends up taking a picture of the item in question and sharing it with you – no words needed. The added benefit of this practice is that lookup accuracy has shot straight up while being able to handle even more customer requests.
Imagine that: folks who could not write, telling you exactly what they need with a picture. If that is not a definition of an expanding market base, I do not know what is. Technology has changed our reading habits for sure, but for many
others across the world, it has helped them communicate with each other. Pictures are part of our cultural vocabulary since we lived in caves; it’s not surprising technology has made the essential nonverbal language of pictures even more widely available to all.