At this point, two light bulb-shaped questions may already have sprung to life:
One: Is consumer generated content truly important enough to single out and put forward to marketers as must-haves? Aren't there enough new-new (for example, the recent cover of Business Week on how blogs will change your business) and next-big-thing headaches on your plates already?
Two: Why call it content, as opposed to advertising or media?
Why Consumer Generated Content? Why now?
Think about it for a moment: consumers as willing participants in the "communication" process. It's sublime. It's special. Ignoring it is only half of the mistake we might make; not capitalizing on it is the other half.
Think about it some more. Why wouldn't consumers want to interact, volunteer, participate and create around the brands and campaigns they love to love, love to hate, hate to hate and just plain and simply despise?
Brands are part of our lives. Always have been. Always will be. Sure, some will disappear into the ether of commoditization. There will always be those who purchase purely on price, but for every consumer motivated by their heads, there will also be those driven by their hearts.
The cola wars demonstrated the quintessential difference between rational and emotional drivers: it didn't matter if Pepsi tasted better than Coke. What mattered was how the outside (product) made consumers feel on the inside (positioning). Loyalty clubs, frequent flyer programs, merchandising in the form of premium fan clubs or gift stores -- all are examples of how brands have successfully extended their relevance from the stores into our lives.
Why then should advertising be any different? Advertising is a vital part of the connections or bridges (call them touchpoints if you must) between brand and consumer. Besides the moment of truth in the form of the store or website visit, and ultimate purchase, it is the only other formalized moment or time where some kind of exchange occurs between sender and receiver (that, and word-of-mouth…read on).
And up until now, this process was an exclusive club -- a marketing monarchy or autocracy if you will -- where marketers controlled the when, where, what and how; the exposure place and time; the medium and the message.
Not any more.
The ultimate network
Consumers have found their voices. And they like the sound of them too. Not coincidentally, this happened at (or at least was propelled by) the same historical moment when the internet (or taking a step back, technology) found a place in our homes, cubicles and lives.
Technology put the "ism" into "consumer." Today, through iMovie, Movie Maker, blogs, email and a host of related devices, consumers have created the ultimate network -- a network far greater than NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox combined -- the network where word of mouth meets word of mouse; a no-spin zone where authentic brands are rewarded and fake brands (and their empty promises) are punished.
Examples abound. From MoveOn.org to George Masters' iPod Ad; from a Nike Ad I created after Tiger Woods most recent Masters' win to Visa's Ideas Happen; from Jib Jab to Jib Jab Jobbed; from the Converse Gallery to the American Express/Tribeca Short Film Festival on Amazon.com to Project Greenlight.
And here's the somewhat controversial part: the rise of consumer generated content has been necessitated -- or if not necessitated then certainly accelerated -- by the dearth of originality in the space from the (so-called) traditional (so-called) creative agencies.
Why call it content?
Content is King. Now more than ever. Your TiVo is proof of that. It signals the birth of a convergence between broadcast video and search. Consumers (folks like you and me) are now able to search by keyword, title, category, actor or director. They are offered recommendations by the TiVo engine based on past viewing behavior as well as their user critiques (thumbs up or thumbs down). The bottom line is that it's less important who's on second (CBS) and more what's on second ("CSI," "Survivor," et cetera).
Reebok's recent "I am what I am" VOD experiment demonstrated that consumers don't care about the difference between advertising and scripted programming; they just care about content that is relevant, entertaining and engaging. In short, Reebok put additional/bonus footage recorded during the production of their TV commercial shoots on Comcast's VOD system in Philadelphia as a VOD "test." As it turned out, the takers of "the test" aced it and viewed the extended scenes and footage of Jay Z, 50-cent and others 400 percent more than any other content on the VOD system.
Advertising is pretty low on the totem pole. Kids don't like being sold to and these days, neither do adults. Content however, is a level playing field where consumers will watch as much and as long as they choose based on their interest level and precious disposable time.
Perhaps I'm splitting hairs by not calling the phenomenon consumer generated advertising or media. Perhaps not. There is no standard between paid and non-paid (read: viral) consumption. And there is certainly no norm when it comes to the extent to which the content is wholly created by consumers or assisted by marketers (such as with the case of Visa's Ideas Happen). So the right thing to do is to take the high road and not bucket this emerging mode of expression into any round or square compartments -- especially those that represent the old-style spray and pray means of dissemination.
Six examples of consumer generated content
I've already touched on a few examples (in different capacities), but here are six that I'd like to discuss a bit more:
George Masters' iPod Ad: a school teacher created a 60-second masterpiece, using his passion for the brand and imagination. With the help of the blogosphere, he became the poster child for CGC.
Not to be outdone, Joe Jaffe (the illegitimate half-Siamese twin of yours truly) awakened from his couch potato slumber to "just do it" and immortalized Tiger Woods' miracle chip on the sixteenth hole at the 2005 Masters. Once again, the blogosphere did the rest.
In both cases, Apple and Nike exercised their Miranda Rights. In doing so, they missed out on the opportunity of a lifetime to capitalize on a moment of purity.
G.E.'s Imagination Cubed is a marketer-driven initiative that provides consumers with a large enough sandbox for two or three like-minded people to play in, with a host of shovels, buckets, shapes and tools to demonstrate their "Imagination at work."
A little older, but a real classic: Honda follows their traditional "you are what you drive" television execution with one consisting entirely of consumers (untouched as opposed to retouched) next to their Hondas of choice.
And then there are the spoofs: consumers lashed out at Jib Jab for, as they saw it, selling out to Budweiser in Jib Jab gets Jobbed.
Meanwhile, Paris Hilton's Carl's Jr. exhibition got a dose of reality (with help from the voiceover from an Apple ad dating all the way back to 1984). Both of these consumer generated spoofs offer a degree of social or consumer commentary on mixing pleasure with business, not to mention sex and chicken.
In the first two cases, "consumers" initiated the conversation. In the middle two examples, marketers provided the means and platform for consumers to respond. And, in the final two cases, consumers responded to ads -- even though they weren't invited to do so.
Where does this leave the Three Musketeers: Marketer, Agency and Publisher?
Marketers are in a quandary as their security blanket of total control is being severely underpinned by the diametrically opposite extreme.
Where consumer content is being produced and transported through the social networking strands of the superhighway, much of it via blogs, things look a tad grim for the agency media and creative disciplines.
And as far as publishers are concerned, who needs them anymore? (Hint: the homepage on my computer -- which belongs in name only to one of the four big portals -- has been replaced entirely with RSS feeds from blogs.)
Fear not. The news is not entirely doom and gloom. Consumer Generated Content -- which almost always seems to have a viral marketing component -- does not have to be limited or labeled as a fringe or underground effort.
In many respects, viral marketing has become the lazy marketers guide to advertising. Getting consumers to do your work for you (and do it for free) couldn't be further from the original intent and potential of consumer generated content, or, for that matter, marketer generated content.
In an article I wrote here at iMedia almost a year and a half ago, I wrote that companies may have to start advertising their advertising. If you replace the second mention of "advertising" with "content," the why wouldn't you want to promote and highlight any touchpoints or expressions (user driven or otherwise) that exemplify the essence of your brand?
When I look at online creative nowadays, I no longer expect interactivity to be an optional extra. Instead, I demand it. In this regard, the following online ad from Mohegan Sun irked me.
Why? I tried to interact with the wheel, which turned out to be nothing more than a one-dimensional print ad.
Online creative like G.E.'s Imagination Cubed give consumers not just the opportunity to interact, but also the means to express themselves. As long as this need is met, consumer generated content will find its own unique place and cease to be scourge or irritant to mainstream marketers and their underlings.
For those marketers are still trying to get their hands around consumer generated content -- don't.
Leave it be. Let it live. And try your utmost to give it the acknowledgment, respect and credit it deserves. Every iota of consumer driven expression is a hand raise of involvement and passion (good, bad or ugly). Some of the time it will be laughing with you and other times laughing at you.
Either way, it is there. It is out there. And there isn't a thing you can do about it, except to show that you and your brand are human, which means being able to laugh at yourself and not take yourself too seriously.
Self deprecation and irreverence are acquired tastes. Perhaps your consumers will even help you develop a palette for them.
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