Keep It Simple, Honest, Focused

Six Tips for Leveraging the Power of Active Consumers

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While consumer-generated media's mainstream appeal is growing, the debate among marketers still rages: Is it a fad or here to stay?
In their hands: A promotional campaign for Choice Hotels lets consumers express individuality.
In their hands: A promotional campaign for Choice Hotels lets consumers express individuality.

The common misconception that we've heard among clients, marketers and even some agencies is that CGM should take the form of an elaborate video submission contest or the creation of a TV commercial to be successful. While those tactics may be effective for some, they are not the sole modes of CGM. As a matter of fact, CGM vehicles can be as diverse as blogs, podcasts, MySpace pages, video clips or, more prosaically, customizable online ads. But in all, the consumer creates and distributes the brand message. Here are six tips for leveraging the power of active consumers and maximizing CGM.

1.
MAKE PARTICIPATION SIMPLE

In 2006, several major advertisers, including Coca-Cola and Canon, spent significant amounts in TV, print and online media to invite people to create and share their own ads or pictures or videos online -- with mixed results. The creation tools are now easily accessible, but only a few consumers have the natural talent or inclination to conceive and produce quality content for a brand. And most consumers are becoming less generous with their increasingly scarce time.

Simple, open customization of ads is a proven way to effectively engage large numbers of consumers. One of our clients, Choice Hotels, recently launched a promotional campaign where consumers input what they would do with a million dollars. The growth of the cellphone-personalization market underlines consumer appetite for anything that allows them to express individuality and delivers instant gratification. Apply this approach to your marketing.

2.
TARGET NICHE FIRST, MASS LATER

The limited response to solicitations for content should come as no surprise. In every category, enthusiasts and experts who are highly motivated by the prospect of direct brand interaction only represent a small percentage of the total consumers.

Identify them. They probably already have made themselves known -- writing e-mails, repeatedly contacting customer service, sharing suggestions and criticisms or joining loyalty programs. Some of them may even have organized themselves independently as online communities.

Your brand should talk to those consumers with a different tone and message than the rest. Whenever possible, talk to them much earlier than to anybody else. Customer participation should start as a grassroots dialogue. Once critical mass is reached in terms of customer engagement, only then can mass media play a role in amplifying brand messages and input from key customers.

3.
MAKE IT AUTHENTIC, TRANSPARENT

Ignore this cardinal rule and be prepared for consumer backlash of epic proportions. Witness the mix of indignation and anger that follows when websites are found out to be fakes, such as McDonald's Monopoly flogs or "I-want-a-PSP-for-Xmas." Some may avoid the negative responses but only to see their efforts met with lackluster consumer interest -- like Wal-Mart's attempt at creating a social network for teenagers.

4.
MAKE WORD-OF-MOUTH RELEVANT

As for any other marketing effort, you should clearly define your objectives and deliver a distinctive and relevant message. Ask yourself the usual questions -- how interesting or entertaining is the message? Does it fit your brand? Consumers are most likely to share information with others when they perceive it as new, exclusive and relevant. You may have little to no control on the actual content consumers will create or share so it's critical to provide the single-minded message that you would like to see spread.

5.
STEP UP AFTER GOING LIVE

A campaign put in the hands of consumers is a living organism that mutates rapidly and constantly. This is a fundamental difference from budgeting and executing traditional campaigns that don't require as much monitoring and reactivity. Being able to inject new material or to immediately adopt consumer input can only reinforce the impact of the campaign. It will take you away from old-fashioned one-way communications and closer to a rich, lively dialogue with consumers.

6.
THINK BEYOND CAMPAIGNS

There is much more to CGM than being an add-on to increase customer engagement in existing campaigns.
Philippe Guegan is strategy director, Agency.com. He is a 10-year veteran of the interactive marketing industry. Most recently, he served as strategy director at Blast Radius in New York, and in 1996 he co-founded the Paris office of Olgilvy Interactive.
Philippe Guegan is strategy director, Agency.com. He is a 10-year veteran of the interactive marketing industry. Most recently, he served as strategy director at Blast Radius in New York, and in 1996 he co-founded the Paris office of Olgilvy Interactive.
As a research tool, through the interactive responses and comments it fuels, CGM is an effective way to take the pulse of consumers. As a brand or PR tactic, with the right human and financial support, it can be a way to demonstrate openness to dialogue and responsiveness.

Pioneers such as Procter & Gamble say their investment in influencer marketing delivers higher returns than TV. Marketers who want to follow in those footsteps must evolve their tactics to successfully share control of their messaging with consumers ... and that's only the beginning. In the long run, marketers and agencies will probably face more drastic evolutions about their role and their organizations. But until then, they should focus on a key fact: CGM works wonders -- if done well.
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