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Don't Let Consumer-Created Ads Drown Out the Larger Conversation

Eyeing the Broader Context of Epochal Change

By Published on . 5

As I did my Super Bowl media rounds, offering my predictable thoughts on predictable commercials to weary general-market journalists whose editors or producers had demanded a segment
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Just as TV commercials are often mistaken for the sum-total output of a marketing department, so consumer-generated content is in danger of obscuring the bigger story here, which is that we're entering a new ad era -- the conversational marketing age. | ALSO: Comment on this column in the 'Your Opinion' box below.
on the big game, I was repeatedly asked what it meant that there were at least five Bowl ads made for the people by the people.

Sign of the times
It's a reasonable question. In journalism three is a trend, which makes five a phenomenon, and if I was looking for an original angle on the most overexposed ad event of the year, I'd glom on to this consumer-generated-content thing too. Why not? It's an interesting sign of the times when John Doe can knock out a decent Doritos spot for less than it costs to top off your average ad exec's martini.

But just as TV commercials are often mistaken for the sum-total output of a marketing department, so consumer-generated content is in danger of obscuring the bigger story here, which is that we're entering a new ad era -- the conversational marketing age. CGC -- yes, the acronym elves have already entered it into the jargon journal -- is the noisy herald to a quieter but arguably more important movement.

Power of the public
As Bob Garfield explained in his "Listenomics" essay and has been documenting in his blog, and as we again tried to highlight by choosing the Consumer as the agency of the year, the power of the public is about much more than whether people can cook up a decent 30-second commercial.

Of course it is in part about consumers' access to video-production and -distribution technologies, but it's also about the increasing sway they hold over any product's success. It's about the honest insight and information they offer that can help a company identify problems and opportunities on corporate and brand levels. It's even about their willingness to co-create with you the products they will later consume.

In the tech industry, this is a well-established practice. Witness the recent launch of Windows Vista, which owes a number of its functions to feedback from 20,000 "technical" testers and 500,000 regular testers to whom it was made available if they were interested in taking a sneak peek.

Spreading beyond tech
But today it is starting to spread well beyond the tech world. At the Ad Age Marketing 50 luncheon two weeks ago, Kim McCullough of Toyota documented how consumer feedback has changed the way the automaker goes about marketing its trucks, and on Feb. 5 Ad Age published a piece that documented how Ford, Chrysler and GM are also using consumer feedback to influence everything from their engineering and design to their messaging.

Diane Hessan, president-CEO of the fast-growing social network Communispace, is a student of the shift who points to, among other examples, Starwood Hotels, which recently invited hundreds of travel-savvy consumers to join a private online community and took their advice on everything from the name of its new brand to the design of the hotels.

"Consumers want to be directly involved in providing advice that will lead to better products and brand experiences, and they want to be heard," says Hessan. "This, not just ads, is at the heart of today's consumer-in-control marketing movement."

'Conversational marketing'
This movement is changing media and the nature of advertising. I've been talking with the author and entrepreneur John Battelle, who has been documenting the transition from what he calls "package-goods media" to "conversational media" on his blog at battellemedia.com. It was Battelle who coined the term "conversational marketing" as he found that advertisers who used their ads "as invitations to conversation" -- or even turned live online conversations into ad messages -- were outperforming those who viewed ads as unchanging packages to be posted next to content.

I'll revisit Battelle soon, but in the meantime let's keep Doritos' $13 ad in perspective as just one voice in a much larger conversation.
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