Consumer-Generated Content Changes Marketers' Approach

A Handful Are Finally Realizing They Don't Own Their Brands

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Talk of revolution is usually overblown. As we all know-and are frequently reminded by those whose livelihoods depend on old media-no new medium has ever wiped out any of its predecessors. But the hours being devoted to consumer-created content surely sound a death knell for less-relevant, less-profitable mainstream media brands (see Brad Johnson's much-blogged analysis of time spent on blogs, AdAge.com QwikFind aar05y). And they certainly speak to the need to re-write the marketing textbooks.

There is a wealth of consumers-particularly those under, say, 25-whose primary source of information, entertainment, even community is an open conversation they co-create. And, as Bob Garfield put it in his Listenomics essay (if you haven't read it yet, do: QwikFind aar00t), there is a possibility that some marketers will simply "curl up in a ball" and hide from such an overwhelmingly different mediascape. The ability to own and control a brand, which many marketers regard as their core job function, has surely joined mass marketing in the `how it used to work' chapter.

Yet clearly many are already managing to move beyond the one-dimensional, where-do-we-put-the-ad approach to the blogosphere and word-of-mouth. What they are grasping, and others will be forced to, is the power of peer-to-peer conversations, not only to yield invaluable consumer insight-as Garfield outlined-but to communicate messages to and, most importantly, with them. So rather than lose sleep over the shortsighted marketers and media owners who have fired bloggers (funny way to become part of the conversation), or attempted, in a display of expensive futility, to control it with lawyer's letters, let's look to those who are learning to go with-or even co-opt-the conversational flow.

If you want to see Listenomics brought to life, visit quickbooksgroup.com, the community section of Intuit's Web site. The open forums for registered users to discuss anything from QuickBooks itself to their business travails are more informative than any small business consultant. Intuit uses the posts to learn how to improve its existing products and spot new opportunities. Not only that, but its software developers blog about their work so users can see what's coming down the pipe and even suggest tweaks.

Intuit isn't the only technology company making such smart use of conversation as a marketing tool. The creation of these kinds of communities is increasingly common in the sector, partly because they're culturally familiar and even comfortable with the concept of an open-source business world.

What's more surprising is the speed with which companies in other sectors are joining the conversation. OK, so Kraft and Coke aren't quite ready to make product recipes available to all, but we are seeing many traditionally conservative marketers entering the blogosphere-either letting employees blog, or, in the much-talked-about case of GM's fastlane.gmblogs.com, having a senior executive do it. Smart agencies, too, are changing their output to create more messages or content designed as shareware and strategically seeded to spread virally across peer-to-peer networks .

The latest gem of that ilk is the Lust for Bust game co-created by Mother and Barbarian Group, which has torn through the blogosphere. How did you make it so easy to steal, I asked (in my technological naivety) Mother's Linus Karlsson. "We didn't," he said. "If you want people to steal something, make it difficult to steal." At last count the game was on more than 20,000 sites.

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