Pete Blackshaw

Are We Giving Up on Consumer-Generated Advertising?

We Know It Can Work, but It's Far From the Silver Bullet We Once Hoped

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Pete Blackshaw
Pete Blackshaw
Six years ago, I purchased a domain name -- -- that I figured would lead me to long-awaited digital riches.

The insight was simple. TV copy development was outrageously expensive, and creative often failed to hit the mark. Meanwhile, average Joe -- empowered by the expressive equalizer of social media -- had readily available tools in hand to become Don Draper overnight.

I mean, couldn't the almighty consumer -- armed with relevant and intimate experience with the product -- hit "the big idea" faster and better than the agency guns? My basic idea was to create a web platform to accelerate the hand-off.

Then I blinked. YouTube popped onto the scene with a viral fury. IMovie found a tipping point popularity for "add water and stir" video production. Thousands of "Joes" started to organically populate the airwaves with consumer-generated ads.

Sensing opportunity (or demise), brands quickly capitalized on the trend and invited consumers to "create the TV ad," garnishing the invitation with words "co-creation" and "crowdsourcing." In effect, the brands started putting out de facto "RFPs" to consumers.

Some, like Frito-Lay, did this extraordinarily well for major events like the Super Bowl. Unilever crowdsourced a Dove Award before the 2006 Academy Awards. Nike fortified its 2006 World Cup efforts with a user-generated soccer dribbling montage. And so on and so forth.

While some of this has endured -- Doritos continues the tradition, quite well, I might add -- both the buzz and practice of consumer-generated TV ads has chilled in a big way. Just look around -- the core foundations of TV copy development and production have barely changed.

What's going on here, and what can we learn from this pivot back to the reality of brand control?

Let's start with the brand wallet. In our exuberance over social media, we tend to romanticize the free, but in fact these campaigns are not cheap. In fact, a ton of work needs to wrap around these campaigns: the invitation, the collection infrastructure, the impenetrable legal rules and regulation (and related approvals), the pre- and post-review process, the content curation, the prize money or reward, the ads to promote the ad-contest and the ongoing maintenance of the "brand stands" promoting the effort.

Yes, all this conspires to create an extra source of sustainable value -- sticky brand content, a wider funnel into the brand via search results -- but it's a big pile of work in an era where most marketing remains project-based and scrutinized via a narrower ROI lens. At some point, the old-fashioned stuff seems a bit easier and accessible.

Second, there's the "time value of new." Having monitored buzz for nearly 10 years, there's absolutely no question that first movers in this "create your ad" space reaped massive PR and word of mouth by ceding creative control to consumers. In fact, most of us in the case-study-happy marketing blogging community couldn't stop gushing about this bold redistribution of creative initiative.

If you carefully unpeeled the buzz from the last six Super Bowls (one of my annual rituals), so much of the "earned media" had far less to do with the potency of the creative than the novelty of the format. Let's never forget that news is the currency of word of mouth, and at some point, the "know it first, tell it first" crowd always moves on to the next gig. This is true across the entire social landscape. Maybe we should call this "social depreciation."

Third, advertising isn't necessarily a popularity contest. The ad that wins isn't necessarily that ad that sells. Maybe there's something to be said for breakthrough creative, grounded in real consumer insights and time-tested building blocks of persuasion. (I know John Caples is smiling right now.)

Here we need to be clear about our end objectives. If "earned media" is the prize, the outsourced TV spot can trigger an impressive, sustaining residue of social media. If persuasiveness and purchase intent against the reach audience is the goal, that's a different story.

Then again, perhaps we can have our cake and eat it too. As we further immerse ourselves in all things social, we're getting smarter and savvier at blending paid, owned and earned media for maximum return.

Maybe the far bigger idea here is "consumer-fortified media." Here co-creation is an end result but not a starting point. We put our best foot forward through breakthrough ad creative (memorable, engaging, talk-worthy), and we use the social tools and instruments to grow or "fortify" its value.

Remember that the now-legendary Dove "Evolution" spot was not consumer generated. It was, in fact, a brilliant piece of agency copy, "fortified" by extraordinarily well-managed levels of consumer engagement. Indeed, Unilever checked every box to ensure the spot found life well beyond the TV GRPs. Years later, it still generates millions every year in "earned media." Just type in the word "beauty" in Google and tell me what shows up in the center of search results.

The same could be said for the recent Old Spice campaign. Wieden and the brand pioneered breakthrough video copy, but it was "fortified" by consumer inflows (questions and feedback) and outflows (word of mouth, pass along).

The fact that consumer-created advertising hasn't taken off should not be taken as proof that the larger concept of "user-contribution" is flawed. We know it can work, but it's far from the silver bullet we once assumed.

Importantly, there are other immediate ways to leverage consumer "copy" inputs, starting with the basics, like consumer feedback and product testimonials. Letting consumers express their authentic opinions in video, for instance, has been proven to be incredibly persuasive.

We can also just continue listening -- more attentively than ever -- this with the assumption that a big a-ha moment or idea may be nested in the unsolicited commentary of engaged consumers.

In the end, that's co-creation too! And I know "Joe Copy" would agree.

Pete Blackshaw is exec VP of NM Incite, a joint venture of Nielsen & McKinsey, and author of "Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3,000" (DoubleDay). He is also chair of the National Council of Better Business Bureaus and co-founder of the Word-of-Mouth Marketing Association. His column explores the convergence of marketing and service. Follow him on Twitter at @pblackshaw.
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