Commentary: Consumer-Generated Media Is Fragile -- Don't Mess It Up

Nielsen BuzzMetrics's Pete Blackshaw on the Pitfalls of 'Chatterbacking'

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When thinking about how marketers could ruin approach consumer-generated media, channel political theorist Garrett Hardin and his theory on the "tragedy of the commons."
Pete Blackshaw: 'CGM is a gift to advertisers because we've been struggling to find -- and in some cases develop -- compelling content that both captivates attention and harmonizes with ad messaging.'
Pete Blackshaw: 'CGM is a gift to advertisers because we've been struggling to find -- and in some cases develop -- compelling content that both captivates attention and harmonizes with ad messaging.'

It outlines the fundamental conflict between individual interests and the common good. He talks of a plot of land used by all livestock farmers in a village. Each farmer keeps adding more livestock to the common, lured by the fact it costs him nothing to do so. Meanwhile, he's blinded to the painful reality of overgrazing and depletion. Today, the scarcity is not a plot of land, but attention and trust, and preserving the "consumer-generated media commons" is about finding the balance between marketer needs and consumer acceptance.

It's a delicate equilibrium and ecosystem -- and we're in danger of walking down the same mistake-laced path that precipitated spam, pop-ups and a consumer backlash that resulted in most consumers embracing ad-filter and don't-talk-to-me signs.

CGM is a gift to advertisers because we've been struggling to find -- and in some cases develop -- compelling content that both captivates attention and harmonizes with ad messaging. Consumers are literally creating it themselves.

CGM also brings to the table several coveted building blocks that advertisers let slip a long time ago: trust, credibility, authenticity and, often, restraint. CGM thrives because consumers trust other consumers more than advertisers, period.

But jumping on the CGM bandwagon in this environment of consumer control presents real risks and liabilities -- and could needlessly alienate consumers. It's unfamiliar terrain and credibility is at stake if marketers and agencies jump into the space recklessly.

Consider: Marketers are aggressively exploring every possible technique to piggyback on CGM and conversation. I refer to this as "chatterbacking." We see this in blog advertising, contests to encourage brand-oriented CGM, branded MySpace profiles, sponsored YouTube uploads and shill campaigns. We even now have a company,, that wants to pay bloggers to post favorable brand comments. Some of this is fine and expected. Some is troubling.

Marketers' long-term interests are best served by keeping consumers open and accepting of advertising and useful solicitations. Publishers, too, have a vested interest in keeping their own user-generated content areas from being excessively grazed by advertising. We're in a world where notions of being authentic, real and organic count for something among consumers. Indeed, part of what makes MySpace so appealing is the sense of originality and authenticity, as well as the flexibility to express individuality.

As ads continue to penetrate all dimensions of the conversational space, we need to ask some very tough questions. Consumers are already asking tough questions about marketer-sponsored pages that look suspiciously like original CGM content. Advertisers should be too.

For example, how aggressively should we push "disclosure" on word-of-mouth marketing programs? Every consumer research study confirms that consumers freak if they find out a friend is a really a shill. So what possible interest do we as marketers have in blessing such practices?

Our own study at Nielsen BuzzMetrics found that if someone recommending a product didn't disclose they were being compensated or rewarded for making that recommendation, nearly a third would be less likely to buy the product or service. Twenty-five percent said they would be unlikely to ever trust a recommendation from them again. In the case of bogus Amazon reviews, nearly 25% of consumers said they "would complain to someone like the Better Business Bureau."

And with videos flying all over the place, should we be more self-disciplined in disclosing to the consumer whether a piece of video or ostensibly organic chatter is advertiser-created, advertisers-influenced, consumer-generated or a hybrid blend?

Should industry groups such as the Interactive Advertising Bureau or Association of National Advertisers think about labeling requirements or a trust mark on forms of advertiser-incubated CGM? How about the equivalent of a Good Housekeeping "authenticity" seal?

How do we develop the listening testing or listening processes to know when we're being stupid or reckless? Most of us have feedback pipes that were built before the buggy whip. We need to tune in to the conversation and sentiment and sensitize ourselves to nuances of consumer acceptance.

How do we discipline ourselves if there's clear, irrefutable evidence (in the form of CGM) that a brand, advertiser or publisher ran a reckless CGM program? Do we deduct "negative GRPs" from agencies?

Lastly, how do we start to shift our mindset away from CGM as a "paid" media channel? There's irrefutable evidence that well-performing products, effective brand websites and good or bad customer service correlates with consumer-generated media levels. These are all "controllables."

At the end of the day, marketing in the age of CGM is not about taking back control. It's not about resurrecting our paid media and intrusive ad model philosophy. It's not about stampeding on another person's conversation or crashing their intimate party.

It's about listening to real and authentic conversations and using that learning and insight to be become a better, more effective marketer.

The CGM space is going to get far more complex before it gets easier, which begs the key question -- what's more valuable to the marketing community: proactively preserving trust or reactively defending what's left of it?

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Pete Blackshaw, chief marketing officer of Nielsen BuzzMetrics, a firm that measures and analyzes consumer-generated media, a term he coined. In 1998, he helped Procter & Gamble earn Ad Age's Interactive Marketer of the Year award.
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