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Repeat After Me: We're Still in Control!

  |  April 3, 2007   |  Comments

We have more control than we realize. Way more.

Honestly, I'm getting sick of all this marketer nonsense that we've lost control.

The sound bytes are everywhere these days, and even I'm a big part of the problem. Consumer trumps all. Little guy sticks it to the man. Long live chaos! Users have all the power. Blah, blah, blah.

It's getting old, disingenuous, and self-serving -- like a cheap slogan. Do we really mean it when we say it? Better yet, should we?

Instead, repeat after me: "We're still in control!"

Easing Dissonance with the Language of Empowerment

Two things really get under my skin about this consumer control hyperbole. And, yes, I'm looking in the mirror as I say this. First, the overheated rhetoric acts as a deceptive rationalization. Remember the theory of cognitive dissonance, that testy tension emanating from two conflicting thoughts at the same time. I worry all this talk about consumers being in control relieves dissonance. It allows us to absolve ourselves of treating consumers with respect. Hey, if they have control and, hence, the power, what possible harm could our junk mail, spam intrusiveness, and recklessness do? Doesn't it seem odd the trend charts for consumer control references and ad intrusion are marching hand in hand to the northeast corner?

The same can be said of user-generated content, or CGM (define). We talk it up, especially in the context of video, but now the big trend, in case you didn't notice, is professional video content. Think NBC and Fox, Joost, and others. Yes, they accommodate consumer control, but the mainstay of so many of these new platforms is marketer and professional content. Let's not fool ourselves into thinking marketers are running whole hog toward the consumer.

We Still Hold the Control Levers

Second, and more important, consumers, while increasingly more powerful and mindful of their newfound leverage, are far from having all the power. Indeed, we marketers have far more control than we let on. We buy the media, make the product, write the message, pick the messaging platform, select the suppliers, and hire the employees who ultimately do all the above. The list goes on and on. This is our scope and our span of control.

It's not that we've lost control. We just need to rethink the marketing mix around the highest impact control levers at our disposal. Clearly, a few key habits -- nay, addictions -- such as paid media have been closed off and are now less reliable than they've been in the past.

But plenty of opportunities remain to create great advertising, breakthrough marketing messages, and more. Our channels of influence have shifted. Channels we historically haven't appreciated or nurtured, like customer service and quality assurance, are a far bigger deal. Word of mouth and CGM, for example, now move the market more than ever before, from driving awareness and trail to influencer search results.

What's fundamentally different is we just can't flip a switch and open the impression gates on demand. Shaping the conversation and influencing the buzz are longer-term propositions. Consumers have control over their vocal chords, but we have control over our ears. Consumers have the power to apply deep levels of scrutiny, but we have the power to be accurate and reliable. Consumers have the power to participate, but we have the power to offer meaningful invitations. Consumers have ultimate control over their attention, but we have the power to drive retention.

The Consumer/Marketing Control Framework

What Consumers Control What Marketers Control
Talking Listening
Engagement Experience
Transparency Accuracy
Participation Invitations
Word of mouth Talk drivers
Product feedback Product performance
Attention Retention
Viral complaints Responsiveness
Advertising Expectations
Expression Consumer affairs

At the end of the day, we still control the message and the business processes that shape it, but we may need an alterative path to get there. Product quality, customer service, accurate claims, and employee empowerment are all within our control. And these are the input types that really matter, and always have.

Our problem is we viewed our world of control through a narrow, increasingly dubious, lens: traditional advertising and paid media.

We clearly can't ignore tomorrow's ROI (define) imperatives, but we also must stretch and expand ROI's meaning. It may actually save us money to take a more extended view of cause and effect. We invest in customer service, but the positive advertising accrues over time.

The key for executives today is to look carefully at their span of control and think about how it relates to the broader layer of conversation, CGM, brand reputation, and, ultimately, business results.

We have more control than we realize. Way more! Are you ready to take action?

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Pete Blackshaw

Pete Blackshaw, whose professional background encompasses public policy, interactive marketing, and brand management, is executive vice president of strategic services for Nielsen Online, a combination of Nielsen BuzzMetrics, a firm Pete helped cofound, and Nielsen//NetRatings. One of Pete's key focuses is helping brands interpret, manage, and act on consumer-generated media (CGM). A former interactive marketing leader at P&G and founder of consumer feedback portal PlanetFeedback.com, Pete cofounded the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA). He authors several blogs, including ConsumerGeneratedMedia.com, and is the author of an upcoming book from Random House, "Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3000: Running a Business in Today's Consumer-Driven World."

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