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The Pocket Guide to Consumer-Generated Media

  |  June 28, 2005   |  Comments

CGM basics and fundamentals. This is really important.

Sometime in late 2002, during a glorious early morning shower, the term "consumer-generated media" (CGM) jumped off my tongue like a sudden, gripping epiphany. The emotion was so strong I yelped to my wife, "Erika, I've found it!"

I've yet to recover and probably never will.

When The Wall Street Journal explicitly referred to "consumer-generated media" last week in a Marketplace cover story on marketers who tap blogs for consumer insights, it became clear CGM is advancing to an important, long-overdue tipping point of marketer understanding.

To tip the term further along, I'm dedicating this column to CGM basics and fundamentals. Trust me when I say this is really important.

What Is CGM All About?

The fastest-growing media is one consumers create and share among themselves. It's trusted and TiVo-resistant. It presents long-lasting sources of influence. Listening to and leveraging such media may well be the most important source of competitive advantage for companies and brands.

Unlike paid media, CGM is created by consumers. It's often inspired by relevant product or service experiences and is frequently archived online for readers convenience and other consumers or key marketplace influencers. Examples of CGM include blog entries, consumer email feedback, message board posts, forum comments, personal Web sites, and personal email.

My company estimates over 1.4 billion CGM comments are archived on the Web today. That number is growing 30 percent annually. None of this is terribly surprising when you consider the Pew Internet & American Life Project estimates 44 percent of online consumers have created online "content."

CGM can be influenced, but not controlled, by marketers. Don't let the viral, guerilla, buzz, or street marketing folks suggest otherwise. CGM delivers high-impact, targeted ad impressions well outside the scope of conversation among "familiars," a big reason it bears an important distinction from word of mouth. Search in particular magnifies CGM reach and effect by matching those who create it ("speakers") with curious, information-hungry preshoppers ("seekers").

Most important, CGM leaves a digital trail. It's highly measurable, allowing advertisers to gauge brand equity, reputation, and message effectiveness in real time. Advertisers must take accountability for the scope and effect of such media and use it to make more-informed decisions. One important first step is to understand CGM various forms. Here's a primer:

  • Blogs. The majority of today's blogs are rich, unaided first-person narratives across a host of topics. They mirror insight-rich focus groups but are even better. Though consumers rarely dedicate blogs to brands, brand experiences abundantly decorate blog narratives. Often, the texture of brand commentary is incidental, implied, even unconscious in nature. This can shed light on how advertising truly works. Thanks to RSS (define) and blogs highly networked nature, they're quickly becoming the most potent form of CGM. They also index fastest on search engines.

  • Message boards and forums. These are industry- or interest-focused areas that draw consumers based on a particular product, specialty, or niche. Typically, they draw consumers interested in specific products (automobiles, computers, electronics, software) or issues (politics, baby/parenting, lifestyle, travel). Active participants tend to be folks who have experienced the products or issue in question. Buyers tend to be the listeners. MakeupAlley, for example, is loaded with highly useful CGM related to beauty care. Social network sites also make ample use of message boards.

  • Review/rating sites. There are far fewer CGM "impressions" in this venue, but the reach and effect are enormous, especially in regard to consumer purchase behavior. Reviews are typically grounded in relevant experience, which significantly dials up credibility and trust. Amazon.com, eBay, Edmunds.com, and Epinions.com all fall into this category. Ratings add an important quantitative dimension.

  • Clubs or groups. These are highly focused, often specialized sites where aficionados congregate around a single issue, product, or item. They can be public or private. Although membership is usually small (up to hundreds of users), tens of thousands of such groups exist. Groups can range from celebrity fan clubs to stamp collectors sites to automobile owners sites to book clubs.

  • Direct company feedback. This critical, often overlooked form of CGM is targeted directly to companies, but consumers who exercise this channel typically offer their feelings across multiple platforms. Some of our recent research shows nearly 70 percent of consumers who provide feedback through company/brand Web sites are active across other CGM venues, including boards and blogs. The good news for companies is this channel is controllable. The challenge is shifting from an operational, "I don't want consumer attention" cost-center mindset to a marketing-centered, "I'll take whatever consumer attention I can get" one.

  • Third-party Web sites. Smaller yet active groups of consumers generate high-impact CGM on third-party feedback sites such as Complaints.com and My3cents.com. The Better Business Bureau's online service also captures, archives, and makes publicly available certain forms of "escalated" CGM. Media writers and financial analysts often quote such sources.

Introducing CGM2

CGM is rapidly adopting the same rich-media formats we see in online advertising. This, too, needs to be understood. A few examples of CGM2, or consumer-generated multimedia:

  • Moblogs, photo sharing, and tagging. Moblogs (define) are mobile-enabled blogs that let users post photos from anywhere. Interestingly, many of the online photos today are efficiently tagged with labels such as "BadMcDonaldsExperience," which makes them easier to find, organize, and index through search engines. Camera phones play a huge role in moblog growth. Here's an example of a product-centered moblog, courtesy of yours truly.

  • Vlogs/personal videos. Vlogs (define) are basically video-based journals, almost like reality TV for online. My favorite is Rocketboom. Thanks to iMovie, Windows Movie Maker, and other tools, it's getting easier to create sticky, viral, even incriminating online video. Remember the Kryptonite and Kensington lock video? Here's a quick video I created and uploaded in less than 10 minutes.

  • Podcasting. Yes, podcasting (define) is a form of CMG. Think of this as TiVo meets radio. Consumers create their own radio broadcasts and make them available for others. Because they're so darn easy to create, expect to see a ton of them. Here's a podcast I quickly threw together last week.

Consumers are dictating the terms of media reach, frequency, and impact. We must stay on top of this. Increasingly, we live in a consumer-controlled surveillance society, and CGM the currency.

Watch your back, Jack!

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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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