Behavior Under the Planning Microscope, Part 3: CGM

The concept of so-called DIY first became common in the 1950s. Then, it simply referred to various home improvements people could do with no professional help. The philosophy behind it was subsistent-/independence focused: rather than purchase prefabricated products or hiring experts, people were encouraged to use technology and tools to create their own goods.

In more recent decades, companies such as Home Depot and Ikea not only popularized and commercialized the DIY concept but also contributed immensely to the consumer-empowerment movement. The joy of consumer creationism was born among the masses.

With technology’s advent, this consumer creation spirit has blossomed from an esoteric mentality to the new business norm. The unprecedented speed in which it manifested itself in society, economy, and culture fundamentally changed the way the world operates. So-called consumer-generated media (CGM) is no longer a fad dominated by teenager fascination. It’s a general standard for the masses.

Behavioral targeting is as much about anticipation as it is about reaction. We must therefore fundamentally understand not only the marketing implications and applications of CGM, but also the basic human motivations that have pushed us toward this new creation trend.

The Essence of Consumer Creation

With the rise of Generation C, consumers are expressing more creativity than ever. According to TrendSpotting, a research firm based in the Netherlands, consumer interest in creation (regardless of whether it’s content or products) is attributable to one or all of the following factors: status, bespoken lifestyle, financial reward, employment, or fun and involvement. Or as Grant McCracken, the author and anthropologist who popularized the term “brand co-creation,” simply put it, “They want to because they can.”

Some psychology theorists have also suggested this innate need to express one’s opinion and ideas are directly linked to the inherent human need to feel self-important.

People like and want to feel that they influence this world to acknowledge their own existence. Some modern sociology theories would also argue people aren’t satisfied with their lives, so CGM participation is a way to gain some personal satisfaction and expression.

Regardless of whether we subconsciously crave Warhol’s 15 seconds of fame, the need to feel self-important has more to do with people’s desire to differentiate themselves from others (or to be better than others) than pure manifestation of ego. It’s a slightly Darwinian view in that differentiation leads to competitive advantage, which ultimately results in survival of the fittest.

In this view, the need for self-differentiation is the motivation behind the need for self-importance and validation.

The Importance of Familiarity

The communication model has evolved from the old-school stimulus-response model to a much more cognitive-based one. Rather than a linear process of information feed and reception, modern day consumers need to know how, what, why, and where. Knowledge (in terms of product familiarity) has never been more critical in purchase consideration.

Familiarity makes consumers feel more comfortable about their purchasing decisions. In many ways, this is how advertising fundamentally works. As in the old TV/radio broadcast era, ads simply make people feel more familiar and connected to a brand. If you’ve heard about a product, it must be better than other, lesser-known ones.

CGM has a huge impact in communications because it humanizes and democratizes this familiarity. Rather than blindly believing the corporate descriptions companies write for themselves (which are inherently self-serving), CGM provides different perspectives and dimensions in the consideration process.

Think about Citysearch, Epinions, and similar Web sites to which people can contribute reviews. Readers don’t necessarily believe what they read, but reading about it makes them feel better about going to a new place or purchasing a new product. At least they have some idea of what to expect.

Today’s informed generation naturally dislikes unpleasant surprises. If they’re going somewhere for dinner, it should be worth the time and money. Being able to read other people’s comments provides a rough guideline to the unknown experience.

Familiarity leads to higher probability of consuming. There’s nothing more powerful when the buyer becomes the advocate.

What Does It Mean For Planners?

Whether CGM represents a strength to brands (i.e., outsourcing marketing to brand loyalists) or a threat (i.e., allowing outside amateurs to become marketers) is fiercely debatable. What’s certain is CGM is here to stay.

Digital technology has provided people with the tools to produce content in unprecedented magnitude, and it’s changed the relationship between them and brands in tectonic ways in terms of access and distribution.

As planners, we need to identify opportunities in this area for clients and acknowledge this deeper, fundamental change in human behavior in content consumption and creation. Consumers’ need for self-differentiation can be used as an insight and a tool to provide a more collaborative communication strategy.

The Web 2.0 business is easier said than done. Meanwhile, CGM has come a long, long way from the days when pictures were printed on T-shirts.

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