Can Marketers Control CGM? Should They?

Are marketers truly prepared to give up control to consumers?

Probably not, but there’s clear evidence in the momentous march to so-called engagement — one of the top themes at this week’s packed Advertising Research Foundation (ARF) conference — that marketers are at least trying to open up the conversation.

They’re also beginning to rethink the rules of participation, even in the context of advertising and message development, otherwise known as creative.

Consider General Motor’s recent “Apprentice” tie-in promotion featuring the Chevy Tahoe. To complement the car’s placement in Donald Trump’s weekly bad-hair firing line, the brand created a Web site where consumers can easily create their own :30 TV commercial, complete with their choice of text overlays and ad jingles.

I put my own creative skills to the test and created my own incredible — nay, amazing and Cleo Award winning — TV-style commercial, which you’ll note includes a disclosure at the end that I don’t actually drive a Chevy Tahoe. (I should also disclose GM is a client of my firm, although I have no connection with whoever created this ad campaign, nor was I tipped off by anyone).

Not surprisingly, this campaign is generating growing buzz, but there’s a much bigger development taking place in the background.

A New Mindset for Marketers

Marketers are finally recognizing the consumer voice (most evident in the Web’s mushrooming digital trail of consumer-generated media (CGM)) is currency for credibility and trust with consumers. It’s also a wellspring of great ideas, unique concepts, and untapped niche messaging opportunities.

Now brands, agencies, even portals, are trying to figure out how to encourage, solicit, or host CGM to make their sites and advertising stickier, more relevant, and more conversational in a new Web 2.0 world.

Political advocacy group probably did more to catalyze fresh thinking about the potential of consumer participation in ad creative through its highly viral 2004 Bush in 30 Seconds campaign. It resulted in hundreds of highly creative ad submissions, one of which was used for the paid TV campaign. Current TV is following a similar approach for both news and advertising content development, fortified by user feedback and online voting for the best viewer-created content (VC2), another term for CGM.

Nike’s Converse brand got in on the act, too. Looking to introduce a new ad campaign for the Converse brand, Nike collected over 1,800 24-second film submissions from consumers, eventually using over 40 of them. According to news reports, contributors whose creations were used on television were paid $10,000, those who appeared online were paid $1,000. Other brands testing the waters with similar user-contribution initiatives include Coors Light, Mazda/Condé Nast, Mercedes-Benz, and Coke.

It’s also worth mentioning that Yahoo recently announced it was moving away from creating its own professional content in favor of user-generated material. The explosion of consumer-generated multimedia (CGM2) on sites like YouTube, Sharkle, and Google Video has undoubtedly shaped key assumptions about the potential here.

Parallels to Corporate Blog Initiatives

This notion of consumer participation has important parallels to the blogosphere. Much of the thinking by folks like Steve Rubel, B.L. Ochman, Robert Scoble, and Shel Holtz centers on how to parlay CGM-inspired conversational relevance into otherwise static, stodgy, impenetrably feedback-averse corporate interfaces to nurture credibility and loyalty with key stakeholders groups. GM’s FastLane blog, for example, generally works because Bob Lutz and other blog authors come across as sincere and genuine, even in their passion for GM products. The same applies to Microsoft’s Channel 9.

What Is Real CGM?

This introduces a very important question, one customer evangelist guru Jackie Huba articulated well in the discussion over GM’s “create your own ad” campaign: what constitutes real, authentic, genuine CGM?

“Calling it CGM is rather generous,” she writes. “It’s really a game. To wit: Participants submit their finished commercials to win prizes…. Everything, except the copy, is all very much under the control of the Tahoe brand manager.” She even rebelliously creates her own counter-campaign copy to reinforce her point.

Fellow ClickZ columnist Dave Evans, who’s written a fair amount about the concept of remixing consumer- and advertiser-generated content notes, “CGM isn’t about me getting to see my name associated with a creative idea that happened to coincide with someone else’s idea of what I should be saying.” Rather, he suggests, “it’s about me being able to see my interpretation in the brand reflected in the composite brand experience, including brand messaging.”

Joseph Jaffe, author of “Life After the 30-Second Spot,” asks in his blog, “Could we be seeing an underground or against the current trend here and elsewhere, where consumers will buck the system and create an anti-ad?”

The anti-ad? Yes, that’s always the tradeoff in a world of CGM. In fact, a large percentage of the pure, organic, and entirely unaided messaging we see about brands and companies on message boards, forums, blogs, or review sites trends negative. That’s why listening is so critical and so strategic in marketing today. It may be the only true gateway to avoiding negative advertising.

Incented Consumer-Generated Media?

In fairness to brands such as Chevy and Converse, I think there’s a mid-way point that at least gives credit to marketers for conceding some level of creative and message control to the consumer: incentivized consumer-generated media (ICGM). Labels are important. There’s too much ambiguity in marketing, so it makes sense to draw a clear distinction between casting a broader net for creative concepts and managing unaided or organic CGM.

As we see more IGM content flood the new-media airwaves, we may need to look to disclosure policies similar to those embraced in Word of Mouth Marketing Association’s (WOMMA’s) ethics code.

But for the time being, most of this activity is a net positive. Marketers are trying to break the mold — or at least, they’re running experiments to that effect. We should celebrate and encourage such consumer-centered moves, even if they don’t perfectly fit our definition of CGM.

Along the way, we should strive to make such initiatives even more credible and salient with consumers by demonstrating our sincerity around hearing their ideas and concepts via other brandtouch points, especially in the customer service, contact us, and call-center arenas. Those are also critical listening and participation venues.

We certainly don’t want consumers to conclude we listen while we push them out of the way. Right?

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