Consumer-Generated Media: The Age of Engagement

The interactive marketing conference circuit is in full swing this week in Chicago. AD:TECH, where I’ll moderate an industry panel on blogs, is positioned around the “Age of Engagement.” Immediately afterwards, the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) hosts its first research conference.

As with most conferences, we’ll all present case studies, return-on-investment (ROI) analyses, new jargon and vernacular, and lots of new marketing frameworks. We’ll learn a ton and do plenty of networking. But will we truly “get” it?

In this ever-complex, ever-evolving marketing landscape, the things that have the least to do with marketing tell us the most about marketing. Last Thursday’s horrible terrorist attacks in London serve as a case in point and are worthy of some reflection.

With this tragedy, the Internet once again turned over an important new leaf. If there was a ever a blur factor in how we thought about speed, velocity, distribution, and outcome of consumer-generated media, this incident brought new clarity.

Key Lessons

As with the 2004 tsunami, we learned the hard way — in vivid Technicolor and with multimedia — that the Internet is fundamentally changing our lives, especially in how we create and absorb CGM. With almost natural instinct and unaided serendipity, blogs and message boards brought voice, imagery, texture, passion, relevance, and immediacy to this tragedy.

It’s not that they “made” the news, but they sustained it and gave it new meaning. They filled the gaps, reinforced the most important points, and challenged or refuted bad data instantly and continually. They brought the power of the first-person testimonial to a level that almost trivialized traditional media’s infatuation with on-the-spot media. In their sincerity, passion, heartfelt grief, and surprise, CGM creators got their messages across to large and small audiences alike.

The Facts

Rarely has the CGM space, particularly the blogosphere, been so consumed so quickly with one event. Within a day, nearly 90 percent of the top links cited by bloggers were about the crisis. These links in turn amplified and fortified the story and offered new perspectives. Most of the top phrases across the entire blogosphere revolved around the bombings and their aftermath. New content based on first-person testimonials (captured through either writing, speaking, or photography) were prevalent. The most frequently cited person on BlogPulse was Belinda Seabrook, an eyewitness interviewed by a British news agency.

Consumer-Controlled Surveillance Culture

The CGM space shot off like a rocket within seconds of the bombings, aided in large measure by handheld devices (phones, digital cameras, PDAs) that made it easy to send photos and other content directly to the Web. The incident spurred a spike in blogs featuring video, especially home videos. All this increased the effect, awareness, word of mouth, and virality. Just as camera phones make it possible for still photos to be shot and distributed anywhere by nearly anyone, vlogs (define) do the same for film and footage. Hundreds of photos litter photo-sharing sites such as Flickr.

Bloggers went to work immediately. Powerful, action-oriented blog postings emerged almost instantaneously on their own blogs or were offered to major news outlets. Blog services now make it easier to blog from your phone. This increases the “surveillance net” or “stringer pool.” Unlike text, photos are tough to dispute, especially when they’re posted so quickly, there’s no conceivable way to doctor them.

Key Takeaways

How should marketers internalize all this as they think about interacting with consumers who now listen to, observe, and record just about everything? Key takeaways:

    This is the age of transparency. Our world is becoming more transparent. The blog-enabled “Web recorder” archives real-time citizen experiences and narratives. This includes experiences with products and services.

  • Stories are fluid in the CGM age. When first-person narratives are involved, stories rarely have a beginning and don’t have an end. A first-person experience often seeds needs, and individuals’ narratives build upon it and take it in new directions. For marketers interested in conversations, that’s a big insight.
  • A picture’s worth a thousands words. We now live in a rich-media, consumer-controlled surveillance culture. Rich media changes the game. The same factors that historically made TV so persuasive and emotionally engaging are core building blocks of the blogosphere. It’s time to start thinking more about the power of consumer-generated multimedia (CGM2).
  • All experience is local, even if it’s global. How can you not feel more connected when seeing an immediate photo, hearing a emotion-laced podcast, or reading a first-person testimonial? Like it or not, the Web accelerates our thinking about global communication. We must think more broadly about the power of global influencers. They’re much closer to us than we realize.
  • Real-time collaboration is here. Blogs are more than billboards or diaries. They are a foundation for real-time collaboration. They’re a better, faster, cheaper organizing platform and principle. We saw this in how the Wikipedia was leveraged during this tragedy.

Sometimes, when we step outside the marketing zone, the less obvious becomes obvious. This tragic event in London, so ironically timed a day after the Olympics announcement, is a wake-up call to the reality we all face.

Listen and learn! Observe and internalize! Sense and respond! Those are the fundamentals of marketing, and that’s what this latest event is telling us all.

Conferences are great, but the best exhibitors and panelists are consumers themselves.

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