Consumers Seize Control, Part 1: The Proposition

It’s Sunday, July 10, and I’m at Summerfest 2005 in Milwaukee. Pete Yorn is set to take the U.S. Cellular Connection Stage in 30 minutes or so.

While we’re waiting for Yorn, on the Jumbotron over the stage, message after message flashes by. “Lizzie & Nicki Are Hott” reads one. “Vote for Pedro” reads another. Over the course of the 11-day festival, thousands of messages — marriage proposals, breakup notes, quotes from “Napoleon Dynamite” — are posted to the screen. They’re sent via concertgoers’ mobile phones using Text-2-Screen, a technology provided by Vibes Media, a Chicago-based company that specializes in creating interactive text message marketing programs.

That’s thousands of direct interactions with the U.S. Cellular brand. And those larger-than-life text messages were witnessed by who-knows-how-many people; Summerfest attendance that night was around 80,000 (some 901,000 people attended Summerfest ’05 during its 11-day run). To be honest, the text message entertainment was more engaging than Yorn’s show.

That was a very recent encounter with consumer-created content. You can bet it won’t be the last.

Visa’s “Ideas Happen” campaign gives 18- to 29-year-olds a chance to pitch their ideas and win $25,000 toward making that idea a reality. In the program’s first year, some 13,000 ideas were submitted. The next year, 19,000. All those people wrote an essay. Some even added a video file to flesh out the idea. Millions looked at the ideas posted online and voted for the winners. That’s high-value interaction, folks. After the first year of this program, Visa found there was over 33 percent awareness of the “Ideas Happen” campaign.

“Wired” just devoted an issue to the cut-and-paste culture, a celebration of ordinary folks talking control of their media (and just about every other) experience.

Consumers continually seize more control over everything. Personal computing hit about 25 years ago. Cable TV just as long ago, and desktop publishing about 20 years. The World Wide Web hit almost a decade ago, followed by TiVo, blogs, camera phones, digital video, and musical editing tools. All these have turned passive consumers into active media creators. When you extend the idea of consumer control into other areas of our daily lives, you notice automated banking, self-checkout at grocery stores, the creation of postage stamps with your own photos on them. This is a major trend.

It behooves us to understand this trend and figure out how it can affect — and fortify — what we do and how we work with clients.

Obviously, a consumer-centric element can’t be part of every campaign. But we must get to a point where we ponder whether there might be a consumer-centric component in every campaign we consider.

Questions you may have as you start applying this test to your campaigns:

  • Who might be engaged enough in my brand to want to create content about it?

  • If those people exist, where do I find them?
  • How do I engage them?
  • How do I incorporate consumer-created content into my media plan?
  • How do I measure its effect on my brand?

The first question has an easy answer: those people do exist. In Visa’s case, the engagement might not be in the product itself but in what the product allows. The trick may be finding the hook that grabs people and makes them want to interact with the brand.

Yet finding those people can be somewhat tricky. Some great places to start looking are blog search engines and aggregators, such as Technorati, Feedster, and BlogPulse. See what’s out there already. Begin your planning with a survey of the interactive landscape. Go beyond your client’s site and sites on which you might want to advertise. See what kind of content people are creating already. How can you bring that content to more people’s attention (without compromising those creators’ authenticity)? How can you reward the creators of that content? What kind of effect can that content have on your client’s brand?

It takes time, to be sure, but the rewards could be great indeed.

In Part 2, I’ll talk about how we can get to some of those rewards.

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