Consumers Talk, Brands Listen

The idea of being a good listener as it relates to digital media often falls on deaf ears. In spite of what we know about how interactive the online medium has become, many marketers continue to push their campaign concepts on target audiences because the advertising seems clever – or unique, or worthy of an industry award – instead of because they’re certain it’s something consumers want to see.

Social media marketers frequently have the opposite problem. They sit back and listen for far too long, watching what their clients’ Facebook fans and Twitter followers are saying but failing to reach out and engage them – an action that’s vital to maintaining an active social conversation.

It isn’t easy to strike that happy medium between being disconnected and hyper aware. It is, however, absolutely necessary.

It has been clear for some time now that the power in online media is being reallocated. Consumers are increasingly involved in creating and commenting on digital content, to the point where passive Internet usage is quickly becoming a thing of the past. In order to survive the revolution, publishers and advertisers alike must find ways to integrate their audiences into their brands. Consumers not only want to be engaged by digital media, they expect it now – and if you aren’t engaging them, you don’t stand a chance at winning their interest.

This summer, Wired Magazine published an article titled, “In Online Media, Consumer is King,” which implied that the consumer has indeed become “the king of content decisions.” It passed along a valuable nugget of information that all marketers should keep in mind from here on out: brands must stop focusing on what used to work, and start taking their guidance from what consumers want. “Whatever we think we know, we don’t; we have to keep listening to the consumer,” a media professor was quoted as saying on the subject.

However astute, this statement begs a question: how does one listen to the consumer without compromising the integrity of one’s brand, and the quality of one’s campaign? Many a consumer brand has fallen victim to the siren call of consumer-generated media (CGM) campaigns, with mixed results. A few years ago, General Motors asked consumers to make their own Tahoe commercials online, only to be hijacked by environmentalists (though some boldly argued that though the outcome was unexpected, it was ultimately a success). Last year, handmade goods seller illustrated the upside of consumer-generated media when its handmade-commercials contest generated a handful of delightful ads many argued were better in conception and quality than any one could get from an agency alone.

The latest attempt at marrying consumer intelligence with marketing know-how was reported this week by ClickZ. Toyota’s recently launched “Auto-Biography” campaign uses Facebook to invite Toyota owners to submit personal stories about their cars and showcase their most memorable vehicle moments.

The campaign is reminiscent of the Mercedes-Benz 2004 ad campaign that flooded pricey TV spots and print ads with old, worn-looking photographs of real-life vehicle owners with their cars. The brand asked its owners to offer up their photos and received a deluge of submissions, all of which served to illustrate a deep loyalty to the auto brand – the same, to be sure, that Toyota aims to emphasize with its own campaign.

In fact, until now marketers have been most successful at listening to their audiences by observing where other brands have succeeded and failed in the past and making the appropriate modifications. This isn’t the time to eschew the herd and branch out in a new direction – not when you have so much to lose.

With that in mind, next week I’ll be offering a collection of some of the most poignant and profitable digital media executions that have involved listening to consumers and translating their needs, wants, and interests into useful campaigns. These people have a lot to say, and we owe it to ourselves, our brands, and our agencies to listen up.

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