The Consumer-Controlled Surveillance Culture

Recently, there’s been understandable media attention on the government eavesdropping on American citizens in the wake of September 11. It’s a very important debate, one with widespread, lasting implications, but I’ll resist the temptation to add yet another voice to the already congested chorus.

Although so much of what we read about or hear in the media focuses on the controversial nature of surveillance in the context of government against citizen or business against consumer, a parallel development centered on marketers is underway: consumer-controlled surveillance.

Thanks to the proliferation of word of mouth and consumer-generated media (CGM), we are becoming a consumer-controlled surveillance culture. There’s no question consumers aggressively monitor marketers and brands. They take notes, share them with others, and increase leverage by gathering, “remixing“, and pooling brand intelligence. For many marketers, this reverse-surveillance is a humbling, destabilizing, and sobering reality.

By “CGM,” we mean media impressions created by consumers, typically informed by relevant experience, and archived or shared online for easy access by other impressionable consumers. Such media act like advertising because they’re targeted and trusted and come from a consumer, not an advertiser.

Blogs are perhaps the most effective CGM surveillance tool, stemming in part from their superior documentation capability (e.g., add a link, photo, video, or file), real-time proximity to never-dormant social networks, and always-targeted free circulation via search engines. They act as a perpetual recording device, capturing dramatic and mundane experiences alike.

With increasing frequency, consumers are actually controlling, uploading, downloading, filming, recording, circulating, and passing along their own personal encounters with products, services, companies, and brands. Any computer user with basic knowledge of video or still photography can deploy easy-to-use photo-generating, movie-making, and voice-recording programs to create what used to take major production studios hours to produce, film, edit, and print.

Ironically, marketers, especially the biggest media spenders, are aggressively fueling the CGM trend with multimedia always-on gadgets that empower consumers to record and broadcast feedback moments. Equally significant, advertisers are investing heavily in ads centered on sticky surveillance benefits. Remember the camera phone TV ad showing a guy exploiting his friend’s camera phone to spy on his girlfriend while in a bar? On top of this, we’re seeing a surge of marketer-sponsored promotions and content urging consumers to use camera phones or digital cameras to record, capture, and send certain categories of photos.

At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) this week, a proliferation of new products hit the market, facilitating the creation and consumption of rich media. If you carefully examine the CES blog buzz, you’ll find a wealth of commentary about such new products’ potential to create greater, higher-impact CGM.

Consumer-Controlled Surveillance’s Upside

So much of this is a good thing. As I’ve noted previously, the world is reaping many positive benefits from our consumer-controlled surveillance culture. The surveillance culture of camera phone users after the Tsunami and the Hurricane Katrina played an important role in sharing much needed information among social networks and with the media. Many news agencies now lean on the on-the-spot ears of multimedia bloggers to elevate both truth and accuracy in reporting.

For brands, the upside of surveillance is that great experiences or product reactions are recorded and shared, and the net effect of free, positive, sustained buzz beats paid advertising every time. This is a point I’m sure many speakers at next week’s WOMMA Summit, including Bob Garfield, Fred Reichheld, and Jackie Huba, will underscore.

And the Big Downside

But for many businesses and brands, this surveillance culture will create big headaches and dramatically raise the stakes of accountability. Consumers are critically watching, recording, and sharing what brands do, say, claim, and promise. For example:

  • An angry consumer records and posting an entire e-commerce experience.
  • A customer records an entire customer service call-center interaction.
  • Every detail of store-aisle experiences are captured on video and shared.
  • An employee uses a camera phone to capture privileged, embarrassing, or whistleblower-type imagery.
  • Consumers upload videos of their driving experiences, often capturing less-than-satisfactory reactions.

It’s getting cheaper and easier to do all this, thanks to the proliferation of such free tools as Google Video, YouTube, Odeo, flickr, and vMix.

It’s also worth noting that many of the brand or product references, while critical to measure for brand equity purposes, are incidental and without agenda. Consumers often post images or video to the Web oblivious to brands that dot the background. I call this incidental product placement. The net exposure can nonetheless amount to a meaningful level of reach and frequency, which can have both brand promotion and brand erosion consequences.

How Should Brands Manage This?

How do you manage and protect your brand in this consumer-controlled surveillance culture? There will undoubtedly be some level of brand backlash. We’ll see several instances of large brands suing for alleged inappropriate usage, but these legal positions will be compromised by brands conveniently refusing to take action around exaggerated evangelism.

Realistically, brands can only do so much to sandbag the harsh side of consumer surveillance. But they can take steps to manage risk and influence some outcomes, including:

  • Revisit product quality. Aggressively revisit issues of product quality when product flaws or defects or missed expectations can be publicly outed… and expressed in Technicolor. Retool your risk assumptions in light of the CGM and surveillance culture.
  • Put customer service to the torture test. Develop CRM (define) strategies and processes as though every transaction (toll-free calls, email, or chat) can and will be recorded “for quality purposes.” Are you saying the right things? Are proper controls in place? What’s the true CGM cost of a poorly managed service transaction?
  • Put your advertising to the torture test. Don’t wait for regulators to scrutinize your ad claims for high-vulnerability areas. If you don’t spot them, consumers will.

Lastly, keep listening and build a real business process around staying close to consumer sentiment and expression, wherever its source. These highly attentive consumers provide an unstoppable supply of new ideas, warnings, and tips to help you become better marketers. Pay attention, and good luck!

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