Is (User Generated) Content King Kong?

Among the three elements of the 3Cs business model, content is the one that has undergone the most profound change in recent years. The rise of social media has allowed Internet users to create and distribute content with ease. User generated content (UGC) now shares the stage with commercially developed content (CDC) that once ruled the world of Web content. Will content, or more precisely UGC, actually be king this time? If not, what will it be?

What is UGC?

UGC is also known as consumer-generated media (CGM). It refers to the materials created and uploaded to the Internet by non-media professionals, be them product reviews on Amazon, seller ratings on eBay, photos on Flickr, videos on YouTube, bookmarks on Delicious.com, or user profiles on Facebook. It has been around in one form or another since the early years of the Internet such as examples include the bulletin boards on portal websites like Yahoo and AOL and “product rating” websites in the 1990s. Over time, it has evolved to encompass blogs, wikis and media-sharing, social-networking, and virtual world sites, and has become a dominant media and one of the fastest growing forms of content on the Internet. In 2006, UGC sites attracted 69 million users in the United States alone, and in 2007 generated $1 billion in advertising revenue. By 2011, UGC sites are projected to attract 101 million users in the U.S. and earn $4.3 billion in ad revenue (IAB, 2008).

Practically all social media applications (from blogs, social bookmarking sites and wikis to online social network sites) enable some form of UGC. An effective way for classifying UGC is to do so according to the motivations for users to contribute content and the level of communal involvement in doing so. The motivations can be either rational or emotional. Rational motivations may include sharing knowledge with the world (knowledge sharing) and advocating a particular stand toward an issue (advocacy). Emotional motivations may include building social connections with friends, relatives, or other Internet users (social connections) or entertainment (self-expression). Users can contribute content through individual efforts or group collaboration (Krishnamurthy and Dou, 2008). The entries on Wikipedia are collaborative efforts of tens of thousands of contributors from around the world who are motivated by a desire for knowledge sharing. User profiles on online social network sites such as Facebook are created by individual members who seek connections with friends online. Massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPG) such as World of Warcraft involve a very large number of players who interact with one another within a virtual game world. They are found to prefer socializing online to offline and have very strong emotions when playing these games.

While there are many types of UGC sites, for branding purpose, marketers should pay close attention to three specific types.

  • Review sites. They are where consumers share their brand experiences in order to help others make more informed purchasing decisions, making them an important place for marketers to have a voice. Most review sites focus on a specific product/service category (e.g., CNet on consumer electronics, Edmunds.com on automotive, and TripAdvisor on tourism). They are generally well moderated and can be very brand friendly to the company that respects their culture and is willing to participate.
  • Blogs. Blogging has been around in one form or another since the mid 1990s, but it was the launch of Open Diary (the first site to provide blogging software and the first to facilitate user comments) in 1998 that turned blogging into a UGC phenomenon. Letting readers reply to blog entries, thus allowing interactions between bloggers and readers and among readers, is the hallmark of blogging and UGC in general as well. It should be noted that blogging today is no longer for users only. Among the rank of bloggers are many salaried professionals (e.g., huffingtonpost.com), marketers and corporate CEOs.
  • Media sharing sites. They tend to be specialized by content formats such as photos (e.g., Flickr, Photobucket and Smugmug), videos (e.g., Youtube, Metacafe and Dailymotion) and presentations (Slideshare.net and Scribd). The huge audience of some of these sites such as YouTube and their popular media formats, particularly videos, can get brand messages, good or bad, spread extremely far and fast.

Advertising on UGC Sites

This is still an uncharted territory. Much is yet to be experimented and learned. Below are a few more common practices. They involve placing commercial messaging in and around the content or by becoming a part of the content itself.

  • Video Ads. One common method is “pre-roll” video — a short ad that runs before the video itself. Another method is “overlay” ad, which pops up about 15 seconds into a video and only covers the bottom one fifth of the screen. The ad disappears after a few seconds if the user does not click it. If the user does select the ad, the main video will pause, and the video ad will play; once the ad has ended, the video will resume. The idea behind this method is ensure the ad does not interrupt the user’s viewing experience. Some UGC sites, including YouTube, now prefer this “overlay” method over “pre-roll”.
  • Conversation targeting. Marketers can target specific conversations that are relevant to their brands, be them on some blogs, online communities or social networks. They can then add their “voice” (e.g., product or company information, press releases, and experts’ opinions) or place their ads next to these conversations. A camera producer, for example, may try to identify widely read blogs about photography whereas a sport apparel producer may look for some online forums on physical fitness. They may utilize the service of some third-party specialists in finding not only the most relevant conversations but also the most influential.
  • Custom communities. Marketers can build custom communities that provide an online hub for brands — entertaining and engaging consumers through relevant content, interesting games, useful applets, or exciting contests. They may use off-site advertising to drive consumers to these communities, where these consumers participate and pass along interesting or valuable content to others. A variation of custom communities is dedicated channels for specific brands on content-sharing sites such as YouTube.
  • Brand profile page. Marketers can create profile pages for their products or brands on social networking sites such as Facebook. On such pages they can offer relevant and interesting content, from demonstration videos to widgets that let site members include these pages in their “friend” network or tag themselves as a “fan.”
  • Widgets. Some marketers now make available branded widgets for users to download onto their computer desktops or embed in their blogs or profile pages and through these widgets to import some form of live content. American TV network ABC, for example, offers a series of widgets around its popular primetime shows such as “Desperate Housewives”, “Grey’s Anatomy”, “Ugly Betty” and “Dancing with the Stars”. These embeddable widgets let fans add exclusive ABC.com content to their blogs, web pages and social networking sites. Each widget includes video clips, photos, news alerts and links back to ABC.com’s media player for viewing of full episodes.

Kong: a King Gone Wild

With the rise of UGC, is content fit to be king? To put it differently, is the notion of “content is king” any closer to reality in the UGC era  than it was in the CDC era? Survey data from the OPA shows Internet users spend the largest share of their time online at content sites (39.6 percent), far ahead of communication (24 percent),  community (20.6 percent) and other sites (e.g., commerce and search at 10.9 and 4.5 percent, respectively). Back in 2003 when data on community sites was not available, they spent more time at communication sites (47.3 percent) than content (33.6 percent) and other sites. Content sites are those designed primarily to provide news, information and entertainment (e.g., CNN.com, ESPN.com and MapQuest). Community sites are those combining UCG with communications in order to foster relationships between individual members and groups of members (e.g., Facebook and MySpace). Communications sites and those designed to facilitate the exchange of thoughts, messages, or information directly between individuals or groups of individuals (e.g., Yahoo! Mail and AOL Instant Messenger). Commerce sites are those designed for shopping online (e.g., Amazon and eBay). Search sites those scanning the Web to provide prioritized results based on specific criteria from user requests (e.g., Google Search and Yahoo! Search). Essentially, content-rich sites are where consumers have been spending their time at, then or now, despite the growing popularity of community/networking sites such as Facebook.

Website traffic statistics (Alexa, 2010) seem to confirm the predominance of content. Four of the top-ten sites globally are content sites (e.g., YouTube, MSN, Wikipedia and Blogger); the remainder includes four search sites, two of which (Yahoo and Baidu) are content-rich, a community and social network site (Facebook) and a communication site (Tencent QQ – a Chinese instant messaging site). For marketers it is clear that they can ignore the content element only at their own perils.

Utilizing UGC sites for marketing communication is not without its challenges, however. UGC sites are by nature a freewheeling exchange of opinions and points of view, in which an advertiser is expected to be just another participating voice. Marketers can no longer broadcast one-way messages at their audiences in a carefully planned and controlled environment. Instead, they must now engage in conversations that are initiated, maintained, and “owned” by consumers. They need to surrender some degree of control over the brand messages. That carries a level of uncertainties and risks much higher than what most marketers are accustomed to (see my other post: “Markets Are Conversations”).

So while content may turn out to be king this time, it is likely a different sort of king: King Kong. Like the infamous ape made in Hollywood, UGC can be wild and unpredictable; meanwhile its raw strength can be overwhelming. Recall the Chevy Tahoe online video contest discussed in an earlier post (“Markets are Conversations”).  The beast can be quite destructive but controlling it is equally impractical. Ignoring the beast does not make it go away either. Perhaps with a new mindset radically different from the traditional “command and control” approach, marketers can meet King Kong (or rather UGC) face-to-face. A different ending, less tragic, this time?

References

  1. Alexa (2010) “Top Sites”, at: http://www.alexa.com/topsites (accessed July 7, 2010).
  2. Online Publishers Association (OPA) (2010) “Internet Activity Index (IAI)”, at: http://www.online-publishers.org/page.php/prmID/421 (accessed July 7, 2010).

Is (Commercially Developed) Content King?

The 3Cs Model of Digital Marketing

A popular business model in the early years of e-commerce (aka the Web 1.0 era) centered on content, community and commerce.  These 3Cs collectively deliver the functional, process and relationship benefits that shape the consumption experience. Research findings show consumers seek process and relationship benefits as much as functional benefits, not the latter alone. Functional benefits refer to product features, performance, quality and brand image. They are obtained through the exchange of a payment for a product (“commerce” element) plus the marketing messages and other information that enhance the consumption experience and thus add value to the product itself (“content” element).  Process benefits come from the ease and convenience of conducting business with the company in terms of not only transactions (“commerce” element) but also ongoing relationships that help both sides better understand each other’s expectations and capabilities (“community” element). Relationship benefits are rewards for loyalty that comes from frequent interactions and two-way communication (“community” element), and timely and relevant information that enhances the consumption experience (“content” element). Through the combination of content, community and commerce, digital marketing offer all three sets of benefits and hence greater customer experience (McKinsey and Company, 1999).

“Content Is King”

On the increasingly crowded World Wide Web, it is difficult for a website to get noticed and even more so for it to bring visitors back and back again. Content is considered as the key to meeting this challenge, thus the notion of “content is king”. It refers to the textual and/or audio-visual substance that consumers encounter and interact with as part of their experience at a website. Among the very first to recognize “content is king” was Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates who wrote an online column with that title in March 1996. “Content is where I expect much of the real money will be made on the Internet…. If people are to be expected to put up with turning on a computer to read a screen, they must be rewarded with deep and extremely up-to-date information that they can explore at will… They need an opportunity for personal involvement that goes far beyond that offered through the letters-to-the-editor pages of print magazines” (Bailey, 2010).

There are several rationales that support the notion of “content is king”.

  • Content can be the key ingredient for creating the much-needed “stickiness” – the ability of a website not only to attract visitors, but also to engage them and to bring them back often.
  • Interesting content attracts hyperlinks from other websites. A larger number of links tends to boost the ranking by search engines, which in turn generates more web traffic and enhances stickiness.
  • Engaging content facilitates relationship building as it leads to greater understanding and bonds, and helps build trust between the company and its customers. Then add to that some essential tools for interactions (e.g., chat rooms and “ask the experts”). Relationships, trust and interactions together can help transform a sticky website into some sort of online community that further enhances relationship building.
  • Through closer relationships, the firm may be able to better convert its frequent interactions with customers into opportunities to generate sale leads, cross-sell, up-sell and close deals, which are the “commerce” goal of digital marketing.

Content Creation

Website content can be both informational (e.g., news, shopping guide, expert opinions, and product ratings by consumers) and transactional (e.g., product descriptions and prices, inventory availability information, and related incentives such as coupons and specials). For a website to become sticky, its content needs to be:

  • Relevant – fulfilling a need and having an appropriate scope,
  • Refreshing – being updated frequently to stay  current,
  • Credible – being from trusted and authoritative sources or well-recognized brands
  • Engaging – being creative, interactive and entertaining without becoming distractions, and
  • Usable – being intuitive to navigate, easy to find and quick to download.

Creating sticky content is often easier said than done. Whereas content distribution has benefited greatly from the low cost of electronic channels, content creation is still a very costly process when done professionally, online or offline.

  • Content creation is labor intensive. Employing a pool of creativity and content development talents in-house to give content the desired breadth and depth would be cost-prohibitive for most website operators other than those for whom content creation is their mainstay business. Among the latter are media companies (e.g., record labels, movie studios, magazine and newspaper publishers, and broadcasters) and knowledge specialists (e.g., research centers and business consulting firms). They can easily tap into their rich libraries of content.
  • Keeping content current and well-organized is a full-time job for content creators and information specialists, not a part-time assignment for some busy marketers. Updating still involves some level of content creation. Even when little creativity efforts are required for the updated content, the updating process may not be easily automated.
  • It is unrealistic, even for leading media companies and knowledge specialists, to try being a credible source of content a wide range of topics. A major film studio may be considered as a credible source of content on entertainment but not necessarily so on related consumer electronics or home theater systems.

Content Syndication

Fortunately, not all Website content needs to be purposely created. Much of the content may have been created for other purposes and can therefore be sourced externally. The process of bringing together content from different external sources is known as content syndication.

Syndication involves the sale of the same goods to many customers who then integrate it with other offerings for redistribution. The practice is common in the world of publishing, broadcasting and entertainment where the goods are information-based. A talk-show host, for example, syndicates a radio program to many local stations across the nation. Syndication is particularly suitable for content because as information-based goods, content is never “consumed”. An infinite number of website visitors can view the same piece of information; by contrast, a piece of merchandise, say a car, that is bought by a customer is no longer available for purchase by other customers. When content is encoded in some industry-standard formats (e.g., mp3 music) it can be easily distributed via various websites and networks to a variety of hardware platforms (e.g., desktop PCs and wireless handheld devices). It can also be downloaded (in essence, duplicated) with minimal additional cost. Content syndication networks can therefore be formed, expanded and optimized far more quickly than possible in the world of physical goods (Werbach, 2000).

Content syndication consists of three distinct roles to be performed by different parties. One party may perform more than one role.

  • Originators create the content. They can be anyone, from little-known independent creative artists to giant media companies (e.g., Time Warner).
  • Syndicators bring together content from various sources and make it available through standard formats and contracts. Their services as an intermediary between content originators and content distributors free them from the complex task of finding and negotiating with each other directly. An example is YellowBrix. It syndicates 4000 content sources, including news media, trade publications and industry blogs, plus more than ten thousand company profiles, and makes them available in various categories by industries (e.g., health care, financial services or energy) and business needs (e.g., business intelligence, reputation management, and press and media monitoring). Another is LinkShare. It works with hundreds of retailers (originators) to provide a one-stop service (e.g., monitoring transactions, tracking, reporting and paying commissions) for thousands of websites working as marketing affiliates for these retailers.
  • Distributors deliver content to Web users. They are website operators who use the syndicated content to enhance the attraction of their sites as a part of their strategy toward some marketing objectives or as a value added-service to generate more web traffic and hence higher advertising revenues. Through syndication, they get access to readily available content and thus avoid the high cost of creating similar content on their own. For content distributors, syndication is a form of outsourcing. It transforms the availability of content from scarcity (due to website operators’ limited capability to develop own content) to abundance (thanks to access to external content sources).

Falling Short of Expectations

Has content proven to be king? More broadly, has the 3Cs model worked as being advertised? Since the burst of the Dotcom Bubble, the notion of “content is king” has encountered serious doubts and reservations. So has the 3Cs business model.

In the Web 1.0 era, the Achilles’ heel of content was its creative sources (primarily commercial) and distribution (essentially one-way media).  Web content was for the most part commercially developed content (CDC) — being created by professionals, paid for by companies or organizations, in the forms of virtual retail storefronts, product brochures and catalogs, online advertisements, press releases, corporate news, research reports, creative multimedia and games. It would be then distributed, in the broadcasting fashion, via “commercial” channels, e.g., corporate websites, media portals (e.g., Yahoo and MSN) and marketing e-mails. Consumers were relegated to a passive content consumption role.  For them, content creation and distribution were anything but user-friendly. At the minimum, consumers would need to be familiar with the hypertext markup language (html) and some digital graphic formats for building web pages, to acquire relatively expensive hardware and software tools for developing web pages and creative contents, paying for web hosting service, and so forth. Content contributions by them were therefore very limited, being confined mainly to providing seller/buyer and product/service ratings and evaluations at some leading retail websites (most notably eBay and Amazon).

There are serious problems with CDC under this environment.

  • With certain exceptions (e.g., news, weather information, financial market indices and stock prices), much of the CDC cannot be economically created and updated fast enough to be refreshing to frequent visitors. The cost of content creation by employing paid professionals has been high and is unlikely to decline sharply in the foreseeable future. Stickiness can be elusive.
  • The emphasis of CDC is often on generating website traffic, or attracting eye balls, rather than engaging visitors and customers. Without engaging customers, relationship building becomes impractical.
  • Being broadcasting in nature and non-engaging in emphasis, CDC tends to be interruptive to website viewing and irrelevant to the consumption experience. Trust is missing as a result. Not surprisingly, consumers trust commercial sources such as brand websites (70 percent), TV (62 percent), magazines (59 percent) and search engine result ads (41 percent) much less or no more than the people they know (90 percent) or other consumers’ opinions (70 percent) (Nielsen Company, 2009). To put it the other way, they trust information and recommendations from friends and strangers more than commercially generated content. Without trust, converting visits and interactions into transactions would be more challenging.
  • Overall, the notion of “content is king” tends to direct marketers’ attention toward content often at the expense of community and commerce elements. That weakens the effectiveness of the 3Cs model. The true value of content, from the marketing standpoint at least, lies not as much in the content itself as in its potential contributions to building communities and facilitating commerce.

Given these serious challenges, even leading media companies have not been successful in leveraging their vast libraries of content (e.g., movies, videos, TV shows, news and more) to sustain their online ventures. An example is NBC Interactive (NBCi), which was shut down in 2000 after losing $662 million during its existence of about one year. NBCi was created by the American TV network NBC as a web portal combining NBC.com and AccessHollywwod.com (content sites), Xoom.com (a community and e-commerce site) and Snap.com (a search engine site). Its vast content being created for conventional media lacked the essential interactive capabilities to turn itself into a vibrant community and a viable e-commerce site (Ackman, 2001; Kumar, 2001). Another example in the merger of America Online (AOL) and Time Warner, which failed to find the synergy between the power of a “walled garden” online community by the former and that of content by the latter.

In brief, content or more precisely CDC has struggled to fulfill the expectation of being king. Monarchy could only be supported at great costs that the kingdom often finds it difficult to make ends meet. Meanwhile, a revolution– the rise of social media and user-generated content (UGC) — is brewing. In my next post, I will revisit the notion of “content is king”, but this time with UGC instead.

References

  1. Ackman, D. (2001) “NBCi: The Proud Peacock’s Folly”, Forbes, (April 10), at: http://www.forbes.com/2001/04/10/0410nbci.html.
  2. Bailey, C. (2010) “Content is king by Bill Gates”, Craig Bailey Blog, (March 1), at: http://www.craigbailey.net/content-is-king-by-bill-gates/.
  3. Interactive Advertising Bureau (2008), AIB Platform Status Report: User Generated Content, Social Media, and Advertising — An Overview, (April), at: http://www.iab.net/media/file/2008_ugc_platform.pdf.
  4. Krishnamurthy, S. and Dou, W. (2008) “From the Guest Editors: Special Issue on Online User-Generated Content Advertising with User-Generated Content: A Framework and Research Agenda”, Journal of Interactive Advertising, (2), pp.  ??
  5. Kumar, A. (2001) “Short Life, Long Death of NBCi”, Wired Magazine, (April 12), at: http://www.wired.com/techbiz/media/news/2001/04/42964?currentPage=all.
  6. McKinsey & Company (1999), Superior Marketing in the Next Era of e-Commerce, McKinsey Marketing Practice.
  7. Nielsen Company (2009) “Global Advertising: Consumers Trust Real Friends and Virtual Strangers the Most”, NielsenWire, (July 7), at: http://blog.nielsen.com/nielsenwire/consumer/global-advertising-consumers-trust-real-friends-and-virtual-strangers-the-most/
  8. Kevin Werbach, “Syndication. The Emerging Model for Business in the Internet Era”, Harvard Business Review, May-June 2000, pp. 85-93.

Markets Are Conversations

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From Conversations to Monologues

In The Cluetrain Manifesto, Doc Searls and David Weinberger remind their readers that, for thousands of years, markets were conversations. These were places for exchange where buyers and sellers looked each other in the eye, met and connected. They spoke directly to each other without the filter of media, advertising and public relations. Customers talked among themselves about products and merchants, giving each other their recommendations. Words of mouth were a powerful tool of advertising.

Then came the Industrial Age and with it mass production, mass consumption and inevitably mass marketing. Ever since, market conversations have been interrupted. In their places are marketing messages that businesses push onto consumers. Marketing becomes a profession, an applied science, the engineering of desirable responses through the application of calibrated stimuli. A new metaphor, “business is war”, has taken hold. “We launch marketing campaigns based on strategies that target markets; we bombard people with messages in order to penetrate markets… Business-as-usual is in a constant state of war with the market, with the marketing department manning the front lines”. There is one big problem with this:  marketers are trying to do all the talking; but people do not ask for all these marketing messages and do their best to tune them out. All the sophisticated marketing research techniques and promotional tools have proven increasingly less effective. Marketers and consumers become disconnected from each other.

The video clip below — “The Break Up” — says it well. It is “a story of love gone wrong” — all she (the consumer) wants is genuine affection; all he (the advertiser) offers is loyalty reduction. A break-up is bound to happen.

Back to the Future

Once again the world is changing. The rise of the Internet and the proliferation of social media enabling users to create and contribute content and to network online have altered the balance of power in favor of consumers. These are not simply new channels for marketers to continue broadcasting their messages more widely and cheaply. Instead, they are new virtual spaces where people can gather around topics of interest to them, learn and talk about products, brands and their consumption experiences, and recommend directly to each other what to buy and what not.

The Cluetrain Manifesto proposes several dozens theses about the impacts of the Internet on markets and organizations. Among those is “markets are conversations”. The book was published in 1999, long before the proliferation of social media tools. Its theses were way ahead of their time. On the 10-year anniversary of the book, a 2009 video clip by Jacobsland Partners highlights some of the key theses.

Market conversations are back, but with one major difference this time: the marketspaces are highly networked. Because people are more widely connected online, their conversations can expand far and wide, spread from one forum to another easily, and get picked up by other media instantaneously. All of these can take place with or without participation from marketers.

Ignore Market Conversations at One’s Own Perils

Good, bad or ugly as these market conversations may be, their reach and impacts can be wide and serious. Ignoring them does not make them go away; and there is no realistic way of crowding them out with advertising blitz. Instead, participation in these conversations is often a smarter choice while keeping a distance and being silent can be a costly mistake. The experience of the leading computer maker Dell with Dell Hell serves as a vivid reminder of this. In June 2005, blogger Jeff Jarvis posted on his blog Buzzmachine (http://www.buzzmachine.com) his complaint, entitled Dell Hell, about the failure of Dell’s customer services to repair his laptop. It quickly attracted thousands of links, comments and emails from other aggrieved Dell customers, and became the third most linked-to post on the blogosphere in the following weeks (Gupta, 2005). At the time Dell had a “look, don’t touch” policy regarding blog commentaries in effect. So, it did not respond to this brewing negative publicity until Dell Hell received wide coverage in the mainstream media (including the New York Times, Slate, CNN, Business Week, etc.). By then, according to an analysis by Market Sentinel (2005), Dell had badly lost out to Buzzmachine and other blogs as the source of information on Dell’s customer services. Coincidentally or not, Dell’s sales growth stalled and profits fell. Eventually, Dell had to take a series of corrective actions, including the creation of a blog, known as Direct2Dell, to engage in candid conversations with its customers.

Be Authentic

Conversations occur in human voices as being from a person with authentic identity, a point of view and a passion, not a legal entity trying to deliver a message or keep them on message. They are two-way communications involving both listening and talking; they need to be authentic and transparent to gain the public trust. The goal is not to build a walled garden of content that hold consumers hostage to the marketer’s brand messages but rather to create a “public square” — a virtual meeting place where customers come back for the rich and engaging experience (Tapscott and Williams, 2006).  So, lighten up, loosen up and listen for a change. Only by presenting itself as a human face and by engaging its constituents (e.g., customers, suppliers and employees) in meaningful conversations can a company or institution have a fair chance of influencing consumer opinion. When frustrated customers launched a blog recounting the hours Jet Blue left them stranded on the tarmac during a snow storm, the carrier responded quickly, not with a traditional press release, but by posting on YouTube a video of an apology from its CEO. Its response received favorable and supportive comments and e-mails from thousands of customers (Eikelmann et al, 2007).

The price for not being authentic can be high. In September 2006, Working Families for Wal-Mart, an organization founded by the public relations firm Edelman, sponsored a couple for their trip by a recreational vehicle (RV) from Las Vegas to Georgia. The couple maintained a blog named Wal-Marting Across America where they wrote about the lives and stories they encountered on their journey, including the many employees who reportedly expressed their love of working for this giant retailer. The couple was real and they already had, prior to the sponsorship, a favorable view of Wal-Mart particularly for its policy of letting RVers park for free at its parking lots. However, the failure to disclose the sponsorship raised suspicion about the authenticity of this blog and led eventually to its exposure as a “flog” (or a fake blog) and plenty of uproars in the blogosphere (Gogoi, 2006). Subsequently, the president and CEO of Edelman had to apologize publicly for its failure to be transparent about the identity of the two bloggers (Siebert, 2006).

Have Thick Skin

Joining a conversation takes much more than simply adding social media to the marketing communication tool set. It also means embracing a new management mindset — ceding control in order to build relationships (Li, 2004). This can be a challenging and risky move for marketers who accustomed to controlling their messages through one-way broadcasting media. The publicity surrounding GM/Apprentice advertising campaign underscores the potential risk of ceding such control. In 2006, GM launched a promotional web site in partnership with NBC’s “The Apprentice” to offer consumers a chance to create their own advertisements for the Chevy Tahoe SUV (sport-utility vehicle). Environmental activists, consumer safety advocates and many anti-SUV consumers quickly seized on the opportunity to create many advertisements that slammed on the Tahoe for its adverse impacts. These videos quickly found their way onto YouTube. GM management was slow to respond to these negative advertisements at first but later decided to face these head-on, trying to clarify the facts (e.g., pointing out that the Tahoe outperformed other competing SUVs on fuel economy, safety ratings and engine emission) and to put a positive spin on the whole campaign. Writing on GM FastLane blog, Chevrolet General Manager claimed GM management had expected this sort of campaign would not come without risks but “adopted a position of openness and transparency, and decided that we would welcome the debate… In our opinion, this has been one of the most creative and successful promotions we have done. And we invite you back to the final ‘Board Room’ as we select the winning entry.” (Peper, 2006).

Loosen up Control or Lose Control

While the risk of ceding control on marketing messages is real, the ability to control such messages has been sharply reduced, if not totally eliminated, by the rise of social media anyway. In the age of user-generated content (UGC), there is little that marketers can do to prevent or stop consumer from posting and spreading messages, negative or otherwise, about their brands. By embracing social media, instead of rejecting or ignoring them, marketers can at least become part of the conversations and be better placed to shape consumer perceptions. Not all was lost for GM in the GM/Apprentice campaign, according to Charlene Li of Forrester Research (2006). “By losing control over the brand experience, Chevy actually brought more people into it — witness the debate over the campaign itself. The environmental and SUV fuel economy debate has always existed outside of the Chevy experience, but by bringing it into chevyapprentice.com, Chevy has harnessed it into a promotional benefit”. The key lesson is “…in the social computing arena, you [marketers] have got to have thick skin and be ready to engage in the messy world of your customer’s opinions. Marketers that have the guts to turn over their brand to the public will in the end win over their customers.”

Social Media: More “Social” than “Media”

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Social media has become an important marketing tool. It is difficult nowadays to discuss about marketing and advertising without discussing about social media. Much has been written about social media in the trade press and more recently also in academic journals. Few efforts have been made to define or clarify what social media is, however. More are needed. Definitions and classifications are an essential step in studying any emerging field.

Among those defining social media, a majority focuses on its user-generated content (UGC) dimension. Below are some examples.

This form of media ‘‘describes a variety of new sources of online information that are created, initiated, circulated and used by consumers intent on educating each other about products, brands, services, personalities, and issues’’ (Blackshaw & Nazzaro, 2004, p. 2).

“Social Media is a group of Internet-based applications that build on the ideological and technological foundations of Web 2.0, and that allow the creation and exchange of User Generated Content” (Kaplan and Haenlein, 2010) .

“Social media describes online resources that people use to share ‘content’: video, photos, images, text, ideas, insight, humour, opinion, gossip, news — the list goes on” (Drury, 2008).

Some Are More “Media-like” Than Others

While being different, the definitions above all focus on the content element. This focus is apparently rooted in the traditional understanding of the term “media”. Its singular form, “medium”, refers to an “intervening agency, means, or instrument” and was first applied to newspapers to denote a means of communication. Over the years, the term “media” has been used more commonly as a singular noun that refers collectively to the means of mass communication. In that sense, it is closely associated with the delivery of content of one kind or another, be it news, ads, information or entertainment.

There are a few popular tools and applications that are widely considered as social media although for them content generation is only peripheral. One such tool is online social networks (OSNs) such as LinkedIn and Facebook the primary focus of which is on connecting users with “friends”. The scope of social media therefore needs to be broadened beyond the content dimension, which underlies the term media in the traditional sense. Dan Hollings (2008) offers a very interesting definition of social media by stringing together examples of social media tools and sites, in a creative way “like you’ve never seen before!”

“Learning to Digg, Backflip, or Furl might sound less than Delicious, until you Ask for a spoonful of RawSugar and a quick Wink from Mister Wong, the Frappr, who’s taken a StumbleUpon a Flock of Magnolia after a Spurl last night at the LinkaGoGo, and suddenly your site becomes Mashable on the Newsvine, where, as fast as you can say Blinklist, all the world will Digg by iPhone your Facebook on MySpace before you quickly Squidoo over to YouTube for 43 Things you must Flickr with before you’re forced to Reddit again, plus get Linkedin while praying to the Gods of Twitter that one day you’ll “get” what the Technorati all this social media stuff means.”

This is not exactly a definition because it lacks a precise statement of what the term social media means. But its use of a large number of social media, quite diverse in their focus, successfully highlights that social media tools are not necessarily media in the traditional sense. Some are content-centric (e.g., blogs), some are not (e.g., OSNs) although they all produce some forms of user-generated content (UGC).

Take OSNs. Their raison d’être is to enable people to connect with each other. On OSN sites such as Facebook, personal profiles enable users to project an identity and to connect with others. On OSN sites such as 43things.com, users list a number of  goals and hopes (e.g., “lose 12 pounds”, “travel to Greece”, and “be more confident”) that enables them to get connected with other users whose goals are constructed with similar words or ideas. User profiles, goals and hopes are a form of UGC; they are key to users’ ability to connect with each other but they are not the raison d’être for these OSN sites.

Take wikis. Like blogs, their outputs are essentially content. However, whereas blog posts contain the unedited, opinionated voice of one person, wiki pages embody the collective efforts of multiple users and reflect a generally agreed-upon view. It is the ability to facilitate group collaboration and to harness the collective intelligence that distinguishes wiki pages from blog posts.

Or take social search, ratings and evaluation sites. While their focus is on content, their added value is in harnessing the collective intelligence of users for content discovery. StumbleUpon, for example, enables users to “stumble upon” content pages found and recommended by friends or like-minded users. Digg lets users vote up or down on news stories, thus letting most “Dugg” stories rising to the top (appearing on the front page).

Essentially, social media encompasses a wide range of tools. Some tools such as wikis can be characterized as collaboration-centric, others like blogs as content-centric and still others like OSNs as connection-centric. In the traditional sense of media as a means of conveying content, some social media tools are therefore much more “media-like” than others. Regardless, they “help accelerate and improve our ability to connect, communicate, and collaborate” (Morecroft et al, 2009). In such roles, they all are social.

All Are Social

Social media taps into our basic human instincts to converse, connect and co-create. Blogs are maintained mostly by individual users. Through comments from other users and hyperlinks to/from other blogs, they can turn into running conversations or even passionate debates. The blogosphere – the universe of all blogs and their interconnections – has therefore been likened to the world’s biggest coffeehouse (Tapscott, 2006).  Like a coffeehouse, the blogosphere can be full of noise – so many voices expressing many opinions. Thankfully, social ratings and recommendations on such sites as Technorati, and content syndication act as a filtering system that let users easily find the content relevant to their interests. Even bookmarking can be a social act rather than an “isolated” act by individual users. Users can store their bookmarks online at sites such as Delicious.com and Furl.net for convenient access from any computers connected to the Internet. They can make these bookmarks accessible to the public. In so doing they can add to, and benefit from, the collective intelligence of all users even though they bookmark primarily for their personal use rather than for the collective benefit of all (Golder and Huberman, 2006).

Consumer Empowerment

The rise of social media has altered the balance of power between institutions and individual users, and between marketers and consumers. The ease with which consumers can generate and distribute content through such media as blogs, podcasts, and photo and video sharing means that marketers are no longer the only ones doing the talking while consumers doing the listening — passive recipients of carefully managed marketing messages. Consumers now can initiate and maintain conversations among themselves about the brands and their consumption experience with or without marketers’ participation or even awareness. They can also collaborate with one another to create new knowledge, provide customer-to-customer supports, filter information and assist others with search. They can also easily connect with one another and through social networks to share information, spread viral messages, or get organize from the ground up. In brief, social media is all about empowerment through user content generation, mass collaboration and social networking.

Employee Empowerment

Empowerment should not be limited to the consumer side. In an environment where a derogatory YouTube video or an angry tweet can derail a marketing campaign or damage brand reputation, companies must be pro-active, not just reactive to or worse passive about such a possibility. They may want to empower resourceful employees to enter into dialogues with customers, using social media tools, so as to spot problems and help the latter find solutions, but to do so within a safe framework. This means aligning the actions of these highly empowered and resourceful operatives (HEROes) with corporate strategy and in compliance with security, legal and other corporate policies. In return, the HEROes need support from management and the IT department. Management must communicate their openness to innovations by employees and willingness to accept failures. As for the IT department, it is traditionally far removed from customers and typically lacks the budget and staff for “on-the-fly” projects. Supporting seemingly chaotic HERO-type projects often means that the IT department may need to go against its culture of keeping technology locked down and under tight control (Bernoff and Chadler, 2010).

Social Media Defined

New media tools continue to pop up; some will catch on and spread widely (e.g., Twitter). The media landscape is likely to shift continually. Meanwhile empowerment is what differentiates social media from the traditional media. A definition of the term social media should therefore center on the “social” dimension (i.e., user empowerment) rather than the “media” dimension (i.e., content generation and delivery).

“Social media are network-based tools and applications that empower individual users (e.g., consumers and employees) by enabling them to create and distribute content with ease, collaborate and connect with each other in a suitable fashion of their own choosing (as opposed to managerial dictate) so as, in marketing context, to enrich the consumption experience, build relationships and strengthen brand loyalty”.

In a future post, I will offer a classification of social media tools.

Notes

  1. Bernoff, J. and Chadler, T. (2010) “Empowered”, Harvard Business Review, 88(07), 95-101.
  2. Blackshaw, P. and Nazzaro, M. (2004). “Consumer-Generated Media (CGM) 101: Word-of-mouth in the age of the Web fortified consumer”, at http://www.nielsenbuzzmetrics.com/whitepapers (accessed: December 11, 2008).
  3. Drury, G. (2008) “Opinion piece: Social media: Should marketers engage and how can it be done effectively?” Journal of Direct, Data and Digital Marketing Practice, 9(3), 274-277.
  4. Hollings, D. (2008) “Social Media defined –Like You’ve Never seen Before!” (August 11), at: http://danhollings.posterous.com/social-media-defined-like-youv.
  5. Kaplan, A.M. and Haenlein, M. (2010) “Users of the world, unite! The challenges and opportunities of Social Media”, Business Horizon, 53(1), 59-68.
  6. Morecroft, A.L., Marr, J.A. and Kassotakis, M.E. (2009), Social Media at Work: How Networking Tools Propel Organizational Performance, Jossey-Bass Publication.