The web has evolved into a billion soap boxes where people can gather and discuss, rant, plot or chat about their passions and problems. Naturally, some of the chit-chat is about companies and their products and services - positive or otherwise. The question is how do companies best react to this mass online critique? In many ways, there’s nothing new here. Marketing folk have always kept an ear to the ground and taken the views of their customers seriously. Focus groups are now so prevalent that almost nothing escapes the confines of MegaCorp without going through a few rounds of such scrutiny. So what’s the big fuss? People used to chat away to each other and are now they are doing the same thing on blogs and online communities. The difference, of course, is that today we also have Google. And a million other aggregation tools and review sites, such as Trip Advisor. It’s not that we can talk to each other, it’s that we can find out what everyone else thinks. The social web has created a share-and-compare economy - where traded opinion affects purchase decisions. And unlike the wider economy this one is growing. In fact, a McKinsey report this summer noted that : “25 per cent of Western Europe’s Internet users now post comments and reviews about consumer products of all kinds. User generated media sites are growing in numbers of visitors and participants by 100 per cent a year, traditional sites by perhaps 20 to 30 per cent.” One area that has become more popular as a result of this new environment is Co-Creation – the idea that innovation and ideas can be discovered by...
...engaging with these new networks of advocates, critics and bright sparks. Sometimes this approach, evangelised by esteemed groups such as MIT and Harvard Business School, suggests the world has been turned on its head. Sometimes it just all seems like common sense. However, some powerful case studies have driven the concept onto the marketing agenda.
In my experience companies and organisations find co-creation and the idea that innovative thoughts about their product, category or sector are spinning around the web, very exciting. The whole area can seem so energised, particularly when compared to tired, sterile research processes or groups. But it's not as straightforward as it seems.
A few years ago a car company asked me to look into this burgeoning online world and to summarise what people were saying about its vehicles and brands. Almost as an afterthought, they asked if I could pay particular attention to a specific demographic and what their opinions were about the design aspects of one car in particular. And this, as I discovered, is where things can get tricky.
My immersion into the relevant areas of the social web showed that almost no one was ‘on brief’. There were plenty of people talking about why they loved the car in question, what they did with it and why. But (literally) none of them were from the specified demographic. There was no shortage of material and there were plenty of insights. They were just the wrong ones. Many of the stories were about how the car gave their owners access to a powerful social circle which defined their lives. So far so good. The 'surprise' was that the defining characteristic of this group was a shared enjoyment of late night ‘donutting’ around supermarket car parks. Not exactly what the brand team had in mind for their mood boards.
So what do you do when the web doesn’t reveal wonderful notions and immediately executable ideas leading to valuable brand extensions? What happens when a company holds up its valuable brand asset to the mirror of the public web only to see an unfamiliar image staring back?
I certainly don’t have all the answers but one observation is that the nature of the engagement with the blogosphere and other networked media is different. So you may not already have the briefing template. Eric Schmidt, Google’s Grand-Fromage, puts it well: “The old saying is no one knows you're a dog on the Internet, that you can't tell the size of the organization, and so suddenly the Internet levels playing fields in many ways—distribution, branding, money, and access. But it has a lot of other implications for the way corporations operate. They can't be as controlling. They have to let information out. They have to listen to customers, because customers are talking to them. And if they don't, their competitor will. So there's a long list of reasons why a more transparent company is a better organization.”
My personal starting point is that you either think the share-and-compare economy is significant and here for the long-term - or you don’t. If it's the former, the answer is quite straightforward. Address the issues. Commit to understanding what’s going on and bring an open mind to the opportunities as well as the challenges. Crucially, find someone in your company who cares. However, if you think that it’s all going to disappear or is largely irrelevant, just carry on as though nothing has changed.