Speak to the Brand

[This piece originally ran as part of my Mythbuster series in MediaPost Magazine]

Stop reading this. Sorry to kick things off so abruptly, but I needed a disclaimer that allows me to respond with “I told you so” for the duration of this column’s existence. This is the first installment in a quarterly series, and is intended to serve as a contrast to articles elsewhere that either deal in superlatives, or treat readers like industry tourists. Frankly, I’m tired of those. I imagine you might be too. My goal is to address those unfortunate industry tenets that seem to pop up continually and gain momentum, even though they deteriorate our collective work. But first, here are some ground rules:

>> I won’t tell you any medium is “dead,” or worse, claim you think a medium is dead.

>> I’ll be specific about what needs to be approached differently now that our industry is changing at a faster rate than ever. Saying “things need to change” is the journalistic equivalent of saying “be careful” to someone who just fell down an elevator shaft. You’re a professional looking for insights – I’ll address you as such.

>> No references to John Wanamaker’s famous quote; not because I don’t like it but, let’s face it, we got it already.

And one last rule: I won’t write about any more rules.

>> I Am Consumer, Hear Me Generate. Let’s talk about consumer-generated content (CGC). CGC isn’t a trend that’s going away, nor should it. In a world shifting toward consumer empowerment, it’s reasonable to assume consumers want to create content. At first glance, it also makes sense that they can be brand advocates in a way no advertiser could with credibility.

Too bad it’s not true.

Not true for most consumers anyway. The biggest issue with the way most brands deal with CGC is that it happens at the expense of what they do best, which is delivering messages across multiple channels in an integrated way. Let’s address a few facts that get swept under the rug as brands hop on the CGC bandwagon:

>> A microscopic number of Internet users actually generate public content about anything other than themselves.

>> The novelty of “Hey, this was made by a guy like me” wore thin long ago. People consume whatever content is best, regardless of who made it.

>> Few brands have the base of über-passionate consumers that warrants creating a marketing program around what these people are saying. (Sergey and Steve, feel free to stop reading.)

>> Consumer Potential Lies in Ideas, Not Just MySpace Pages. Most brands approach CGC as a promotional vehicle. This fails to tap into CGC’s potential. It assumes consumers’ passion for something they created will drive a significant aggregate audience because it’s (pause here for effect) viral. But the average consumer just doesn’t have the network of friends, and friends of friends, to drive such an audience. But wait – most brands have the means to activate an audience. They have production budgets, media plans, and dedicated talent for doing just that. What is it they can’t get enough of, then? Content.

This is where CGC has infinite potential for a brand. Instead of letting consumers make content and hoping they distribute it, why not let those who choose to do so speak directly to the brand? If, indeed, we live in an age where most brands get that two-way communication with consumers is necessary, this dialogue is exactly where we should let consumers be creators. They have brand ideas? Creative ideas? Product ideas? Great, great, and great! As brand experts, we’ll hear them out. If, and only if, it leads to content that’s better than what’s already being created, we can and should use it.

CGC is a way to create better messages, conduct R&D, and improve engagement for little cost. This is real consumer empowerment: our resources behind their content because it’s better, not just because it’s theirs. Some will ask, “Who are we to say what’s better?” Well, that’s exactly who we are. It’s what we get paid to do. It’s how we ensure that most of our audience, not just those who are easiest to talk to, is relevantly engaged.

As an industry, let’s couple our skills and resources with those of consumers, not forgo one at the expense of the other. Now that’s an idea that’s-ahem-viral.

Saneel Radia is vice president/group director of Play, a division of Publicis Groupe’s Denuo.

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