Consumer Generated Media & Word of Mouth Marketing

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by: Josh Hawkins

"The mass do not now take their opinions from dignitaries in Church or State, from ostensible leaders, or from books. Their thinking is done for them by men much like themselves, addressing or speaking in their name, on the spur of the moment…" -John Stuart Mill (1859), On Liberty

Mill's quote perfectly captures the modern predicament for marketing in a fragmented, and self-selected, media environment. Consumers don't trust media, business, or advertising; they do trust their peers. Moreover, consumers are empowered to not only access media perfectly aligned with niche interests, but they can actually shape brand messaging through blogs, forums, review websites, peer-to-peer and social networks. Intelliseek has an overview and graphic that captures this dynamic:

I keep coming back to this because so many people ask what the blog "market segment" looks like. It's perfectly reasonable to provide statistics: 32 million blog readers, 57% male, 43% female, 48% under the age of 30, 52% are over 30, 70% of blogger have broadband, 12% post comments, 5% use RSS readers, etc. (from the Pew Internet & American Life Project).

On the other hand, these statistics fail to capture the fundamental impact consumer-generated media is having on brand management and marketing. There is a fast-growing layer of content sandwiched between "official" brand messaging and consumers seeking information about products and services. In other words, when consumers search for information, they are intercepted by blogs, reviews in Amazon, eBay, CNET, MSN and Yahoo! groups, The list goes on. In this context, the question should be, How do we facilitate authentic conversations with customers? And, what's the best way to invite customer evangelists into the inner circle to help co-create marketing messages in their vernacular?

Back in the 1940s, political sociologists talked a lot about media effects in terms of a "two-step flow." Information is filtered through opinion leaders and out through interpersonal networks. This theory stands opposed to what is sometimes called the "injection theory" of media effects, where advertising and media exposure directly influence opinion. In today's media environment, it's all about the two-step flow, or in today's parlance, "word of mouth." Brand managers and marketing professionals can no longer count on immutable impressions, but must embrace ambivalence. The new directive: focus your efforts towards building branded communities, or affinity groups, that extend and articulate brand messaging in a way that's authentic and participatory.

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