Where is Consumer Generated Marketing Taking Us?
There is a kind of "always on" communication system shaping up between the most committed of tech-minded users and those who supply them. Is the close monitoring of developing trends always in our best interests as marketers and customers?
Consumer generated marketing is a fact of life to which all of us will have to adapt. Adaptation means learning how to use CGM to provide one form of input in fashioning product and marketing decisions. Those are the messages from respondents to this month's column, who seemed to treat what some might think is the most revolutionary concept in marketing to come along in a long time in a very matter-of-fact way.
Bob Nemens commented, "Traditional marketers may be quick to dismiss Internet chatter as coming from the 'uninformed.' ... If Thomas Edison had been given the option at the time, I bet he would have spent significant time on the online underground." Fernando Polo dismissed the potential pitfalls of bias caused by listening only to outspoken users of the Internet by saying, "Excuses such as 'listening to the wrong complaints' are just that: excuses. Text-mining technologies can now help companies listen to their customers better than ever... My advice: 'Don't let your competitors listen to your clients; do it yourself first.'" Andrea Learned pointed out, "Eventually, those slightly later adopters and less-active types will join in to make blogs a more representative discussion vehicle... The same will likely happen in the consumer generated marketing realm when slightly later-to-adopt consumers realize how much they can influence manufacturers...."
The proper role of CGM was a source of some comment. In particular, the findings of a study cited in the column that associated companies utilizing mechanisms for paying attention to "emerging customers" with the fostering of "disruptive technologies" raised some eyebrows. As Christophe Meili put it, "I'm surprised that consumer generated marketing would foster disruptive innovation. I was under the impression that ... true disruption would be generated less by popular demand than by hard radical thinking." Flavius Chircu suggested that if we regard consumer generated marketing as "something akin to the other party in a dialogue ... (it) becomes a source of incremental improvements whereas anything revolutionary could only come during the 'breaks' in the dialogue." And Caleb DeGrenier commented that "companies still need to surprise the market with innovative products that no single customer would have thought of."
This brings us full cycle to some of our original questions about consumer generated marketing. Is it really something "new under the sun"? Is it, for marketers, a disruptive technology in its own right, something offering decision makers more for less (or, more accurately reflecting the definition of a disruptive technology, less for a lot less)? Or is it something to be regarded as providing just one of several important inputs to future product development and marketing decisions involving primarily non-disruptive technologies? Does chatter matter? And how much? What do you think?
About fifteen years ago, an academic friend from France noticed the impact of Minitel on French consumer behavior. He noted that consumers were increasingly using the pathbreaking electronic directory created by France Telecom to drive, not respond to, elements of marketing strategy such as product development, advertising, and pricing. His presentation of his observations to his American counterparts was met with only a modest level of interest.
Fast forward fifteen years. Tens of thousands of "newsgroups" and discussion boards on the Internet have spawned millions of bloggers who speak in both whispers and shouts. Combined with the low cost of Web site and even crude advertising design, inhabitants of the Web can achieve wonders in creating and broadcasting a wide range of messages. These range from campaigns for or against public figures to ads highlighting the high cost of replacing iPod batteries (since corrected). The newsgroups, discussion boards, and blogs may contain the seeds of ideas and notions about cutting-edge behaviors suggestive of everything from future business opportunities to social and political trends.
Two new studies suggest the impact of this behavior on the nature of what may be going on in the minds of marketers. In one, Vijay Govindarajan and Praveen Kopalle conclude that established companies that have created a mechanism for paying attention to "emerging customers" are more likely to foster "disruptive technologies" (i.e., cellular telephony) as opposed to those technologies that are merely "radical" (i.e., cordless telephones—innovations that enhance and sustain, not disrupt, existing technologies and products).
A second study by Eric von Hippel concludes that manufacturers increasingly rely on users for new product development, design, and distribution. His particular interest is in how products can be designed and distributed to elicit user-driven development through such methods as "open sourcing" and interactive Web sites that effectively involve users in engineering. The result is a fuzzing of the boundaries between a company and some of the users of its products and services.
There is a kind of "always on" communication system shaping up between the most outspoken and committed of the tech-minded users and those that supply them. We might term it "consumer generated marketing." Is it time to ask ourselves whether these trends are always in our best interests as marketers and customers? Is it possible to be too well connected with one segment of customers? Is there a danger among marketers and more generally the media of paying too much attention to the Internet-savvy early adopters and activists and too little to other early adopters that tend to keep their behaviors and ideas to themselves? Might marketers be too sensitive to Internet prompts, responding too rapidly on the basis of noise as opposed to truly developing trends? What do you think?
Note: The term "consumer generated marketing" is derived from a term, "consumer-generated media," coined by Pete Blackshaw, chief marketing officer of Intelliseek, an Internet-based consumer feedback provider. In the interest of full disclosure, I am a director of Intelliseek.