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Are consumers the new brand managers?

Alex White takes a look at issues of trust and reputation in the era of Web 2.0.

Recent research from Booz Allen Hamilton has found that 41 per cent of UK internet users currently access Web 2.0 sites such as YouTube, MySpace and Facebook, and that this figure is set to increase. The management consultancy claimed that companies will need to take advantage of the social networking and video driven developments of Web 2.0 in order to win customers.

“Web 2.0 has already reached a critical mass - companies must now adapt to the new paradigm. The need to evolve existing business models by integrating the Web 2.0 environment is urgent,” said Booz Allen’s Dr Uwe Lambrette.

This provides them with a tremendous power and opportunity to alter the perception of brands to other consumers which marketers and media owners would be unwise to ignore.

Simon Waldman, chairman of the AOP and group director of digital strategy and development for Guardian Media Group, spoke of the importance of trust between brands and their consumer at a House of Commons debate recently.

“In the online age, consumers are the new brand managers,” he claimed, arguing that the management of brand was "irreversibly shifting" into the hands of the consumer. He explained that in a connected society, with the developments of Web 2.0 and the increased geographical reach of broadband, the consumer no longer has an individual one-way interface with the supplier; no longer does the advertiser speak to the consumer in a one–directional communication.

The consumer has become an empowered consumer, with the opportunity to talk back, not just in response to a supplier’s product or service but also to other like-minded consumers, creating a collective “we”.

He described the way consumers are scrutinising brands, sharing their opinions in a free and fast growing network of users. He explained that this electronic network is becoming increasingly trusted by the consumer and is becoming such a powerful resource that it is shaping and managing the world’s brands.

Media agencies are becoming only too aware of the risks and opportunities this creates for brands, and expect publishers to adapt their businesses in response.

Andrew Swinand, president and chief client officer of Starcom USA argued at PPA Marketing’s advertising conference held last October that publishers need to develop their business models “to ensure that their content is liquid and remains core to consumer lifestyles as we move from an age of information to an age of participation”.

Highlighting the need for brands to enter a two-way dialogue with consumers and the importance of a breakdown in traditional media silos, he stressed that “content has to be the focus. It has to be even more engaging and relevant. The channel is secondary”.

There is much talk across both the print and online contingents of the media industry about the battle for consumer engagement these days. While the web versions of magazines are seen by users as more convenient than their print parents, magazines are generally seen as being more satisfying than their online counterparts, according to research from AOP.

But, as online becomes more of an entertainment medium, powered by the growth of broadband and user-generated content, especially video, the amount of time spent online is only likely to increase, particularly among young adults.

Ofcom’s Communications Market report of 2006 found that more than half of 16-24s use websites where they can chat with people they know or contact people they have lost touch at least weekly.

User-generated content websites such as MySpace, YouTube and Bebo now enjoy the attention of an average 79.9 minutes per visitor, compared to an average of 33.2 minutes per visitor for the non-user-generated websites in the UK top 50, according to ComScore.

No wonder, then, that digital publishers are seeing an opportunity to build communities around their content, as a means to fostering loyalty and increasing their sites’ ‘stickiness’.

User-evaluated content has joined user-generated content as a powerful trend. Wikipedia is already the ninth most visited website in the UK. Set up in 2001, it was judged by Science Journal in 2005 to be as accurate as the Encyclopedia Britannica.

So with the emergence of these huge global players in the social networking market, should publishers be preparing themselves for huge losses in revenues as consumers ignore the views of editors and journalists in favour of likeminded individuals they’ve never met but whose opinions they trust?

Digital publishers should not lose sight of the fact that professional editorial (or ‘head’ content) remains their “centre of gravity”, and is the main reason why users want to be part of their community in the first place, according to Suzie Daniels, head of business media for CNET Networks which publishes ZDNet, Silicon.com, Builder UK and Atlarge.com, speaking at an AOP event in January.

Daniels described how CNET Networks had based the recent relaunch of ZDNet on principles of Architected Participation espoused by web 2.0 guru Tim O’Reilly: aiming to engage the thought leaders and influencers within the user community.

She described the process of change management involved in redeveloping the site for user-generated content, particularly the importance of getting the editors and journalists on board: “As a digital-only publisher, our main investments are in technology and people. And if you get the people bit wrong, you have no business!”

ZDNet editors are expected to blog on the site as a matter of course, and are not allowed to hide behind the brand but are required to use their real names: “Users expect transparency and honesty,” she said.

Daniels has hit the nail on the head: consumers are tired of the spin, they don’t want to be managed or told what to think; the consumer is deciding where they feel most comfortable.

Perhaps today’s biggest challenge for media owners and agencies is to make consumers feel comfortable spending time with their brands.

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