Everyone wants their 15 megs of fame

It's a force to be reckoned with - and it's either a marketer's worst nightmare or their new best buddy. Whether it's called consumer-generated media (CGM) or user-generated content (UGC), it means the customer is no longer simply king, she is the publisher and broadcaster who controls the future of your brand and the judge and jury who delivers the verdict.

It’s a force to be reckoned with – and it’s either a marketer’s worst nightmare or their new best buddy. Whether it’s called consumer-generated media (CGM) or user-generated content (UGC), it means the customer is no longer simply king, she is the publisher and broadcaster who controls the future of your brand and the judge and jury who delivers the verdict.

With blogs, chat rooms, podcasts, YouTube, and a myriad of social networking such as MySpace in the mix, CGM is stealing fire from traditional media and ads.

Until recently, marketers have shied away from CGM because they had no control over content that was often racy – and while everyone has the utmost confidence in their brand, it doesn’t always extend to what the great unwashed might say about it online.

Obviously that was a problem for some of the sites as well. Even with its immense following, video-sharing site YouTube had a hard time attracting ads. It found a solution to some of the unease when it countered copyright concerns in early October by signing an agreement with CBS, Showtime and CSTV Networks in the U.S. to host their video clips and split the ad revenue. YouTube has a similar deal with Sony BMG and Universal Music Group for music videos. This is all good news for Google, which bought YouTube last month for more than US$1.6 billion.

‘You cannot ignore the consumer-generated revolution. This is not five people peer-to-peer sharing, it has a mass momentum that is unstoppable,’ says Paul Woolmington, founding partner of Naked Communications of NYC. ‘Marketers think they’re in control because they’re creating advertising and pushing it out to consumers. But that same consumer could be writing a blog about a product. So are the marketers in control? No.’

Woolmington explains it as everyone still wanting their 15 minutes of fame – only now repackaged as their 15 megs of fame.

Enter almost any major brand name into a search engine and you get a list of thousands, or even millions, of sites – only a fraction of which are controlled by the brand in question. Enter a brand name and the word ‘blogs’ and you will find out how the public truly feels about your product.

So how can a marketer hitch a ride on this wave? One route is the quasi-CGM model, wherein brands invite consumers to co-create but attempt to have some control parameters on the participation. Companies such as Coca-Cola, American Express, Levi’s and McDonald’s have invited online video and photo submissions as part of contests. In Canada, Unilever has just invited consumers to ‘Be Famous For Your Food’ by submitting their recipes online for cooking with Hellmann’s mayonnaise for a chance to be profiled in one of its TV commercials.

Although the global Hellmann’s account was consolidated with Ogilvy & Mather New York in June, the ‘Be Famous For Your Food’ campaign was conceived and created by Zig in Toronto. Shelley Brown, director of strategic planning for the agency, says the decision to invite consumers to participate came out of the ‘Be Famous For Your Food’ creative idea.

‘The strategy we were pursuing was to get people to look at Hellmann’s not simply as something they put on their food but as something to cook with. On a small scale, it’s to make your friends appreciate your cooking and that led us to the next level, making people famous in a bigger way and letting them be known to everybody as someone who can really cook.’

Another safety-driven strategy is the corporate blog. About 6% of Fortune 500 companies are currently writing blogs says Sean Moffitt, founder of Toronto WOM marketing company Agent Wildfire Strategy & Communications, mostly tech and electronics cos. General Motors, Microsoft, and several other tech firms, including Sun Microsystems, are involved in blogging through their own sites to build relationships with their consumers.

Of the more than 68 million hits you get when searching for Microsoft blogs, thousands of them are Microsoft-sanctioned at microsoft.com/communities/blogs where employees are encouraged to post blogs about the company’s technology and software. These blogs act as a counterweight to the truckload of less-than-flattering UGC that is out there, and give readers a sense of community along with tips, inside info and sneak peaks at upcoming products. Visitors can also interact with the bloggers and download beta test versions of new software.

Over at General Motors, which has the corporate blog with the highest traffic (no pun intended), GM execs from around the world – including Bob Lutz, GM vice-chairman – wax poetic on topics such as NASCAR racing, new car design, and the Paris auto show at fastlane.gmblogs.com.

When it comes to blogs, marketers need to be upfront about who they are or risk alienating consumers, Woolmington says. Rather than having a copywriter or employee infiltrate the blog, recruit from the core audience, don’t use marketing jargon, and contribute to the conversation rather than interrupting it. For one of Naked’s clients, the shop is going to take a slightly different tack in a number of blogs around different communities of interest.

Woolmington says: ‘We’ve identified that the competitor has very obviously been blogging on sites, but faking it and has been called out a number of times. What we’re going to do is go in and be honest about who we are – and start calling the competitor out on it. We’re going to do it in a very humorous way and with a very simple message. It’s an interesting concept and I think it will be very authentic.’

Wal-Mart is one marketer who can attest to the need to be genuine. Last month, Wal-Mart USA closed down The Hub (schoolyourway.walmart.com) saying it was simply a short-term back-to-school effort although the fact that the social-networking site targeting kids and tweens was labeled a loser right out of the gate likely influenced the decision. Its problem was profiles of teenyboppers enthusing about Wal-Mart product did not come across as authentic. Undeterred, Wal-Mart misfired once again with a blog launched at the end of September called Wal-Marting Across America. The supposed chronicles of an average couple traveling across the country in their RV was exposed as a promotional tactic featuring journalists hired by the retailer’s PR firm.

It’s the true UGC blogs that will make even the most cynical believe there is something powerful in all of this, says Moffitt, pointing to sites like positivefanatics.com, about Ikea, and starbuckseverywhere.net, by a guy who has gone to 3,000 Starbucks around the world.

In Canada, one of the busiest blogs is a photo-sharing site called DailyDoseofImagery (wvs.toleftpixel.com) run by a Toronto-based photographer who posts one photo chronicling his experience each day. The blogger has no brand stance although it is sponsored by consumer electronics site DigitalAdvisor.com and camera site DigitalCamera-HQ.com.

Tapping into the enthusiast crowd and giving them a place to congregate is a smart move for brands that have the right following. Examples include group or club sites such as the Savvy Reader program from book publisher Harper Collins (harpercollins.ca) or the Running Room, a retailer with a community-based site (runningroom.com) that boasts about 225,000 subscribers across Canada.

On the flip side are the unruly masses who are roaming unfettered through the Internet, messing with your IP, playing mash-up with your brand, and developing new uses for your core assets – sometimes for good, sometimes for evil. While instinct dictates leaping into damage control mode when it’s the latter, and milking it when it’s the former, it is again a question of influence, not control, and ideally, a chance to learn.

Earlier this year the Extreme Diet Coke & Mentos Experiment (eepybird.com/dcm1.html), showing the artistic rocketing results of combining 200 litres of Diet Coke and 523 Mentos mints, was viewed on computers around the world. It has inspired thousands of copycat postings (roughly 5,000 of them on YouTube) and prompted both Mentos (us.mentos.com) and Coca-Cola (coke.com, cocacola.com, mycoke.com) to enter the UGC arena and solicit and post videos from the public.

Since then every brand wants to go viral, says Kevin Hung, IP manager at Starcom Worldwide in Toronto, but it’s the public not a marketer that decides what is worthy of that type of widespread attention. He says he would consider using CGM for a client as a tactical effort but it would be a measured risk since you can only influence, not dictate.

Hung says: ‘Even though it was said not to be a marketing ploy, the whole YouTube/LonelyGirl15 fiasco went down the tubes because it was staged; the editing was beyond perfect. That was a ploy that had promise in my opinion. I really believe if you can find the insight or passion that is not just surface level, that’s when things become a lot more viral.’

Even if they’re not going to blog or advertise on a video-sharing site, Hung says marketers must monitor what’s going on for themselves. ‘If there’s a site with a whole section dedicated to ‘I hate XYZ product,’ that marketing manager should be looking at those sites to find out what’s wrong with the product – and why. It’s free marketing research. You don’t have to take the traditional route because people are volunteering all that information for free.’

UGC and the like all sound like pretty sexy technology but Nick Fairbairn, media engagement strategist for Toronto-based GJP Advertising in San Francisco, cautions that clients shouldn’t jump into it until they assess whether it’s the right place for the brand or where they’ll find their target consumers.

Fairbairn places ads in text blogs such as ittoolbox.com for U.S. client Covad Communications, a provider of business broadband networks and VoIP services, but is currently looking at getting Covad set up with its own blog. He’s also talking to FreshFeed – a company that aggregates content and then sends it out to blogging communities and sites with press feeds – about getting Covad product news out to interested consumers.

People research products and services online and the information they respect the most comes from their peers, says Fairbairn. ‘If I’m an IT guy, I’m going to listen to another IT guy before I listen to pcmagazine.com. There’s real value in getting UGC tied to your brand.’

He has mixed feelings about advertisers crossing the line and violating the whole open premise of video-sharing and social networking sites. He doesn’t think any advertisers have been successful at trying to be part of any unpaid content so far. For example, on MySpace.com where users have a home page and post their personal profiles and interests, Fairbairn says some movies prior to release are creating their own profiles and showing video trailers. Musicians are also doing it but, he says, so are pornographers to promote their sex sites.

‘If you’re a brand like Disney, you don’t want to be around too much CGM because you don’t want the Disney name to be around content that is unmonitored.’

‘Blogging is peer-to-peer content, user generated. If you see a company generate it, you think they’re taking advantage of new technology to get their name out there free. But sometimes these blogs work perfectly for what an advertiser is trying to get across. It will create a viral effect, and create response.’

So, CGM presents a perfect dilemma for marketers – if you dabble in this space you could garner Subservient Chicken-grade buzz, or you could be damned thoroughly if you do it badly, and possibly damned even if you don’t.

Consumer-generated live DM

Sean Moffitt, founder of Toronto WOM marketing company Agent Wildfire Strategy & Communications, is in the buzz biz. He posts his musings in his own blog called BuzzCanuck (http://buzzcanuck.typepad.com/agentwildfire) and Agent Wildfire also recently launched several social networking communities called The Influencers (theinfluencers.ca). These sites are UGC but Agent Wildfire recruits Influencers or early adopters from within the groups to help seed a client’s brand into a specific community of interest. Other than feedback points redeemable for charity contributions, none of the participants on Influencers sites or in any of the WOM campaigns are paid.

Global TV worked with Agent Wildfire to create some buzz about two of its new shows, Brothers and Sisters and Shark, using a WOM technique that is consumer-generated but still gives the marketer control. It can be described as consumer-generated live DM either face-to-face, on the phone, or online.

The 12-week campaign began with 2,000 TV enthusiasts in Toronto and Vancouver being recruited on theinfluencers.ca hub. They were sent an advance DVD of the shows, along with a handbook containing interesting factoids, and background on the actors. Participants were encouraged to read the handbook, come to their own conclusions about whether the shows merited their advocacy, talk to their friends about the shows, and then send feedback about the conversations to Agent Wildfire.

At press time, four weeks into the campaign, Moffitt says the shows received high ratings from The Influencers, and thousands of referral conversations have taken place. Feedback is ongoing and three polls will be conducted with the participants over the 12 weeks.

Moffitt says: ‘If you hated the show, you’re free to talk about it. All we want is feedback on how the WOM actually happened so we can give our clients feedback.’

Currently Agent Wildfire has six Influencer communities covering entertainment, fashion, food and drink, shopping, technology and gadgets, and trends. Another 12 are on tap for 2007 to focus on sports, automotive, books, business, home, family, music, health/beauty/fitness, nightlife, gaming, travel and urban life. PS