Want to escape punishment? do some community service

Search engines and peer-to-peer networks are handing marketing power back to consumers.

If market capitalisation is a meaningful measure, Google is now the largest media company in the world. Five years ago, its search-driven advertising model was an irrelevance: a speck on the landscape earning it a total of $220,000 (&£120,000). This year, its ad revenues are on course to reach $5bn (&£2.8bn), and business is still doubling every year.

Sure, Google’s growth rate will slow eventually. And its market capitalisation, which factors in investors’ hopes for future growth, is no doubt inflated. But in terms of marketing models, Google’s significance cannot be under-estimated: Google challenges the operating assumptions that have driven marketing communications for the past hundred years.

Take content and control. With marketing communications as we know it, the marketer is in control, deciding what content to send out, to whom, how and when. Search puts the user in control of the process of communication: the searcher decides what content to search for, when.

Now take purpose. In marketing communications, the seller’s purpose – of shepherding buyers towards his particular products or services – is the core driver. But search revolves around the searcher’s purpose: “my quest to best meet my needs”. Both approaches have their benefits for both parties, but their centres of gravity are different.

A further operating assumption behind marketing as we know it is that audiences are audiences: receivers, not contributors of information. Media buying measures such as gross ratings points and opportunities to see express this assumption. In a search environment, however, the searcher becomes an information contributor.

All right, the information contributed is pretty minimal: information about “what I am searching for”. But as Google co-founder Larry Page points out, the perfect search engine “understands exactly what you mean and gives back exactly what you want”. And the only way to move towards such perfection is by persuading searchers to volunteer more information about who they are and what they want.

The information evolution

This is an evolutionary branch-point, creating a new trajectory where greater efficiency and effectiveness depend on greater voluntary input of information from “the consumer”, not on the creative expertise or media buying muscle of the advertiser, or the size of the direct marketer’s database.

evolution Google (and other models based on volunteered information from consumers) is only getting started. But these models aren’t appropriate for all categories. And they don’t address a pivotal seller need: how to engage consumers’ attention; to become famous – to get searched for – in the first place. For which good old-fashioned advertising is the answer. Right?

Just now, it is. But consider this statement from Ofcom chairman Lord Currie’s recent Royal Television Society Fleming Memorial Lecture: “The rapid growth of first multi-channel, then digital, then personal video recorders and soon higher-speed broadband are simply the pre-tremors of the real volcanic eruption that technology is about to unleash. At the risk of being over-dramatic, I would say that most traditional TV broadcasters are today standing about the equivalent of one mile from Mount St Helens. When it blows, frankly, that is too close and then it will be too late to run.”

All the research shows, continued Currie, that what audiences want is more choice and more control, and “when technology gives them both these things, and works as advertised, they embrace it willingly and with surprising speed.”

Over the next decade, he said, we will move away from the linear world where a limited number of distributors push their content at the viewer. “We will instead enter a world where content is increasingly delivered through internet protocol-based networks that are non-linear, on-demand and entirely self-scheduled. In that world, the viewer – not the broadcaster – will decide what is consumed and how.”

It’s the Google model applied to TV, in other words. So how to win attention, create engagement, and build and maintain fame in such an environment?

Well, here’s one candidate answer: communities. In particular, where the four “c”s of community, culture, commerce and connectivity intersect – driven by an explosion of peer-to-peer information flows.

You only have to look at Ebay, SMS and Skype in telecoms, music file-sharing and Wikipedia to see how enabling or capturing peer-to-peer information flows can transform business models.

Peer-to-peer communication is also the life force of communities. Now, “community” is a much-abused word. You can add the word “community” to anything to give it a cosy hue. How about “the mugger community”? But as mobile communications guru Tomi Ahonen and marketing consultant Alan Moore point out in their new book, Communities Dominate Brands, the rapid emergence and convergence of the mobile phone and broadband internet means that “we suddenly have permanent access to our peers, our friends, our colleagues and family members.” And like search, that’s changing our habits and attitudes. We are getting used to living in a connected age, drawing on our participation in various networks “for assistance, information and support”.

The community manifesto

Communities can take many forms, both physical and virtual. Communities of circumstance, such as cancer sufferers. Communities of practice, for shared learning and expertise. Communities of action, such as pressure groups. Communities of purpose and interest: hobbyists, enthusiasts and fans. Communities of position: “employee” or “parent”. Once we begin to consider the range and variety of communities, from tightly knit abd formal to broad and informal, few categories are unaffected by their coalescence, either as markets, as communications channels or as stakeholders.

When Mount St Helens blows, and the economics and effectiveness of interruption advertising are engulfed, argue Ahonen and Moore, brands will survive and flourish by identifying the needs of, working with, communicating via, and winning the support of a range of communities. To do that, they need to offer more engagement and less seller-centric messaging.

Now, put Google and communities together. Search is an instrumental, functional activity. But for emotional expression and exploration we turn to friends, family and like-minded people: communities. Indeed, our personal identities are largely defined by the mixture of communities we choose to join, and not to join. So both the functional and emotional – the two essential pillars of every brand – are on the move. Are the pillars of your brand moving in synchrony?

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