Online brands at the mercy of advocates

Bebo is a company that might have passed you by until now, but it could soon rival the likes of MySpace and Friends Reunited in size. Less than a year old, it has raised &£8m in venture capital funding this week from Benchmark Capital – the company that has backed Betfair and eBay among others in the past.

The company is a social networking site – an exercise in narcissism to the cynics, the future of the internet to its supporters. It could yet prove to be a fad, but it’s a well-funded one at least.

For the marketing industry, the trend that such sites represent is a threat as much as an opportunity. While not everyone wants their own blog or podcast, the people who do tend to shout loudest and for longest, and their attitude to creating their own content is increasingly finding an outlet in advertising too.

As the feature on page 40 highlights, companies can easily get caught out by this. Chevrolet set up a website where the public could create ads using professionally produced video and audio clips. Predictably enough, not everyone shared the car company’s enthusiasm for its new off-roader and many just saw it as a new and unwelcome contributor to global warming. Chevy got scared and pulled down the site, but the ads live on.

People generally only bother going to the trouble of creating their own ads if they’ve had a negative experience of a brand, and that’s just as true in the UK as in the US. While people have always shared their views about products, the internet makes it easier and faster to share those views on a global scale and with ever more professional production values.

Other, mainly youth-focused, brands are following in the footsteps of Chevy and will presumably learn the lessons of how not to do things. But companies that don’t want to let go of the reins may find they don’t have a choice.

For many companies the internet is still only a theoretical avenue for their advertising budgets. The public spends a lot more of its time on the internet, as a proportion of total media consumption, than advertisers do with their budgets. That’s bound to change, and as more brands start to migrate a larger slice of their marketing onto the internet they’ll have to learn not just about the intricacies of a new digital platform, but also take on board a change of culture which involves facing up to a loss of control.

Online consumers can be fickle and Bebo’s long-term future as a home for their rantings is far from certain, no matter how much money it raises. But if not on Bebo, you can be certain it will happen elsewhere.

Dominic Dudley

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