For some time now, it's been clear that the principles of effective communications are changing. Instead of simply broadcasting information, we try to invite our audiences to become involved in our ideas. Rather than focusing our energies (and expenditures) on bold, linear messages, we are engaging consumers through more tactile, interactive media. We're moving inexorably from monologue to dialogue, from push to pull, from passive to active behaviors.
These developments haven't been brought about by ivory tower communications strategists. They're a response to consumer behavior in an ever-changing media landscape. A brief trot through the relevant statistics makes the case. The sheer weight of messages a consumer is bombarded with on a daily basis is staggering. Little wonder, then, that the most well-trod channels are those most filtered by the public, from TiVo to Wikipedia.
Indeed, nowhere are these changes more evident than online. Whether you buy the idea of Web 2.0 or not, it is clear that the Internet continues to grow and change rapidly. Furthermore, many current consumer trends originated in the online environment. Consumer creativity is rife, and digital media have enabled consumers to become creatively empowered.
Accompanying this empowerment is a sense of creative democracy. Web sites like Flickr and YouTube provide platforms for sharing (photos and video, respectively). This sense of sharing is central to consumers' experience of the Internet, from the millions of forum users sharing thoughts to those sharing files on peer-to-peer networks. Japan's largest forum, 2channel, sees 10 million users post two million messages per day. File-sharing traffic online exceeds Web traffic by a factor of between 2 and 10, depending on time of day.
What does this mean for branded communications? Just as Internet usage has changed dramatically among consumers, so brand behavior online must adapt. Herewith, some new rules of engagement:
>>Collaborate. The open-source ethic and culture of sharing, coupled with a rise in user creativity, have inspired brand and user collaboration. Tech brands are opening up their programming for users to effectively bootleg and modify. Google Maps has spawned thousands of modified versions, plotting everything from potential dates in California to public toilets across Germany. Consumers can tailor features to their individual preferences, as with Nike id and Adidas Adicolor. Brands confident enough to play in this way find that their biggest fans can provide un-rivalled creative inspiration stemming from real passion for a product.
>>Facilitate. As the cost of digital storage continues to fall, sites like Flickr provide users with platforms to display their creativity. Paper Film, the site of U.K.-based wireless provider Orange, encouraged mobile users to create short films with their camera phones, then share them online. The Converse Gallery invites filmmakers to create 24-second films embodying the spirit of Converse a clever spin on BMW's online films at a drastically reduced cost.
>>Discuss. Sharing ideas is an even more universally compelling feature of online communication than sharing user-generated creativity. Google asks users, "What should Google do?" via its business blog and community site. At the start of 2006, AOL launched its "Discuss" campaign in the U.K., focused on encouraging consumer debate around the concerns that the Internet creates.
This sort of interaction represents a powerful opportunity for brands. Inviting passionate consumers to talk about a theme or element central to a brand gives marketers a chance for virtual ownership of a property on the Web. The AOL debate over Internet security might seem self-serving at first glance, but only insofar as it cements AOL's brand positioning as offering a safe haven through a form of Internet guardianship.
What is central among these principles and contemporary brand behavior online is a sense of play. For so many users, the Web is as much a place for entertainment as it is for information. A case can be made that we are moving from the age of information to the age of entertainment. Compelling brand extensions like Google Maps and Google Earth make the user feel like the brand's programmers are enjoying this sense of exploration as much as you are.