Engagement: Who's in Charge Here?

Time-shifting. User-generated content. Blogging. Community. Whichever rubric you pick, the marketing mix has changed considerably, with consumers emerging as more in control than ever. While marketers and agencies try to figure it out, the consumer gains yet more control, and the balance of power will only continue to shift over the next few years. The reaches of control, however, extend farther than just marketing, with consumers now dominating everything from communities to blogs to wikis.

TiVo and other DVRs, satellite radio and new distribution services like iTunes give consumers direct control over content, often literally, via remote control. Viewers can opt to fast-forward through commercials, subscribe to commercial-free radio, and purchase TV episodes sans ads. These choices, which to some extent pit consumers against advertisers, call into question the value of broadcast advertising. I can't remember the last time that I started watching a television program at the top of the hour instead of waiting until 20 past, so I can watch the show in 40 minutes. I love the show "30 Rock" but only watch it online. And who buys entire albums anymore?

According to Accenture's annual survey (April 2007) of senior media executives, user-generated content is one of the biggest threats that traditional media companies face. And they have every right to be scared.

Blogs are quickly gaining as much credibility as as traditional media outlets, while consumer reviews are increasingly viewed as credible. According to Technorati, there are currently 70 million active blogs. On any given day, I find myself visiting a number of them. There's Engadget, when I want to feel like an early adopter; Luxist, when I hanker for a glimpse into the lap of luxury; AdRants, when I'm curious about what's going on in the agency world; Cool Hunting, when I want to know what tennis shoes are in or out, and, when I crave research on new media art applications.

News icons such as the Chicago Tribune and the AP seem to be jumping on the blog bandwagon. And in April, Icelandic publishing company Dagsbrun launched a new publication in which blogs run alongside the usual offline newspaper content, marking one of the first times blog content has left the Web.

While blogs threaten the traditional media establishment, the emergence of user reviews and other customer-feedback forums threaten brands and their relationships with consumers. Any visit I make to a brand site is always accompanied by visits to independent sites to get a balanced opinion. It used to be that Consumer Reports was enough. But now I also visit sites that offer consumer feedback when considering different types of purchases. When planning travel, I always visit TripAdvisor and IgoUgo to read contributors' reviews.

At least one-third of all online ad inventory available today appears to consist of user-generated content - blogs, videos, photo sites, communities and other self-publishing and sharing sites.

The influx of user-generated content is paving the way for a showdown. In the past, advertising subsidized the content created or purchased by media companies. But what happens when publishers only host content and pages created by consumers. Who should get the advertising revenue?

Bloggers with significant traffic, MySpace players with lots of friends who create lots of inventory, YouTube producers/directors winning recognition - they're starting to realize their value, and want more than just AdWords revenue. They're going to want a slice of the ad revenue - something I believe they're entitled to.

As a media and marketing person, all of these issues and dynamics interest me during work hours. Even outside of the office, I'm fascinated to see the power of communities taking strong positions. If 30 million people a week can vote for something as trivial as "American Idol," then they can come together on issues that matter.

Imagine what would happen if and when a few million customers band together to force a company to change its environmental policies, or to take issue with executive compensation. Companies can resist media scrutiny or even government scrutiny, but can they bear the threat of losing customers? Activism is nothing new, but consumers' realization that they have a voice that can be heard far and wide online is an incredibly powerful thing.

Michael Koziol is executive vice president, North America, Nurun/Ant Farm Interactive. (

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