Productivity: Something to Talk About

  • by May 29, 2007

It's ironic that in the high-tech world of new media, the surest routes to success are both cheap and basic. The medium isn't the message anymore, and hasn't been for quite a while: It's the product that's the message, and the better that product is, the more people will talk about it.

The heart and soul of the new media is peer-to-peer interaction. From the well, the first virtual community launched in 1985 by Stewart Brand and Larry Brilliant, to MySpace, purchased by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. 20 years later for more than half a billion dollars, the Internet has put people in touch with other people, thereby offering easy access to the sort of input and advice people crave the most. As social psychologists have shown through decades of experimental research, in situations of uncertainty, risk or high cost, people look first not to experts or brands but to others like them for guidance. In years past, cost, time, distance and complexity made peer-to-peer interaction outside of one's immediate circle difficult, if not impossible. But as we all know now, the Internet has rendered these barriers moot. E-mail, file sharing, bulletin boards, blogs, user reviews, chat rooms, instant messaging, social networking sites, Wikis, video sites, auction sites - everything connected with the Internet is some form of peer-to-peer interaction.

Peer-to-peer interaction creates a new context for marketing communications. No longer is a message received by a single person. Now, it is discussed and, in effect, received by a group of people. The power of a marketing message lies not in how it affects a single person but in how it influences the conversation. A message is not processed by a single person but by a community of interacting people. To win customers, a marketer must target the conversation - not individuals - because it is the conversation that shapes individual decisions.

Getting into the conversation takes more than a clever message. There's no shortage of clever messages competing for people's limited time, attention and energy. People will talk about something with other people only if it is worth the time it takes to do so. First and foremost, the product must be worth talking about.

Some companies reward people who talk about them with others, but this course of action usually isn't the best way to create the kind of zeal that makes for good conversation. Instead, products that are truly innovative and original will stimulate conversation out of curiosity and novelty. Products that are memorable in some authentic and genuine way - emotional hooks or distinctive designs - will have an easier time getting mentioned. Products with intrinsic ties to experiences, non-verbal cues and multi-sensory engagement will kindle more enthusiasm. Products that give people the opportunity to express themselves or to signal some aspect of status and position will always be worth mentioning.

The quest for presence and awareness in the new media is less a matter of media weight and scheduling than of product features and benefits. The best campaign is not an ad that gets people buzzing but a product that gets people talking. In the new media, stickiness is a quality that matters more for products than for ads.

The new measure of media success is product passion. For decades, the best predictor of media success was some characteristic of the message itself. Ads were crafted to deliver it. Copy testing assessed it. Media campaigns were built around it. The product had to deliver, of course, but media success was a step removed. This is no longer the case when it comes to new media.

Nowadays, peer-to-peer interaction cuts through all advertising and goes directly to the product. The best predictor of new media success is some characteristic of the product. Ads are no longer the primary source of pre-purchasing product perceptions. Other people are a click away and their opinions matter more. It's not what a brand has to say about itself that matters most; it's what other people have to say about it. Trust inheres in the reports of other people - not in what marketers tout about their brands. When people are passionate about a product, they let others know. This makes for great conversation, which is the very essence of new media success.

The wow factor of new media can be a distraction if we forget that products matter more than technological wizardry. Technology is taking us back to fundamentals. In the future, the media are all about the product.

J. Walker Smith is president of marketing consultancy Yankelovich, Inc. (

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