Monday, 16 November 2009

Something Devastating's About to Transform Social Media's Credibility

In an AdAge article today "P&G, Walmart, Unilever, General Mills Are Major Marketers on a Mission -- From 'We Save You Money' to 'We Nourish Lives,' Giants Make Some Big Statements", we can see the 'confluence' of some key trends in marketing from the past decade:
This is great news!  It's quite a celebratory moment in marketing history!  The industry's most visionary leaders embraced change and are moving the herd in a new direction.  Yet at the same time, something else is going on that stands in direct contrast to these positive movements.

One of the most insidious, but potentially devastating 'movements' we are witnessing is the growing push to alter the nature of the Web 2.0 emerging media "social" universe, changing it from unbiased, un-manipulated user-generated content (blogs, tweets, comments, wall-posts, etc.) to 'compensation for positive brand mentions'.  This new 'paid-for' vs. 'earned' crowd-sourcing model is creeping in via "The Viral Loop" (evaluating the 'value' of each Facebook user's contributions to Facebook's shareholders) and the excited anticipation of a young generation who 'live online' that they're going to get-rich-quick by simply mentioning brands in their daily communication: "The Futurist: Let the Games Begin, by Brian Van Eerden" in which the young author sees a future evolving that will feature:
"The seamless integration of social media and gaming makes it even easier to spend hours hooked into the system. The credits generated from my branded avatar are a welcome supplement, as well as the conversation tracker that pays for each time I make a brand reference with friends. "
Facebook's recent decision:
"To help marketers boost their reach on Facebook, the company has added an option that lets companies advertise to friends of their brand fans on the social network."
posted on Thursday, plus a raft of similar announcements from various emerging media all looking for ways to monetize their businesses, means that, insidiously, Rupert Murdoch's insistence that the world of professional (and profit-making) journalism is not dead and will find a successful business model online is going to prove to be correct.  Why?  Because there are a number of 'universal human truths' that are coming into play:
  1. Greed will push individuals to grab for the brass ring and accept payments for positive brand mentions.
  2. Greed for profits and power to control the conversations about their brands will push corporations to offer such payments (if this leads to the death of credibility of crowd-sourcing and the long tail, so much the better for the media industry!).
  3. Skepticism and cynicism will drive people to no longer believe anything they read online from so-called unbiased private sources, especially as regulations begin to pressure the majority of user-generated content providers to acknowledge receipt of payments (once a few do, all become suspect).
  4. The latter change will, fairly quickly, drive consumers back to professional reviewers/journalists (and prolific bloggers like Scoble, etc.) who at least have a long and easily-tracked record of level-headed product reviews to assess for bias.
"So what?" some might ask, we're merely witnessing the eventual wresting of control back into corporate hands of 'their messages'.  Sadly, yes, but what a wonderful world we had, for a time!  The opportunity for brand-owners to hear, AND BELIEVE!, the willingly and enthusiastically shared thoughts and feelings of honest consumers about their products and marketing efforts FOR FREE.

Don't get me wrong, of course the WWW is always going to allow people to speak freely (I hope...) and it will be possible to track 'brand buzz' better than ever with aggregation tools like Razorfish's "SIM" measure of brand health online, but in turning a free and open forum for consumer conversations back into an arena in which no one can be trusted to be providing an unbiased opinion, marketers are losing, I believe, more than they are gaining.  This is the 'hijacking' of genuine word of mouth on a grand scale.

Sure, these efforts will be met by new sites/services that "ensure our members are offering unbiased, unpaid for opinions" via counter-tracking search algorithms, but the damage is already being done to online credibility.  The challenge was to learn how to effectively leverage 'pull' efforts while gradually abandoning 'push'. You could argue that this is just a manifestation of incrementalism, but it really is all about re-exerting 'push' control on a virginal 'pull' medium.

Call me sentimental, but I think it's a sad thing and I pine for the good old days of 2008 when I could still do a quick Google or Twitter search and feel confident, once having discounted the suspiciously positive posts, that I was getting a fair and balanced overview of some product or service.

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