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Today's Consumer: Can We Chat?

Authors Kelly Mooney and Nita Rollins explain how online social networking has changed forever the way we buy, shop, and sell.
This chapter is from the book

The simple acts of shopping, buying and selling will never be the same.

Profoundly reshaping them are online social and cultural activities that seem far removed from consumerism’s siren call—archiving photos, social networking, blogging, bookmarking, swarming, IMing, twittering, video scraping, mashing up. But savvy marketers know better.

Digital rituals both mundane and exotic help form individuals’ and groups’ social identities, and along with them people’s tastes, preferences, values—what’s important to know, what to buy in order to belong (or be unique), what to share with or recommend to friends and family.

Moreover, many of these digital pastimes are no longer “early adopter” behaviors limited to a minority of tech hipsters. Web audience measurement firm Hitwise reports that social media usage—a potent mix of creating, sharing and influencing—grew a staggering 668 percent from April 2005 to April 2007. According to a 2006 Pew Internet & American Life Project report, 35 percent of American adult internet users are generating content—everything from posting photographs to contributing prose to web sites. More than seventy million blogs and growing fast, and over 65,000 videos uploaded daily to YouTube (not to mention the over one hundred million videos watched daily) are an outpouring of amateur production and self-serve entertainment that no marketer can afford to ignore.

Despite these statistics, there are skeptics about the importance of social networking and consumers’ content creation to brands. They believe that marketing to these behaviors—tapping them as new sources of sway and of storytelling, respectively, for the brand—still means catering to too few people. And they point to the minority of actual content creators on sites heavily reliant upon CGM—such as YouTube, Flickr, Digg, Gather and Wikipedia. Usability consultant and author Jakob Nielsen wrote in 2006 that, “In most online communities, 90 percent of users are lurkers who never contribute, nine percent of users contribute a little, and one percent of users account for almost all the action.”

The problem with this 1/9/90 argument—or, in the more common formulation, the 20/80 rule (20 percent of causes deliver 80 percent of consequences)—is two-fold. First, most brand web sites are not wholly dependent upon content creation per se in order to thrive. An e-commerce site might feature a CGM campaign or consumer ratings and reviews on the home page, or might be part of a social shopping network, but these are complementary to the e-commerce priority. Second, there are three social web behaviors (hence, a larger portion of the online population) that can drive business: creating, sharing and influencing, not just content creation alone. The iProspect Social Networking User Behavior Study (by JupiterResearch and Ipsos-Insight, April 2007) shows how the three behaviors work in concert: it found that one out of three internet users “is already taking advantage of a site containing user-generated content to help make a decision to buy, or not to buy something.”

Animating discussions of the social web’s early adopter or content-creating minorities is the debate over influence: who or what has it and how it happens online. Proponents of “the law of the few,” a principle Malcolm Gladwell popularized in his book, The Tipping Point, place their bet on online charismatic individuals with certain personality traits that, in the right combination of roles, can start a social (or consumer) “epidemic.” Opponents of the law of the (vital) few argue that the online social network is far more important than a minority of so-called influentials, hence, marketing to the majority is the new imperative. A CNET Research study supports the majority argument; it shows that a full 85–90 percent of online consumers acquire enough digital savvy—through searching, surfing, reading reviews, etc.—to become reliable “experts” to friends and family. The information they share, even within their relatively small spheres of influence, can significantly influence purchase behavior.

What is beyond debate is this: the digital behaviors of creating, sharing and influencing have altered consumers’ expectations of brands. Consumers now expect to be involved in the creation and promotion of goods and services. After all, they’re creating and sharing their own valuable products hourly: blog content, homegrown videos, social profiles—and even building their own small businesses and personal brands in the process. Gartner estimates 80 percent of internet users will have their own avatars by 2011. Consumers consequently want to feel engaged in the commercial world’s creative processes rather than simply being the focus of their output.

The Resource Interactive 2007 iCitizen Motivational Study showed that 86% of the U.S. online population or roughly 200 million people (Internet Usage and World Population Statistics for June 30, 2007) are creating, sharing and influencing. Among those that have not adopted these behaviors, 21 percent would “like a brand/company more” if simply asked to participate.

We call these conspicuously creative and involved consumers “icitizens,” in part because the word “citizen” is back in vogue, attached to “journalism” or “marketers” or other phenomena associated with the social web’s participatory ethos.

To capitalize on the icitizenry’s thriving culture and their collective desire to be part of brands’ value creation, marketers have to zero in on their motivations for doing all that they do. Traditional consumer segments or personas will have to be updated for this uniquely complex digital population, one that prompted TIME Magazine in 2006 to name “You” as their “Person of the Year” for doing nothing less than “…seizing the reins of the global media, for founding and framing the new digital democracy, for working for nothing and beating the pros at their own game.”

A Motivational Mashup

The motivations of the icitizenry consist of competence, collectivism, cultural change and celebrity. According to The Resource Interactive 2007 iCitizen Motivational Study, the first motivation, belonging to a full 74 percent of icitizens (148 million), is to acquire digital competence: to use the web and its proliferating array of tools (from blog software to multimedia widgets) to achieve certain goals, whether they be musical expression or in-the-know shopping or simply having fun. The mindset of icitizens driven by this basic motivation is simply “I CAN”—a seemingly modest motivation to keep pace in the web-made world. But make no mistake: the marketer that appeals directly to this drive for digital proficiency must package sophisticated DIY tools in an easy-to-use branded experience—no mean feat. Consider the relatively anonymous tagging enthusiast “Rtwendel21,” who exemplifies the motivation to be digitally competent. Having mastered tagging on, this social bookmarker now potentially influences millions of others searching for similar subjects online. A brand interested in capturing the competence-minded icitizen might, in this instance, add social bookmarking options to its site.

Sixteen percent of icitizens—32 million—are motivated by online or mobile socializing, particularly with others who share their passions and interests. Of that sixteen percent, fifty percent are digital millennials. This group’s mindset is best summed up as “I CONNECT.” To leverage this spirit of collectivism, open brand marketers must address groups, not just individuals, by supporting and nurturing their shared enthusiasms. Markos “Kos” Moulitsas Zúniga exemplifies this motivation. The left-leaning political blogger whose frequently tops Technorati’s blog rankings has created arguably one of the most vital (yet virtual) meeting grounds for the Democratic party.

Seven percent of icitizens—14 million—seek to effect (generally good) change on behalf of others. The mindset here is “I AM”—the embodiment of an idea, a brand, a lifestyle, a movement. These change agents can accrue tremendous credibility, making them valuable to marketers seeking reliable and charismatic spokespersons or sponsorship platforms. Top-selling eBay trainer, spokesperson and author Marsha Collier, whose eBay books, including eBay for Dummies (1999), have sold over one million copies, is not an eBay employee but is nevertheless one of the brand’s most important evangelists. Collier has helped make eBay an exciting pastime, a source of supplemental income and an emblem of achievable entrepreneurialism to millions worldwide.

The motivation to achieve celebrity or heightened influence within their group, whatever the size, drives three percent of icitizens—about six million. The mindset among these icitizens is “I MATTER”—to a community of followers, to the mainstream media, even in a personal way to a brand. These fame-seeking icitizens can be a ready-made asset for open brands because many such icitizens become brands in their own right, inhabiting a universe rich with social currency. Web-catapulted comedian Dane Cook’s personal brand has spawned legions of fans who’ve made him the highest Billboard-charting funnyman in 29 years.

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