With the death of distance and the rapidly multiplying opportunities and avenues for communication, companies are trying to come to terms with a novel phenomenon- the ever increasing power of consumer generated content. Marketers are realizing that the new age consumer is extremely intelligent, exceptionally well connected, substantially well informed, and unscrupulously spoiled for choice. To repeat the old marketing cliché, if ever the customer was king, it is today! This renewed and increasingly dominant status of the masses has largely to do with the internet culture and connectivity. John Hagel and Arthur Armstrong had remarked this pretty early on in their book “Net Gains”: “The notion of barter and fair exchange has been an important element of the culture and etiquette of the early internet.” “Virtual communities” they had observed, “not only gather potential purchasers together, but they also arm them with far more information than they have typically been able to access conveniently and cost effectively in the past. Moving away from this traditional information asymmetry is likely to create reverse markets in which power shifts to the customer. These reverse markets highlight two other defining characteristics of virtual communities- integration of content and communication and emphasis on member generated content.” This was and still is a feature that characterizes much of consumer dominated online activity. Communities like Amazon.com and Ebay.com have harnessed the full potential of online consumer involvement and knowledge sharing. With the growing usage of internet and the enhancement of communication infrastructure, such activity has become all the more critical from the point of view of organizations in the emergent markets like our’s. According to a recent research report released by the IAMAI titled, “E-ntertainment, Eyes and Ears tuning to the Internet”, India’s current internet population stands at 25 million and is estimated to grow fourfold to 100 million by 2007. Of the current internet users, 94% lie within the 18-45 year age group and 28% use the internet for shopping. Clearly, the majority of buyers are net navigators. Online forums and communities have ensured that the consumer’s voice is heard loud and clear and marketers have realized that consumers can no longer be treated like passive listeners. Lectures are passé, it’s time for dialogue. Customer camaraderie is shaking the foundations of many an old guard. Consumer forums and now blogs have altered the connotation of “feedback”- that symbolic pile ticked matchboxes that hitherto lay in the hinterland of corporate consciousness. Consumers are leveraging the new media to rave, rant and express their opinion on pretty much everything.
Websites like Mouthshout.com, Epinion.com and Consumer-voice.org have taken consumer empowerment to the next level. Mouthshut.com, for instance, houses reviews of about 75,000 products from across categories. For the uninitiated, the next time you think of buying a car, type “Swift + Mouthshut review” in Google and you will know exactly what we mean. Hundreds of authentic reviews from customers who have been there and done that and have no vested interest in sharing their opinions with you!
Added to this is the fact that other readers have the power to rate individual reviews. Faisal Farooqui, CEO, Mouthshut.com calls this phenomenon “The wisdom of the masses”. He remarks, “The boundaries between the publisher and the public are dissolving. The new journalist or reviewer is the passionate consumer who has invested his money and had a personal experience with a product or service.” Companies are realizing that they need to gear up really fast to meet with the challenges that this development will throw upon them. Like it or not, they have to deal with it. One way of doing this would be to confront the consumers. But doing this would in effect tantamount to digging one’s own grave! The second and more feasible option then is to engage in the culture of dialogue. Dina Mehta, renowned consultant on Corporate Blogging, shares her sapience. “The socio-cultural environment of a huge chunk of the urban consumers is becoming increasingly well connected and transparent. Companies are confronting a huge cultural risk. The need of the hour is to reorient their thinking from communication management and think in the direction of risk management.” And that is precisely what some forward thinking corporations are doing. Muthshut.com, for instance, has come up with a one of its kind solution for anxious companies desirous of addressing the grievances of existing consumers and influencing the opinion of prospective ones. The website will now have exclusive corporate blogs whereby companies will get a fair chance to interact with the consumer community and present their case on a platform where they are sure of being heard. Farooqui makes a fairly interesting point. He says that consumer activism and the reorientation of corporate communication is reflective of a larger cultural transformation. “We are living in times of consumer democracy. This trend is becoming both conspicuous and powerful in all industries, entertainment also being one of them. The increasing popularity of reality shows is also testimony to the fact that power is passing on from the hands of the consumer and manufacturers to that of the common man.” The mushrooming of online forums and the fast catching up phenomenon of Blogs mark a new phase in the saga of citizen journalism. Effective consumer generated content has instigated companies to refashion themselves. Companies are now really learning to say, “Let’s talk!”