I attended a very engaging panel discussion yesterday morning, hosted by the Massachusetts Innovation & Technology Exchange (MITX), titled Web 2.0: Engaging the Long Tail.
With the advent of next-generation online services like blogging, podcasting, social bookmarking, and wikis (collectively referred to as “Web 2.0” or “social computing”), marketers are faced with a growing number of ways to engage with their constituents - whether they like it or not.
New technologies and applications have enabled countless conversations to occur - outside of the realm of the corporate boardroom, and often in conflict with the best-laid brand plans. Everyday consumers are publishing opinions, rants, and raves on every product/service/brand imaginable…and word is traveling fast.
The “Long Tail” is the notion that there is a small number of bloggers who account for a majority of the traffic in the blogosphere, followed by a “long tail" of niche bloggers that have only a handful of links going into them (see below graph, where the horizontal axis represents number of blogs and vertical axis represents their popularity, or number of links in).
Those who believe in the power of the Long Tail recognize that products that are in low demand or have low sales volume can collectively make up a market share that rivals or exceeds the relatively few current bestsellers and blockbusters. In other words, there’s revenue opportunity in courting the back list/niche channels.
So how do marketers engage the Long Tail of the blogosphere to leverage its collective interest in their brands? What does consumer generated media and this new participatory culture really mean to marketers? MITX assembled a noteworthy panel of industry vets to discuss this topic, including:
Highlights of the conversation – along with some of my own commentary – follow.
What is Web 2.0?
Henry Jenkins opened the panel with a brief explanation of what is meant by the terms “Web 2.0” and “The Long Tail.” With regards to the former, he shared these visuals from Tim O’Reilly that summarize the concepts (click to enlarge):
Should marketers participate?
For the most part, there was a resounding “yes” answer to this question. As Jack Barrette put it, marketers need to “join the conversation or get talked about.” Most panelist agreed that Web 2.0 presents marketers with a unique opportunity to more fully engage with consumers than they have been able to in the past. While they may not be able to control the dialogue, it makes sense to participate for a number of reasons (there's an excellent series of posts on Branding in a 2.0 World in Conversations with Dina and Brand Mantra that discuss the potential for social tools and technologies to address consumer needs).
Adam Cutler was the sole dissenter on this topic, and really got the conversation started with his assertion that "brands will die" in favor of user experience - that UE becomes more important than technology, the latter being an enabler and not a solution in and of itself.
While I agree that technology is an enabler, I disagree that brands will die. I tend to agree with Larry Weber's definition of brand - that it is the dialogue you have with your constituents. The stronger the dialogue, the stronger the brand. Jim Nail headed down this path when he discussed how the definition of brand has morphed over the years, from a differentiating feature, to a benefit, to an image, and finally a dialogue or relationship. So in this sense, brand represents a relationship, and as long as the relationship thrives, so too will the brand.
I like the notion of Brand Manager (controlling, Web 1.0 world) morphing into the Brand Aggregator (open source, Web 2.0 world); to again borrow an idea from Weber, the job of today's marketer is to be an aggregator of product trends, issues, events, and communities. All of these things collectively define the brand. Aggregators need to arm advocates with sufficient information to spread the word, and engage naysayers to better understand their pain and let them be heard.
Jim Nail keenly added: brands will never die because they help consumers make decisions; in a world where time is a commodity, brands are a helpful shortcut to making purchase decisions.
Jeremi Karnell noted that global brand campaigns may die, but not the brands themselves.
Lastly, there was discussion of how Web 2.0 affects passive consumers (those not actively blogging) in addition to the more active ones, by virtue of the numerous consumer-authored product reviews and forums available to anyone making a purchase decision.
How best to participate?
How to leverage these communities and still maintain transparency is a big topic right now. I raised the issue of corporations entering the blogosphere in a recent Adrants post and it created quite a bit of dialogue. Should every company have a blog? Who should author it: executives or employees? Should it be product focused or a customer service app? Would it be more impactful to somehow harness the efforts of citizen bloggers that are already talking about your brand? I tend to think it could be any and/or all of these options…it really depends on your brand, your target audience, and the current relationship between the two.
According to Jenkins, 22 of the 500 largest US companies currently deliver public blogs. Some of the more notable ones:
Intuit 's Product Manager blogs. Companies are still considered experts on their products, and who better to address product development news, issues, questions and concerns than the developers themselves.
Lego's consumer innovation council, where active members of online Lego enthusiast networks were tapped for special product brainstorming and development conversations.
Maytag's Man Caves. There's a burgeoning population of men outfitting their basements and garages with all the trappings of manhood - plasma screen tvs, high end audio systems, pool tables, and wet bars - and blogging about it! A popular item in the caves is a Maytag soda fountain filled with beer. So Maytag provides high res images and sneak peaks of new models for these fans to post on their own sites and help spread the word.
There are countless other examples out there, and they will continue to grow. Brand engagement metrics will become increasingly more important as marketers continue to dabble in social computing and have more open and honest dialogue with their constituents.
I'll close with another quote from Jack Battelle: "Follow the users, become the users." It's a great way to engage the Long Tail.