A few thousand years ago, in a coastal land bordering the Aegean Sea, a little idea with big implications was born. It was called democracy, and with it came a distribution of authority. Throughout the ensuing millennia, democracy faced challenges from kings, dictators, and despots of all description who vied for ultimate authority – the right to make and implement decisions about what people should do or think.
Fast-forward to the middle of the 20th century, when another little idea with big implications was born. It was called cybernetics, and it proposed that adding noise or feedback into a system enabled change. In many ways, it acted as the philosophical foundation of the Internet.
Now take these ideas, add a government experiment called ARPANET, and mix in ubiquitous high-speed access. Voila, you get Web 2.0, and with it an even greater distribution of that much-cherished authority.
What was set off with the birth of the Internet – and what has become increasingly evident over the past year – is exactly this shift in authority. The average person now shares authority with those sources once deemed authoritative.
The authority of our friends and family is not new. It’s just that the Internet has digitized our inner circle of trusted advisers. The dialogue we exchange at play dates and cocktail parties now occurs online as well – and it extends beyond the neighborhood to take place with consumers around the world.
This shift in how we interact with each other has enabled the shift in authority. The Internet – specifically social media such as blogs, reviews, and social networking sites – has enhanced the voice of the average person and allowed us to connect with one another more often, more conveniently, and in a digital environment where we can take immediate action based on our adviser’s feedback.
We can see this in a number of areas. Take newspapers, where bloggers have effectively changed who is deemed authoritative enough to report the news. The citizen journalist is now often deemed credible, and therefore given authority. Need proof? Look at MSNBC’s Citizen Journalist Reports, which shift the authority of news reporting to its user, or Digg, which accepts news links by the public and sorts the stories by popularity. Or OhMyNews.com, which “Time” magazine called “the people’s news source.”
In the world of education, online educators are gaining ground against traditional models as well. As online universities see their enrollments rising, organizations such as Wikibooks (yes, from the same folks as Wikipedia) are developing a library of free, searchable, editable textbooks, distributing authority to the community of users.
Revenue creation has experienced an authority shift as well. Consider sites such as Epinions, where reviewers earn money for their contributions, or Revver, which shares revenue with its content creators. In these cases and more, the site’s users decide the authority of who gets paid.
But authoritative sources haven’t lost their influence altogether. Passion for their subjects notwithstanding, amateur bloggers and podcasters are unlikely to usurp the well-earned authority of pundits such as Walter Mossberg (technology) or Robert Fleming (wine). But such recognized experts and mainstream influencers will need to continue proving – and improving – the value and timeliness of their content to maintain their authority in response to the content created by their newly empowered audiences.
What does it all mean to marketers? While the “authority shift” from mainstream media to citizen and social media may seem daunting to advertisers accustomed to the traditional media dynamics, it actually presents an opportunity to participate in conversations that, historically, have been off-limits to marketers.
Sharing authority with your consumers means you gain deeper insight into their thoughts and needs. It means that, if you so desire, you can include them in product and marketing strategies.
Don’t know what features should be added to your product? Have your consumers figure it out, as Lego did.
Not sure which product to put on sale? Ask your consumers in real time, as Amazon.com did.
Not sure what ad to broadcast during the Super Bowl? Ask your users to create and vote on ads, as Doritos did.
Want to know what your readers think is most interesting? “The New York Times” maintains lists on its home page of stories that have been most frequently e-mailed and blogged.
Willing to share customers’ opinions of the quality of your products or services? Carnival Cruise Lines gives its passengers the opportunity to post reviews online at Carnival Connections.
So don’t be wary of distributed authority. Welcome the shift. Embrace it with open arms. And know that in the end, it just makes good business sense.
Dave Friedman is president of the central region for Avenue A | Razorfish, a Seattle-based interactive services firm, and a monthly contributor to CHIEF MARKETER. Contact him at Dave.Friedman@avenuea-razorfish.com.
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