Digital Essays: Compose yourself

Media owners will have to adapt to the mass of consumer-created content if they are to survive in the new democratic age of information.

I believe we are at the dawn of a golden age of information - an empire of new knowledge." Guess whose words. Caxton possibly, showing off his new printing press?

Alan Turing, the founder of computer science, espousing the virtues of his invention?

Well, no. That was Rupert Murdoch announcing his recent $580 million purchase of MySpace.com, a site that allows members to create profiles of themselves, complete with words, sounds and pictures, as well as view other members' profiles.

Let's run through that again. Empire of new knowledge. $580 million.

Post profiles. View profiles. Is the man insane? Is the whole digital community going insane?

Over the past year we have all been indulging in hyperbole of Murdochian proportions. MySpace and the social networking phenomenon are just the tip of the iceberg. If media conglomerates fail to come up with some kind of strategy for tags, blogs, vlogs or podcasts, they're in danger of going the way of the dinosaurs. The traditional top-down media owner must think bottom-up or die. Not only will the netizens of the future be the controllers of content, they'll be the creators too.

Whoa there, hang on. Time to take a step back. Reflect a bit. After all, we don't want to get carried away do we, like in 2001?

First question: why now? Sites that allow users to create and post content have been around since the beginning of the web. And it was this democratic ethos that characterised the web before the big corporations got stuck in and started throwing their weight around. It's also worth noting that the two most successful and established online media sites - Google and eBay - consist almost entirely of consumer-generated content. Their genius lies in harnessing their vast user bases to deliver tangible value: Google to deliver the best search results, eBay to create the perfect marketplace.

But MySpace, where's the true value there? Are the traditional media owners truly kaput without a user-generated content strategy? If we're going to avoid a repeat of 2001, media owners need to know how to make money out of content-generating consumers.

Well, we can guess in the short term that it's the numbers that are doing the talking for Murdoch. According to Comscore, MySpace attracts 70 million-plus unique users a month in the US, and already has three million users in the UK. Murdoch, like most traditional media owners, is an expert in aggregating audience and selling advertising off the back of it. With the acquisition of MySpace, Murdoch has simply bought a large audience, and now he will advertise at them. New medium, old business model.

The problem with this "acquire and advertise" model is that advertisers are wary of appearing around content that isn't subject to editorial control.

And controlling user content can cause your audience to flee. Friendster lost out to MySpace because MySpace offered users more freedom of expression.

But with News Corp in charge, 250,000 profiles have already been censored.

How long until the users move on to a less restricted space? Murdoch would be wise to note that this audience is notoriously fickle.

So does user-generated content spell the end of the media owner as we know it? Our view is a resounding no. The glut of user content out there will make one of the roles of the traditional media owner - that of editor - even more relevant. Some people, granted, will be willing to trawl through the mass of videos on YouTube and profiles on MySpace. But most will want a guide to all that stuff - a "shit filter" - because, let's face it, haven't we all got enough to do with our limited time? The challenge in this world will not be the fact that users produce content, but rather that they can screen and control content and marketing messages, user-generated or not.

So what of the marketers? Even if, as we have posited, there is still a role for media as aggregators of audiences, there is and will be a demographic that spends time outside of these media, posting, blogging, tagging, creating and commenting. The significance of this audience will be disproportionately large. Why? First, for the old reason that they will be the young early-adopters who have always been craved by marketers. Second, because they will be the audience who will, as networked creators, shout the loudest.

Therefore, marketers have no choice but to engage with the "creator netizens".

The jury is out on how this should best be done. But early attempts, such as advertising on blogs or (with a few exceptions) clumsy brand blogs, provide good indicators of what to avoid. Both these methods fall squarely into the "new media, old thinking" camp, where either explicit or thinly veiled ad messages are delivered via buzzword media channels.

Of course, it is tempting for marketing departments to jump into consumer-generated content when there is so much attention fixed on it. But with its role in the marketing mix in mind, we urge careful consideration.

Ask yourselves: "What value is being added?" If brand visibility is what you want, the most sensible way is probably to act as a facilitator, providing the tools for creation and connection, thereby earning the right to display your logo.

The smartest companies will not talk at, but listen to, creator-consumers.

The ever-increasing mass of user-generated content out there is, in effect, a vast database of consumer opinion and behaviour with a much larger sample size and potentially more "authentic" data. What is needed are the tools to conduct meaningful analysis so that marketing messages can be targeted to creator-consumers as they navigate into established commercial media - or, more interestingly, used to help shape the products we will all consume in the future.

So what does this all mean for media owners, advertisers and agencies?

What should the rules of engagement be? It's quite simple. Do not talk at them, do not mimic them, and do not water down their experience. But do enhance their experience, encourage their creativity, and listen to what they have to say before jumping in.

Follow these rules and your brand will be more than tolerated. It may even be celebrated.

- Tom Hyde is the new-business director and Alex Jeffries is the media director at Profero.

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Digital marketing executives oversee the online marketing strategy for their organisation. They plan and execute digital (including email) marketing campaigns and design, maintain and supply content for the organisation's website(s).