Digital Essays: Power to the People

Consumers are the leading drivers of internet development, in particular the 'i-generation', which has no memory of, or nostalgic feelings for, a non-digital world.

When it comes to the question of who is driving the online experience, there are, of course, many spokes to the wheel - software developers, service providers, portals and search engines all play their part. The most important driver, though, has to be the consumer.

Why? Because the internet is unique among media. It's neither a director's, nor a producer's, nor an editor's, nor a radio DJ's medium. It is the consumers' medium. They rate it, shape it, interact with it, feed back to it, publicise it and regulate it. All in an instant. Does TV allow bloggers?

Does press enable instant feedback? Can you exercise control over what posters children see? Can you replay a cinema commercial over and over again?

More importantly, consumers have claimed the internet as their own. There's no mogul or proprietor steering the agenda. The content is not concentrated into the hands of a few. As a consequence, consumers have a very strong affinity with the internet and a very strong commitment to seeing it work the way they want it to work.

Look no further than eBay to see a worldwide community operating freely and commercially in a self-regulating framework with a minimum of interference.

EBay is a facilitator, not a regulator. While fraud has been known to occur, the incidence is minimal and perpetrators are quickly weeded out.

The impetus for current and future change of the internet comes from users' dreams of having an influence on the world and their desire to personalise and exercise control over their experience. But some are more influential than others. We have begun to describe our core users as the "i-generation" - "i" stands not only for internet, but for individual, independent and information. They have no memory of, or nostalgic feelings for, a non-digital world. They have grown up with the internet and personal digital technology.

Within the i-generation is a sub-set of individuals whom we call "sparks". Sparks ignite change and set trends. Of course, they aren't unique to the digital world. In most markets there is a core group that gives clues as to how a product or service might profitably develop. Those clues lie in the ways that committed users have refined or adapted a product to suit their needs.

Much has been written in the past few years about how consumers don't really know what they need next, how new product development research is a waste of time and how many new products fail. The received wisdom is "just create and launch it". As Brian Ferren, the former design and futurology guru at Disney, said: "The good 10 per cent of product design comes out of big-idea companies that don't believe in talking to the customer."

I'd beg to differ. For every "just create and launch it" success, there are hundreds of failures. The internet's past is littered with them.

Offline is no better. On distressedstock.com you will find the following quote: "Each year, over 20,000 new FMCG products are offered to retailers, of these only 2,200 are accepted and of those 90 per cent fail in their first two years."

But actually it all comes down to talking to the right consumers, those who are most engaged with the market in which you operate. The ones who are pushing against the limits of what is available, who are creating their own adaptations or solutions. We've identified these consumers within the i-generation across Europe and are staying close to them through a research programme. They've given us a lot to think about. Here are four of the important themes to have emerged.

First, their demands and expectations are forging ahead of what's immediately possible. As one person mused: "Wireless electricity would be nice." Second, although a minority are interested in how stuff works, the majority love what technology enables rather than the technology itself.

One individual commented: "The internet allows total neophytes to accomplish incredible feats and it allows professionals to do their job with more efficiency and ease. But perhaps most importantly, it is an outlet for boundless creative energy."

Third, forget Abraham Maslow. In the hierarchy of needs of the i-generation, time is the greatest unmet need. In the Western world it seems that time pressure has been elevated to a criterion of success: "People now ask you, 'have you been busy?' as a way of asking you if things are going well." This has profound implications for those delivering digital communica-tions. Make it fast, keep it simple.

Fourth, they are massively resistant to being controlled, whether by parents, institutions, brands or websites. "People want to be in charge of their own lives," one said, "even if it is only in simple ways, and not let their life be directed by some other person." Another said: "I like certain designer labels but I don't want to be a walking ad."

This is the toughest lesson to take on board. It is an understandable instinct of businesses to seek control of their relationships with customers. It is extremely difficult to fully accept that consumers are co-partners in the enterprise and to behave accordingly. The i-generation is alive to this. They want relationships on their terms.

The most important thing for us is to try to create a restlessness in the organisation, a desire to improve things even if they seem to be working pretty well. Because out there is someone who's convinced it could be better.

I believe the consumer will continue to be the most important driver of the online experience. A simple prescription to anyone involved with the internet is to find, get close to and follow your leading consumers.

The future's where they're heading.

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