If you want to know how Social Media may change business communications tomorrow, watch politics today. Unlike the 1960s, when politicians were just waking up to advertising and direct response marketing, politics operates today with the money and sophistication to drive innovations in social communications. Many of the most powerful and engaging social media sites on the Web are political, filled with impassioned citizen activists who generate immense quantities of insightful and compelling content--along with a lot of conspiracy theories, petty arguments and personal bashing.
Today, the Web is buzzing with the mysterious source of a brilliant attack ad against Hillary Clinton, in support of Barack Obama. The ad appeared on YouTube, posted by someone named ParkRidge47. It was not financed by the Obama campaign. It was not financed by a 527 committee in support of Obama. For the moment, it appears to be an ad by a loyal fan of Obama, possessing nothing more extraordinary than a good sense of theater and a computer with video editing software.
Political pundits are immediately tagging this as the phenomenon to watch this coming election season--ads created by independent citizens, without the backing of a campaign committee. The FCC has been grappling with this concept for years, especially after the success of 527 campaigns like MoveOn. Should ads like these be regulated? Should they be considered campaign contributions?
I'll leave that discussion to the political forums. But the implication for business is no less powerful. User-generated commercials are not entirely new. A few years back a school teacher named George Masters became a Web sensation with an iPod commercial he created with no cooperation from Apple. It was not only brilliant creative--it demonstrated the level of sophistication consumers can reach in creating media in their own homes. Fast forward a few years, and the tools are cheaper and easier to use, and the distribution far simpler.
I posted yesterday about the dangerous potency of disgruntled customers. As the tools for creating media become more accessible, we'll undoubtedly see more commercials like this famous spot by a couple of iPod customers who were among the first to realize the unexpected problems of iPod batteries. The furor generated by this home video commercial caused significant policy changes at Apple, and a lot of scrutiny into their environmental record.
So what should businesses do about this growing reality? It's really just a piece of the larger trend in "democratized content". Businesses are open to a lot more scrutiny--not just in regard to their products, but in every way they connect with their constituencies. Your customers, partners and suppliers are comparing notes and sharing ideas--and if they're not today, it's only a matter of time, for the simple reason that it's in their best interest to do so. Every businesses should be trying to understand how their stakeholders are connecting, what matters to them, and how to join the conversation. Being engaged won't elminate the challenges, but it will make you more prepared to respond, and to leverage opportunities at the same time.