Do users really want to be in control?


iMedia Connection

Our media strategies editor suggests that user-generated content is more about the user, less about the content, and therefore remains a challenge to advertisers.

The consumer continues to play an increasing role in the creation and use of media. The individual has moved closer to being the author of the media he or she consumes than at any other time since the advent of mass media.

Bloggers with no particular formality of discipline — other than being enthusiasts with access to the web — are often credited with breaking a news story or developing a story that migrates into the mainstream. Facebook and MySpace are the homes of tens of millions of people who have chosen it as their platform for self expression and self branding.

YouTube and other open-source video services are repositories for the aspiring videographer, content that was distributed widely through the mainstream but only had a fleeting life there, and fans and critics alike of a wide variety of video content. The personal digital video recorder has given individuals control over when they consume TV. It seems that everywhere you turn, people are using media in ways of their choosing and what turns out to be their creation.

This changing landscape has led to three different responses:

  1. Complete denial that the Copernican movement of the user to the center of the media universe is anything meaningful.
  2. A nervous panic among marketers that leaves them grasping at whatever the next new thing is.
  3. And finally the declaration — uttered most often by those in the digital space with evangelical exuberance — that media and advertising as we know it is dying.

A prevalent notion that has arisen from this new consumer-centric media universe that is advocated by some in media and marketing is that marketers, advertisers and agencies ought to cast the consumer as the author, director and star of each message and brand engagement.

But is doing so such a great idea after all? Does focusing too much on what the consumer will choose overemphasize the rationale or decision-making, elements of an audience’s behavior?

Advertising’s central objective is to convince strangers that purchasing a product or service will somehow improve their lives. In other words, advertising has always been about playing to people’s emotions. Turning over marketing to the audience forces them to think about ads — but what people think doesn’t always determine what they feel, or more importantly, what they do.

The greatest product successes have always been those that have emotional or even instinctual appeal, and if the messaging that represents those products to its audiences has the same structure, even better. That’s why television as an advertising medium has been so powerful. The brightly lit, moving, sound-bearing images have a physical and subconscious impact on our brains. The format can represent complex narratives in simple, emotionally appealing formats, reaching into the non-rational aspects of our selves.

In 2003, Read Montague, the director of the Human Neuroimaging Lab and director of the Center for Theoretical Neuroscience at Baylor University, conducted his own taste tests, monitoring volunteers with an MRI machine to observe their neural activity. Half of the participants in a blind test said they preferred Pepsi. But after participants were told the samples were Coke, 75 percent said they preferred the taste of Coke. The MRI revealed that neural activity changed once the subject was aware of which sample was which. When tasting Coke, once the brand was known, the medial prefrontal cortex — a part of the brain that controls high-level cognitive powers — lit up like a Christmas tree. Subjects were recalling images and other associations from Coke’s marketing and advertising.

Giving audiences some amount of control over the media landscape they live in is fine. But too much focus on choice results in too much reliance on “thinking” and “remembering,” something people don’t do too well. Subject advertising to rationality and deliberation, and advertisers might not find what they are looking for.

Also, the question marketers and advertisers need to be asking about all of this is, do users REALLY want to be in control? After all of the years of conducting consumer and behavioral research, you’d think that the one thing businesses have learned is that A) people are whimsical and finicky, regularly participating in faddish behavior; and B) people are rarely conscious of what they really want.

Do users really want to be in control? Only a little. What users really want is to be STARS. The media environment is such that the key concern of an audience member is an expression of solipsistic voyeurism. “I want to be in control…,” but only of where and when. By and large, the only content people want to control is that content that features “them” outside of the where and the when. While there is a steady stream of content being produced and then distributed over non-traditional channels, a great deal of the content that consumers make themselves features themselves.

How do advertisers insinuate themselves as part of this user-centric media experience? Should they? Given the unpredictable nature of the form this media exercise takes, most advertisers have been reluctant to participate.  Instances where content is shaped by both consumers as well as orthodox producers of content, e.g., “American Idol,” seem to, for now, be the best places for advertisers to try and be a part of. There is a slightly random quality, and the illusion of authentic spontaneity, but it is married to the reality of a professionally controlled environment by professionals sympathetic to the needs of advertisers.

Audiences may appreciate advertising as an artifact of culture or as a vehicle for delivery of information, ala search. People want their content, they want product. Where these intersect will always be a point of contest, not one of facility. But most people don’t care that much about being engaged, spoken to, or listened to by a brand. Trying to do so in a user-generated content environment may not be worth it.

Media strategies editor Jim Meskauskas is vice president and director of online media for ICON International, Omnicom Company.

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