Ready for the 5th Estate?

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There is a new player in the media business. It is staffed by millions of people all round the world, creates mountains of varied content, is highly trusted by its readership, is growing exponentially and has a zero overhead.

It’s called Citizen’s Media or Consumer Generated Media and is the result of cheap, accessible digital publishing tools being available to a mass market for the first time.

Or as respected US commentator Jeff Jarvis puts it, “people now own the printing press and the broadcast tower and the barrier to entry to media has been blown away.”

Blogs are the highest profile type of Citizen’s Media. To date they have been viewed as a niche activity pursued by navel-gazers and geeks. However, they are growing fast. Online blog monitor Technocrati.com tracks more than 4 million blogs and adds 20,000 a day to its register.

Media professionals have tended to write off Citizen’s Media as amateur and poor quality, and of course a lot of it is. However, enthusiasm for these new media tools is infectious and many amateurs are striking cords among their audiences in ways that traditional media struggles to do. Hard as it might be to believe, this grassroots media has its own experts, celebrities and authoritative voices.

A key element of this new type of media is the trust that people have in it. If someone’s blog raves about a new product people take notice because they know the publisher has no vested interest. And unsatisfied customers can immediately tell the world and hook up with their disgruntled brethren. The resulting energy and passion can make traditional media look quite pallid in comparison.

In this way, Citizen’s Media has gradually created a group of independently-minded critics who constantly publish their views to faithful audiences. They can be thought of as the ‘5th estate’. And if there is a story to tell they will publish and be damned.

In September of this year when a customer of US bicycle lock manufacturer, Kryptonite, found that his super-tough lock could be opened with a ballpoint pen he immediately published his findings on San Francisco’s bikeforums.net. The post was read by more than 400,000 people and a video, showing a ballpoint in action, was downloaded more than three million times in just a few days. Within a week Kryptonite retailers were clearing their shelves, thousands of products were being returned and the New York Times had picked up the story.

Jonathan Miller, Head of AOL in the US, testifies to the popularity of Citizen’s Media. He says that 60 – 70 per cent of the time people spend on AOL is devoted to audience generated content’.

But it’s not all about blogs. Podcasting is the new audio cousin of weblogs which allows individuals to publish (podcast) their own DIY radioshows, on whatever subject they choose. It uses a combination of audio files and RSS syndication to create an audience. This means consumers can download shows directly to their MP3 players and time-shift their listening to when it suits them. And guess what ? There’s no advertising.

Citizen’s Media is one element of the way in which individuals are taking control of marketing channels. The first step was for digital consumers to use technology, such as PVRs, to avoid mass marketing. (Earlier this year, Yankelovich Partners reported that 69 per cent of US consumers are interested in products and services that allow them to block, skip or opt out of mass marketing.) The next step was for consumers to use the same technology to create their own media.

For executives who already feel they are living in a goldfish bowl the idea of their own consumers owning media and becoming influential watchdogs can be alarming. However, this trend is growing, not going away. Corporates need to engage and in some cases collaborate with Citizen’s Media as they do with any other influential group.

Google and Ebay spent nothing on above-the-line advertising when building their multi-billion dollar brands, but took great care to consult with their customers at every step. Ebay’s CEO, Meg Whitman, has described her job as, “something like a mayor running a town-hall meeting.”

In some ways Citizen’s Media is just a new version of consumer-lobbying groups. However, they are greatly more accessible, spark more passion and have instant, global reach.

It will be interesting to see which sector of the marketing world corporates turn to for help in managing their relationships with these newly empowered consumers.

The PR industry would seem to be the natural partner as it is very familiar in dealing with stakeholders and lobbying groups on behalf of its clients. But is it ready to deal with Citizen’s Media and the 5th Estate ?

James Cherkoff is an independent marketing consultant based in London.
When he isn’t helping companies like GM and Nestle to get to grips
with the networked world he writes articles on the subject for online
and offline media, including the Financial Times.


Ready for the 5th Estate?
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About James Cherkoff
James Cherkoff is a Director of Collaborate Marketing, a consultancy in London which helps companies in Europe and the US operate in networked media environments. He is editor of the blog Modern Marketing and contributes articles to the FT, BBC, Independent, and the Guardian. James speaks at conferences and events around Europe and the US, including MIT MediaLab and Reboot in Denmark. You can here him here. When he isn't knee deep in the blog-world he is likely to be discussing Arsenal FC or playing peek-a-boo. WebProNews Writer
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