The real digital revolution has nothing to do with advertising or marketing. In fact, it's the mortal enemy of both.
Because the real digital revolution is about consumer empowerment, the ability to research and learn about products and services and make decisions independently from, and in spite of, any sort of advertising messages.
That's what's really changing the way we market. It's not about our inability to control the conversation. It's about our inability to even get in on it. "They" are talking about us and we can't butt in. I mean a Cannes-worthy ad campaign is wonderful and all, but it's got nothing on a glowing review from CNET.
Until recently, the paradigm went something like this: Ad leads to purchase. Nowadays, it goes like this: Ad leads to Google leads to purchase. That's seismic.
Car companies are among the ones hardest hit by this shift. The fact that a new car is one of the most expensive purchases you'll ever make has consumers turning in droves to review sites, message boards and the like, to get the real story on the vehicles they plan to buy -- even to find out what kind of cars someone like them should plan to buy. And there are all kinds of car review Web sites: expert sites, peer sites, soccer mom sites -- you name it. That's a pretty shocking development in a market that was shrouded in mystery and misinformation for years and where consumers had nothing more to rely on for information than the materials the car companies issued.
Sure there was Consumer Reports and the car magazines. But CR attracted a very specific, Naderesque demographic, and the auto magazines were rarely concerned about the sorts of things the average car buyer was concerned about, especially if the average car buyer had kids or mostly used the vehicle for commuting. Which is exactly the sort of information you can find on many of the new review sites.
Now what all this new information does is effectively destroy the ability of image-based brand advertising to control our perception of the product. Our information now comes from SoccerMomBlog.com, not the print ad or the official Web site or even the brochure. So I might see some brilliantly done Volkswagen ads and decide that a VW Jetta is indeed the car a suave new age guy like myself should be driving. But once that decision is made, my next step is not the dealership; it's the Internet. And if all Google tells me is how much the new Jetta sucks and how much better a Nissan Sentra would be, chances are pretty good that I'm buying the Sentra -- no matter how much their ads may bug me.
Brand advertising can't stretch the truth anymore or try and gild the lily. Because if it does, we're going to find out about it, find out that you've been lying to us all along about extras that don't work and specials that aren't special. And our reaction is not going to be pretty.
Informed digital consumers aren't just a threat to the auto business, they're a threat to any business where there are objective standards for judging the product. So while something like food may be less affected (you either like Cheerios or you don't, though nutritional information is certainly ripe for scrutiny), even packaged goods like laundry detergent or toothpaste can fall victim, since there's an objective standard for how clean your clothes are or the whiteness of your teeth.
All that noise you hear about "conversations" is really just people sharing objective opinions of products on review sites, blogs and other digital media. The "conversation" only starts once the marketer actually responds to the criticism -- right there on the site -- with a pledge to try harder, a refund offer or some other acknowledgement of the consumer's dissatisfaction. Which, while it's not put into practice as much as it should be, is just plain common sense. But enough "conversations" about how bad your product is and no amount of apologizing is going to save it. Which may just provide a real incentive to create better, more likeable products.
Because people are people, there always will be the need for some sort of brand advertising to help us distinguish between the cool brand and the not-so-cool brand. But the ability to research a product -- to learn all the details that were previously unavailable to us and to make a decision based on those facts -- is what now ultimately drives our purchase decisions.
And that, my friends, is the real digital revolution.
Alan Wolk, author of the popular Toad Stool blog (http://www.toadstoolblog.com), is a New York-based social media strategist and creative director. He can be reached at email@example.com.