Huffington Post co-founder Arianna Huffington today urged media companies to embrace the zeitgeist of consumer control and develop new ways to engage people who increasingly "want to be part of the story of their time."
Speaking at the American Association of Advertising Agencies' Transformation Conference in San Francisco, Huffington quoted everyone from Albert Einstein and Hercules to Craigslist founder Craig Newmark and musician will.i.am to underscore her message that newspapers and other media need to evolve quicker to respond to the massive changes in how the public consumes—and now participates in—news.
"We are in this brave new world and this discussion of [media Web site] pay walls . . . completely misses what is happening," Huffington said. "In every survey you read, you have about 80 percent of consumers who say that they don't want to pay for news and opinion, unless it's very specialized news and information."
She added: "We can't use an analog map and expect to find our way in a digital world. . . . The content provider is no longer at the center of the universe. At the center of the universe is now the news consumer."
Digital technology and the Internet have given rise to citizen journalists for whom "self-expression is the new entertainment," Huffington said. And unlike the past when people absorbed media passively while sitting on a couch, consumers now use the Web to post, access and circulate information in what Huffington described as the "golden age of engagement." The sooner that media owners tap into that phenomenon, Huffington suggested, the better off they will be.
"This is the new reality. People want to be part of the story of their time. They want to participate—both in small ways and in big ways, both in small issues and in big issues—with what is happening in our world," Huffington said. "So, this is a huge opportunity for advertisers and marketers because the most engaged consumers are the most loyal ones."
More broadly, consumer involvement in media stems from empathy toward others and not just during tragedies such as the earthquake in Haiti, according to Huffington. Rather, people want to find broader meaning in life beyond personal concerns, which is "very much at the core of human nature," she added. "This is something that many brands are already tapping into. Coke and Pepsi and American Express and Starbucks and Nike and the Gap and Apple and Dove and Yoplait and...many others are recognizing the significance of tapping into that longing in the consumer," she said.
Huffington spoke for about 20 minutes during the opening morning of the conference's general session. The conference runs through Wednesday.
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