Art & Commerce: If You Love It, Let It Go

The explosive expansion of e-commerce and advertising has taken the awkwardly adolescent online community and turned it into the big man on the consumer campus, a pervasive force that has infiltrated nearly every corner of every industry. As a result, interactive agencies are swimming in the deep end of the branding and marketing pool.

The problem with becoming popular overnight is that you risk being misunderstood. Walk into most interactive firms and you’ll hear the mantra: “Digital media allows consumers to engage more deeply with a brand; traditional advertising is a one-way street.” Notions like these are usually overstated, and no doubt self-serving. Having your brand name on a Web site does not make your brand interactive, even if you have great navigation, a hip color palette, a witty promotional video and a Flash-enabled mole-whacker game.

The consumer does have more options to engage with the brand digitally, but that doesn’t mean that the medium itself offers any significant advantage over traditional advertising. These sites present an experience that consumers can control to the extent of choosing one activity over another, but they cannot affect change or influence the brand in any meaningful way; therefore, it is not an interactive experience. The brand has missed an exclusive opportunity to engage that consumer as a constituent.

This is not to say that digital marketing and the Web can’t be potent marketing tools on their own. Philips Norelco had some success with its Bodygroom products by marketing them with videos featuring hilarious (decidedly PG-13) monologues about male-grooming practices, which made their way around the blog, media aggregator and water-cooler circuits. The potential in viral marketing is apparent—Diet Coke and Mentos executives certainly aren’t complaining—but in a saturated market, they’re hit or miss, and viral sites are not interactive in a true sense: They’re merely online extensions of the traditional advertising model.

In a world where countless people stream live video feeds of themselves sleeping and share their inner angst with millions of anonymous “friends,” companies cannot expect a new generation of consumers to buy Ivory soap simply because their parents used it. But, when one marketing door closes, many more open.

Redfin, the online residential real-estate brokerage, has significantly shifted the paradigm in the real-estate world by embracing the transparency of the Web 2.0 medium. The firm consistently solicits, displays and acts on its customers’ feedback, fostering trust and brand engagement, and positioning itself as a truly interactive real-estate experience.

If Redfin is an example of how interactivity can drive success, Xerox is the cautionary tale about what happens when you isolate the consumer from your brand experience. Xerox virtually invented the modern PC, and its researchers pioneered many of the interactive technologies we see today. Although Xerox may have anticipated its customers’ needs on some level, the company failed entirely to connect to the customer experience of its product. Apple, on the other hand, did not initially develop revolutionary technologies; it exploited innovations by Xerox and others and developed products that elevated the user experience. The result is that Xerox is known for broken copiers with unintelligible error messages, and the iPod is a cultural icon.

These are scary days for marketers. Do you invite consumers to your Web site only to have them trash your product or drive your brand away from its original goals? Do you run a greater risk by not knowing what they really think? The reality of this interactive age is that, by your invitation or not, your brand will find its way into chat rooms, blogs and, if you’re very lucky, YouTube parodies.

In the interactive world, engagement is the currency with which we buy consumer trust. By embracing these opportunities, companies show transparency and genuine interest in their consumers; by resisting them, they risk completely abdicating their roles as brand stewards.

Web sites are the archetype of interactive marketing, but the most fundamental example of an interactive experience is a dialogue. A conversation can take place anywhere about anything, and this is where digital and online media provide an opportunity: They can open the door for millions of people across all demographic lines to engage with your product. In fact, odds are they’re already talking about it, and it’s time for you to take a deep breath, let go and join the discussion.