The Age of Expression

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Social expression today has reached its apogee with sites like MySpace, Facebook, Blogger and YouTube. Companies like News Corp., which bought MySpace for $580 million, get it. Consumers want to express their hopes, aspirations, opinions and frustrations without fetters, corporate or institutional. The Internet is their tool, and the world their audience.

Yet there is this feeling that most marketers and publishers are closing their eyes and hoping this trend will go away. Wake up: This is the Age of Expression.

Blogs and online communities have been around for almost a decade. What's changed now is how easy it is for a consumer to shoot videos and post them online, transfer digital images from one Web page to another, install music with ease, enable e-commerce and basically leave a digital trail wherever they choose.

Barriers to entry are gone. Consumers are now equal to marketers and publishers in their ability to use media to convey thought and opinion - without fear of recrimination, more or less. All they lack is the collective brand to really swing opinion on a mass scale. And that, too, soon will happen as online communities organize and challenge old-world hierarchies.

Beth Comstock, president of digital media and market development at NBC Universal, was a speaker at the Online Media, Marketing and Advertising Conference and Expo in New York during Advertising Week. She called the rise of sites like MySpace and YouTube "a pronoun revolution" where control of the brand may be sacrificed.

"The media should not stay ahead of the consumer," she told executives in the audience. "And even if we could, why would we want to?"

It's time marketers truly engage with their audiences and open their sites to online comment and communities. The lawyers will speak up against allowing consumer comment disparaging brands or companies. Large shareholders may balk at words or images that affect their investments. But if you don't co-opt the revolution, it will sweep you away.

There's no reason a Lands' End or a Neiman Marcus or a Kraft Foods can't take the relationship with customers a step further with genuine social networking blogs on their sites. Where's the official Harley-Davidson blog? Online profiles don't cut it. Can you imagine the community online, with their photos, videos and tattoos for all to see? Why hasn't an agency pitched the motorcycle maker on that business?

It's still a surprise that Viacom bickered over price with MySpace's backers and let News Corp. walk away with that prize. News Corp. promptly signed a $900 million deal with Google to make that company the search engine on MySpace. Why is Viacom waiting for user-generated video site YouTube to fall into someone else's lap? After all, Viacom owns MTV and VH1. Get the audience, let them speak to you and with each other, and then they may listen to advertisers that follow. Treat consumers well, trust them and they will express their gratitude.

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