Consumers Take Control, Marketers Take Cover

Last Updated Oct 26, 2007 2:08 PM EDT

Remember when marketers were about to enter The Golden Age of Digital Interactivity? Using technology to tap into rich profiling data, sellers would be able to implant highly targeted messages deep into the core of the online consumer and extract a purchase before the unsuspecting sap new what hit him.

It hasn't work out that way. In fact, a research paper titled Digital Interactivity: Unanticipated Consequences for Markets, Marketing, and Consumers, published September 26, argues that consumers, far from being victims of marketing technology, are instead using its power in the form of consumer review sites (Epinions), social networking hubs (Bebo), trading sites (eBay), and user-generated content sites (YouTube) to circumvent Big Media.

If true, argue researchers John Deighton and Leora Kornfeld, it's time for marketers to reflect and retool how they approach prospective buyers. Forget broadcasting your message. You now have to interact with user communities -- and you better travel lightly.

"Commerce has had to enter these traffic lanes with caution. The marketer in peer-to-peer environments is an interloper, more talked-about than talking. At best its role is to provoke conversations among consumers, and at worst it becomes the enemy, attacked with invective or parody," observe Deighton and Kornfeld. "Today, as marketing strategy grapples with the question of how to work with social media, old paradigms die hard. Marketing may be less a matter of domination and control, and more a matter of fitting in."

Should marketers consider social networking sites friend or foe? What's the best strategy for "traveling lightly" in these waters while still making an impact on potential customers?

  • Sean Silverthorne

    Sean Silverthorne is the editor of HBS Working Knowledge, which provides a first look at the research and ideas of Harvard Business School faculty. Working Knowledge, which won a Webby award in 2007, currently records 4 million unique visitors a year. He has been with HBS since 2001.

    Silverthorne has 28 years experience in print and online journalism. Before arriving at HBS, he was a senior editor at CNET and executive editor of ZDNET News. While at At Ziff-Davis, Silverthorne also worked on the daily technology TV show The Site, and was a senior editor at PC Week Inside, which chronicled the business of the technology industry. He has held several reporting and editing roles on a variety of newspapers, and was Investor Business Daily's first journalist based in Silicon Valley.