Written by Korthenius Rebecca
Web 2.0: Consumer empowerment through the Internet evolution brings implications for marketers
The Internet evolution has progressed rapidly and In the 21st century we find ourselves in the web 2.0 era, more than anything characterized by consumer empowerment (Deighton & Kornfeld, 2009). As opposed to consumers in the web 1.0 phase, consumers in web 2.0 are more critical (Wind, 2008) and demands interaction while refusing to be fed with information as passive spectators (Christodoulides, 2009). The world surrounding web 2.0 is characterized by the motto ‘Essere est percepi’ – I exist if I am seen (Cova & Pace, 2006, p.1100), something that may well explain the social media explosion in the web 2.0 era. The purpose of this paper is to follow the Internet evolution to see what implications the consumer empowerment of web 2.0 brings to marketers. The most important conclusion drawn is that marketers in web 2.0 need to be prepared to share control with consumers and let them in as co-creators. When doing so, this might result in new, unforeseen, innovation.
Web 1.0: The Internet as a billboard
Step into the time machine and I will take you from the current consumer empowerment era of web 2.0 back to the unforgettable 1990s. Already forgot that decade? No worries, I will give you a short summary: The Euro is introduced as a common European currency (European Commission, 2014), Jack and Rose fall in love on Titanic and millions of teenagers are mesmerized by Spice Girls and Backstreet Boys. Starting to remember? This decade further gives birth to the World Wide Web, which will forever revolutionize business and marketing (Winer, 2009) as well as enhance consumer empowerment. As opposed to how web 2.0 is used, companies mainly use web 1.0 as a ‘billboard’ (Armelini & Villanueva, 2011, p.32) with the purposes of boosting offline brand activities and provide information (Kietzmann et al., 2011). Consumer empowerment is not yet on the map, and due to the passive role given to consumers, web 1.0 is described as a ‘one-way communication system’ (Hoffman & Novak, 1996, p.50; Muniz & Schau, 2011, p.209). The reason is that companies and brands pre web 2.0 have no intention to have their consumers communicate back; they want to inform and remind rather than interact (Christodoulides, 2009). Web 1.0 is about creating brand awareness, not engagement, and brand managers are still in full control of their brands (Christodoulides, 2009). However, times change, and with the new millennium, consumers start to realize what tool of power has been given to them and how much more capacity the Internet possesses: Say hello to web 2.0.
Web 2.0: The consumer empowerment era
Let’s leave Spice Girls, Titanic and web 1.0 behind and fast-forward to the 21st century. Here web 1.0 has become web 2.0, which functions ‘more like a café than a billboard’ (Armelini & Villanueva, 2011, p.32). This is the case since some very important ingredients are added to web 2.0, namely interactivity and connectivity (Hanna, Rohm & Crittenden, 2011). Consumers in web 2.0 demand an active role, are more critical and trust their network more than companies (Blackshaw & Nazzaro, 2006; Wind, 2008). They start to use the Internet to its full potential. As web 2.0 advances, online communities start to pop up, thanks to which consumer empowerment grows even stronger (Christodoulides, 2009). The consumer in web 2.0 hence moves away from being a passive spectator to become an interactive co-creator (Cova & Pace, 2006; Hanna, Rohm & Crittenden, 2011; Christodoulides, 2009; Wind, 2008; Singh & Sonnenburg, 2012) and ‘the technology that was supposed to empower marketers has empowered consumers instead’ (Fournier & Avery, 2011, p.193). Finally the Internet’s original purpose of linking people together is fulfilled (Fournier & Avery, 2011) as web 2.0 is increasingly developed, and ‘corporate communication has been democratized’ (Kietzmann et al., 2011, p.242).
The consumer empowerment journey of web 2.0 reaches one step further as the simple idea of linking people together is developed by Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook. He starts this forum in 2004 (Philips, 2007) without suspecting the enormous demand and future growth of it. This will become one of the most successful platforms in web 2.0 as it further enhances consumer empowerment. Youtube, Twitter, Tumblr and other online success stories follow suit during this time period, and the birth of social media is a fact – platforms that encourage consumer empowerment through interaction and sharing. Today, ten years after its foundation, Facebook has around one billion users, and 98% of all 18-24 year olds worldwide use social networks (Statistic Brain, 2014). With this in mind it is not hard to figure out how attractive these social media platforms have come to be for companies in the web 2.0 environments, in constant search for their target audiences. Web 2.0 has brought a marketing revolution through consumer empowerment, where social media is added to the traditional marketing mix (Armelini & Villanueva, 2011), as it has forever changed the interaction process between the consumer and the brand (Singh & Sonnenburg, 2012). Now, does this web 2.0 revolution mean that social media should replace traditional media? This is what Pepsi tried to do, an experiment that ended up in Pepsi dropping one ranking in most bought cola brand from number two behind Coca-Cola to number three (Armelini & Villanueva, 2011). Pepsi was not the only company to try this out, since this equation at first ‘seemed like a no-brainer’ (Fournier & Avery, 2011, p.193). However, as it turns out, social media should not be considered the budget alternative to traditional media, as it demands extensive amounts of time, talent and creativity to succeed (Armelini & Villanueva, 2011). The fact that the consumer empowerment era of web 2.0 consists of engaged and interactive consumers does not mean that all traditional marketing activities should be abandoned (Barwise & Meehan, 2010). Rather the two medias should be used as complements (Barwise & Meehan, 2010; Armelini & Villanueva, 2011; Fournier & Avery, 2011; Hanna, Rohm & Crittenden, 2011) since brands must gain both attention and engagement in web 2.0.
How marketers can best adapt to reach consumers in web 2.0
The consumer empowerment brought by web 2.0 leads to some vital implications for all marketers out there as, unfortunately, there is ‘no magic formula that will work for every company’ (Armelini & Villanueve, 2011, p.35). The use of social media is two-folded, because even though social media isn’t financially costly, much more than money is at stake – namely the company’s reputation (Armelini & Villanueva, 2011) as consumers in web 2.0 are increasingly critical (Fournier & Avery, 2011, Wind, 2008). The truth is that companies make tons of mistakes in social media, much due to the lack of understanding (Kietzmann et al., 2011), but also due to pure stupidity. One example of this is when the food website Epicurious used the Boston bombings to promote their recipes (Edwards, 2012). Such careless use of social media will most probably result in serious damage to the brand’s reputation, and could easily be avoided using common sense. Consumer empowerment is not just a buzz phrase, it’s real, and consumers in web 2.0 speak their mind and are not afraid to step on any company’s toes if they have to.
This leads the discussion to the most inevitable challenge for marketers in the web 2.0 era: Control. As Armelini & Villanueva so wisely write: ‘you can get people talking about your product, but you can’t control what they say’ (2011, p.33). Companies hence face a trade-off in this consumer empowerment era: Web 2.0 and social media give companies a cheap chance of viral success, on the tough condition of shared control. Marketers in web 2.0 are simply no longer in charge of their brands (Cova & Pace, 2006; Fournier & Avery, 2011; Hanna, Rohm & Crittenden, 2011). Rather they must accept the role as a brand host (Christodoulides, 2009), sharing part of the control with consumers. As soon as brand messages are released into the social media jungle, they are, unescapably, immediately objects to open source branding (Fournier & Avery, 2011). This means that consumers in web 2.0 have all the possibilities to influence the brand’s meaning, identity and core values (Christodoulides, 2009; Hanna, Rohm & Crittenden, 2011), which is risky indeed. For this reason many companies struggle with letting go of control (Barwise & Meehan, 2010; Fournier & Avery, 2011) and marketers in web 2.0 have learnt the hard way that ‘radical transparency’ is necessary when doing so (Thompson, 2007, p.1). Brands that have succeeded in social media have been both authentic and relevant, and further not compromised on their values when wanting an ad to go viral (Barwise & Meehan, 2010).
Furthermore successful web 2.0 marketers have understood that less control means that the brand image needs to be as close as possible to the brand image of the consumer (Singh & Sonnenburg, 2012), or the image the marketer wish for the consumer to have. Creating a positive brand image through social media can for example be done by triggering emotions since research shows that web 2.0 consumers are more likely to share something when getting emotionally involved (Stieglitz & Dang-Xuan, 2013). The Canadian airline WestJet released a social media campaign in December 2013 called WestJet Christmas Miracle. Just before getting on their flight, Santa Claus asked passengers what they wanted for Christmas. When heading to the baggage claim after having landed, they found Christmas presents with their names on it rather than suitcases (Moran, 2013). Hugs were shared and tears rolled. The interactive comments shared on social media about this are overwhelmingly positive as consumers are surprised to see the airline ‘giving back’ as someone calls it. This has come to be a viral success story that currently has over 35 million YouTube-clicks, and is a perfect example on how to handle web 2.0 marketing in the consumer empowerment era.
The consumer empowerment of web 2.0 further implies that co-creation with consumers seem to be a great way of using social media (Wind, 2008; Founrier & Avery, 2011; Singh & Sonnenburg, 2012). If marketers in web 2.0 allow and acknowledge consumers as co-creators, this might result in new innovation input (Antorini, Muniz & Askildsen, 2012), something with potential to benefit both consumers and companies. Web 2.0 marketers should hence motivate consumers to be active participants (Fournier & Avery, 2011), as consumers have even come to expect this (Hanna, Rohm & Crittenden, 2011). The Danish brand Lego and the Italian brand Nutella are successful examples of co-creation. These brands realized the true meaning of consumer empowerment in web 2.0 and the need to let them in as co-creators. When they did, amazing things happened. In the Nutella case, the company (Ferrero) intended to shut down the biggest Nutella fan page, but finally allowed consumers to keep their online platform where they could share their passion for the product (Cova & Pace, 2006). This only strengthened the company and the brand further. In the Lego case, the co-creation lead to an unforeseen innovation journey, which also proved very profitable for Lego (Antorini, Muniz & Askildsen, 2012).
Alongside the Internet evolution we have witnessed a remarkable consumer empowerment, which has vital implications for marketers today. In the first phase of web 1.0 consumers were seen as passive receivers, and companies used the Internet as a billboard to shout out their one-to-one messages. However, as web 2.0 developed consumer empowerment was a fact. Consumers of today’s web 2.0 refuse to be passive spectators, and instead demand interaction and shared control. Social media has in this way become the new element in the traditional marketing mix, an element composed by hundreds of platforms that many companies still struggle with keeping apart. Web 2.0 brings additional confusion in the split between traditional and social media, however it is clear that a mix of both is important to gain both attention and engagement. The main challenge for companies in the social media marketing of web 2.0 is to share control with consumers. The possible benefits of doing so are that consumers can be let in as co-creators and both inspire, innovate and also be extremely profitable for companies. The companies that will be attractive in web 2.0 are those that ‘are exploiting the many opportunities presented by social media while keeping an unwavering eye on their brand promise’ (Barwise & Meehan, 2010, p.82).
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