The future of the internet

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If you made a picture of the online world today and compared it with a picture of the online world five years ago, the differences would be huge. Five years ago Facebook was a small site, and YouTube and Twitter had only just been started up. The smartphone did not exist yet and nobody had heard of tablets yet. In five years’ time the digital world and the related technology have developed rapidly.

Because of this technological progress it seems logical for people to see the Internet’s future mainly on a technological level. The future options, such as location based services and augmented reality, are endless.

The future of the Internet? People!

Yet I am still convinced that the Internet’s future is not technology, but people. In the end the people use the technology. In the past year there was an increase in the number of situations where a lot of impact came from people using the new technologies. Some examples are the Arab Spring and the London riots. But during the drama at the Belgian music festival Pukkelpop, many civilians also took the initiative: they kept each other informed via social media, and relief actions were organised via Twitter and Facebook. People understand how they can achieve things via social media which were unthinkable five years ago.

The second dimension of social media

By now marketing managers understand the impact of social media and the consumers’ role in making or breaking a brand. In the past two years marketing communication has evolved enormously; an increasing number of companies use the conversation thought and appeal to new media to approach the consumer. As far as I’m concerned, this is a good thing.

However there is a second dimension to the story which is unfortunately often forgotten. Research has shown that one out of three consumers likes to be actively involved in their favourite brand’s management. The second dimension of the usage of social media is to jump on the bandwagon and to ask customers to co-develop new products or services. In the past years we have seen a lot of nice cases of co-creation, such as the Lay’s campaign in the Netherlands which resulted in the world-famous (or not?) ‘Patatje Joppie’ crisps. Recently Nokia asked its fans to come up with a new ringtone for the brand. And there are numerous other fun cases. Each and every single one of them means that companies use the customer’s creativity, thus actively involving the consumers directly in their management..

From co-creation to structural collaboration

Nonetheless there is one important “but†in these co-creation campaigns. No matter how well they are realised, they are one-off marketing actions. The objective is to give a lot of publicity to a brand in a creative way. There is not much wrong with that, but it does not use the full potential of the consumer’s total power. The challenge is to move on from one-off co-creation to a structural collaboration with consumers. Structural collaboration means that customers are involved in all aspects of your company. This includes thinking up ideas for new products, pointing out new consumer trends, launching products, thinking with you about your content strategy, helping you to map your touchpoints and to make them conversation-worthy, helping you to come up with an ad campaign and even co-determine your price policy. In a recent (2008?) Harvard Business Review article, it is alleged that a better solution is found to all company issues when companies are open to collaboration with their customers. When Heinz was looking for ideas recently for new table sauces, they appealed to their community. The consumers’ ideas were studied and interpreted both by the Heinz management and by its consumers. About 20% of the realised concepts originated from the consumers’ analysis. Without involving the consumer, the Heinz management would not have noticed a fifth of the insights.

Furthermore recent research at Wageningen University proved that a product mentioning ‘co-created with consumers’ on its packaging sells better than a product without such a label. In other words: the consumers have more faith in each other’s judgement than in the company’s.

Time and time again all research results in the same answers: the more consumers are involved in a company, the stronger the results. And besides: there is nothing that consumers want more.

Finally: companies of the future?

The Internet’s future is shaped by people who are gratefully using new technologies and media. Aiming at both dimensions, having people help your company by letting them spread your message and having people help by their structural collaboration to your company’s future, that is what smart companies will do in the coming years.

This post is based on a presentation of mine a few weeks age at Vision 2012, a congress where we were asked to dream about the future. I am really looking forward to reactions to this concept!

Power to the people

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