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The power of instant democracy

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A famously controversial American TV personality recently discovered the hard way that more power now rests in the hands of average people than at any other time in history.

Glenn Beck is known for being a very pro-Republican commentator on the Fox Network. The effective use of social networks has held him accountable for his words and actions in a way not possible until the last couple of years. This has implications, both negative and positive, for all brands and the people who market them.

In the red corner we have…

Beck does not try and hide the fact he is no fan of President Obama. This is fine of course – everyone is entitled to an opinion. The problem is that many people consider his tactics to be less than honourable. He has been accused of spreading lies and hatred on many occasions. He is a favourite target of Jon Stewart’s Daily Show. And sites claiming to expose Beck’s lies have popped up all over the internet.

Things came to head when Beck said: “This president has exposed himself as a guy over and over and over again who has a deep-seated hatred for white people … this guy is, I believe, a racist.”

Within minutes of him uttering these words, videos of the segment had been distributed over the internet through social networks. Comments began springing up everywhere and it quickly became one of the most viewed video segments – for a day or two. And that may have been as far as it went if it weren’t for a group called The Color of Change.

This group came into existence to inform Black American’s, via the internet, of changes in the political landscape and help get their voices heard. The Color of Change had the idea to set up a special Glenn Beck page, not to expose his lies, but to expose the advertisers who supported his show. They posted a video of some of Beck’s most outrageous segments and overlaid the advertisers who were sponsoring the show and asked people to use an online form to express their anger to the advertisers.

Some of Fox’s biggest advertisers soon dropped Beck from their advertising schedule. One even went as far as to stop advertising on the network altogether. Social networks were buzzing every time another advertiser decided to drop Beck. The people had spoken and it was influencing the bottom line of a major international company. Instant democracy in action.

What can be learnt

Glenn Beck has already made a tearful apology… of sorts. He has always been hugely popular with his audience so it is likely he will bounce back from this after a few weeks of carefully constructed PR. But this example does highlight some very interesting questions.

Should brands pay attention to online campaigns like the one against Beck?

The Beck campaign is really just one example of a much wider trend that grants viewers of web content the right to be heard.

Blogs have allowed people to comment on articles for a long time, but the issue with this is that only the truly motivated take the time to write a comment. Now that many sites have devised ways of making it very simple to be heard – usually a simple combination of vote up or vote down buttons – more people are speaking up. This can only mean that campaigns like this will happen more often and with greater impact.

President Obama has even structured national addresses based on how many votes certain subjects receive on the White House. And the subjects themselves were written by members of the public.

Companies can no longer hide behind the “official company line” or rely simply on media spend to influence the public’s thinking on any given subject. Ignore social network-driven campaigns at your own peril.

What does this say about the collective online community?

The original dream of the World Wide Web was to have information free to all and instantly accessible. This dream still lives on in a growing variety of ways and the online community has taken that philosophy into their lives. They love a movement and will react to a cause.

But beyond this grandiose concept is something far more fundamental. The human race is social in nature and individuals like to make an impact.

Writing for Wired magazine in May this year, futurist Kevin Kelly examined the profound cultural shift underway – he called it “The New Socialism”. It is the idea that the human race is now congregating and communicating online – sharing information, cooperating on small-scale events and collaborating on large-scale projects – creating a fast-paced survival-of-the-fittest environment. When a concept can grow and mutate at breakneck speed, everyone can be exposed to it.

This is not a passing phase. It is an extension of what it means to be human. Empowering the individual to have a voice will always bring about change. That is what democracy is all about.

How can companies use this ‘instant democracy’ to their advantage?

All of this points to huge opportunity for brand managers. The collective opinions of millions of people can be assessed in real time. You no longer need to rely solely on expensive software to analyse online conversations and try and gauge intent (bit of a hint here: it’s usually the ones that are angry who take the time to comment at all). Of course, that software helps, but having a system in place that allows people to vote on any given topic will give you precise real-time information, positive or negative.

This could be used to pinpoint new markets, develop new products, conduct market research or even decide on what to speak about. I have recently been involved in developing a system for a client that will enable an audience to communicate and vote on detailed views that, until recently, would have been impossible. And it seems every company has information that is hard to tease out of their market or their stakeholders.

The rise of social platforms tells us in no uncertain terms that people want to be heard. Amazing things can happen if you listen to them.

Mark Cameron is the creative director and a partner at Working Three. He has been developing digital strategy for a range of clients for the last eight years. More articles from him are on the Working Three blog.

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