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Controlling the Conversation

Ever think about why American Idol is so popular? I have, and I suspect that it’s because the program’s very premise is that the viewers control the story line. More or less, that is. In reality, like a lot of other brands, American Idol wins by merely creating the illusion of consumer empowerment.

Ever think about why American Idol is so popular? I have, and I suspect that it’s because the program’s very premise is that the viewers control the story line. More or less, that is. In reality, like a lot of other brands, American Idol wins by merely creating the illusion of consumer empowerment.

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The show’s first dirty little secret seems to be that only a small percentage of the people who watch American Idol actually vote for their favorites. A viewer survey by Initiative, a media and marketing communications network, finds, surprisingly, that the opportunity to vote is actually the least engaging aspect of the show.

The second not-so-secret secret is that the show’s judges — Simon Cowell especially — are there to subvert what America actually wants and make sure the “correct” contestant wins. Problem is, this season an “incorrect” contestant — Constantine Maroulis — attempted to bypass American Idol‘s idea of a story line by creating his own.

How did he do that? That’s easy: Constantine was reading what his fans (a.k.a. “The Greek-God Groupies”) were saying on the American Idol blog and taking their lead. If his fans asked him to wear his hair in a ponytail, that’s what he did. If they sent him five dozen roses and asked him to wear one on the show, he did that, too.

Ultimately, Constantine Maroulis’s interactive storytelling couldn’t compete with American Idol‘s presumptive plot line, and he was eliminated from the competition. But that’s beside the point. His branding was all about having a conversation with his consumers, and he set a fine example for other brands to follow.

It’s doubtful many of them will because, frankly, so many marketers seem to be afraid (or even in contempt) of what their consumers have to say. Just look at corporate America’s reaction to blogging: Rather than encouraging a true dialogue, much of branded America appears intent on controlling the conversation.

Indeed, a recent article in BusinessWeek suggests that a good chunk of the marketing world’s energy is negative when it comes to blogs. In the main, they are “monitoring” blogs for bad news and “buttonholing” bloggers for the purposes of “damage control.”

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But what, exactly, is the nature of the damage? That consumers are telling their versions of a brand’s story? That Constantine should win instead of Carrie? That’s not damage; it’s insight. As Yahoo!’s Jeff Weiner told BusinessWeek: “I’m amazed people don’t get it yet… Never in the history of market research has there been a tool like (blogs).”

Good marketers have always had conversations with their consumers — through focus groups, surveys, and other research techniques. But like a lot of what happens in marketing, the dialogue tends to be a tactic, not a strategy. The conversation starts and stops at the pleasure of the marketer, who firmly controls the context every step of the way. Doesn’t that make it harder to be innovative? It would sure seem so.

Mon Quotidien, a newspaper in France, is taking an interesting, alternative approach. Because the newspaper is written for kids, it allows them to pick the stories it runs. According to an article in The Christian Science Monitor, the paper invites kids to participate in its twice-weekly editorial meetings, and actually gives them veto power over what gets published.

Sometimes the results are wildly counterintuitive. For example, on a day when the story choices included an “important” election and an “unimportant” bear in a zoo, the kids chose to lead with the bear story. The paper always goes with what the kids select, and as a result, Mon Quotidien is growing at a time when many other papers are not.

“If Mon Quotidien works as well as it does, it’s because it has the courage to look at its readers’ interests,” says Jeff Mignon, who helped launch the paper 10 years ago and is now developing similar papers in various U.S. markets.

Al Gore, the former U.S. vice president, is pursuing a similar concept with Current, his new cable television channel. Instead of setting up a conventional newsroom, Gore is inviting viewers to submit their own “short films, documentaries, and home videos,” as reported by The Wall Street Journal.

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Anne Kallin Zehren, the channel’s marketing chief, says Current will mark a departure from the traditional television model, which she describes as “a bunch of executives, probably a lot older, dictating what they think they should be watching.”

Meanwhile, a little closer to marketing’s mainstream, there’s some evidence of a few mega-brands dancing on a related wavelength. McDonald’s, for instance, decided to let the consumer’s voice be heard via it latest tagline, “I’m lovin’ it.”

Larry Light, McDonald’s chief marketing officer, told an Association of National Advertisers meeting last fall that finding the “I” voice was key to the ad campaign’s magic. He said too many campaigns used the “We” voice, and conceded that McDonald’s almost fell into that trap again itself. Ultimately, however, they saw the wisdom in projecting its message from the consumer’s perspective.

Whether the consumer’s voice in the brand’s advertising fully extends to a greater voice in the McDonald’s dining experience remains to be seen, of course. So long as McDonald’s limits the voice of its consumer to its ad slogan it is limited, like American Idol, merely to an impression that its consumers have assumed ownership of its brand. They really haven’t — the message still belongs to McDonald’s whether the voice is yours, mine, or Kobe Bryant’s.

Apple does something like that, too, although even more cleverly. Yes, its iPod allows us to create our own listening experience, but we can’t even change our own damn batteries on an iPod, much less customize the device in any profoundly meaningful way. The same is basically true of its computers. We can only be as creative as Apple’s “black box” allows us to be, and we all know who’s really in charge.

One wonders whether Apple’s command-and-control approach to product design will blunt its innovative edge somewhere down the line. At some point, some worthy competitor is bound to come along with not only a better story to tell, but also the courage to let its consumers change that story and feed it right back in an infinite loop of innovation.

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It’s like my mother once told me: “Creativity is about changing someone else’s idea into your own.”

Isn’t that what we marketers try to do each and every day?

Maybe we would do it even better if we let our consumers in on the fun, Constantine-style.

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