Future of PR: When Agencies Represent Communities –Not Brands

We continue to see that communities will continue to gain more and more power as they lean on each other to make decisions, support each other, and share their lifestyle. What happens to agencies that traditionally serve brands?

Seem far fetched? Not really. We’re already starting to see bits of this: I’ve seen user innovation in car forums, Facebook groups, and networks of mommy bloggers. Or take for example UserVoice , GetSatisfaction or Ideastorms that allow communities to define what features they want with products.

Imagine for a second that these communities, say bike-enthusiasts, or young mothers, or even home-theater-fans could start to define using organized innovation tools what products and features they want. What if Doc Searls vision for Vendor Relationship Management systems (where consumers define what products they want –brands bid for them) takes off?

With communities in the driver seat over product, a shift will happen as communities can define the spec of future products and therefore multiple brands will bid for their business. As a result, we should expect the agency model to flip over, where PR agencies start to represent communities of customers –rather than brands.

What if these communities (we’re likely all part of at least one) started to band together and used UserVoice to define what we want? What if a savvy agency saw this, and decided to take our ideas to market on our behalf?

What could this wacky idea look like? These PR agencies would take the community defined spec to brands, bid for the top design, and even help negotiate the terms. As a result, they could skim profits off the transaction, or maybe offer new services such as community support, or organize events. Either way, if they stay as the conduit between them. Some users in Twitter mentioned this already happens, that agencies represent communities in non-profits, or at the chamber of commerce, but I’m thinking much broader, into the context of commerce.

Perhaps it won’t be that polar, existing agencies that represent brands will adopt the right skills and relationships, and will retain their relationship with brands. If you’ve access, a forward looking report called the Connected Agency discusses how this could work.

What do you think of this wild idea? Far-fetched or is it already underway? If communities assert control over what products they want, will agencies follow suit?

Update: we’ve now 40 comments below, and without a doubt the wisdom from the commentators is greater than the original assertion. I think one key finding from everyone is that this trend is far greater than PR, and impacts all agencies, and marketing as a whole. Secondly, it’s difficult to determine who these agencies will monetize, and some suggest they’ll go away all together. We’ll keep on exploring this topic, I’ve some new ideas on consumer crowdsourcing that I’ll blog soon. Thanks for being part of the dialog.

91 Replies to “Future of PR: When Agencies Represent Communities –Not Brands”

  1. Perhaps the model could look something like this? (Although this is overly simplified)

    1. Empower communities with enhanced/creative tools not readily available somewhere else for free.
    2. Benefit from the positive sentiment.
    3. Learn from the negative sentiment and use it to revise number 1.

  2. Excellent blog. Would force companies that don’t listen to client needs/input to stop making poor decisions/investments in ideas developed internally that don’t work.

  3. Jeremiah,

    Fascinating topic, and I imagine it’s less “high concept” than it may seem at first blush.

    I am with Mr. Garfunkel (above): unsure why you envision PR firms to be best positioned to make this pivot. It feels to me like an entirely new type of agency, one with roots in PR, but also with skill sets not typically associated with communications firms — product management, R&D, productization. I feel it’s almost like a commercial lobbyist.

    Anyway, I think you should keep bangin’ on this. I personally would love to hear more.

  4. Representing the user, or communities of users, is crucial in the process of designing, building, and promoting products. It’s amazing how many companies manage to build products with so little representation of the consumer, and how many PR or marketing campaigns are put together in the same way. We see the (poor) results all the time, with obvious criticisms apparent at a glance.

    I agree with your point that PR is too often about taking the company’s agenda to the consumer. Account Planning is meant to bring a customer-advocate to the table in designing advertising, to get the voice of the consumer back to the company. Could that model work just as well for PR?

    Various movements in User Experience design similarly advocate for the user in work across areas extending beyond product and interface to every touchpoint the company has with the consumer.

    At some point, don’t they merge to being the same thing? — a core belief that you will be most successful when you put the customer first in all your processes, with the intention to listen and understand, to bring that back to product, service, and communication, to create experiences that wow, then to listen and iterate again to keep improving and deepening connections.

    It’s those companies where people actually use the product, where the CEO sometimes answers support calls, where the internal silos are broken down to look at the experience from the customer side rather than the company side, avoiding results like putting 80% work into improving an already decent web interface when the interactions are terrible on getting a montly paper bill or calling for support.

    Or spending most of the time we craft our messages listing to the company, rather than listening to what the consumers want and coming up with a strategy to not just spin the most appropriate message for them, but to actually meet their needs. And create more value for the company that does so.

  5. Communities are incredibly important–Absolutely foundational to the future of marketing. Here’s the problem– it’s not the job of the community to invent things–in fact they can’t. They don’t have the insight or the experience. I read a great quote recently– I’m paraphrasing but the gist was that it’s not the community’s job to solve a business problem– it’s simply its job to identify it. As Henry Ford said-“if I’d asked the customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse”.

    Communities work best when they complain–loudly. When those complaints are heard they create opportunities for those who monitor and manage them. Dell and Starbucks have learned that communities don’t invent well. They don’t filter well either. Reviews of decades of Arbitron diaries have shown that consumers want fewer commercials– that doesn’t really help radio get better or more profitable.

    The largest problems to solve in on-line community optimization is determining the role of the participant and the means and methods of rewarding participation.

    Meanwhile we all need to manage the tendency to over work new technologies and methods–to over rely on them– and then announce their failure when it can’t support all the expectation placed on them.

    Communities will supply intelligence to business metrics and traditional marketing research in a way that is utterly transformational. Communities will drive innovation more than they will actually innovate. Expecting new products or new line extensions to come out of communities may be expecting too much. Looking for ways to improve on service, speed product testing, and informing well-defined business decisions will be well-rewarded. Meantime, many marketers with a fear of “the great unwashed” will find their biases confirmed as they look for communities to do things that they are utterly incapable of.

  6. Exactly what I have been talking about since starting The Conversation Group — agencies need to rethink their role as intermediary between brands and communities — agencies must be market makers seeking to serve BOTH sides of the interaction.

  7. Seems to me like we’ve been talking about this in one form or another for a very long time. I even see snippets of Steven Covey’s 7 Habits in some of the comments e.g. Seek first to understand then to be understood. I’m not sure this is all that innovative or new.

    The problem with implementing this is you have to have people at the top of an enterprise – you know the company paying the money to the commercial lobbying or PR firm – that are willing to stick their neck out and do things differently. That’s always the initial hurdle – convincing people to risk their jobs by doing things in a different way than they’ve been doing them for years.

    When thinking about how to overcome that initial objection I’m often reminded of Dr. Phil’s now famous line “How’s that working for you”. The problem seems to me that even if status quo isn’t getting a company where they want to go the people in power are still reluctant to move so far outside the box.

    As someone who has worked in web and software development for a lot of years I have found myself preaching the virtues of early and frequent user involvement – even showing the ROI of doing it and the cost of not. When times are good and money is flush enterprises are all for it. As soon as the purse strings start to tighten though the tune changes.

    I think in order to make it work we need someone like Toyota to make it work in a big way then the US can study it for 10 years before attempting it. I know this comment seems negative and I’m not trying to be. I want this method of product design and development to work I just don’t see how unless we have, to bring Covey back into the fray, a major paradigm shift.

  8. The future of PR is dismal at best. What you are describing is the future of marketing. My experience with the PR industry confirms the suspicion that this is one old dog that has a hard time learning new tricks.

    After a century of working for brands, greasing the one way information conduits and controlling the message, public relations is poorly positioned to become a community advocate. There’s just too much invested in the old practices of packaging up and pitching “the news.”

    I agree with Jon and Joe. PR is poorly positioned to do much more than spew. Back in the mid ’90s advertising and marketing agencies moved too slowly to embrace the Internet. This spawned a new category of agency, the web shop. The empowerment of consumers and communities demands a new kind of agency, too. One that will evolve from the early pathfinders that are integrating blogger relations and social network marketing with other marketing disciplines.

    I’m not waiting for the future of PR, that’s going to take far too long. As Alan Kay said “the best way to predict the future is to invent it.”

  9. Interesting topic, for sure. It rankles me though that the public and even some in the marketing field have no idea what PR is all about, leading to stereotypical articles like this one.

    The purpose of PR is to gain third party endorsements for clients (be those corporations, government entities, private people or Facebook groups) from influential sources in the media, Web 2.0 and anywhere else someone influential might offer his/her opinion on a product or service, or community.

    That’s it!

    If a PR firm is trying to sell you anything different, don’t buy it, because it is most likely snake oil veiled under the guise of ‘strategic services’.

  10. Interesting thoughts here Jeremiah. I certainly see the tide shifting in how communities interact with brands in order to help product planning. I do believe there are companies who listen to customers/communities already…and they’ll be very open to such ideas. Thanks!

  11. There’s really two big points in your argument: one the behavior of consumers self-selectings as “consumer cartels” (at term we used to use back in the early days of PlanetFeedback.com), and two, the emerging agency relationship model with such cartels. Communities are clearly rationalizing in this direction, and agencies can either treat them as “channels of influence” or “clients” themselves. Except for really obvious ones — e.g. moms, auto enthusiasts — I’m a bit more skeptical re: the latter. Will keep thinking about this. – Pete Blackshaw

  12. You’re right Jeremiah in describing the rise of communities of consumers who are able today, through innovative technology, to speak *for* ourselves (eg, Twittr) and *by* ourselves (eg, blogging). If today consumers can “create” (eg, content, preferences, interests, needs, wants) own *relations* within our collective communities and beyond, if consumers today can “share” (eg, distribution, channels, marketing, placement) our own *relations*, then consider then, what exactly, why exactly do we need institutions outside of our own selves (PR agencies) to do what we do *for* own selves, *by* our own selves? What’s occurring today is nothing short of the evolution of a New constitution for PR, being created and shared *by* the people, *for* the people. PR Agencies, accustomed to monopolizing the creation and sharing of this *relations,* need to discern and adapt: How now, where now can we create value?

  13. Why would these communities need an agency…specifically a PR agency to represent their desired product preferences? Why wouldn’t the “leaders” of the group – and if these groups are organized enough to the extent that they could hire a PR firm, then they’d have appointed or elected leaders – make the presentation(s) to the different vendors?

    Another concern I would have is independent, individualistic thought. True customization – although highly improbable – can come down right to the individual. That includes aspects such as features, benefits, price, warranties, etc.

  14. The economic downturn combined w/maturation of social media is forcing agencies to reinvent/reassess. Some of this is allowing strategic marketing to surface in PR groups, forcing deep thoughts on how to reach audiences and convey/receive valuable info/content (hint: it ain’t a static press release and direct email blasts).
    It’s also starting to break down BU silos so that PR can inform product dev and engineers can inform PR. It’ll be a bit messy as territorial boundaries shift but the end result should be smarter communications programs – ones that are now about conversation no
    t megaphoning. And this will mean communities will be a bigger influencer than the past (see Spiceworks for an example).

  15. PR agencies already represent real world communities all the time. I don’t see many PR agencies taking up the causes of online communities of interest. First, social networking savvy agencies are few – depsite what they will tell you. Second, it’s difficult to balance two masters; especially when their interests can diverge and relationship to each other can be unstable. That leads me to think online communities that want strong representation should consider raising funds to hire their own. Looking to how unions and issue groups started should yield some lessons.

  16. This is a terrific and important topic. I think we are witnessing the emergence of SR (social
    relations representation) moving away from PR
    (public relations representation) which compliments my belief that ROI (return on investment) is transforming into ROI (return on influence..Might I also add that I think the topics you write on are always timely and strategic…Keep it up…

  17. Fantastic, thoughtful, post.

    The thought here for PR agencies is to start winding down their client work and instead use their media contacts, industry relationships and assets to build communities within that field.

    They need to be the instigators of the community, then represent continue representing that community to potential companies.

    There is a real future in this.

  18. Great post Jeremiah. I think you are on to something. But I question the premise that this is the future of PR. I believe your scenario is the future of a Customer Oriented Branding. I think it’s less of an evolution and more of a new way of marketing. For me it’s more of a blend of the of best parts of Customer Service, Corp. Brand Marketing & PR. However these disciplines will need to shed traditional strategies to the point they no longer resemble what they use to be.

    In other words when you embrace the community you embrace communication that aligns to your brand positioning as well as communication that does not. If PR is able to do that, I don’t think it is PR anymore.

  19. Jeremiah – Your timing on this could not have been better. you and I were betting to this topic in our conversation at IBM’s Tweetup last Monday (in the midst of the discussion on the line between editorial and paid advertising).

    Late last year, a few publishers in the fashion and lifestyle vertical formed the Style Coalition with the goal of doing just what you stated – helping brands reach and engage fans & consumers via an authentic, self-organized group of content creators. I think the PR label isn’t the right way to characterize this kind of organization. This method speaks directly to the brand as they are now able to remove layers and really connect.

    An indication of the enthusiasm at these brands for this approach can be found in the fact that several came to us before we had even done our first campaign. We have a few in the works and are in talks for even more. The “genuine” factor cannot be overlooked when it is the content creators and their readers/users at the forefront of the campaigns.
    It’s still early in the game, but I can’t help but think that this way will become big (any industry/sector) for anyone who takes the bull by the horns.

    We outlined our mission at

    http://stylecoalition.com/MISSION.aspx

  20. Great article.
    I cant help but think of so called listeners and viewers organisations actually plan and laber on behalf of their members. I work in an org like that. Maybe the profit org and business need to learn more from the non profits. Maybe the non profit actually are the prophets.

  21. This has traditionally been the domain of Trade organizations and industry groups, But they are usually to closed minded to have any real impact on consumers. Usually just act as lobbying organizations. If PR and marketing agencies and harness the power of communities and attract consumers to a product category a specific company will have an easier time turning consumers into customers.

  22. Antonio Gramsci believed that, with education, community leaders or, “organic intellectuals”, will emerge within communities who have leadership skills along with being rooted in the community, being “one of the people” (my words, not his!).

    I question whether communities should hire an outside PR agency or should there be individuals within a community who develop the skills that could serve the same function.

  23. Very interesting blog post – thank you! Definitely food for thought for all PR agencies out there looking to understand how online communities are shaping their clients’ brands.

  24. In my experience, PR is far removed from pitching the media alone – though we do that. We have to understand demographic (read community) needs and find all the ways to reach them. Some are breaking news driven, some are lifestyle media driven, some live in the social media world, some incorporate direct to consumer events, some tap into hopes and dreams via charitable efforts, and on and on.

    Is that PR to a purest? Probably not, it’s more a mix of all marketing elements, but the final goal of each element is to COMMUNICATE with consumers.

  25. Great post.

    I don’t think that PR agencies, as they currently operate, are the best catalyst for this innovation. I do think that communities will start to define the products that they want and then set their own prices.

  26. Clearly you’ve provoked a great topic of conversation Jeremiah. You had me all the way up to the point where a PR agencies (or any agencies) began representing the interests of the communities. I don’t think this is necessary, and here’s why:

    Effective product/service development requires two somewhat opposing forces – a market orientation that’s receptive to what the “market” wants, and the willingness to actively ignore what the market wants to create innovation the market didn’t know it needed (this is the car vs. faster horse analogy that @mthinker sagely mentioned).

    Smart companies are doing a great job understanding their markets – which in this case is synonymous with the communities you speak of – and taking an active role in listening and responding to their desires via new products.

    The problem is there are a lot of mediocre companies that aren’t so adept at listening and merely play follow the leader…

    Where traditional PR needs to reinvent itself is that it needs to become MUCH better at listening rather than simply broadcasting via social media. It also needs to become comfortable using the listening and reporting tools that online advertisers have been using for years.

    It was a nice ride while it lasted, but the days of column inches and equivalent metrics for PR are over.

  27. i’m sorry but i just don’t get it – maybe i didn’t read your post closely enough. most of the largest PR agencies are owned by publicly traded companies and would be forbidden from ever working for any client on the promise of future revenues. in fact, i can’t think of many businesses who would re-work their business model in this way.

    would you suggest /are you suggesting that your clients (community platform vendors) change their business models in this way?

    i can see brands hiring PR or conversational marketing agencies (like the one i work in or the one richard millington has founded) to set-up, care and feed communities to reach specific goals with the intention being all of the great benefits you list out, but i can’t see agencies representing communities and getting them endorsements from brands.

    ed

  28. Add me to the list of people who don’t see the need for an outside agent to work on the behalf of the community.

    I think the community part of this discussion is very important. As we downsize consumption/energy use, our neighborhoods and online communities are likely to become even more important to us.

    I think there will be appropriate online tools for communities to organize and seek what they need.

    And companies, seeing potential markets, will be receptive to working with communities.

  29. Great blog post.
    Listening to the community and ‘humanizing’ your company is the answer.
    At PeopleBrowsr we use live tweets and comments to design and fine tuning our application.
    Our devs team is based in Australia, US and Europe to work in different time-zones and be very responsive to feedback.
    Here is some great feedback that we had from @RicciNeer on our communty management.
    The humanizing of peoplebrowsr:
    http://riccineer.com/observations/the-humanizing-of-peoplebrowsr/
    Thanks 🙂

  30. How I conceptualise this is a business/organisation that “own”/start/pioneer cause-based communities and from there represent the community. It’s too hard for PR agencies to become that leading voice it’s just not what they are used to. PR agencies tell others what to see/think. They won’t get used to representing the community views.

    In fact, I think they’ll do a bad job. I’ve seen the so-called web 2.0 launched by some of these agencies. So beautiful aesthetically… Flash and all the nice vids/images but community participation and moderation is so bad you won’t even look more than 2 pages. Not to mention go back there.

    That’s what happens when old school thinking meets new media.

  31. Aside from the dilemma about whether a PR agency is well positioned to behave in this way, in the end if money can be made by doing it (representing consumers rather than brand) rest assured that it’ll be successful. And if a lot of noise and eyeballs can be attracted to the idea early, it will at least be the germ of someone’s start up. The Web detests stagnation, after all…

  32. Agree that this is not the future of PR, maybe not even marketing. It is something new that sounds a bit old. Publicity is the next form of PR. Seth Godin summed this up very well recently on his blog.

    On the B2C side the idea of communities is growing fast and for good reason, we want a voice and some power to influence how we will be served. On the B2B side we seem to be standing on the sidelines waiting for someone else to be first. It is happening but has not seemed to reach some critical mass for the bulk of us to jump in.

    Great discussion and topic.

  33. there is surely a revolution coming. “whatever you think, think the opposite” is the mantra for today.
    but I agree with mthinker.com. It’s not the community’s responsibility to solve the problem but definitely to identify it so the experts can respond appropriately.

  34. I read through all of these comments, a few times actually.

    I think it looks like most agree there are changes coming, but many suggest it’s not limited to PR but Marketing in general. I’d agree with that.

    There’s a new business model in here somewhere, I’m going to explore that more.

  35. I think this notion that PR is going away as a discipline is incredibly misguided. What I will say is that posts like this, and others like it, highlight a convergence that’s happening within the communications discipline. While the practice of PR isn’t going away, in the future we may not be calling it that. We might just be referring to it as communications. Communications would encompass everything from PR, to marketing/advertising, to investor relations. There is simply not going to be room for silos anymore.

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post, Jeremiah. It was a great read.

  36. One model this resembles is the lobbyist. Interest groups hire lobbyists to plead their case with legislators. Another model is the product manager – where communities hire the PM instead of the company.

  37. On the latter idea, the skills needed are of a product manager and product designer, not a PR/communications specialist. Here’s the model. The community hires the product design person, who takes the feedback into account and creates the spec. Then contracts for the production. Community members can get early subscriptions to the product, discounts, and shares of profits sold to others.

  38. Really interesting idea, Jeremiah. I think we will absolutely see this happen in some form or another –especially in the sweet spots of the value chain. Whether agencies make sense to play this role is up for grabs. The big SI’s have been playing this role on behalf of the enterprise with their vendors for a while with the RFP process–only makes sense that any other organized group might need the same thing.

    This does seem to assume products as pure commodity though. In the places where roadmap, services, support, and ongoing vendor relationship are important a simple auction scheme is going to be less compelling. You wonder if other models that magnify user voice back to the vendors, but escape the inefficiency of what feels like a unionized shakedown might be more compelling. In my mind, for something really interesting & powerful the market needs to be efficient in both directions. The opportunity for this is clearly becoming possible.

    Love your ideas.

  39. It’s already starting to happen: Miami-based ad agency CP+B listened to consumers and “invented” chicken fingers for Burger King. They didn’t make any money, but this successful product cemented their relationship. Perhaps if they had devised a way to monetize the idea, perhaps via profit-share, they could really change the biz model.

  40. There’s no question that certain communities could indeed “hire” an agency to support them. Heck, it would be the equivalent of a bringing in counsel for a class action suit. That said, this feels more like holding a brand hostage, and in that scenario I get the sense there a high probability of disingenuousness creeping in. I’m biased I guess, because we’re the agency for Communispace (private online community leader), but this hostage/demand/agency rep model just doesn’t feel like the right dynamic from the start. All the brands I’ve spoken with who have private online communities already have a productive and respectful relationship with their customers that delivers mutual benefit. Yep, there’s little room for me (Mr. Agency Guy) in that community if I stick to my traditional knitting. But, as our industry changes so too will our roles and skills, and I’m confident I’ll find another way to add value to the relations taking place between the company and its customers, especially those who aren’t active in the brand’s community.

  41. Jeremiah,

    Intriguing concept– as one of my fellow commenters pointed out, the idea of a represented community may not actually be new– think of advocacy groups, lobbyists (ok that word can be misconstrued but hopefully you all get my gist), etc.

    One barrier– but a big one– is organization. How would a community hire an agency- heck, how would they come to a decision they need one? If that community becomes more like a guild (I could see Mommy Bloggers do something like that for instance), then perhaps. But they would still need money. wouldn’t they?

    And yes, I hear the calls for looking outside the PR realm– but the same problems apply, it’s just a matter who best fits the scope of work a community would want done.

    Like Pete, I’m still thinking.

  42. I responded to this post, at least in part, with a post of my own: http://is.gd/pGoG

    … Here is the relevant excerpt, if you are interested:

    I don’t foresee (communities) banding together to pay PR to intermediate with brands (the brands are better off treating directly with the communities).

    However, I do see PR sometimes serving as a stopgap between Corporation and Consumer: PR already does a ton of monitoring and analysis of both media and socialstreams. (PR) can vet the issues; alert clients to rising customer angst; analyze which users need to be ushered into the red-carpet service channel; defend against frustrated claimants; etc.

    Isn’t this the business of Customer Service? Not marketing or PR?

    That’s more debatable than you might think, in a world in which every consumer is becoming a standalone media outlet, indexed by Google.

    The stakes are too high to allow direct public interaction with online consumers to outsourced foreign workers or underpaid college kids. PR becomes the middleman — escorting the disgruntled to the right Customer Service resource and soothing the crowds at the gate in the meantime.

    … But yea, “I’m still thinking,” too! 😉

    Thanks again for the inspiration, Jeremiah!

  43. Great post, Jeremiah. I would contend that the core idea here of PR agencies “representing” communities is already alive and well.

    In some cases, it’s because the non-profit or B2B or consumer community is represented formally by a PR agency that advocates on its behalf. In other words, the community leverages PR to help amplify its voice and engage a broader audience of decision-makers to achieve its goals.

    In other cases, it’s because a good PR agency recognizes what Ted Shelton cited earlier — that we’re all intermediaries between communities and brands. Even if it’s a business that’s paying our bills, part of what they’re paying for is our knowledge and insights about the communities they want to reach. If we don’t adequately “represent” that outside-in view to our clients, the company and its actions won’t resonate with the community it’s trying to serve. GOOD public relations has always been as much about listening and learning as it is about talking and writing.

  44. Excellent, timely and thought-provoking. As the world is currently organized, you can’t find any internal department or outside vendor better equipped for this than a PR firm. Could that change? Sure. Anyone outside of PR working on this? Not even close. PR firms have the necessary skills sets, and dare I say are working every day to improve themselves in highly relevant ways. It’s ours to lead for the reasons Tim Marklein cited in his final graph (unless we somehow miss it). (The commenters saying “why PR firms?” have either not worked closely with one, or else not a good one, and therefore don’t see what PR offers.)

    Perhaps the most surprising thing about the idea is how NOT radical it is. On the contrary, this will turn out to be more of a “DOH! Why didn’t I think of that?” idea. The first agencies to do this will be the ones that help vendors to build up communities and then transition over. It’s totally natural. If markets are conversations, and conversations are two-way, then the people who can work one side can also work the other. Exact same skills. Go down to DC and you’ll find dozens of little and medium sized PA shops who already know how to do this in the non-profit sector, or at least part of it.

    The power of this idea is how truly practical it is. Ever wonder why former public prosecutors become defense counsel? It’s exactly the same. The mere fact that communities have not yet evolved sufficiently yet to have budgets and RFPs this month does not mean this won’t ever happen.

  45. Great post Jeremiah. You’re spot on.

    But it’s back to the future. This is PR101 – in fact, week two of my PR101 undergrad class.

    See this blog post from a MA student about Grunig & Hunt’s four models of PR: http://bit.ly/5hbKV

    Note the two-way symmetrical model.

  46. Great article… I think there’s been a lot of work done in the area of cultivating communities for the sake of innovation.

    To date a lot of feedback forums (blogs, twitter, social networks etc.) have provided major brands with instant research. Aggregators (technologies) that crawl across the social networks are helping brands shape new strategies and directions.

    I believe that innovation will always eventually get stunted when a community is formed. Research shows that true innovation requires a variety of thinkers rather than like-minded individuals. The common thread of being a mom or liking sports won’t always create breakthrough thinking.

    Technology will trump the agencies in crowd sourcing and idea mining but the agencies will have a place in translating the data and executing against the consumers’ voices.

  47. Sorry if someone already brought up this point, but 41 comments were just too many. i did, though, get to #24 posted by “Liz.”

    Her point about leaders of communities rising to the top as “one of the people” and eventually taking on the services of a PR agency in the future is already happening. Look at all the recent buzz around the power of mommy bloggers. @bmorrissey was just writing about his interview with a mommy blogger that had 2 PR reps PLUS a hollywood agent. Aren’t bloggers with a large, powerful audience “leaders of communities”? The same communities Jeremiah is speaking of? Aren’t they already “represented” and wielding power as if they were a brand?

    I think the first steps of some form of this is already in action. Whether or not this eventually becomes a process in which products are born, produced and distributed is yet to be seen… but not far off me thinks.

  48. Great food for thought, though it’s bigger than PR and marketing – if you take a step back you can see the power of the community impacting many aspects of all kinds of business, including the internal facing ones.

    I’m not sure it’s going to flip so that the agency represents the community, but we set up We Are Social (partly inspired by the ‘Connected Agency’ report) to be an intermediary that represented brands to communities, and vice versa.

  49. Jeremiah-

    The key is to do it in such a way that the community doesn’t realize it. Call it smart sourcing, maybe not crowd sourcing.

    Do it in a way where you are simply feeding the machine, by carrying out small simple, tasks that makes the product even better. Amazon or Google are great examples of this. See this Business Insider piece about how Amazon designs to make a better experience for all involved: http://www.businessinsider.com/the-magic-behind-amazons-27-billion-dollar-question-2009-3

    The problem with most feedback platforms, like IdeaStorm, is you get the hard core and people that like to game the system or create too much noise for any signal to come in. (in the Dell case, it was the Linux Community. With Change.Gov it was the medical marijuana community.).

    Here is a great piece quoting Clay Shirky on this phenomenon and how to solve for it:
    http://www.journalism.co.uk/5/articles/533394.php

  50. This sort of thing is already happening in commerce. The key thing is that brands are often providing the impetus for these communities. Building a space, offering resources and tools etc.

    It often means thinking about what they do and what they sell differently but typically the benefit comes along fast enough to make the case anyway.

  51. I love this idea/convo, but keep thinking of this scenario:

    -community is organically built by passionate members
    -community influences an industry brand.
    -community gets represented by agency.
    -brand bids for agency’s business.
    -community gets paid in some way.

    Step 5 is where it gets dicey. Do you pay the community in tools and features like Len Kendall said? Or do you pay them with actual money? Will a community be happy with minuscule returns, compared to what the agency that is representing them is getting paid? Will prominent members demand a higher cut? Communities are not an all-things-are-equal utopia. Will we see online community labor unions?

    And most importantly, will other people flock to this community because they see it as a place to get paid? But wouldn’t that erode both the quality and authenticity of the community, if a) people are motivated by money &/or b) people aren’t allowed to join because it’s now a private community that limits its members?

    I kind of see this as an evolution of what i blogged about last year. Basically, the idea that eventually people are going to start wanting money for thoughts they have that others make money off of, and when it happens, things are going to get complicated: http://blogs.forrester.com/marketing/2008/07/its-no-secret-t.html

  52. Communities can indeed by very powerful, but without stewardship, they would deteriorate into anarchy. Stewardship requires time/passion/resources/money – any to all, depending on size/scope/objectives of the community. Savvy brands (including newspapers, state & local governments) will provide that stewardship (without being overbearing) before a competitor does. IMHO, that is the future of communities. It will be a rare exception for an agency to proactively provide stewardship (w/ sunk cost) to a grassroots community in the hopes that it can make money through brokering innovative ideas from the community with particular companies.

  53. I think that allowing consumers’ voice to be heard and used will empower consumers to become more loyal to that brand. However, I feel that most times consumers do not always see what is possible. Yes, they can tell the brand what they want feature and benefits wise, but they do not know what is possible technology wise. I do not think that companies can solely base their product development on consumers needs and wants. I think this will hinder innovation based on the fact that most consumers do not know what is possible.

  54. Jeremiah,
    This is already an academic theory that’s gained a bunch of traction in the corporate world….it’s called Co-Creation and has been evangelized through one of my (very famous) professors at that University of Michigan Ross School of Business–Venkat Ramaswamy. Prof. Ramaswamy is about to release a new book highlighting the DART model–dialogue, access, risk reduction and transparency. This framework is essential for understanding how to better engage with customers (see Nike Running, My Starbucks Idea, etc). You should get in touch with him to learn more about it. Here’s his bio:http://www.bus.umich.edu/facultybios/FacultyBio.asp?id=000119750

  55. I think this process is already under-way by the top innovators. It will be tricky for PR companies to manage as groups will have far-fetched ideas and dreams of what they want. However I think it can scale and can work if the proper guidelines are in place.

  56. This is very thought provoking, Jeremiah. PR people do need to think outside of the box and imagining communities as clients is intriguing. I was wondering how such relationships would be monetized until I came to your paragraph about the firms representing the community to manufacturers. I don’t think PR is the right group to do so, especially if it involves product management and negotiated pricing. Also, it would be like herding cats to get a community to agree on positioning and messaging — what a challenge!

  57. Will PR agencies be able to change and adopt their work methods to communities?

    Or could it be that PR agencies are on their way to extinction just like news papers, as they originate from the same age?

  58. A view of human history will show –consistently and predictably — ongoing, continual, almost routine cycles of (r)evolution and reinvention in the systems of governance, politico-economy, education, industry, social relations. Technology is often and invariably at cause of these changes.

    Here now, yet again, we witness the convergence of technological (r)evolution (eg, web 2.0) and the renaissance in our social relations that are and will continue to profoundly affect our systems of governance, politico-economy, education, and industry. I think, one way or another, most are likely to agree.

    More particularly, though, in the context of marketing and brands, and in general, business process and priorities, the rise of new social technologies impose, on institutions and consumers alike, *terrific* opportunities to reassess and see improvements in prevailing systems of B2B and B2C marketing — not just PR — but in all the Ps that make up the marketing system — Product, Placement, Pricing, and Promotion (PR). And the first step to reaching common understanding — and the greater good — is mutual discernment.

  59. I agree with the idea that communities can provide great insights and ideas about new products and services, but can’t be trusted to articulate the best solution to their problems (i.e. when Henry Ford said his customers would have asked for faster horses). PR agencies of the future could then try to work with the brand and the clients to translate these insights or jobs-to-be-done (as called by innovation theory junkies)into product and service ideas. This would require a different skill set though. However, isn’t the PR agency’s mission to facilitate relations between the brands and their customers? Todd Defren from Shift Communications once said the PR agency’s job is to make sure that stories are told in a relevant way, to the right people. Until now, the stories have been told in only one direction, from the brand to the customers. How about doing these in both directions? And how about helping both parties to materialize those relationships and interactions into product and service ideas? Now that would be something truly different. However, I guess PR agencies have to start thinking outside the box…because if the don´t do it, someone else eventually will.

  60. Well , the view of the passage is totally correct ,your details is really reasonable and you guy give us valuable informative post, I totally agree the standpoint of upstairs. I often surfing on this forum when I m free and I find there are so much good information we can learn in this forum!

  61. Great idea, thank you for this information, it gives the ideas on how this PR agencies benefit to us users.

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