The Age of the Empowered Consumer

By Theresa Braun We’ve previously discussed social media’s role in the rise of citizen journalism, specifically citing Janis Krums, most known for tweeting a picture from his iPhone of U.S. Airways Flight 1549 after it had crash-landed in the Hudson River in January 2009. The photo, which was snapped before any reporters had even reached the scene, was shared with all 170 of Janis’s Twitter followers--and spread like wildfire. Within half an hour, Janis was being interviewed by almost every major news channel as a witness.

Recently, I had the pleasure of speaking with Janis, and he shared his own insight on the transition from traditional to new media: “Our news source is now Twitter,” he said. “A news agency is never going to be the first to the scene unless it’s by chance.”

And really, it’s not a matter of being in the right place at the right time; the fact is that anywhere at any moment, any person has the tools and opportunity to share information or an opinion with the world.

Janis described society’s future with consumers at the helm: “With technology, higher quality content is going to become more and more available everywhere; people have the power now.” Digital tools are allowing everyone everywhere to be a part of the story--tools like Twitter or Rawporter, an app which lets broadcast journalists easily access content from citizen journalists (and which recently partnered with journalist Matt VanDyke to provide a first-hand perspective of the newly liberated Libya).

When we spoke, Janis shared his perspective on the political aspect as well, describing the extreme:  “Governments can’t control their people anymore.” And, indeed, citizens from across the globe have raised their social media-amplified voices during recent events like the Arab Spring or the Occupy Movement. Social media has been called “the great equalizer of our time,” giving citizens and consumers a voice that leaders and businesses can’t ignore. In this age, every voice matters. Even the definition of an “influencer,” has changed. Under some circumstances, an unknown, average consumer in the Middle of Nowhere with 20,000 Twitter followers is more influential than say, a senator. The prevalence of social tools has helped in democratizing the world and forced a fundamental societal shift in which organizations have no choice but to listen and respond to their audiences if they hope to thrive.

In fact, Janis has a new venture, Elementz Nutrition, committed to honoring the wants and needs of consumers. Unnerved by the shady supplements he was surrounded by in high school and college, Janis took matters into his own hands and started his own company to provide innovative, natural nutrition products for athletes. And as the co-founder of a nimble start-up, he strives to put the power in the hands of his customers and adapt constantly to their input.

All companies, big and small, new and archaic, must be just as willingly open to their customers’ opinions. Brands need to understand and accept this: the great power consumers have is to elicit change, fuel revolutions, and make or break companies’ reputations. More and more, consumers are speaking up via social channels, either rallying around brands or challenging them on unlikeable practices.

So what do you do in the Age of the Empowered Consumer? Embrace it. Hand over the reigns. Seek out feedback and cultivate consumer content. Brands like Jones Soda and Domino's trust and value contributions from consumers so much that they've used customer feedback in the design and reinvention of their products.

The more consumers are a part of your brand or organization, the more they will love, trust, and respect you, and the more you’ll earn their loyalty and business.

Don’t fear losing control. This isn’t about control. It’s about the people. Embrace your powerlessness, put your customers first, and thrive.

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