They can serve as a "content supplier."
My argument can be reduced to a number of propositions.
1. That consumers, especially younger ones, are building social networks with new urgency.
Technology makes this easy. The sheer churn of contemporary life makes it necessary. Like any complex adaptive system, consumers understand that one of the best ways to respond to dynamism is with more social contacts. These contacts serve as portals of knowledge and opportunity.
2. That these networks are content hungry.
Social networks have an hydraulic quality. They must carry information in order to sustain themselves. So the only way to maintain them is to feed them.
In the case of Korean college students I interviewed a couple of years ago, this meant sending a constant stream of messages and photographs through their networks.
3. that these consumers are content hungry.
Much of the content that passes through social networks is modest in its character. It is informational, but the information is pretty slender. Or it’s phatic, and a declaraction of mood. In either case, it is almost purely hydraulic. It is designed to keep the channel open and the network alive.
4. that consumers need more and new content suppliers.
Traditionally, we have thought of high school was an educational enterprise. We now know this is wrong. No, high school exists to create content for teenagers that they might build, expand, sustain and vivify their social networks. (As in "So then Jeannie slaps him, like, really hard and I was standing there, and then Suzie starts to laugh, so I start to laugh, and he gets really mad and everything.")
Popular culture, and especially the vast media industry that supports our preoccupation with celebrities, might also be seen as a content supplier. This is to say, we pay attention to the latest goings on of Jennifer Anston not so much because we are interested but because we believe our friends will be interested. (How many males read the Sports page because this supplies coin of the conversational realm?)
5. that brands can supply new content
Experimential marketing points in this direction. It creates events that can then be reported through the network. Buzz marketing is of course precisely about driving communications between consumers. (Strangely, it has been incurious or unsophisticated about the mechanics of networks and the motives of network communication. Why is this?)
6. but will they?
I don’t think any brand is now in the business of building the brand by making itself a content supplier for the consumer. Certainly, it is true that any great new product (iPod) and lots of new creative (see the new campaign for Playstation) will generate lots of chatter around the water cooler and supply to this extent lots of "network activation. " But this is happening as an unexpected spin-off of the marketing enterprise.
This reminds me vaguely of the Dole pineapple operation in Hawaii in the 60s. Someone asked what they did with the juice after putting the pineapple slices in cans. "Oh, we throw it in the ocean." There is value being created here that is not being captured.
More pressingly, because brand managers are not creating network value in a self conscious way, they are not using the body of knowledge that we know have on this topic.
This suggests that we need to establish a rapproachement between the branding community and the social software community. This will take some doing as the two communities have very different ideas of what they do, and want to do. (The social software community does not think in terms of content creation, for instance.)
Who will take the lead?
For more on social software, see these websites: