Writing this article is not my job, nor would I even call myself a writer. Twenty years ago, someone like me would be lucky to have my name on a handful of print pieces. But today the great democratizing force of the Internet has enabled anyone to be not only a consumer, but also a producer of content.
Online social platforms have paved the way for amateur content production with global visibility. In the case of writing, blogs—an entirely new, Internet-native form—gave a voice to anyone with a computer and a connection. Beginning in the late ’90s, Web-publishing tools ushered in a new medium and a new writer demographic. Content itself began to change.
One thing is clear: Bottom-up content rules the Web. Despite regulatory efforts by purists (see Wikipedia’s failed predecessor, Nupedia, where experts submitted journal-level articles by invite only), the informal voice of amateur content production has suffused the Web via platforms like LinkedIn and Facebook.
First-person narratives, formerly confined to the pages of personal diaries, are now being shared with the world at large. George Orwell’s famous quote, ” . . . the writer is some kind of rebel, expressing his private opinions . . . Orthodoxy, of whatever color, seems to demand a lifeless, imitative style,” has been proven right. For the palette of a Reddit-fed generation, the most compelling written content tends to be brash, colloquial, and thrillingly abrasive. This is causing profound transformation, far beyond the blogosphere, that is only just becoming evident today.
Big-ticket content producers (think news, op-eds, and topic-specific sites) have begun absorbing narrative form into the mainstream. According to Olga Kahan’s piece for the Atlantic, “The difference is that now mainstream publications like the New York Times and the Washington Post are embracing personal essays alongside features and news.” When it comes to news or op-eds, what better writer to choose than someone who can speak from experience? Brands have begun actively democratizing content, and millions of non-writers are being published in their own style.
Readers (or, should I say, writers) feel more comfortable with personal content. Why? Above all, it’s authentic. We know it comes from someone just like us. We have even become wary of singular, exclusive, totalizing ideas, and we inherently trust the subjectivity and plurality of the crowd.
Businesses are quickly jumping on this trend in hopes of humanizing their public voice and image. More and more content is informal and directly addresses the customer. Dollar Shave Club is a great example. The “How It Works” section (notice, it’s not an “About” or “Company Profile” section) states, “Dollar Shave Club couldn’t be simpler. Select one of our great blades, pay only for the cost of your blades, and we send ’em right to your door every month . . . By now you’re probably convinced of the wisdom of joining the club.” It goes on to provide an insightful quote, “‘I like shaving with a dull razor’ – No one, ever.” It’s simple, funny, and direct. Compare this approach to that of a competitor: “BIC offers a full range of specially designed products to meet a variety of consumer shaving needs for both women and men. From single to four-blade, including system and non-refillable shavers.” Which one would you buy?
A more human voice can help communicate with customers, make them smile, and build positive associations with the brand. People like being addressed as people.
However, there is still a difference between a witty op-ed by a young writer on Huffington Post and a corporate email blast that uses colloquial language. Coming from a big company, “hip” can also sound hollow and false. Many companies have forgotten the true reason why customers feel comfortable with informal language: Our positive associations come from authentic, democratic content production. I, as a reader, will trust a writer who is like me, but I will never feel that a company is my peer. No matter the language, companies are more interested in their bottom line than in sharing ideas.
All is not lost. In fact, the solution echoes back to the peer-to-peer origins of the Internet. Ultimately, the most compelling writing of all—the ever-elusive golden grail of advertising—is direct communication between customers. The social media generation has a strong desire to share and broadcast the things they love. With the surge of online reviews, recommendations, and cultural curation, word of mouth (that is, word of media) is the deciding factor. The most successful brands will acknowledge and foster that energy. There is no better advertisement than a close, savvy friend posting a photo with a comment like “Retail therapy for a bleak Monday #KateSpadeNY” or “Saturday night = #Bacardi night.”
Communication is quickly evolving, particularly online. Across the board, businesses—from start-ups to heavy hitters like mainstream media and big corporations—are democratizing content and voice. And yet, in a world fueled by social media, the best communication will still occur directly in communities.
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