What on earth is a prosumer? It sounds like it might refer to someone following the latest Neanderthal diet or positive psychology programme, but it may well describe you. The term was coined by Alvin Toffer in his 1980 book The Third Wave to describe someone who is both a 'consumer' and a 'professional' or 'producer': essentially, 'consumers unusually interested in [certain] products'. Essentially, people who are evangelical about, and valuable to, their chosen brands.
It's not hard to see why the term is gaining new resonance. It has cropped up in blogs from the likes of Sparked, it is the subject of a recent American Behavioural Scientist paper, 'The Coming of Age of the Prosumer', and it has been fuelled by recent studies suggesting that social media fans not only talk more about brands, but buy more from them too. Consider Forrester's findings that Facebook fans are 79% more likely to purchase and 36% more likely to recommend brands than non-fans.
Effectively, it's just another word for advocacy, but marketers have obviously decided they need a name with a sharper RoI ring, and who can blame them? Nowadays an 'advocate' can mean anything from a blogger paid to promote a product to a bored teenager who happens to retweet a press release with zero emotion involved. The integrity of advocacy is under threat, as indicated by the new guidelines on social media disclosure just released by the Federal Trade Commission in America, which attempt to establish a system of disclaimers and hashtags that will protect consumers from opaquely sponsored UGC.
In a post 'The Sad Clown', published following London Fashion Week, fashion blogger Susie Bubble described her struggles to defend her status as an advocate. Reacting to an article written by journalist Suzy Menkes, criticising the self-promoting, freebie-motivated 'peacocks' prevalent at the shows, Bubble admitted: "It's an ambivalent position that I occupy. Yes, I am a blogger. Yes, I dress in a way that can be construed as peacocking. But I have also worked at a publication. I now freelance for other publications. I've been going to shows for a good four years and more. Increasingly, I've felt conflicted about what it is that I do."
Bubble goes on to admit that "the b word has been tarnished – asking us how much money do we make, suspicions that every blog post is sponsored, outfits that have been littered with gifts." And although she still intends to hold true to her inimitable style, Bubble also worries that she is getting ground down by the criticism, losing her boldness and her passion for sharing her beliefs.
It's an authentic and moving articulation of a very real dilemma. Where does the commercialisation of online opinion leave the future of advocacy?
I believe that we will see two main responses. One will involve a redefinition of online advocates, and perhaps the development of a more precise lexicon to describe them. We will increasingly need to distinguish between the paid promoters and sponsored 'brand ambassadors'; the journalist-blogger hybrids, who make money from their presences or accept freebies and experiences but still express independent opinions; and the rest of us, who simply recommend brands as part of the way we interact with others every day.
Secondly, I believe that the nature and quality of the outreach brands make to those advocates will evolve. Yes, there will still be companies willing to shell out cash for marketing-by-proxy, but they'll have to become better at disclosure, thanks to the shifts in the law. There will also still be plenty of campaigns geared towards the journo-bloggers, but they're going to have to become much more creative, considering many such influencers get approached by 100 companies in a week. Finally, more attention will be paid to the unself-conscious masses, who aren't going to bother making a three-minute video showing how much they love your foundation, but who might well be inspired by a stylist rocking up at the school gates to colour-match their skin tone for free. This will also mean that more emphasis is placed on stimulating and valuing advocacy offline – where most everyday brand conversation takes place.
At least, I hope that's what happens. If it doesn't, not only will 'advocacy' become ever more meaningless and ineffective for brands, but the rest of us will lose our trust in the genuine, random, glorious social media opinions and recommendations that are an independent thinker's gold mine. And if anything is likely to make me an 'antisumer', it's that.