Last week, Google announced its Sidewiki application. If you happen to have been under a rock the past week, you can un-rock yourself by reading here. There are lots of ramifications relating to this, and I’m not going to offer up anything significant at the moment, mostly because others already have (and I suggest you read what Jeremiah, Jason, George, and even Google have to say). The take-away message is that by permitting a running commentary that is open to nearly anyone (some restrictions apply; see store for details), a new visitor to the site gets the benefit of the collective wisdom of the past searchers. In an ideal world, each visitor will leave a helpful, instructional, and even cheerful comment for the next visitor.
That’s not the reality.
I’m not being pessimistic, but rather realistic. What will happen is that there will be a mix of proponents and detractors (Jason Falls states this in more detail and more eloquently). And the sites will self-police. Advertisers and other ne’er-do-wells will troll the sites, too. But enough about that – I’m not offering a dissertation on Sidewiki. What I want to do is park this discussion for a moment and talk about something else.
Right around the same time as Sidewiki, Seth Godin announces his launch of Brands in Public. To get up to speed, take five minutes and read his post here. In a nutshell (for those that ignored my advice to go read it), Seth & Co. will be creating a page about a brand and let people comment on it, as well as aggregate comments from the social web. Brands can participate, too, to refute negative comments or join in the conversation. But it will cost them $400… per year. (update: Seth & Co. have radically changed their position on the matter; there is an update at the bottom of the post; criticism and commentary can be found here and here, among other places).
OK, so un-park the first discussion and think about it in the context of this second discussion. If you can’t see what’s happening here, read them again. The consumer has more power now than ever before. Those nay-sayers that think the social web and social media and crowd-sourcing is like rainbow suspenders had better re-examine their position. I’m not suggesting Sidewiki will be a huge success, nor an instant one. What I am saying, though, is that Sidewiki and Brands In Public are giving to the customers something that’s been sorely lacking: a platform. Thinking back, this wasn’t really around pre-1993 (or so).
Smart brands will continue to pay attention and react. They’ll engage in a monitoring service (or set up their own series of listening platforms) and hire staff that do these kinds of activities. They’ll look at the mentions across the board and assess tone, sentiment, and influence. The not-so-smart brands will ignore this. They’ll either pretend it’s not important, or bury their head in the sand and pretend it’s not even happening. I’m not sure how much more evidence those brands need to see that something is happening. Maybe some brands will escape any backlash or general negative comments; kudos to them. But they are also missing an opportunity to connect with, dialog with, and engage with their customers. And that’s worth far more than $400 a year or a free browser plug-in.