Thingstreams - the future of product / consumer dialogue

Published Wednesday, July 21st 2010

As consumers engage more directly with each other, how to brands understand what is happening in the "backchannel"?

A 5 minute read 1.3k words

Times, they are a changing - for brands and consumers both. Gone are the days where a brand tells you what to think about them and as a consumer I duly do as I'm told because I've been brainwashed by hundreds of exposures to your brand and product message. Thingstreams and more broadly Thingspace will and are changing this behaviour - unfortunately many brands still haven't realised yet.

The likes of Erik Qualman and Charles Leadbeater have shown us how social technologies and behaviours are changing the way we look for information, how we make product choices based on other people's views because we respect their opinion rather than that of a marketer telling us their product is great.

At the moment this information is widely scattered and can at times be difficult to find. Whilst there are niches of gold such as Amazon's Customer Reviews system on each product, and various review sites scattered around the Internet with their unique slants (eg cnet for consumer electronics) there is nothing really binding these streams of content and opinion together.

Recent research by Syncapse (PDF) shows many people are more than happy to show their affiliation to a brand or product. The success of Amazon's rating system shows people are willing to spend time reviewing it. Without search though, how do I as a consumer find this information and start deciding whether a product is right for me or not? How can I leverage all this behaviour and content that has been created?

At the moment, outside of search I go to my peer network and ask for referrals (has anyone used? Does anyone know of? What is a good?). This is a good start but I quickly come back to search to find more information or cast the net wider. I like customer opinion, even if I don't know the person, but finding it can be a struggle - especially if it's buried in a forum post somewhere.

This is where ThingStreams will change the way we interact with product and brand related information.

Opinion gets focussed

The idea of a ThingStream is that a stream of content is created and is attached to a real, physical thing - in most cases some kind of product. At the moment this is done with a barcode because this is one of the only ways we have to uniquely identify a physical "thing".

Once a stream of content is bound to a thing I have a ThingStream that I can engage with. The content doesn't need to be a rating or a text review, it could be pictures, video or any type of media, all attached in ThingSpace around a product that I can start consuming to better understand customer opinion or I can create and add to to express my own.

Brands be aware, every product you have will be subject to an anarchic wave of content that will be bound to your product forever, that doesn't require a customer to trawl the web looking for reviews and cruising support forums to see if there are issues. The Thing Stream will be activated through a UPC (Universal Product Code) lookup via a website or through a barcode scan off a mobile phone.

If your product has issues your customers will document them; just like they do now - and those damning pieces of content will be bound to your product like a pair of lead boots, all in one place for future customers to look at and add to.

However this is a conversation and brands can engage too, if there's an issue you can address it, maybe they need to update firmware - here's how to do it and links for further information. Brands can get on the front foot too, the first piece of content in the ThingStream could be more information about how the product is sourced ethically or is Carbon Neutral or just how it works in practice. This is an opportunity as a brand to create engagement beyond the price sticker whilst the customer is still in consideration mode.

Brands that engage in ThingSpace and directly on their product ThingStreams get an opportunity to rally their advocates as well. We all know of products that people absolutely love, here's the place to harness all of that advocacy and focus it into one place where future customers will be looking.

I'm just getting my Facebook policy sorted, I'll consider it for 2014

For many brands this is Yet Another Thing their marketing and PR teams need to think about but this isn't something that can be put to the back of the mind. Mobile apps right now such as Stickybits and increasingly Shop Savvy are the nascent ThingSpace of 2010. Stickybits is closest to my view of what a ThingStream looks like though it only pulls information from within the StickyBits network itself. ShopSavvy is starting to pull in meta information from other sources in order to supplement it's core purpose of product comparison.

Pepsi is already operating in this space with campaigns running across all it's major products (including Lays) which is being run through StickyBits.

If you're a brand manager you need to be looking at ThingSpace and ThingStreams right now and start getting used to holding conversation there. If you're the brand manager of Corona beer I'd suggest getting involved in the very active conversation that is already occuring in StickyBits right now relating to your product.

The future of ThingSpace

At the moment ThingStreams are very clunky - we are very much on the leading edge of this particular growth curve, but the foundations are in place for this to explode - customers like talking, customers want customer testimony and we are already actively engaged in these two behaviours right now. The only change is going to be the way we facilitate the conversation and the tools to do it.

The mechanism for accessing ThingStreams will enhance over time. The work Google is doing with Google Goggles for example could use image recognition to determine what the "thing" is you're looking at then associate it to a UPC and then display the stream -imagine walking into an electricals retailer pointing your phone at a fridge and it recognises the make and model then presents the ThingStream?

Going even further apps like Shazaam with it's music recognition feature could create a ThingStream around music tracks showing listeners' thoughts, video clips from the concert and commentary from the artist on their inspiration.

Whenever we have the opportunity to recognise a "thing" via any means, we can tap into it's ThingStream and present that back to the customer.

I have a vision of ThingStream content that goes beyond that offered by StickyBits now, a mechanism whereby current ThingStream content owners (Amazon, cnet and others) can use microformats or other means to syndicate the individual threads of conversation into the Stream (much like the work Chris Messina is doing with Activity Streams). This will be the subject of a subsequent post on how threads can be pulled into streams.

Concept

The idea of ThingStreams and ThingSpace has been informed heavily by the work of Charles Leadbeater and his thoughts around how "I Think" turns into "We Think" at critical mass, similarly being an active reviewer and consumer of reviews at Amazon and dabs has shown me the propensity of customers to contribute their thoughts on product, and further the work start up organisations like StickyBits are doing in this space - I'm not sure their goals or articulation of ThingStreams are in line with mine however they are well worth watching in this space as it's so new.

This concept has been washing around in my mind for a while now and I finally started to articulate it in a talk I gave at a Futures session on Mobile Computing. I hope that this post provides further clarity around the concept and starts some discussion around what I think will be a brave new world for brands and customers.

Title image by Ramsey Arnaoot

"Thingstreams - the future of product / consumer dialogue" by ajfisher is licensed under a CC BY-NC-SA 4.0 International License.

Source for citation: ajfisher.me/2010/07/20/thingstreams-the-future-of-brand-product-consumer-dialogue.