Future of PR: When Agencies Represent Communities –Not Brands

We continue to see that communities will continue to gain more and more power as they lean on each other to make decisions, support each other, and share their lifestyle. What happens to agencies that traditionally serve brands?

Seem far fetched? Not really. We’re already starting to see bits of this: I’ve seen user innovation in car forums, Facebook groups, and networks of mommy bloggers. Or take for example UserVoice , GetSatisfaction or Ideastorms that allow communities to define what features they want with products.

Imagine for a second that these communities, say bike-enthusiasts, or young mothers, or even home-theater-fans could start to define using organized innovation tools what products and features they want. What if Doc Searls vision for Vendor Relationship Management systems (where consumers define what products they want –brands bid for them) takes off?

With communities in the driver seat over product, a shift will happen as communities can define the spec of future products and therefore multiple brands will bid for their business. As a result, we should expect the agency model to flip over, where PR agencies start to represent communities of customers –rather than brands.

What if these communities (we’re likely all part of at least one) started to band together and used UserVoice to define what we want? What if a savvy agency saw this, and decided to take our ideas to market on our behalf?

What could this wacky idea look like? These PR agencies would take the community defined spec to brands, bid for the top design, and even help negotiate the terms. As a result, they could skim profits off the transaction, or maybe offer new services such as community support, or organize events. Either way, if they stay as the conduit between them. Some users in Twitter mentioned this already happens, that agencies represent communities in non-profits, or at the chamber of commerce, but I’m thinking much broader, into the context of commerce.

Perhaps it won’t be that polar, existing agencies that represent brands will adopt the right skills and relationships, and will retain their relationship with brands. If you’ve access, a forward looking report called the Connected Agency discusses how this could work.

What do you think of this wild idea? Far-fetched or is it already underway? If communities assert control over what products they want, will agencies follow suit?

Update: we’ve now 40 comments below, and without a doubt the wisdom from the commentators is greater than the original assertion. I think one key finding from everyone is that this trend is far greater than PR, and impacts all agencies, and marketing as a whole. Secondly, it’s difficult to determine who these agencies will monetize, and some suggest they’ll go away all together. We’ll keep on exploring this topic, I’ve some new ideas on consumer crowdsourcing that I’ll blog soon. Thanks for being part of the dialog.

  • Excellent, timely and thought-provoking. As the world is currently organized, you can’t find any internal department or outside vendor better equipped for this than a PR firm. Could that change? Sure. Anyone outside of PR working on this? Not even close. PR firms have the necessary skills sets, and dare I say are working every day to improve themselves in highly relevant ways. It’s ours to lead for the reasons Tim Marklein cited in his final graph (unless we somehow miss it). (The commenters saying “why PR firms?” have either not worked closely with one, or else not a good one, and therefore don’t see what PR offers.)

    Perhaps the most surprising thing about the idea is how NOT radical it is. On the contrary, this will turn out to be more of a “DOH! Why didn’t I think of that?” idea. The first agencies to do this will be the ones that help vendors to build up communities and then transition over. It’s totally natural. If markets are conversations, and conversations are two-way, then the people who can work one side can also work the other. Exact same skills. Go down to DC and you’ll find dozens of little and medium sized PA shops who already know how to do this in the non-profit sector, or at least part of it.

    The power of this idea is how truly practical it is. Ever wonder why former public prosecutors become defense counsel? It’s exactly the same. The mere fact that communities have not yet evolved sufficiently yet to have budgets and RFPs this month does not mean this won’t ever happen.

  • Great post Jeremiah. You’re spot on.

    But it’s back to the future. This is PR101 – in fact, week two of my PR101 undergrad class.

    See this blog post from a MA student about Grunig & Hunt’s four models of PR: http://bit.ly/5hbKV

    Note the two-way symmetrical model.

  • Great article… I think there’s been a lot of work done in the area of cultivating communities for the sake of innovation.

    To date a lot of feedback forums (blogs, twitter, social networks etc.) have provided major brands with instant research. Aggregators (technologies) that crawl across the social networks are helping brands shape new strategies and directions.

    I believe that innovation will always eventually get stunted when a community is formed. Research shows that true innovation requires a variety of thinkers rather than like-minded individuals. The common thread of being a mom or liking sports won’t always create breakthrough thinking.

    Technology will trump the agencies in crowd sourcing and idea mining but the agencies will have a place in translating the data and executing against the consumers’ voices.

  • Sorry if someone already brought up this point, but 41 comments were just too many. i did, though, get to #24 posted by “Liz.”

    Her point about leaders of communities rising to the top as “one of the people” and eventually taking on the services of a PR agency in the future is already happening. Look at all the recent buzz around the power of mommy bloggers. @bmorrissey was just writing about his interview with a mommy blogger that had 2 PR reps PLUS a hollywood agent. Aren’t bloggers with a large, powerful audience “leaders of communities”? The same communities Jeremiah is speaking of? Aren’t they already “represented” and wielding power as if they were a brand?

    I think the first steps of some form of this is already in action. Whether or not this eventually becomes a process in which products are born, produced and distributed is yet to be seen… but not far off me thinks.

  • Great food for thought, though it’s bigger than PR and marketing – if you take a step back you can see the power of the community impacting many aspects of all kinds of business, including the internal facing ones.

    I’m not sure it’s going to flip so that the agency represents the community, but we set up We Are Social (partly inspired by the ‘Connected Agency’ report) to be an intermediary that represented brands to communities, and vice versa.

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  • Jeremiah-

    The key is to do it in such a way that the community doesn’t realize it. Call it smart sourcing, maybe not crowd sourcing.

    Do it in a way where you are simply feeding the machine, by carrying out small simple, tasks that makes the product even better. Amazon or Google are great examples of this. See this Business Insider piece about how Amazon designs to make a better experience for all involved: http://www.businessinsider.com/the-magic-behind-amazons-27-billion-dollar-question-2009-3

    The problem with most feedback platforms, like IdeaStorm, is you get the hard core and people that like to game the system or create too much noise for any signal to come in. (in the Dell case, it was the Linux Community. With Change.Gov it was the medical marijuana community.).

    Here is a great piece quoting Clay Shirky on this phenomenon and how to solve for it:

  • This sort of thing is already happening in commerce. The key thing is that brands are often providing the impetus for these communities. Building a space, offering resources and tools etc.

    It often means thinking about what they do and what they sell differently but typically the benefit comes along fast enough to make the case anyway.

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  • I blogged about this (Consumers telling brands/designing their own products) last year…you really should read my blog once in a while;



  • I love this idea/convo, but keep thinking of this scenario:

    -community is organically built by passionate members
    -community influences an industry brand.
    -community gets represented by agency.
    -brand bids for agency’s business.
    -community gets paid in some way.

    Step 5 is where it gets dicey. Do you pay the community in tools and features like Len Kendall said? Or do you pay them with actual money? Will a community be happy with minuscule returns, compared to what the agency that is representing them is getting paid? Will prominent members demand a higher cut? Communities are not an all-things-are-equal utopia. Will we see online community labor unions?

    And most importantly, will other people flock to this community because they see it as a place to get paid? But wouldn’t that erode both the quality and authenticity of the community, if a) people are motivated by money &/or b) people aren’t allowed to join because it’s now a private community that limits its members?

    I kind of see this as an evolution of what i blogged about last year. Basically, the idea that eventually people are going to start wanting money for thoughts they have that others make money off of, and when it happens, things are going to get complicated: http://blogs.forrester.com/marketing/2008/07/its-no-secret-t.html

  • Communities can indeed by very powerful, but without stewardship, they would deteriorate into anarchy. Stewardship requires time/passion/resources/money – any to all, depending on size/scope/objectives of the community. Savvy brands (including newspapers, state & local governments) will provide that stewardship (without being overbearing) before a competitor does. IMHO, that is the future of communities. It will be a rare exception for an agency to proactively provide stewardship (w/ sunk cost) to a grassroots community in the hopes that it can make money through brokering innovative ideas from the community with particular companies.

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  • BallCath

    I think that allowing consumers’ voice to be heard and used will empower consumers to become more loyal to that brand. However, I feel that most times consumers do not always see what is possible. Yes, they can tell the brand what they want feature and benefits wise, but they do not know what is possible technology wise. I do not think that companies can solely base their product development on consumers needs and wants. I think this will hinder innovation based on the fact that most consumers do not know what is possible.

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  • Jeremiah,
    This is already an academic theory that’s gained a bunch of traction in the corporate world….it’s called Co-Creation and has been evangelized through one of my (very famous) professors at that University of Michigan Ross School of Business–Venkat Ramaswamy. Prof. Ramaswamy is about to release a new book highlighting the DART model–dialogue, access, risk reduction and transparency. This framework is essential for understanding how to better engage with customers (see Nike Running, My Starbucks Idea, etc). You should get in touch with him to learn more about it. Here’s his bio:http://www.bus.umich.edu/facultybios/FacultyBio.asp?id=000119750

  • Totally agree with you Elizabeth

  • I think this process is already under-way by the top innovators. It will be tricky for PR companies to manage as groups will have far-fetched ideas and dreams of what they want. However I think it can scale and can work if the proper guidelines are in place.

  • This is very thought provoking, Jeremiah. PR people do need to think outside of the box and imagining communities as clients is intriguing. I was wondering how such relationships would be monetized until I came to your paragraph about the firms representing the community to manufacturers. I don’t think PR is the right group to do so, especially if it involves product management and negotiated pricing. Also, it would be like herding cats to get a community to agree on positioning and messaging — what a challenge!

  • Will PR agencies be able to change and adopt their work methods to communities?

    Or could it be that PR agencies are on their way to extinction just like news papers, as they originate from the same age?

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  • A view of human history will show –consistently and predictably — ongoing, continual, almost routine cycles of (r)evolution and reinvention in the systems of governance, politico-economy, education, industry, social relations. Technology is often and invariably at cause of these changes.

    Here now, yet again, we witness the convergence of technological (r)evolution (eg, web 2.0) and the renaissance in our social relations that are and will continue to profoundly affect our systems of governance, politico-economy, education, and industry. I think, one way or another, most are likely to agree.

    More particularly, though, in the context of marketing and brands, and in general, business process and priorities, the rise of new social technologies impose, on institutions and consumers alike, *terrific* opportunities to reassess and see improvements in prevailing systems of B2B and B2C marketing — not just PR — but in all the Ps that make up the marketing system — Product, Placement, Pricing, and Promotion (PR). And the first step to reaching common understanding — and the greater good — is mutual discernment.

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  • Antonio Montero

    I agree with the idea that communities can provide great insights and ideas about new products and services, but can’t be trusted to articulate the best solution to their problems (i.e. when Henry Ford said his customers would have asked for faster horses). PR agencies of the future could then try to work with the brand and the clients to translate these insights or jobs-to-be-done (as called by innovation theory junkies)into product and service ideas. This would require a different skill set though. However, isn’t the PR agency’s mission to facilitate relations between the brands and their customers? Todd Defren from Shift Communications once said the PR agency’s job is to make sure that stories are told in a relevant way, to the right people. Until now, the stories have been told in only one direction, from the brand to the customers. How about doing these in both directions? And how about helping both parties to materialize those relationships and interactions into product and service ideas? Now that would be something truly different. However, I guess PR agencies have to start thinking outside the box…because if the don´t do it, someone else eventually will.

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  • melly

    Great idea, thank you for this information, it gives the ideas on how this PR agencies benefit to us users.

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