Web 2.0, Meet College Politics 2.0

Reading the Wall Street Journal editorial page the other day, it struck me how far the societal impact of Web 2.0 has come. It is a great example of how the technological and cultural changes driving Web 2.0 are no longer limited to technology; in this case, the hotly contested election on the proposed Alumni Constitution at Dartmouth College.
Peter Robinson writes in the Wall Street Journal,

“The uglier the combat, goes the old rule in academia, the lower the stakes. But the fracas at Dartmouth is different. Far from representing a spat among alumni, it proves that the tides of technology are at last lapping up against the ivory tower. In one sector of American life after another, technology long ago began shifting power from insiders to outsiders, from the few to the many. Mainframe computers have given way to personal computers. The old media have lost ground to the blogosphere, the Library of Congress to Wikipedia. In each instance, technology has taken a top-down structure and flattened it, making it incomparably more democratic. Now higher education is experiencing the same leveling force.

“The old model — the one many provosts and deans seem to assume will remain in effect forever is simple. First colleges spend four years teaching students to engage in critical thinking. Then they treat the same people like ciphers, instructing them to write checks every year while leaving the governance of the institutions to the administrators.”

Robinson sees a new model taking shape where technology makes it possible for alumni to “circumvent the clumsy propaganda in alumni magazines” and gather their own first-hand information on what is happening at their alma maters. For those of us working in and around technology, what Robinson describes is all too familiar. Market hierarchies are flattening. Corporate brands are less and less controlled by the company as customers gather and share experiences and opinions directly with each other via blogs, email, discussion boards, and review sites such as Amazon and ePinions.

If you are the Dartmouth Administration, you respond by using slimy push-polling and run the whole effort like a no-holds barred political campaign. (If you want to know more about these manipulative practices and how it is part of a carefully crafted, three-step process, read about it here.)
If you have a company that sells products or services, you have to take another approach. You have to find ways to engage these new influencers, and leverage their credibility within the new market context. A quality brand is a huge corporate asset, but spending more on traditional brand advertising and PR is a losing game if your current and potential customers have their own sources of information with greater credibility so that they can–and do–bypass your traditional messaging.
Whether you are a forward-looking company or a forward-looking college, there are a lot of things you can do to maximize your influence where it matters most. Perhaps best of all, engaging these new centers of market influence, unlike traditional outbound marketing, helps you improve your product or service because the new influencers don’t just want to hear from you, they want to be heard by you.
Proactive response influencer marketing is gaining in popularity among companies that are technically savvy. This information channel proves to your market that you’re listening and that you take action. It’s a growing part of our practice at Rubicon Consulting.
UPDATE: The proposed Constitution failed. Power to the People!

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