Media has been pretty much like that for most of the several thousand years since. A small number of people told a large number of people what they thought, and there was little opportunity for the masses to respond. If they did, it was subject to the editorial control of those in power.
Which is why, when the web appeared in 1994, people started getting excited. A fresh paradigm was emerging, they said. In the future, where there had been a monologue, there will be a dialogue. Consumers will be able to respond to communications just as easily as they can receive them, and the implications for brands are enormous.
I went to a conference in 1996, where hundreds of marketing and media folk debated the exciting opportunity this dialogue would bring their brands. We spent three days talking about how brands would be able to have a dialogue with consumers, and that this would be a more powerful means of communication because of the level of involvement consumers would have.
Throughout the debate it was clear what benefits a dialogue with consumers could have for brands. The trouble was, there wasn't much in it for consumers. Speaking for myself, I don't really want to have a dialogue with Persil or Sainsbury's. I don't even want to have a dialogue with Audi or Selfridges, brands in which I would normally be considerably interested. I just want them to get on with being them; making my clothes clean or providing my groceries.
So the ability to create real, meaningful dialogue often ended up being too costly, too difficult and often too much work for the value generated.
But a new dynamic has emerged over the past few years, which is more powerful, more threatening, more revolutionary and more valuable than dialogue could ever be.
When we look back in another 10 years, we will see that the true impact of digital media was not to find new ways to connect brands to consumers, but in connecting consumers to each other.
Now, people collaborate to create software that they then release onto the web where it outperforms the commercial competition. They share information about medical conditions, challenging the authority of the medical establishment. They co-operate to drive down fuel prices, publishing the cheapest price for their postcode. And join forces to bring down brands who let them down, publishing video footage of underperforming products. The age of the tri-alogue has arrived.
The challenge this poses for brands is that they are no longer handing down the tablets. Their customers have relegated them to the position of supplier, and are talking about them, not to them.
While this is a threat to those who adhere to the status quo, it is an opportunity for those brands that can reinterpret themselves as facilitators. They recognise that the bulk of the discourse will take place between consumers, and their role in this is to enable, empower, listen and, just occasionally, talk.
The trialogue will influence every aspect of marketing, from product design (threadless.com) to product recommendation (tripadvisor.com), and its potency derives from the opportunity brands now have not to talk at people, but to be a small part of billions of their conversations.
- Andrew Walmsley is co-founder of i-level
30 SECONDS ON ... TRIPADIVSOR
- Founded in February 2000, TripAdvisor offers opinions on more than 200,000 hotels and 30,000 destinations worldwide. The site contains more than 5m reviews posted by users.
- Its homepage features a selection of users' 'rants' and 'raves'. Cheapcharlie from Bournemouth had a bad stay at the Montana Grand in Phuket, Thailand. 'My room was disgusting, there was fried rice on the living-room floor from the previous occupants. The decor was very dated and the whole apartment stank. The bathroom/toilet had mould in it and the bed sheets didn't get changed all week. My view was of a rubbish tip.'
- Louisel from Brighton enjoyed her trip to Thailand rather more. Of the Anantara Resort in Hua Hin, she wrote: 'The rooms are fabulous - a large balcony overlooking the Mekong and a giant bath big enough for two.The staff were marvellous and anticipated your every need.'