The rising influence of individuals is transforming economies and societies. The demands of personalization and shifting corporate expectations have put exceptional pressure on companies to adapt, leaving many of them vulnerable to disruption by new technologies and business models. The increasing strength of individuals’ digital voices has empowered the masses to seek change and demand more from those who serve them, but these digital tools are double-edged, and society is currently confronting the damage being done in what many call the “war on truth.”
Amplification of voice. Social media has provided a platform for sharing messages far and wide, both for consumers and for brands. In the last five years, certain companies have seen the negative-side ramifications firsthand, being on the receiving end of targeted boycott movements that consumers initiated and spread via social media. #DeleteUber is a prominent example, which led to the firing of Uber’s CEO. On the other hand, brands have been successfully using social media to promote new offerings, drive sales, and improve both customer service and customer loyalty. Dove’s #realbeauty (and more recently #courageisbeautiful) and Always’ #likeagirl are two such examples of popular hashtags that demonstrate the power of a good social media message.125,126
Democratization of information. The last decade saw the rise of the connected consumer, with access to information from numerous channels and nearly infinite sources. This included news, reviews, instructional videos and more. Although initially surprising, in a frequently cited 2014 Deloitte UK consumer survey, customer reviews ranked equally trustworthy as feedback from friends and family, indicating the democratization of commercial information.127 As of September 2018, even technical and scientific information has been democratized, with the EU’s signing of Plan S mandating that publicly funded research appear only in open-access journals – a plan also supported by China’s largest research funding agency. In tandem, the democratization of education has expanded via platforms like EdX and even YouTube.
Positive social change vs. the war on truth. The internet has become the barometer of sociopolitical temperature, with the ability to drive lasting social change, but it has also become a platform for demagoguery, misinformation and disinformation. The Arab Spring was one of the first major political instances where social media enabled the organization of a major movement. More recently, movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo produced significant impact across the globe by leveraging social media. While digital platforms have helped social movements become more effective at bringing about positive change, their use to misinform and mislead has risen greatly. The Cambridge Analytica scandal, as an example, exposed how these powerful tools can be exploited to sway public opinion in either direction. Most recently, the COVID-19 health crisis has shown the ease with which contradictory and competing narratives can spread, leading to misinformation, disinformation and significant discord among the general public.
Digital platforms will continue to be a megaphone for consumers, corporations, governments and bad actors. Misinformation will be rampant, but so will the opportunity to positively engage consumers and gauge social "temperature." Organizations that leverage these platforms to collect feedback and increase communication transparency with their stakeholders will gain greater control over public narratives and might just find inspiration for their next big product or campaign.
Moving forward, consumers will seek change through greater use of collective action, making the greatest impact when they initiate or align to a social movement.128 As a result, social media campaigns based on grassroots activism will become more prevalent and prompt the need for more responses by businesses and governments. Businesses can look at these emerging social movements as a chance to become more relevant for their customer base. However, strategies for engaging in social campaigns will vary.129 Ethical businesses will stand out, and experts are predicting the rise of a new CEO – Chief Ethics Officer.130 Businesses know that a tarnished brand image has massive financial consequences, but future effects could be even longer lasting than those of the past. Successful organizations will build early warning systems and reflexive muscles to manage changing narratives on digital media that threaten their brand reputation. After assessing their unique position in a given situation, they will quickly and efficiently decide which side of the debate to stand on, if any, and how to communicate their message with integrity. Someone will always be upset, but that should not deter a company from standing up for its values.
Consumers will continue to gain more access to information via regulation, changing norms of corporate public engagement and from better investigatory work. Many companies will adopt radical transparency with their consumers to ensure the truth about their products and services is visible. Customer feedback will be immediate, and companies that can incorporate that feedback the fastest will gain a significant advantage. Even companies that do not always directly engage with end users will find value in being accessible to the public. For example, NASA generates public excitement about its projects and work by sharing live satellite launches and astronomical findings on social media to the benefit of their government funding.