For centuries, Western knowledge has been based on the concept of authority. Whether it was religious authorities handing down spiritual truths, government officials handing down legal truths, or scholars handing down scientific truths, society, with rare exceptions, has accepted the truths passed on to them without question. When union leaders spoke, workers followed orders. When Churchill’s government told Britons to keep calm and carry on in the face of nightly bombings, they did. And when Walter Cronkite told the nation “That’s the way it is,” it was. We didn’t question it.

…earn your authority.

authorityAt various times in history, we’ve questioned authority. For example, the civil rights movement and anti-war protests of the 1960s demonstrated that when Americans felt they weren’t getting the real story, they would revolt. However, it’s not been until the age of the internet that when people feel misled they have a real tool at their disposal to share their side of the story. The internet has become a great equalizer, giving anyone with a computer the potential to possess the same veracity as the government, traditional media or scientific community.

What this has meant is that if someone doesn’t agree with “the way it is,” they can publish their own version of the story online. What does this mean for your company? The good news and the bad news is that it means a lot.

The best strategy is to use this to your advantage. Don’t tell the public how good you are—let them tell each other how good you are. For example, is one of the world’s most successful retailers. A central component of Amazon’s selling platform is the rating system, in which consumers can give products from one to five stars and write a review. Do you think Amazon would use this approach if it didn’t work?

Advertising today is about letting the public tell your story for you. If your product is good—and that’s a prerequisite—consumers will tell each other about it on your website, on Facebook, on YouTube, on discussion forums, on Twitter, and so on. You’ll earn your authority.

That’s not to say that you should shy away from white papers, articles in trade journals, media kits or other traditional marketing materials. Those are essential. But remember, those materials won’t seal the deal these days—they’ll only increase awareness. Your customer will make his or her decision about your product or service based at least in part on what his or her peers think about it—and having a quality product or service is the best way to ensure positive cyber-chatter, as well as earning that position of authority.

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