Prosumers in E-Love

This is the second in a series of four. See Euro RSCG Worldwide PR's latest white paper, "Love (and Sex) in the Age of Social Media," for more analysis about how Americans think about online romance.

There's a certain set of consumers who don't just passively consume goods and services; they proactively seek them out, help to produce them and help to propagate them. Alvin Toffler coined the term Prosumers in his 1980 book The Third Wave to label people similar to the leading-edge consumers we were studying at Euro RSCG Worldwide, the parent company of the PR agency I head up. When we started using the term later, it was turbocharged by interactive technologies.

So consider the Prosumer a human-powered change engine. You probably know at least one: the friend others call first for product advice, the co-worker whose authority as an early adopter helps inform your own opinions. The Prosumer seeks out deals, entertains others, advocates, embraces causes and/or competes--all with signature proactivity.

Prosumers have fueled such indices as the rise of DIY culture and a growing ethic of self-service that we've seen pave wholesale changes in how we communicate. As I noted in "Public Mycasting System," one of my trends for 2011, the way we communicate is growing new appendages faster than a starfish, and people are prizing authenticity in self-revelations on blogs, link sharing, geo-tagging software, texting, IM and so on.

Given the proliferating SoMe forms that let people show each other where they are--physically and metaphysically--we trendspotters at Euro RSCG have been tracking Prosumers to learn what makes them tick in terms of technology and social media. This week, with the trifecta of Valentine's Day, global cooling and the residual inner chill many Americans can't shake after the recession, it's easy enough to see how deeply, truly and madly people are craving real human connections. But what about those market leaders of change? How do they self-identify in the market for e-romance and love?

And possibly more to the point, how are Prosumers' experiences different from those of other consumers? Can we read Prosumer behaviors in online love and sex to find out what the rest of the consumer herd will soon be doing?

In a survey Euro RSCG Worldwide did last month of 1,000 U.S. consumers (108 of which were Prosumers), Prosumers showed, first of all, that they're early adopters in e-communications at a very high rate. Sixty-one percent are interacting online more or much more than two to three years ago; 53 percent are using mobile more for communications; 65 percent are seeking out brands and products online; and in media multitasking, a full 57 percent report going online while watching TV--a behavior that coincides, in our view of the universe, with people who cull for their followers in real time everything from a new commercial to plot changes in favorite TV shows.

Are these experimental animals also experimental in love? Absolutely. Fifty-two percent of Prosumers believe having online romance and eroticism is possible. Eighty percent know somebody whose relationship started online. Prosumers as a group stand anywhere between 12 and 18 percentage points above non-Prosumer men and women in having flirted online. And in feelings of attraction, the spread stays just as big: an 11 percent to 21 percent upside trend compared with their non-Prosumer peers.

Across the board, Prosumers have adopted behaviors and beliefs relative to online use that demonstrate big faith in its potential to enrich one's love life in all the ways that could ever be desired--romantically, erotically, sexually. And one-third of Prosumers (36 percent) say online images, especially sexual ones, have influenced their ideas about sexuality (this compares with 17 percent of non-Prosumers).

It also bears mentioning that online relationships rank higher with Prosumers as measured by several of our key questions: A full 48 percent of them say yes, online life can take the pressure off real-life interactions, and 14 percent (compared with 8 percent of non-Prosumers) say that, for them, the boundary between online and offline life has blurred. Explicitly, Prosumers said this:

• 51 percent have flirted online
• 35 percent have felt strong feelings of attraction online
• 52 percent say it's possible to have a romantic relationship on the Internet
• 53 percent say it's possible to be erotic on the Internet

So extrapolating from all this, are Prosumers a mirror of what the world will look like in terms of e-romance and sex in the near future? I think they are.

The key to changes in attitudes about Internet relationships is first a comfort level. Just cycle back in your memory loop: The earliest laptops were advertised as light but probably weighed a shoulder-cramping 12 to 15 pounds. Now the iPad goes in your bag and doesn't even need to be put under the airport security scanner. And you can leave your paperback at home, too.

If this seems off-topic, it isn't. Because if attitudes toward the things we value are based most deeply in the sense of how we've always felt about something, Prosumers imply a progress in getting comfortable with decisions as personally critical as whether to pursue online avenues to get romantic, erotic and sexual.

Things get lighter not just when technicians work out the kinks of what something has to weigh, but also when responders weighing the benefits of e-romantic hookups discover that the latest digital and social tools are doing a decent job of meeting needs--and get the word widely out there about their experiences as first transactors.

So in the end, it's a value thing. Prosumers are out ahead in conducting transactions on the e-romantic frontiers. Their actions correspond to their values--being able to report back to Peoria or their just-divorced aunt, being able to share their stories in ways that are funny, inspiring or demonstrative of their leadership--turning the sense that the water's still too cold into a more playful approach to what's possible online, in a young-at-heart pool of fun in the sun.

Yesterday: "Love in the Time of Connectivity"
Tomorrow: "Breaking the E-Love Code"