“For marketers connecting with consumers, for the first time the consumers are connected with each other, and that changes everything,” says Joe Talcott, Group Marketing Director of News Limited. There’s no denying the importance of this change. But what does it mean?

Ross Dawson reckons the key word is “influence”. The futurist and entrepreneur is so certain of this that he dumped his annual Future of Media Summit and replaced it with Tuesday’s Future of Influence Summit held simultaneously in Sydney and San Francisco.

“Influence — based on conversations and aggregated opinion — will be at the centre of how companies seek to drive sales and customer engagement,” says Dawson.

“Own opinions are often driven more by peers than traditional sources.”

That word-of-mouth is powerful is nothing new, of course. It’ll always trump product catalogues or advertising. As Burson-Marsteller digital strategy chief Erin Byrne says, “Trusted sources are the most important source of information affecting people’s purchases.”

But what is new is the scale of it all – and the fact that it’s all on public record forever and, therefore, searchable.

Some believe this will result in a massive fragmentation of the media landscape, including CEO of local news site iPRIME, Tony Surtees.

“Media is used to a top-down look-at-us we’ll-be-the-tastemaker kind of world, and there’s still significant elements within the media who think that, and the advertisers sit within that. This model is fundamentally broken,” Surtees says.

“From my point of view, we’ve entered into the confetti economy. There are a million little specks of influence … The community is now more influenced by itself rather than leaders … The industry is almost in jihad. There’s a war going on between those who hold onto the old model because it’s familiar and those who champion the new model … but they can’t quite get their handle on it.”

Surtees believes the new model will first affect politics — consider Barack Obama’s online campaigning — and then start to leach across into more commercial environments.

It’s about “the ability to influence the buzz through active participation in the conversation.” Note: “participation in”, not “talking at”.

However Stephen Howard-Sarin, VP Products for CBS Interactive, is sceptical of this notion of fragmentation.

“The line-up of trust agents is changing [but] I think there’s the perception [in Silicon Valley] that it’ll all be about individuals, that traditional influence networks will be shattered. I don’t believe that for a minute,” says Howard-Sarin.

“I think we’re going through an early adolescence, where a lot of the influencers in the pick-up sticks game of influence are individuals. But I think all the individual influencers will become little businesses.”

Perez Hilton and Arianna Huffington come to mind.

Howard-Sarin is also sceptical about the notion of authenticity being the key driver.

“There’s an element of theatre to any communication whenever it goes beyond one on one,” he says.

“The folks who have the responsibility to communicate to a large audience, whether they’re customer service or the CEO, they will craft their message for the specific audience.”

It’s not about whether a company has the best customer service, for example, but how well they communicate the quality of their customer service.

“The game goes to the best performers,” says Howard-Sarin.

One thing that was widely agreed, though, was that trust is critical.

Mike Hill, Director of Holler Sydney, believes that deceptive stunts — like the 2006 campaign in which a supposedly-amateur video of pranksters spraying graffiti on Air Force One was exposed as an expensive hoax — can’t work now. They’d be exposed quickly, and the trust broken.

As Duncan Riley, editor of The Inquisitr says, “We talk about influence, but influence does not exist in a vacuum without trust… If you build trust with your audience and you betray that trust, then you lose influence.”