In 1983, the show Cagney and Lacey was canceled by CBS, only to be brought back after a huge letter-writing campaign by viewers. As a 13-year-old boy I had no use for this female cop show (although I liked the looks of that Sharon Gless), but the thought that it had been brought back to life by the will of determined viewers captured my imagination. Power to the people!
Fast forward 20-some years and the people no longer have to resort to hopeful letter-writing campaigns. As the new book Citizen Marketers, by Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba, makes clear, everyday citizens now have the Internet at their disposal, and woe to companies that ignore their blogs, their discussion board posts, their YouTube videos. In today’s world, one happy or unhappy customer can make a big impact – fast. A blog post or consumer-created video gets posted today, goes viral tomorrow, and is picked up by big media next week. All of a sudden, that disgruntled customer sitting alone in his apartment has turned a corporation’s world upside-down.
Of course, the active participation that is increasingly taking place by companies’ fans and/or detractors also presents an opportunity – if companies are wise enough to listen. Citizen Marketers (subtitled “When People Are the Message”) introduces us to people who voluntarily spend much of their free time writing and talking about consumer products, services, TV shows, movies, etc. Who are these people? Why do they do it? Are they the beginning of a sea change in the structure of society, or is this a passing fancy, with people temporarily taken with the novelty of how much easier it’s become to have one’s voice heard?
Citizen marketers come in many shapes and sizes. McConnell and Huba classify them loosely as Filters, Fanatics, Facilitators, and Firecrackers. In short, this means they range from people creating one-off blog posts or videos that suddenly explode into the public consciousness, to people starting and running community websites built around their favorite companies or products, to website owners that function almost as extensions of the companies themselves, creating de facto hubs for news, information, and rumors about the companies on which they focus.
Why do they do it? Sometimes out of love, sometimes out of hate, sometimes out of a desire to help others. Sometimes just to hear the sound of their own voices. The point is, they’re doing it. And how a company reacts to them can have big consequences.
Journalist-turned-blogger Jeff Jarvis wrote about being in “Dell Hell” when Dell couldn’t/wouldn’t fix his new computer in a timely manner. Soon enough, thousands of others chimed in with their own anti-Dell stories, which led to mainstream media latching on as well. It’s hard to quantify a public relations disaster such as this, but the subsequent 45% drop in Dell’s stock price over the following year couldn’t have been completely coincidental.
Citizen Marketers includes dozens of other stories about the positive, negative, and sometimes confused reactions of the companies that are targeted by the “1 Percenters” (as the book refers to citizen marketers, who make up such a small percentage of the whole). It’s clear that not every company “gets it” — perhaps they’re the ones who need this book the most.
As the founder of Bessed, a search site that encourages user participation, I was particularly interested in how McConnell and Huba see the “democratization” of the market playing out in terms of new business models. While it’s interesting to see a single person make enough noise to get noticed by Coca-Cola, that’s an example of new means of citizen participation affecting old ways of doing business. But are there companies being built specifically around this “democratization”, and, to quote the often-asked question of the Internet’s early years, how do you make money from it?
Active Internet users can quickly point to sites such as Digg and YouTube as examples of participatory models. But, other than the fact that YouTube’s founders got rich by selling out to Google and Digg’s founders may have a similar exit strategy, these types of sites have been more about building a user base than about turning a profit.
So I was particularly interested in McConnell and Huba’s focus on Threadless. On the surface it’s simply a site that sells T-shirts. But look under the hood and you see that Threadless has made democracy the core of its business. Members of the Threadless community create T-shirt designs, which are then voted on by other community members, with the winning designs printed and sold by the company. The community has already told Threadless what they want to buy, so there’s never a clunker in the bunch. It’s on-demand production of sure winners. Threadless pays the designers a nominal amount (as well as some free T-shirts) for designs it already can bank on. Now that’s a business model!
That said, Citizen Marketers has as much to teach entrepreneurs as it has to teach lumbering corporations. When people are the message, treat them as such, and everybody wins.