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Citizen Marketers Take Over!

Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba
Citizen Marketers Take Over! Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba

A note from Editor in Chief Brad Berens: I'm pleased to share this excerpt from Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba's new book, "Citizen Marketers: When People Are the Message," with the iMedia Connection readers, and I'd like to thank the authors and Kaplan Publishing for the opportunity. In the book, McConnell and Huba describe how consumers are taking their rightful part in the new marketing conversation that interactive media has enabled, and how brands both big and small are learning to engage with their new marketing partners. The brands that McConnell and Huba discuss include BMW, McDonald's, New Line Cinema, Apple Computers, Coca-Cola, Dell, Netflix, Palm, Nissan, Lego, Discovery Education, the Chicago Cubs and many more. Citizen marketing is not a fringe phenomenon; instead, it is something to which every savvy marketer should start paying close attention. McConnell and Huba's book is a great place to start. In the following pages taken from Chapter One, the authors describe the four different sorts of citizen marketers and share case studies. If you like what you read here, then I urge you to buy the book online. It's a good read.

Social media makes relationships easier to create and maintain because of participation, and participation is the future of marketing. Indeed, Peter Kim of research firm Forrester advocates that participation be added to the well-established four Ps of marketing (produce, price, place and promotion).

Citizen marketers create what could be considered marketing and advertising: content on behalf of people, brands, products or organizations. Often they invite others to participate in their marketing work.

Citizen marketers don't often represent the average person, member, customer or citizen. They are on the fringes, driven by passion, creativity and a sense of duty. Like a concerned citizen.

Among the world of citizen marketers are what we call the four Fs: Filters, Fanatics, Facilitators and Firecrackers. The first three Fs are the noble worker bees of citizen marketers, focusing for months or years at a time on their work. The Firecrackers, well, they are what they sound like: citizen marketers who explode loudly and mightily and then vanish in a puff of smoke.

Author notes: Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba popularized the term "customer evangelism" with their previous book, "Creating Customer Evangelists." The Seth Godin-edited NYT bestseller "The Big Moo" featured them among the world's 33 smartest business thinkers. Both live and work in Chicago.

The Filters are human wire services. They collect traditional media stories, bloggers' rants and raves, podcasts, or fan creations about a specific company or brand and then package this information into a daily or near-daily stream of links, story summaries, and observations.

Most Filters maintain a steady objectivity like traditional news wire services, but some Filters cross over into analysis. For the most part, Filters are not prone to fits of pique or confrontation, and they occasionally produce their own journalistic work.

Like the HackingNetflix blog, for example.

Mike Kaltschnee has been writing HackingNetflix since November 2004. Each day, he composes three to five posts that could be considered plot points on the company's DVD-by-mail subscription business. Some 7,000 readers follow along daily. He and a slew of collaborative readers (he estimates about half of his news items are submitted by readers) highlight the company's marketing tactics, such as "Netflix sponsors Google Videos" and "Netflix monster house banners." He often describes challenges to Netflix's business model: "Blockbuster $2.99 store rentals" and "TiVo testing movie downloads." He posts stories about the company's challenges to delivering consistent customer service: "Netflix rental history controversy" and "Netflix customer support on throttling." Finally, he highlights a lot of new movies available on DVD through Netflix.

In the world of investment banking, well-paid analysts undertake somewhat similar work, trying to connect the dots of a business on behalf of investors who hold millions of shares. Why would someone do the same thing for free?

Kaltschnee, who works for a stock-photo agency during the day, describes his motivation for launching the site: "An experiment in company and community relations. I'm a fan of Netflix and wanted to learn more about the company, sharing what I found," he notes. "It may have started as a fan site, but I've tried to make it more professional and even -- shudder -- 'fair and balanced.'"

His work is not unlike an analyst teaching himself and others the business he monitors. That's the basis of the hacking metaphor: it borrows a computer programmer's term to take something apart in order to understand how it works, not how to infiltrate and exploit. (The exploiters are usually called "crackers" or "black hats." On every HackingNetflix page, a disclaimer says the site "will not teach you how to lie, cheat or steal from Netflix.")

In that sense, HackingNetflix is like an independent news operation whose nightly top story is how Netflix is doing. He and other Filters adamantly stay on topic (HackingNetflix does occasionally cover news about Blockbuster Online), and they reflect a journalist's focus on timeliness and speed. Kaltschnee writes short posts with the objective air of a professional journalist. While he has conducted interviews with Netflix employees, including CEO and founder Reed Hastings, and often posts items about company job openings, Kaltschnee's singular focus has heightened his authority as a Netflix monitor. Traditional media journalists often quote him to provide contextual understanding when writing about the company or the industry.

Search for Netflix on Google and HackingNetflix is the usually the third result. Kaltschnee's role of blogger-as-publisher is similar to what traditional newspapers do: he does not own stock in Netflix or Blockbuster and pays "full retail price for my subscriptions." As a publisher, he also earns income from ads on the blog and revenue from the affiliate program Netflix (and Blockbuster) pays to those who create links on their own sites that lead to Netflix memberships.

As a category, the Filters present an interesting future; their work could be called amateur brand journalism.

The Fanatics are true believers and evangelists. Their work as citizen marketers may include filtering work, but they love to analyze the daily or weekly progress of a brand, product, organization, or person and prescribe courses of action. They are, essentially, volunteer coaches.

The Fanatics praise great work -- which may vary widely from marketing to accessory development -- but they will also criticize mistakes and lapses in full view of the world, just like a coach may do as a teaching tool.

The personalities of the Fanatics are as varied as the personalities in sports coaching, too. Just as college basketball coach Bobby Knight has a personality (tends to be explosive) that's vastly different than pro football coach Tony Dungy (tends to be even-keeled), both ultimately want their teams to excel and win.

Take McChronicles.com, for instance, a blog written by a New York man who focuses exclusively on McDonald's.

With a good deal of care, he critiques the company's marketing and branding work and conducts regular secret-shopper reviews of McDonald's stores in his regular-job travels. He grades stores on service, food preparation, and cleanliness. Woe to the McDonald's operator whose poorly maintained bathroom he discovers; McChronicles seldom forgives that transgression. His review of a McDonald's in San Francisco's historic Haight-Ashbury hippie district is direct: "Regions with far less (of note) to brag about do a much better job of reflecting their tradition or community than this store does. What should be a landmark is actually a disappointment."

He is anonymous, though. Although that's uncommon among most citizen marketers (we will introduce you to a woman who anonymously blogs about Target), his reasons for anonymity are based on the stakes of his livelihood. He told us in an e-mail that he lives and works in a relatively small city; therefore, "many of my McDonald's experiences are in and around my town. One man owns about 30 McDonald's here. The owner of my company is that man's friend. Both are very rich and powerful." He started the blog in January 2005 because of what he calls "a love-hate relationship" with the brand.

"McDonald's is one of the most significant brands in my life," he told us. "It plays a big role in my past: especially in my childhood (it's almost like Christmas). Secondly, it is a shame to see the once-splendid brand miss the mark of what I always felt it was, what they told me it was, and what it could be. So much of what they do is right -- they're so close to being awesome for so many people around the globe -- that it hurts to see them just miss the mark. I just want them to 'get it,' and achieve it so that so many people can be really happy (including the employees). Actually, I am sure that many employees get it but feel their hands are tied by corporate, legal, the system, just like in other companies."

"I guess you could say I just want McDonald's to be awesome."

The stories of the Fanatics illustrate a central theme: they want to contribute. They face vastly different challenges in their quest to add value, whether it's time or indifference. But they want to contribute and often do so, even if the company isn't listening.

Facilitators are community creators. Their primary citizen marketer tool is a web-based bulletin board or community software. Facilitators are like the mayors of online towns, and some online communities exceed the populations of small cities.

Facilitators create online communities for several reasons. For products such as the Palm Treo smartphone or the TiVo digital video recorder, those product communities are de facto support groups where customers act as call-center technicians. Some Facilitators create communities simply for fans to connect with other fans. Some communities do both. The size or demographics of some Facilitator-created communities becomes attractive enough to interest advertisers.

Communities for specific models of cars are a particular favorite of the Facilitators. Online you'll find citizen-created sites for Chevrolet's Corvette, Ford's Thunderbird and Explorer (one Ford Explorer club is organized solely to conduct charitable work), and Nissan's Maxima and Z28, and the list goes on. If there's a model of car, there's probably a citizen-created forum for it.

A Facilitator-created forum for BMW's Mini Cooper is called MINI2.com. It bills itself as the largest online community for Mini owners. Paul Mullett was a 24-year-old full-time dad in Bedfordshire, England, and Casey Swenson was a 25-year-old programmer at IBM in Rochester, Minnesota, when they launched MINI2.com in January 2001 as an independent venture.

Over the years, their community grew to 20,000 Mini enthusiasts from around the world who share in the ups and downs of owning the petite car. The MINI2.com community is more elaborate than comparable communities; members can pay $17 (that's 10 British pounds or 15 Euros) to become a MINI2 Privilege Member. The fee allows members to upload images, access a private forum for other paying members, create a personal blog, and get discounts from Mini aftermarket companies.

For Mullett and Swenson, being Facilitators means catering to paying members and policing the community in search of those who would disrupt it. The "Pits" section of the site lists members who have been banned from the community; right there, like a bulletin board in a public square, are the handles of 171 people. The site even does the math: the banned members represent "0.054 percent of all users" since the site's founding.

BMW pays attention to this forum. Considering Mullet's strong marketing skills, it's smart of the company. In July 2006 it invited him and 79 journalists to test-drive the 2007 Mini, but Mullet kept the news from his community. After his secret test-drive experience, Mullett launched his own marketing campaign for unveiling the new model to his community. He posted a banner ad in the community: "27.07.2006: MINI2," with no other explanation.

For two weeks, members speculated about its meaning. In the hour before the announcement, the community was buzzing with excitement. Members from around the world reported sitting in front of their computers, snacks and beverages nearby, waiting for the announcement.

At midnight and every five minutes thereafter, Mullet became a Mini marketer, posting an insider's peek at the 2007 edition. He had detailed reviews of every new feature in the car. He posted close-up photos and videos of the interior and exterior. He posted videos of him test-driving the car on an off-track course.

Community members were ecstatic. Some were so taken they said it clinched their decision to buy the 2007 model.

Firecrackers are the one-hit wonders of citizen marketers.

Sometimes the proverbial wild hair springs up, and a few hours later, two guys with a video camera record a funny rap about McDonald's McNuggets, post it to a video-sharing site, and watch it accumulate 65,000 views.

Not all Firecrackers are get-'em-out-fast productions. George Masters's iPod ad was a one-hit wonder, but he spent five months creating it. Firecrackers typically attract considerable attention because they have created a song, animation, video, or novelty that generates a lot of interest but tends to die out quickly as the creators go on with their other work.

But the Firecrackers illustrate three principles of amateur content in the social media universe: (1) memes, even latent ones, can live indefinitely on the Web (memes are discussed more fully in Chapter 6); (2) social media networks accelerate the spread of memes; and (3) people love to mimic what entertains them.

Even though they may disappear as quickly as they arrived, the Firecrackers can have a measurable impact on a slice of culture or business.

One day, a 17-year-old girl who goes by the online handle "Bowiechick" (her real name is Melody Oliveria) wrote a diary post. In the early years of the 21st century, a personal diary for some teens is to sit at the computer, turn on a $99 video camera, record your innermost thoughts, and post them on the Internet. Bowiechick is one of those teens, and she posts her work to the video-sharing site YouTube.com.

On one particular day in 2005, while talking about the troubles of young love, she also covered her face in cat whiskers, a mustache, a gas mask, and funky hats, all of which were created digitally. The effects were cartoonish but precisely placed along the contours of her face, creating an instant sense of wow! Thousands of links to her post flourished, creating waves of word of mouth. About 1.2 million people watched her video. Hundreds left comments on her post, many of them questions about the effects.

The Bowiechick video illustrates two fundamental principles about social media, especially with amateur culture: social media simplify word of mouth and facilitate collaboration. Bowiechick wasn't video blogging in obscurity: the thousands of links and hundreds of comments on her post are immediately available to her or anyone else who blogs.

It's a real-time feedback system on one's ability to strike a chord within culture. Because of the feedback, Bowiechick created another video a few days later explaining how she had created the effects. Simple, actually. Software included with her Logitech computer webcam made the effects easy, like a mouse click.

Bowiechick's response video illustrates a culture of collaboration taking root with social media. The future of personal publishing and the business of culture are being driven by the inherent ease and desire for people to build knowledge together. The academic world has done this for eons, building knowledge atop one another's research and relying on a peer-review process to validate work.

The amateur culture attempts something similar, but the time period is days or hours. Validation is from in-bound links. Some 250,000 views later of her explanatory video, Bowiechick helped fuel a spike in sales of the webcam on Amazon.com. From Amazon.com Logitech learned that sales of the QuickCam Orbit, the product showcased in the video, increased by 128 percent over the same time frame from the previous year. Logitech was awaking to the future of amateur culture, too.

Several months later, it formed a partnership with YouTube to make posting videos created by its camera and software to the video-sharing site virtually seamless.

Whether it's the creative whims of videographers or the revenge of the consumers, social media are making it easier and faster to spread news. Reputations are enhanced or pummeled at faster and, to some, alarming rates.

The work of citizen marketers is a stunning reflection of the democratic principle of freedom of expression. Their use of social media tools in the context of democracy is clearly "We, the people." When the people talk, it's time to listen. Not because of what they say, but because of who they represent.

The work of citizen marketers is typically defined by three commonalities:

  1. Personal expression. Their opinions or their journalism are their own, designed to inform, entertain or analyze in a way that builds a case. It's not unlike what a professional journalist, pundit, or analyst would do.

  2. Amateur status. The citizen marketers are usually volunteers and don't announce their arrival with the noisy banging of pots and pans of an expensive marketing program. They are transparent about their motives and associations. They must be, for the amateur detectives in the blogosphere will undoubtedly sniff them out and expose them.

  3. Freely given. Their work is not meant to steal money, time, or attention away from the company of their affiliation. It's meant to enhance or improve it. Their work is a contribution to the commons.

The citizen marketers of the world are adapting to their simultaneous roles of publisher, distributor, and syndicator. They are accelerating changes in traditional media structures, and they are spawning new forms of democratic and participatory collaboration. They're learning that what is said is as important as who says it and where it is said.

They're making authenticity and transparency their founding, democratic principles and using their considerable organizing abilities to inspire the democratization of content, processes, and marketing. They are democratizing engagement.


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