With MySpace, YouTube and blogs, the customer is always right and online.
The Wall Street Journal ⎢ Books ⎢ December 20, 2006
LAST MONTH, as Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba's "Citizen Marketers" was heading toward bookstores, an unscheduled viral marketing event occurred at a private event celebrating the merger of MBNA and Bank of America. You might have seen it by now: Two pear-shaped managers with serious balding issues perform a cringeworthy rendition of U2's "One." ("And it's ONE BANK, ONE CARD, one name known all over the world....") What would have previously been endured with a groan by those present was instead recorded, doubtless by someone with a video-equipped cellphone. The clip inevitably surfaced on YouTube and ricocheted across the Internet, to global ridicule. (U2's music publisher issued a threatening letter, but that's another story.) Anyone even the slightest bit surprised at all this should drop everything and read this book.
"Citizen Marketers" offers a solid, sometimes insightful explanation of how the Internet has armed the consumer — which is to say, everyone — against the mindless blather of corporate messaging attempts. The stories it tells are not all negative by any means: For every vengeful YouTube posting there are countless blogs that celebrate products as diverse (and unlikely) as Chicken McNuggets, Barq's root beer and HBO's "Deadwood." The author of a blog called Slave to Target confesses that the thought of shopping at Target stores makes her "simply feel orgasmic." The point is that in the current era of blogs, podcasts, RSS feeds, mashups, Flickr, YouTube, MySpace and whatever is coming next week, corporate decision-makers are losing even the illusion of control. It's a buyer's world. Caveat venditor, as Mr. McConnell and Ms. Huba note: Let the seller beware.
The agent of change was not the Internet itself, though the feedback mechanism it introduced is the sine qua non of consumer empowerment. The key was the more recent development known as Web 2.0. Powered by XMA, a computer language that makes it easy to merge data from any number of sources, Web 2.0 has transformed the Net from what was largely a platform for micropublishers to a free-floating community forum that encourages multimedia participation by anyone with a broadband connection.
And participate they do: Last March, the Pew Internet & American Life Project reported that 48 million Americans — roughly one-sixth of the population — were posting something or other to the Web. Given that this is a nation of consumers, much of what they're posting involves some form of comment on consumer products, none of it authorized by the product maker. As the authors note, business people will find this "either astoundingly cool or somewhat alarming."
Make that very alarming, at least in the case of such behind-the-curve organizations as Coca-Cola and Dell Computer. Last summer, when thousands of Web videos popped up showing what happens when you drop some Mentos into a bottle of Diet Coke (soda everywhere!), the venerable soft-drink company responded huffily that the beverage is meant to be drunk and that such experiments don't fit with its "brand personality."
Such carnival tricks at a product's expense are nothing compared with what Dell experienced after it sold a lemon to Jeff Jarvis, a well-connected blogger whose online response to its hapless repair efforts began with the words: "Dell lies. Dell sucks." Eventually the company announced that it would spend $100 million to improve its customer service — but by that time its lousy support organization had become the subject of Web posts, tech-conference discussions and news reports in the U.S. and abroad.
When "Citizen Marketers" reports and analyzes incidents such as these, it is on target. Where the book goes astray is in its organization, which veers toward the nonlinear, and its reliance on such tiresome business-book tropes as the mnemonic categorization scheme. For Mr. McConnell and Ms. Huba, it's not enough to show how activist, Web-enabled consumers are inverting the power relationship between marketing professionals and the general public. Consumers must be divvied up into Filters, Fanatics, Facilitators and Firecrackers, as if we could only remember "F" words. And though the distinctions in this taxonomy can be useful — Filters are "information collectors," whereas Firecrackers are "one-hit wonders" — they hardly give a full picture. What, for example, are we to make of California's "blogging pigeons," which fly around with air-pollution monitors and radio transmitters attached and automatically, if unwittingly, post data to a Google map? Flappers, perhaps?
The real story of "Citizen Marketers" is the rise of the activist amateur — "amateur" meaning not only a nonprofessional but also, in the original sense, one who loves. We're seeing a fusion — a mashup, if you will — of two formerly distinct spheres, the private and the public. Privately held brands are being defined not by their owners but by unpaid, and often unwanted, public guardians. In an age when most discussion of the public weal can be filed under "commons, tragedy of," this is a remarkable development.
Even more remarkable is the realization that consumers are now able to blow a raspberry heard 'round the world, whether in response to inane corporate spirit-building or customer-service doubletalk. In a perfect world, every business would take note. The question is, how will they respond? One of the hapless Bank of America crooners, commenting on his unexpected notoriety, said he hoped it would boost his sideline as an indie recording artist. YouTube, meet "American Idol." ■
Mr. Rose is a contributing editor at Wired magazine.