A New Media Book That’s Actually Fun to Read

The Chaos Scenario cover imageI start lots of books about new media, but I finish very few of them. My ADD is only part of the reason. I often find that authors don’t have much to say beyond a few points that are stated clearly in the first 100 pages or so and repeated for the remaining 200.

Not so with The Chaos Scenario, the new volume by veteran advertising critic Bob Garfield. I devoured this book and was sorry to see it end. One reason: It is so much fun to read.

Garfield is a gifted writer and he’s funny as hell. Of the video for OK Go’s YouTube hit “Here It Goes Again,” he writes, “Everyone on earth has seen the video at least four times, except for certain remote areas in the mountains of Papua New Guinea, where several tribesmen had seen only twice.” Or “If it were Japanese steel Google was flooding the market with, instead of kitten videos, it would be called dumping.”

Such asides are garnish on a viciously insightful treatise on the death of advertising by someone who has the street cred to make that judgment. Garfield’s quarter century of experience qualifies him to say when media is badly broken, which he clearly believes it is.

In an opening chapter entitled “The Death of Everything,” he documents the implosion of mainstream media channels of every kind under the weight of new-media competition and changing audience behavior. If your CEO still insists on throwing away money on TV ads, put this chapter in front of him.


Much of the book outlines the principles of “Listenomics,” or the premise that institutions that fail to listen to and engage with their newly empowered customers will die. The power that now exists in the hands of ordinary citizens can humble even the most arrogant corporate giants.

Among the examples of this Garfield cites is a grassroots campaign called “Comcast Must Die” which he and a core of frustrated cable subscribers mounted in 2007. Through blogs and message boards, an angry mob of customers turned the tables on a giant utility, forcing meaningful change across its vast customer service operation. As besieged Senior VP Rick Germano ultimately admits, “I’m crying ‘uncle’ now.’”

Bob Garfield

Bob Garfield

Garfield believes in the power of the crowd but not necessarily in its wisdom. Chapter 9 (“Off, Off, Off Madison”) presents a scathing indictment of consumer-generated advertising (CGA), which Garfield characterizes as mostly a dull imitation of what non-professionals believe advertising should be.

“Most CGA has been the stuff of tiny little talents with tiny little budgets pursuing tiny little ideas,” he writes.  Which is not to say that pitting crowds against each other is always a bad thing, as long as the crowds know what they’re doing. Garfield praises CrowdSPRING, a competitive foundry for design professionals that created dozens of choices for the book’s logo for just $500.

The power of the crowd is not so much to create advertising as it is to keep institutions honest, he asserts. In that respect, the balance of power has completely changed. “Never pick a fight with someone who buys zeros and ones by the barrel,” he writes at the close of the Comcast chapter, “which, nowadays, is everyone.”

Time to Lego

The story of Lego Mindstorms is a vivid example of Listenomics at work. The staid Danish company allowed customers to take an active role in turning a marginal product into a global geek megahit. Customers paid their own way to come to Denmark and help Lego build a more profitable business. Crowds are at their best when they help guide brands they like, Garfield asserts, but rarely when they build the products themselves. Brands like Dell Computer and Procter & Gamble are now embracing this idea of customer involvement with a vengeance through initiatives like Dell IdeaStorm and Innocentive.

The book closes on a somber note, distinguishing itself from the relentlessly upbeat message of many marketing titles. In a chapter entitled “Nobody Is Safe from Everybody” Garfield recites chapter and verse of people whose careers and even lives have been ruined by character assassination, “trolling,” and the sometimes devastating choices of search engines.

In a world in which less and less information is private, ordinary citizens are increasingly vulnerable to the whims of a malicious few whose vendettas may be artificially magnified by unknown algorithms. “You have very little to fear from 1984, but every reason to quake about Lord of the Flies,” he writes.

In the final analysis, this clarity is one of the book’s most endearing traits. Garfield isn’t afraid to piss off his critics or to make fun of himself. He also doesn’t hesitate to point out that information democratization is hardly a win-win proposition. It is inevitable though, which is why marketers would do well to heed his well-reasoned advice. “Why, all of a sudden, is it so important to listen?” He asks in the first chapter “Because hardly anyone anymore is listening to you.”

Recommended Reading – 8/12/09

Notice Those Ads on Blogs? Regulators Do, Too – NYTimes.com

The National Advertising Review Council is calling for clear disclosure from bloggers who are paid for product reviews or whose work is sponsored by companies they blog about. However, some people think the guidelines go too far. For example, they would require a blogger to disclose in a product review that the product had been provided free by a vendor. Such disclosure has never been practiced by traditional media companies.

You are SO unfollowed! – Scobleizer

Robert Scoble un-follows 106,000 people in one shot and says he’s relieved. Perhaps we’re beginning to see the backlash against social media over-exposure. We shouldn’t become a victim of the need to constantly communicate.

Managing beyond Web 2.0 – McKinsey Quarterly

What happens when consumers’ shared experiences are more interesting than anything your marketing department can provide? Marketers have to learn the tools of interaction in order to adapt to conversations going on outside of their control. Those consumer experiences can also yield valuable ideas for marketing programs that reflect what the audience really wants to talk about.

The article cites the experience of GlaxoSmithKline, which dealt with consumer confusion over its Alli weight-loss drug  by setting up the My Alli community site to support discussion, videos, FAQs and a membership plan to aid in weight loss. This wrapped useful information (and a marketing message) in a warm and friendly environment.

Four useful tools for social networkers – Strominator

David Strom reviews four online services that increase the productivity of active contributors to social media. I particularly like Pixelpipe and Tr.im.

Beware Social Media Marketing Myths – BusinessWeek

BusinessWeek’s Gene Marks skewers some common misconceptions about social networks. They’re not free, he says. In fact, they require a significant investment of time. And you won’t necessarily find customers there. He also advises business owners not to spread themselves too thin. If you find a platform that works, put your efforts behind that one. Good advice, if not necessarily groundbreaking.

Pepsi Sees a Chance to Fill Newspapers’ Void – BrandWeek

BrandWeek interviews Bonin Bough, PepsiCo’s new social media director. He’s spearheading a broad and deep push into all kinds of channels that enable customers to interact with the company and create their own content. PepsiCo is actually sponsorsing bloggers to cover some trade shows, effectively setting the company up as a competitor to newspapers. Bough has some nice sound bites. “If you really think about it, it’s the largest broadcast network in the world, and in such a short amount of time, too. People are willing to share if they are given a structured opportunity to do so.”

The One Word You Can’t Say: Campaign – MediaPost

“The word ‘campaign’ has become the pariah of social marketing,” says MediaPost. “Preferred alternatives include terms like ‘program,’ ‘initiative,’ or even ‘conversation.’” This article speaks truth. The old 13-week campaign doesn’t work in a conversational medium. You need to build relationships, and that takes times. The good news? Relationships can last for many years.

Still, this new reality challenges conventional thinking and standard operating procedure. For one thing, agencies are paid to create campaigns with defined beginnings and ends. How do you compensate the agency for open-ended conversations? Also, the beneficiaries are likely to extend beyond the marketing department, which means that organizations need broad-based buy-in to make social media “campaigns” successful.

Mars Deserves Praise for Innovative Skittles Initiative

SkittlesEarly this week, candy maker Skittles rocked the media by giving over its entire home page to a list of Twitter postings labeled with the #skittles hash tag. The experiment initially provoked excitement, then doubt and finally alarm as pranksters used the opportunity to post all manner of negative and even obscene comments that had very little to do with the fruit candy.

As the volume of trash talk swelled, Mars Snackfood US pulled down the Twitter search page and replaced it with a Facebook profile. Today the site features a Wikipedia entry. Skittles’ branding consists of an overlay window that links to various references to the product in social media outposts. Basically, Mars reconfigured the brand’s website as a package of consumer-generated content.

A lot of people are trashing Mars for this bold experiment. “Disastrous” says Apryl Duncan on About.com. “Gimmicky” says VentureBeat. “Humiliating disaster” says SmartCompany. While some people are praising Mars for originality, the early consensus is that this campaign is not a good idea for the Skittles brand.

Bold Move


More skittles

I beg to differ. While Mars certainly could have better anticipated the frat-boy efforts to undermine the program, the Skittles experiment is a bold statement about where the company is taking its marketing tactics. Full disclosure: I’ve had the opportunity to work with some of the Mars marketers on a paid basis over the past year. Unlike many other corporations I’ve encountered, these people get it. Sure, they’re still feeling their way through the process of working with uncensored customer conversations, but they’re on the right track and they’re taking the right risks.


In January, Mars held a day-long offsite meeting with more than 100 of its global marketers to talk about word-of-mouth marketing. I was there, along with many of the company’s agency and branding partners. I was impressed with the commitment the company is making to understanding and working with social media. While many of their peers still regard online forums with a mixture of suspicion and disgust, the Mars marketers see it as an opportunity. They’re also fully aware of the risks. One breakout session at the meeting was devoted almost entirely to an analysis of Johnson & Johnson’s Motrin Moms fiasco.

Still more SkittlesThere’s no question Mars could have thought through this experiment somewhat better. Twitter was a bad place to start and under the circumstances, some filtering would have been appropriate. However, the whole concept of giving over the Skittles Web presence to customer conversations is daring and innovative. It’s unfortunate that some of the same people who trash brands for not being more hip to social media are now trashing Mars for almost being too hip.

Proof in the Pudding

Also, look at the coverage this story has generated: The Wall Street Journal, LA Times, Fast Company, CNET and the list goes on and on. If you believe Oscar Wilde’s theory that “The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about,” then this campaign is a hit. If Skittles sales don’t jump 15% in the next month, I’ll eat a bag of the candy, including the bag.

Chevy TahoeExperimentation is central to new media marketing and negative reactions to bold ideas are nothing to be feared. Nearly three years ago, General Motors invited visitors to stitch together their own video ads for the Chevrolet Tahoe SUV. About 15% of the videos people created were negative, prompting critics to call the campaign a disaster. But inside General Motors the project was considered an unqualified success. The Tahoe hit 30% market share shortly after the Web promotion began, outpacing its closest competitor two to one.

The Skittles campaign is outside-the-box thinking. Despite its shortcomings, it deserves praise.

The Best of '08

From my weekly newsletter. To subscribe, just fill out the short form to the right.

At this time of year, many publishers and bloggers do one of two things: look ahead at the future or back at the year just ending. Since Joe Pulizzi, Fast Company and iMedia Connection did a great job at social media predictions, I thought I’d rummage through my digital archives and offer my completely unscientific list of what made this year special for me.

Best Social Media Tool – That’s easy. It’s Twitter, the super-simple, deceptively powerful micro-blogging service that has people sharing their lives in 140-character increments. If you still don’t get Twitter, I feel your pain, but anyone who wants to practice marketing in the new media world needs to get with the program. If you need help, I’ll get on the phone with your people and tell them why it’s so important.

Best Social Media Disaster Story — Johnson & Johnson’s well-intentioned Motrin video turned into a PR nightmare thanks to — you guessed it — Twitter. To its credit, J&J earnestly listened, but the marketers’ failure to anticipate negativity and their eagerness to respond too hastily made this a bigger problem than it had to be.

Best New FaceChris Brogan blew out of the pack to become one of the world’s top bloggers thanks to his prodigious output and shrewd self-promotion. He’ll soon hit 30,000 followers on Twitter and the 14,600 subscribers to his blog are a thing of wonder. I don’t know when the guy finds time to sleep. I’m fortunate to work with him on the New Marketing Summit conference and have a chance to learn from his success.

Best BookGroundswell by Josh Bernoff and Charlene Li broke new ground by attempting to apply research and metrics to social media marketing. The book also told some great stories. Conflict of interest prevents me from choosing my own Secrets of Social Media Marketing, but that shouldn’t stop you from buying it!

Best New Software Application — In the ranks of software that tries to bring order to the barely contained chaos that is Twitter, TweetDeck does the best job I’ve seen.

Best Fall to Earth – Forrester reported that corporate enthusiasm for blogging was beginning to wane. That’s not surprising; most big companies do a lousy job of it. Expect retooling and new growth in the new year.

Best Viral Marketing Success – Cindy Gordon told just seven people about Universal Orlando’s plans to launch a Harry Potter theme park. Word of mouth spread the story to 350 million others in a matter of a couple of days. David Meerman Scott has the story.

Best New Product – The Apple iPhone 3G became the first true mobile Internet device and sold 3 million units in its first month. Expect plenty of new competition in 2009, which is only going to be good for consumers.Nokia has yet to play its cards.

Best Podcast – In the archives of the MediaBlather program that I do with David Strom, there were too many good interviews to choose just one. Among my favorites of 2008 were Mommycast, Brains on Fire/Fiskars, IDG’s Pat McGovern, Eric Schwartzman, Shel Israel and Brian Halligan of HubSpot. I think the most interesting podcast I listened to all year was Schwartzman’s interview with search-engine optimization expert Russell Wright.

Most Useful Blog Entry – Interactive Insights Group created a superlist of organizations using social media. You can find practically any case study on the Web by starting there. We have yet to hear what Tamar Weinberg has up her sleeve, though! Her 2007 superlist was a thing of beauty.

Best Article on the Media – The International Herald Tribune’s “Web Ushers in Age of Ambient Intimacy” explained the visceral appeal of Twitter and Facebook with admirable clarity. Eric Alterman’s epic examination of the collapse of the newspaper industry in The New Yorker was magnificent in its detail and insight.

Best Just For Fun – The most popular item in my newsletter is the squib about some crazy new Web resource we’ve found. Here are two of my favorites of 2008:

People always celebrate success, but they don’t give enough credit to really creative failure. Thank goodness, then, for The Fail Blog, a photographic tribute to failures big and small. Don’t look at this site in the office. Your colleagues will wonder why you’re laughing so hard. And don’t, under any circumstances, view it while you’re drinking milk, if you know what I mean…

Buddy Greene is the Yo-Yo Ma of the harmonica, and in this amazing clip from a Carnegie Hall concert, he will change forever your impressions of the capability and range of this tiny instrument.

Ethics and the $500 Gift Card

chris_broganSuper-blogger Chris Brogan has been embroiled in a debate over paid blogging that raises important issues about not just blogger credibility but the changing mechanics of trust in a democratized media world.

A recap: Brogan was one of a handful of bloggers targeted by Kmart in an unusual holiday promotion. The bloggers were each sent a $500 gift card to spend at Kmart with the request that they write about their experiences.  They were also asked to invite their readers to enter a contest to win a comparable giveaway.

Brogan did as asked. He was favorably surprised by the changes he found. However, he also identifed some shortcomings, such as messy shelves and limited selection, that he commented upon.  He disclosed prominently that this was a paid promotion.

Disclosure apparently wasn’t enough for some critics, who charged Brogan with selling his credibility for a gift card.  A vigorous discussion on Twitter debated the ethics of his decision to accept the incentive and of Kmart and partner Izea to stage it.  Brogan posted a detailed and thoughtful defense over the weekend, and prominent bloggers like Jeremiah Owyang have acknowledged that this is hardly a black-and-white case.

They’re right about that.  This case is about nothing less than the challenge of determining credibility in the media world that is being ripped apart at the seams.  For many years, we’ve had the luxury of taking for granted that media organizations could fund consumer advocacy reporters to act in our interests.  With the ongoing crisis in print media now spreading into the broadcast world, it’s clear that this kind of reporting will begin to fade.  It will be up to the emerging class of new influencers to figure out the rules.

In mainstream media, the standards were clear, at least in the US. Organizations like the American Society of Magazine Editors maintain suggested ethical guidelines that are broadly observed. However, there are no governing standards organizations or regulations, and professional journalists have to make their own choices about what is right. These decisions often enter a gray zone.

During my days in mainstream media, offers constantly came in from vendors and economic development organizations that exceeded in value our $25 or $50 limit on gifts. It was rarely a simple decision whether to accept these offers. For example, I once returned a lavish food basket sent to me as a congratulatory gift by a leading software company. My benefactors were so offended by my action that they never treated me the same way again.  It would have been better for everyone if I had simply accepted the gift and distributed it around the office. That’s a case where doing the ethical thing didn’t really help anyone.

Of even bigger concern were the trips.  Government economic development agencies frequently dangled all-expense-paid tours of their countries as an incentive to generate coverage.  I only went on one of these excursions — back in 1984 — and it was clear that I was no less virtuous than my competitors, who also came out in force (in reality, the trip was rather grueling and not much fun).

To compound this complexity, different cultures have different rules. For example, European media organizations had few ethical problems with these junkets.  In fact, vendor marketers have told me in the past that the only way to convince European journalists to cover their events was to pay all expenses. I don’t know if that’s still the case.

Making it Up

There are no broadly accepted standards in the blogosphere, so the community is making them up as they go along.  For the most part, it’s doing a fantastic job.  In fact, the debate over the Brogan incident testifies to the high ethical standards that bloggers are embracing. Mainstream media could learn from this.

It’s important that this debate be heard, because the collapse of our media institutions will increasingly leave influence in the hands of individuals whose biases and motivations are unknown.  I know Chris Brogan personally, and his integrity is beyond question.  In fact, I’d argue that someone in his position can’t afford to be anything but genuine.  He has one of the largest followings of any blogger on earth, and it would be foolhardy for him to violate the trust they place in him for a few hundred dollars’ worth of graft.

But for less prominent bloggers, the distinctions aren’t so clear.  With media institutions crumbling, the onus is shifting to the consumer to exercise healthy suspicion about their information sources.  They must increasingly put their trust in people, not institutions, and this makes things more complex.

Track Records

In my view, the two most important criteria for judging credibility are track record and disclosure.  A respected blogger is no less a brand than a respected media institution. In both cases, I give the benefit of the doubt to someone who has demonstrated over time that her word can be trusted.

Disclosure is the baseline for credibility.  Anyone who attempts to influence opinion without disclosing potential conflicts of interest is doing a disservice to himself and his community.  Had Brogan not disclosed prominently his financial relationship with Kmart, it would have cost him some of my trust.  The fact that he did so, combined with his track record, gives me complete faith in the integrity of his opinions.

Businesses will increasingly use creative incentives in the future to gain the visibility they are losing with the decline of mainstream media.  We’re out of our comfort zone and we will have to invent new standards of accountability.  Perhaps an organization will come up with a rating system of some kind, but I think it’s more likely that we will figure these things out communally.  Word-of-mouth has a remarkable power to identify credible sources.

Chris Brogan deserves our thanks for taking the heat and for responding so constructively.  His critics deserve our thanks for raising the issue in the first place.

Digg Setback Calls 'Wisdom of Crowds' Into Question

Journalism junkies have been closely watching the example of Digg.com to see if the wisdom of crowds really is better than the judgment of editors. According to David Chen, it isn’t. Writing on Mashable, Chen offers a detailed deconstruction of Digg’s recent decision to jettison some of its top users, apparently for trying to manipulate the system.  The weeding-out process was positioned as a routine cleanup intended to eliminate abusers of the community adjudication process, but it was actually an acknowledgment that decision-making by the masses has serious flaws, Chen concludes.

It’s been common knowledge for a couple of years that the Digg model lent itself to manipulation by a small number of people. In fact, there’s evidence that up to half the stories on Digg’s enormously influential home page were contributed by just 100 users.  By taking draconian action to ban members who had, in some cases, contributed hundreds of hours of effort to building the site, Digg is admitting that it has been unable to figure out an algorithmic solution to the abuse.

The problem isn’t in programs, but in people.  Individuals can attain fame within the community by contributing stories that are ranked highly by other users.  Active members discovered early on that by forming “friend” relationships with many others, they could enhance their performance and popularity.  In other words, the more you voted for another member’s contributions, the more the other member voted for yours.  As time went on, an elite corps grew more powerful, to the point that their contributions can achieve high visibility regardless of merit.

“In the years following its creation, Digg became less a democracy and more a republic, with a select few users responsible for the majority of front page stories,” Chen writes. Digg has tinkered with its settings to try to mitigate this factor, but some members responded by writing scripts that routed around the problem.  It became a giant cat and mouse game that eventually forced Digg to insert human editors at some levels to arbitrate the process.  So much for the wisdom of crowds.

Chen contends that the blockade may irreparably damage Digg’s reputation, although the site will continue to be a huge source of traffic for publishers who are lucky enough to be listed there.  At the very least, the conundrum points out the limits of a purely democratic model of news judgment.  Even successful sites like Wikipedia rely up a small cadre of elite editors to make most of the important decisions. People with significant experience in online communities agree that a very tiny percentage of members contribute the vast majority of content.  It appears that editors, whether bubbled up from the community or appointed by management, are inevitably needed to maintain order

Should this be taken as a condemnation of the community journalism model and validation for the rule of editors?  Absolutely not.  As Wikipedia has demonstrated, armies of ordinary people can create a phenomenal information resource.  However, leaving all decision-making to a group without providing rules or oversight invariably results in the ascendance of an elite.  in the case of Wikipedia, that elite is self-regulating.  In the case of Digg’s more juvenile crown, it’s a frat party.

Daily Reading 10/7/08

  • The Word of Mouth Marketing Association has come up with a compact and useful set of guidelines for marketing to social media influencers. It’s available for review and comment through Oct. 20, after which it will be published.

    tags: daily_reading

  • Here is a passionate argument for a new form of engagement marketing in which the marketer’s task is to find where the customers are already going and to meet them there. Unlike a lot of social media enthusiasts, Tobaccowala sees a need for conventional as well as conversational marketing. The trick is to achieve a blend that invites interaction that enables customers to market to each other.

    tags: daily_reading

  • More than 20% of US companies have investigated “the exposure of confidential, sensitive or private information via a blog or message board posting in the past 12 months,” according to Forrester Research. Data is leaking out of companies at increasing rates as Web 2.0 tools spread and media becomes more portable.

    tags: daily_reading, security

  • My Podcast partner, David Strom, has some practical insight on the limitations of social networks. The problem of separately work and personal identities is particularly annoying for marketers.

    tags: daily_reading

  • Doug Kaye, the innovator who came up with the IT Conversations podcast site, continues to pursue his goal of capturing important events in audio. What’s “important?” Well, in true Web 2.0 spirit, Doug leaves that in the eye of the beholder. SpokenWord.org is a new effort to catalog all kinds of spoken content.

    tags: daily_reading, podcasting

  • In this fast-paced and hilarious audio keynote from the O’Reilly Open Source Conference, Nat Torkington contrasts the major components of the open source stack to teenage children at various stages of development. It’s 15 minutes well spent.

    tags: daily_reading, open_source

  • Cool maps mashup site that lets you combine two maps; for example, a map of the London underground overlaid on a map of the city of London.

    tags: daily_reading, mashups

  • Sound advice from a blog in India about how to make your story heard amid media noise

    tags: daily_reading, blog_business

Panel: Community is Content

Venture capitalist Esther Dyson

MediaPost assembles a panel of a dozen experts to discuss the future of media. They include top editors, marketers, regulators and technologists. While there’s no single conclusion to this long and varied discussion, the group agrees that marketers’ focus is shifting away from content and toward audience. Publishers who attract the right audience – in whatever medium – will win.

Technology enables those audiences to be smaller and more focused than in the past. There is nearly unlimited opportunity to define and attract these new groups online. As a result, the group agrees that it’s a great time to be a publishing entrepremeur. They point to sites like Dopplr and yappr as examples of new Web 2.0 ventures that creatively combine member contributions in ways that amplify the value of the group. This community publishing model has explosive potential, they believe.

An example of this is Mint , a site that tracks personal spending and compares it to that of other members. A couple of the panelists think this is a great example of a new form of publishing in which the value is derived from the collective. “I now have the tools to figure out whether you really are giving me a better deal, because if you try to give me a worse deal, the Mint analysis tools are going to show I’m actually paying a higher percentage rate,” says Esther Dyson. “So it’s going to force vendors to offer better deals.”This kind of innovation almost necessarily comes from entrepreneurs and small businesses, not from large companies, panelists agree. “It is almost impossible to change human behavior. And when someone drives to the top of the big company…it’s very hard for them to incorporate new ideas,” says Brian Napack, president of Macmillan.

Much of the discussion centers on the future of newspapers. While there’s no consensus on where the business is going. everyone agrees that the economics of mass distribution are becoming irrelevant. “A newspaper is going to kind of bifurcate into, on the one hand, a magazine with pictures, perhaps, and then something online where the news is actually up to date, and where you get news that’s tailored for you,” Dyson says. “I want to know what’s happening in my own neighborhood. I want to know which of my friends broke up and that belongs online, because the economics of mass distribution doesn’t make sense.”

How New Influencers are Reinventing Journalism

From my weekly newsletter. Subscribe using the sign-up box to the right.

Meet Ben Popken. You’ve probably never heard of him, but I recommend you learn what he’s all about. He and others like him are rewriting the rules of journalism and, with it, the practice of media relations.

Ben sits atop the editorial pyramid at the blog The Consumerist. In conventional media terms, that pyramid isn’t very big – only seven people – but Consumerist’s reach far outweighs its small staff. The site gets 15 million unique visitors per month, a number that has roughly doubled in the past year. Perhaps more importantly, it’s closely watched by mainstream media outlets. For example, The New York Times has referenced Consumerist 381 times, The Wall Street Journal 114 times and BusinessWeek 37 times. Consumerist gets picked up on the popular social bookmarking site Digg.com constantly — 34,000 citations and counting. Popken was recently featured in a cover story in BusinessWeek and just wrote a 2,300-word article for Reader’s Digest. All without a day of formal journalism training.

That’s right, no journalism background; at least not as that concept is traditionally defined. Prior to joining Consumerist two years ago, Popken’s professional career had consisted of a variety of entrepreneurial sales ventures and odd jobs. He worked as a delivery man not long before joining Consumerist. He only got the job because the previous editor’s mother read his blog.

What’s even more interesting than his background is the way his staff reports the news. Consumerist gets about 100 e-mails a day from consumers talking about their horrible encounters with businesses of all kinds. Big box retailers, banks, cell phone providers, cable companies and airlines are popular targets. Editors read and respond to each and every e-mail and write up about 30 of those submissions each day for the site. They also monitor a variety of news services looking for important stories that affect consumers.

The New Journalism?
Consumerist editors do little fact-checking. They don’t have time with the volume of material they process. If something is wrong, they expect readers to quickly correct it. This direct reader input is the heart and soul of the Consumerist model, which Popken describes as “to empower consumers by informing and entertaining them about the top consumer issues of the day. We give them a voice by directly publishing their tips and e-mails and then following up on them as warranted.”

A lot of journalists shudder when they read words like these. No editorial oversight? No verification of facts? It sounds like an invitation to disaster. But so far it’s worked. Consumerist gets the occasional legal threat, but it’s never amounted to much. And its laser focus on reader interests has won it a fanatical following. Have you ever sent a letter to a newspaper about a story you read and failed to get a response? At The Consumerist, you are the story.

With his site having already passed the venerable Consumer Reports in traffic, by some accounts, you’d think marketers would be beating down the door trying to get Popken’s opinion. Yet surprisingly, he told me he gets few invitations to speak or consult. Some companies that the blog has repeatedly spotlighted have taken proactive measures. Sprint, for example, set up a dedicated support line for Consumerist readers, but only after the site published direct phone numbers for many of its executives.

With no formal journalism training, no editorial oversight and none of the trappings of conventional media, Ben Popken is becoming one of the most powerful voices in consumer journalism. And what’s funny is that if you ask him about the secret of Consumerist’s success, he uses the same words that any good editor uses: “The secret is to be reader-centric in a fundamental way. The content is driven by the readers and reacted to by the readers. We’re really just a curator of consumer-generated content.”

Get used to this. It’s the online journalism model of the future.

Author Jackie Huba on Citizen Marketers

Citizen marketers: respect them, engage with them and make them your fans because they’re defining the message about your company and your products.

That was the message from Jackie Huba, co-author of Citizen Marketers and Church of the Customer Blog, who addressed the Social Media Cluster of the Massachusetts Technology Leadership Council this morning.

Jackie offered lots of examples of how individuals are influencing markets through blogs and online video. Here are my lightly edited notes from the meeting.

Who are citizen marketers? The content they create is actually branding for the companies they talk about. One reason we use this term “citizen” is that we see a link between this new media and the Bill of Rights. There’s a freedom to speak and a freedom to assemble.

Fernando Sosa and Thomas Hilditch of Chicago met at Second City because they were aspiring comedians. Their funky McNuggets video. “McDonald’s Nuggets by Fernando and Thomas” has been a viral hit. The funny thing about this was this was almost an accidental citizen marketer thing. They were going to perform one night and came up with this rap. The friends thought it was so funny that they recorded it, uploaded it and it got over 100,000 views. If you’re McDonald’s, that’s fabulous publicity.

Cell Block Tango is a homebrew video that’s had over four million views.

The MyBarackObama.com blog came out when Obama announced his presidential candidacy and 70,000 people signed up in a week. There are 2,400 self-selected groups but it was created by people, not the campaign.

Podcasting is another phenomenon that not taking off as quickly, but research is finding that heavy radio listeners are listening to traditional radio less. NPR gets over 2 million downloads a week. With podcasts, there can be comment around the content. Now people can collaborate around the content and have a discussion. You can’t do that with radio.

George Masters – in November, 2004 he was a vocational school teacher in Southern California but very interested in graphic animation tools. He created an animation about his iPod. Wired magazine picked it up and starting writing about a home-brewed iPod ad, saying it looked professional. The New York Times picked it up from there and then CNBC. It changed George’s life: he got an offer from a graphics animation firm and that’s what he does today.

Brian Finkelstein posted a video of a sleeping Comcast tech on YouTube and six days later, the Times picked it up. The Comcast tech was fired, but the big question for Comcast is why was the guy on hold for 90 minutes in the first place?. Go to Google today and type “Comcast technician” and the entire first results page is about the video.

Let the seller beware. If you have a bad product or service, the consumer has the microphone.

Mike Kaltschnee of HackingNetflix.com tried to get on Netflix’s press list and received a brush-off response, which he posted on his blog. When Netflix realized how influential he was, the company did a 180 and how treats him as it would a member of the mainstream media.

Jim Romanesco runs StarbucksGossip.com (subtitle: Monitoring American’s favorite drug dealer). He’s a Poynter institute journalist who does a lot of work at Starbucks. He’s actually scooping the media on some things. When Starbucks recently had some bad earnings, the company blamed it on new products that were increasing wait times. He posted about this and store managers began to contact him to say they had told the company eight months ago that this was going to happen.

Jackie spoke about a category of publishers she calls “the fanatics:”

SlaveToTarget.com is a blog by a 28-year-old mother all about Target. She writes about great new products and generates sales. People actually go out and buy the products that she recommends. Target ignores her. Why?

Rabid fans of the soft drink Surge launched a website called SaveSurge.org to try to rally support for a campaign to bring back Surge. They called themselves soda activists. They weren’t successful, but Coke did start to test a product called Vault. People were contacting the authors saying that Vault was a lot like Surge, so the group started VaultKicks.com to encourage Coke to go national. Coke eventually complied. Today, if you type “vault soda” in Google, nearly all of the links are to SaveSurge and VaultKicks fan sites.

There’s another category she calls “the facilitators:”

Paul Mullett runs mini2.com, a site for Cooper Mini enthusiasts. Last July, a mystery ad started running, inviting people to visit the site at midnight on a certain date. It turned out that BMW had given the site operators and a few other journalists a preview of the 2007 minis. At midnight, the site posted photos of the new mini to an enthusiastic crowd.

So who are these people?

We found that these people perceive these activities as “productive leisure.” For them, it’s a fun outlet to communicate with other people who love what they love. It’s a bridge from what they do in real life to their passion.

You might think that this is a lot of content. But there’s something we call the 1% rule: most of the content is created by only 1% of the visitors.

Microsoft’s Channel 9 is mostly created by people within Microsoft. They have 4.5 million visitors a month and only 11,000 contributors.

QuickBooks community has 100,000 monthly visitors but only 900 people who create any content.

It may be only 1%, but that 1% is very powerful.

How do you take advantage of this trend?

Reach out to your fans. Last week, TurboTax partnered with Vanilla Ice to get people to create raps about taxes. People are actually doing it!

Another successful example is Converse, which asked people to create videos about their Chucks sneakers and upload them to

conversegallery.com. They got 1,800 submissions and Web traffic rose 66%. Sales doubled in the months after the videos ran.

She cites the Chevy Apprentice campaign as an example of a viral campaign that didn’t work. Environmentalists hijacked the campaign and it spread into mainstream media. GM’s problem was that they didn’t reach out to people who loved the product. They just enabled people to be nasty. Reach out to your evangelists, the people who love what you do. Try the contest.

Invite co-creation. When Shakira’s latest album didn’t sell well, her record company took one of the songs – Hips Don’t Lie – and asked people on her fan site to contribute videos of themselves dancing to the song. They got thousands of submissions and the song became a hit. Was the video the reason? Probably not, but it was a great marketing campaign to use fans to be part of what was going on.

Create communities. Discovery Channel has a little-known division called Discovery Education that targets professional educators. You can download images and video to bring a PowerPoint to life. Teachers love it and Discovery Education has 70% market penetration in schools. But awareness among teachers was low. So Discovery Channel decided to invite educators to join a program – the Discovery Education Network – that gave teachers the opportunity to come to a program to learn more about how to educate with these tools.

Discovery also launched the Discovery Educator Network where anyone could register, get a blog, join a discussion group, exchange presentations and materials. They’re attracting people who love what they’re doing.


Any comment on Viacom’s decision to sue YouTube/Google?

These clips are the new 30-second ads. CBS is one of the top channels on YouTube. Some big media companies get it and others don’t. CBS gets it.

There seems to be a total breakdown in use and abuse of a brand. What are the implications?

There are some rules that protect consumers from using brands, such as parodies. iPodMyBaby had to change their name to iPopMyBaby. If you go to my blog, you’ll find some brands who are sending cease-and-desist letters to fans. One movie company got the bloggers to actually take down a blog. It’s a confusing time right now.

How did you write a book with your significant other?

Ben has a journalism background and I have a marketing background, so it worked great. He did a lot of the background and I interviewed a lot of the citizen marketers.

What do you do if you’re a regulated company?

A lot of this hasn’t been sorted out. I was talking to a company last week whose lawyers were very concerned about starting a blog. One side argued that the blog was a personal opinion but others were saying it was company communications. There are a lot of CEO bloggers but can’t think of any in regulated industries.

How about ROI?

A lot of it has to do with word of mouth. Fred Reichheld has done a lot of work to say what percentage of a customer base would recommend the product to others. He comes up with a score he calls the net promoter score that measures the value of loyal customers. A lot of people are doing this just because they need to learn about it. I would measure subscribers to your content, people who want to hear about you every day.

How do you get the budget?

We’re seeing a lot of companies not budgeting for this. That’s one reason we see so much interest in contests; the money comes from the promotions budget. A lot of companies are discovering that the value of the campaigns is traffic to their websites.

What’s the next big thing?

I have no idea! How do you predict the next YouTube? All I can say is that the next big thing will relate to participation.