Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Citizen Marketers: When People Are the Message

Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba have done it again! I really enjoyed their first book, Creating Customer Evangelists, and now I am happy to report that I can say the same about their latest, Citizen Marketers: When People Are the Message. In fact, I plan to use it in my class this term at Northeastern on WOM marketing communication. I was fortunate to receive an advance copy of the book from them and wanted to comment on my decision to include it in my class. (By the way, I'm very late in the game here as a number of others have provided reviews of their book as well and it has been attracting quite a bit of attention).

I decided to adopt the book for my class because I think it's essential for students to understand the processes that lead people to generate their own content and advocacy for and about companies (what Ben and Jackie call "citizen marketers"), and how companies can best organize themselves to participate in conversations with citizen marketers.

In the book they explain four different kinds of citizen marketers: filters (people who collect info from a variety of sources and then package it for others to consume), fanatics (big-time fans and evangelists), facilitators (those who help to coordinate and build communities), and firecrackers (one-hit wonders who post something that attracts considerable attention and then interest subsequently wanes).

They also discuss the thesis of the "one percent rule" which states that in any community, only about 1% of the community is actually responsible for contributing the content that others in the community consume. Later in the book there's a great quote from Yahoo's Bradley Horowitz that adds another layer to this 1% rule. He's quoted as saying how the "act of consumption is itself becoming an act of production" (p. 134; in reference to how people's consumption and voting behavior creates content for others who subsequently consume the content).

I really like how Ben and Jackie discuss a number of case studies of communities that have been built by citizen marketers and the principles that led to their success. For example, they describe six factors that led to YouTube's success. Later on in the book they also describe why other attempts at creating community have failed, which is equally, if not more powerfully, instructive.

The motivations for citizen marketers are also discussed: altruism, personal relevance, common good, and status. They draw on the work of a cultural historian (Professor Steven Gelber) to argue that citizen marketers are hobbyists at their core, and that their activity is a kind of "productive leisure". Here is actually a place I would like to have seen Ben and Jackie explore in more detail: on p. 108 they quote Professor Gelber's explanation of how hobbies, during industrialization, "gained wide acceptance because they could condemn depersonalized factory and office work by compensating for its deficits while simultaneously replicating both the skills and the values of the workplace," a process that Gelber calls "disguised affirmation." That is, hobbies allow the participant to consider their activity as a form of "recreation" while subconsciously re-creating a certain ideology about work and their place in society. If we applied this analysis to citizen marketers, then, what kind of ideology is being re-created when people create content about companies, brands, products, and services? And what are the implications of this form of ideology re-creation to a democratic society? I hope to explore this a bit more with my students this term.

Another area I would like to see explored is how much the media form itself plays into the definition of being a citizen marketer. For example, if people created a great deal of advocacy in primarily face-to-face settings or over land-line phones, are they considered citizen marketers (or maybe we would call them evangelists?). Or is there something about broadcasting to a larger audience that's inherent in the definition? But then we'd need to consider the case of McChronicles (a blog maintained by a man in New York who chronicles his experience with McDonald's and described in the book) with Supersize Me! (a documentary film by Morgan Spurlock about his experiment eating only fast food from McDonald's for a month, but not discussed in the book). Do we also consider Morgan Spurlock to be a citizen marketer? Clearly one of the points Ben and Jackie make is that the more important thing is that people are the medium, giving a nod to Canadian media theorist Marshall McLuhan, and that "social media" technologies like blogs, podcasts, video sharing sites, etc. have democratized the ability to reach large amounts of people very efficiently. I think they would say that being a citizen marketer is really about people a feeling of a certain kind of ownership and participation in companies, brands, products, and services, and that this disrupts more traditional understandings of who filters information and promotes or undermines advocacy in a society.

Another thing I like is their chapter on "How To Democratize Your Business" which details through mini case-studies three primary ways companies have thus far worked with citizen marketers: through contests, through co-creation of the brand or product, and through community facilitation. The number of examples provided give the reader a glimpse of the possibilities for companies. Figuring out ways to engage citizen marketers is definitely a high priority.

They conclude their book with a cautionary note of how NOT to work with citizen marketers -- for example, not to engage in stealth marketing because it doesn't come from a place of authenticity that is prized by citizen marketers. One quotation I really found intriguing is this: "Social media is the antidote to campaign-based thinking." I'll be encouraging my students to reflect on what this means for how a company envisions their relationships with citizen marketers and their WOM marketing efforts. The quotation alludes to different philosophies of WOM marketing that my class discussed the first time I taught the class last summer.

To conclude this post I want to say thanks to Ben and Jackie for all their diligent efforts doing the research for this book and for sharing their knowledge of citizen marketers.

Disclosure: Ben and Jackie are members of the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (Jackie is on the Board of Directors) and I am on the advisory board of WOMMA. As mentioned above, I received an advance copy of the book and didn't have to pay a penny for it (my students won't be so lucky however).