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Citizen marketer (Part 2)

30th Oct 2006
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In the first part of this article we looked at the basic definition of Citizen Marketing – the use of customer evangelists and enthusiasts to become effectively an extension of your marketing department and customer outreach activities off their own back.

The basic principles are straightforward enough: how much more effective is it when your audience does your marketing for you? Citizen marketers are peers with your customers, not sharp-suited media manipulators.

So who's doing it right? And who's getting it wrong? What lessons can you learn from those who have gone before you? One important psychological hurdle that needs to be cleared is the idea that the tightly controlled and probably centralised marketing function is going to be moving beyond your orbit. It’s all good and well having enthusiastic third parties doing your outreach for you, but you will have to face up to the fact that this may leave the content they produce beyond your immediate control.

This can be a tricky one for some companies to get their corporate heads around, particularly those with expensive global-reaching marketing teams and strategies. Last week we highlighted the example of the differing reactions of Coca Cola and Mentos to the viral marketing campaign that sprang up on the internet over their respective products.

This is not a recent phenomenon but attitudes are changing. Back in 2001 there was an embarrassing retreat by Warner Brothers over its attempt to wrestle back control of the domain name The domain belonged to a 15 year old fan of the boy wizard. Warner Brothers however initially accused her of infringing its intellectual property rights.

After attracting a fair degree of negative publicity over its action – which was inevitably seen as corporate bullying of a child – the company decided to make the best of a bad lot and announced that it was, "prepared now to rely on Clare's good faith and her assurance that she has no plans other than to continue her present non-commercial use of the domain name."

Now that’s a pretty big step for a copyright savvy, IP-focused firm like Warner Brothers to take. It's ultimate attitude is pretty much one that major brand holder, particularly in the entertainment field, will see as sensible. For example, the BBC operates and owns the official website for the sci-fi hit Doctor Who, but it tolerates – indeed encourages – fan-developed and run sites that further fuel the enthusiasm for the show among its target constituency. As long as those sites don’t seek to make money, it’s pretty much certain that they are left to their own devices.

No-one is suggesting that you should turn a blind eye to the nature of third party content out there in cyberspace – far from it. You need to keep a close eye on YouTube and GoogleVideos and track what’s being said and done in association with your brand name. For every customer enthusiast, there’s just as likely to be a customer vigilante using the same enabling technology to undermine your brand or to highlight perceived injustices or inadequacies – just ask McDonalds or Starbucks or Dell about that.

Of course you can always take charge of this evangelism process yourself, seed a community of enthusiasts to do your work for you. Encouraging the creation of groups and communities of like-minded customers and clients is a good starting point. Give them an online home, a central gathering point that encourages them to come and share ideas and comments with one another.

Make sure that you also show and tell. Get as much information out there as possible, preferably in tasty, gossip-sized chunks that can be passed on easily to other customers – and beyond. Drop hints and snippets of forthcoming events, products and services in order to get a buzz going among the user base. Make sure you’re staying on the right side of Fair Disclosure, but get them worked up about what’s to come and when to expect it and how great it’s going to be when it arrives.

In fact, if you’re really clever you can get citizen markers out there lobbying on your behalf for something that they haven't even experienced. It's Snakes on a Plane syndrome! You know the film Snakes on a Plane? – the one with snakes... on a plane... with Samuel L Jackson. It's not exactly high concept or art house, but it's a fantastic example of the power of citizen marketing in action.

Snakes on a Plane was an internet phenomenon before hit the silver screen. In fact, such was the power of the internet buzz that it actually resulted in changes to the script. A parody of Jackson's tough-guy Snakes character saying, "That's it! I have had it with these mother&^%$%@ snakes on this mother**%#*^ plane!" hit the web after which the line was added to the movie and the scene was shot. The fan bloggers were embraced by the film makers who invited them to promotional events which in turn furthered the word of mouth buzz, excited the geek marketers. Made them feel special and so the cycle of hype rolled on, resulting in a $15 million opening weekend in the US.

Or you could turn to that other great untapped constituency: your own staff! What impact are they having on your marketing? Is the employee citizen playing his or her part in fighting the good fight? Or do they have it drummed into them by corporate communications and investor relations that they are not to start making pronouncements of any kind in case they get blown out of proportion or taken for official company policy?

There are potential dangers here. When recently announced its Apex development tool, the party line from a clearly-rattled, but officially unconcerned SAP was one of studied indifference. This was no more or less than to be expected – market leader refusing to be shaken by upstart etc etc. But the SAP reaction that everyone took notice of was by a SAP employee who ran his own verdict on his blog which admitted that there was some potential to Apex as well as pointing out criticisms. His PR minders were probably livid, but it made for good reading and spread like wildfire...

The tempatation among the communications professionals will be to err on the side of caution and not empower employees to act as mouthpieces for the company. In the age of the internet, this is understandable to a large degree. A throwaway comment by a salesman in Eastern Europe can send the stock price crashing on Wall Street thanks to the power of the internet. (And they don't get to hide behind an excuse of 'it was a personal comment' either – they work for the company, they speak as the company unfortunately!)

But the bold company can turn employee word of mouth to its advantage, GlaxoSmithKline is turning its entire sales force into a PR machine with its vice president for external advocacy Michael Pucci urging them to talk about the affordability of prescription medication and how today's medicines fund the next generation of blockbuster drugs. Around 8,000 salespeople have been armed with salient talking points and answers to tough question as well as a "learning system" that takes 50 minutes to master.

The initiative - "Value of Medicine " – has come about in response to criticism and negative perception of the pharmaceutical industry. "What we're leveraging here is asking our employees to talk to people, even if they just start with their family members," explained Pucci. "Reputation matters. In this industry, it's so important."

It takes courage to do this, but the potential returns are enormous. It's not just snakes on a plane that can hitch a ride; you can hitch a ride on the backs of your customers with the right mindset in place.

By Stuart Lauchlan
[email protected]

Further reading

  • Citizen Marketer (Part 1)
  • How do your customers value you?
  • Squeezing more value from marketing information
  • The future of marketing
  • Insight driven marketing
  • Developing customer involvement and reducing alienation caused by direct marketing
  • The marketing value of customer advocacy
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    Replies (3)

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    Dr. Graham Hill
    By Dr. Graham Hill
    31st Oct 2006 15:10


    Customers as citizen marketers covers much, much more territory than just the traditional marketing you describe. Customers can also be involved to differing degrees in innovation, product development, marketing, sales and service. This falls under the general name of customer co-creation.

    If you want a much broader range of examples of customer co-creation, take a look at the trendwatching blog on "Customer Made" available at and at some of the many blogs that cover customer co-creation.

    Graham Hill
    Independent CRM Consultant

    Thanks (0)
    By Stuart Lauchlan
    31st Oct 2006 15:27

    You are of course quite correct - citizen marketing is a far-reaching concept and one which we will be returning to periodically over the next few months. This was intended as an introduction to the idea in its most obvious manifestation and starting point - marketing. As we come back to the subject, we'll be looking at more sophisticated and wide-ranging forms. Watch this space...

    Thanks (0)
    By Jeremy Cox
    31st Oct 2006 17:53

    Stuart what is the difference between this and Word Of Mouth (WOM)?

    Graham thanks for the link



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