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February 21, 2007
You Are Your Google Results

Ben McConnell is the author of the new book Citizen Marketers: When People are the Message, which examines the rise of social media. Talent Zoo asked him about the differences between citizen and corporate marketing, why anyone in her right mind would want to market a product or service for free, and why you are your Google search results.

  • Let me draw an analogy: citizen marketers are to corporate marketers as chiropractors are to medical doctors. The two often seem to be in competition but could accomplish great things if they worked together. What would happen if citizen marketers and corporate marketers worked together?

    Some corporate marketers see citizen marketers as people who topple carefully made plans for messaging and positioning, but I don’t believe the opposite is true. What many citizen marketers would like is a greater level of openness and pathways to participation from the company in question.

    For most companies, participating with hordes of customers, fans and evangelists is still a new and in some cases, altogether foreign, concept. Quite a few organizations that have opened the bay doors to citizen participation are seeing tremendous success.

  • Is there a common goal that citizen marketers and corporate marketers share?

    Yes: The success of the brand, product or company.

    The definition of success is often different, though, for citizen marketers vs. corporate marketers. For instance, in the book we write about the fan blogger McChronicles. His blog is focused exclusively on McDonald’s. Why? He wants his favorite brand to simply be “awesome.” That’s why he writes about McDonald’s marketing efforts he believes are effective and lacerates the ones that are not. He does secret-shopper reviews of stores in his travels around the world for his regular job. (Woe to the store operator who doesn’t maintain a clean store or deliver solid customer service.)

    The problem for too many corporate marketers is that they lose touch with “awesome.” What the CEO or CFO wants is often at odds with what customers want. The corporate marketer is stuck in the middle of this losing chess match.

  • What can corporate marketers learn from the explosion of user-generated content?

    That it’s going to continue. It’s not a fad; it’s a societal trend fueled by inexpensive software, broadband and cellphones. It’s a cultural trend led by the under-25 generation that has grown up with cellphones, broadband, computers and intense, soccer-team-like collaboration.

  • Why would someone want to create free advertising for a product or service? What incentive exists in that?

    People who create content on behalf of products, brands, companies or even other people usually do it as a form of productive leisure. It’s a hobby. Their productive leisure is often a bridge between their professional and personal lives. They learn how to work with new tools. They accumulate specialized knowledge. They develop new friendships and relationships. For people who create journalistic coverage of their favorite companies or brands, it’s fun. For others, it has led to new careers or become the pathway to entrepreneurialism. For people in the job-search world, it could be an ideal way to learn new skills and widen professional networks. But the work has to be authentic and the intentions genuine in order for others to take notice.

  • Why do so many people look to YouTube and social networks for entertainment? How is that kind of entertainment experience different from television and radio?

    YouTube compensates for not being awake 24 hours a day. Didn’t see a Saturday Night Live sketch your friends are talking about? YouTube probably has it. Beyond traditional entertainment, I think two reasons explain the popularity of amateur content on social networks: 1) It’s a break from, and maybe even a repudiation of, the contrived junk that’s found in traditional media and; 2) Social media and social networks make participating with content fundamentally simple. People talk back to their televisions, radios and newspapers all the time, but those entities aren’t listening. Social media make it easy to talk back then distribute your viewpoint to vastly greater numbers of people than ever before. Part of the entertainment factor is getting caught up in the discussion.

  • Did Facebook users have a right to get so upset over the new mini newsfeed feature, when they’re choosing what private information they upload and share in the first place?

    I’d say so. The angry protests that resulted from that new feature were largely the result of Facebook not working with its user community before releasing the feature. That’s what happens when technologists assume omnipotence.

  • For young people especially, doesn’t social networking create yet another distraction from priorities such as school and extracurricular activities? Does it deteriorate the value of face-to-face social skills?

    That’s an interesting question, and I imagine it’s a question some behaviorists are wondering about, too. Social networks make the number of relationships scalable. For young people, relationship-building is a formative time for establishing status, validating peer relationships — all of that stuff necessary to form lifelong bonds. It’s just that social networks make it easier to do all of that with more people, which should ideally teach them to be more social.

    Many parents of teenagers in America see their kids conduct six or seven simultaneous instant-message conversations with an iPod bud in one ear and a cellphone in the other, all the while working on their homework. Where’s the distraction in that picture?

  • What about the older population? Would a baby boomer have different motives from a teenager when getting involved in a social network?

    Perhaps, but what’s interesting about generational comparisons is that social media help bring down the reign of demographics as a guiding principle for setting strategy. In social networks and online communities, people can rally around ideas, products or brands, not just friends who are the same age.

  • Should there be guidelines for basic social networking ethics and etiquette? Or does anything go?

    One of the underlying themes in Citizen Marketers is that social media make word of mouth scalable. Freedom of speech is scalable. Freedom of association and assembly are scalable. There’s tremendous freedom to comment about the actions of products, brands, companies or other people and sway others to your viewpoint. That means the freedom to praise them or the freedom to be a jerk — which means the freedom for others to tell you you’re an inconsiderate slob who should contract malaria.

    The key point here is that: Google is watching. Google finds what you post and saves it, I’m guessing, forever. You are your Google results.
    Your embarrassing content will magically reappear just when you’re getting ready to run for office or are looking for a new job. That’s why my favorite guideline is: Don’t post anything that would embarrass your mother. Unfortunately, a small but vocal number of people don’t care what their mother thinks. Or their mother is Courtney Love.

  • How can I know whether the information I look up on wikis such as Wikipedia is accurate when average citizens have the power to edit it? How do wikis threaten the credibility of information people access online? Does it strengthen its credibility at all?

    Research by the journal Nature found that content on Wikipedia is pretty accurate — on the same par as Encyclopedia Britannica, which is often considered the world’s most authoritative resource on knowledge. (The people at Britannica disputed the Nature report, but really, what else could they have said?)

    So yes, anyone has the opportunity to edit information on Wikipedia, but anyone has the opportunity to correct it. Several thousand Wikipedians are on constant alert to fix vandalism and misinformation, especially on the site’s most sensitive and talked-about topics. Site visitors are good at requesting citations for factual assertions and noting when reputable citations are missing.
    Because Wikipedia is so popular and widely used, people should be double-checking their own Wikipedia biographies or subjects of interest for factual accuracy.

  • Why will social networks stand the test of time, unlike chat rooms that are now considered obsolete?

    Predictions are a risky business, even for meteorologists, but I believe social media have the potential to remake the media landscape for at least two reasons:

    1. Social media tools are inexpensive or free, so no longer do everyday people have to rely on companies with big budgets to buy, install and maintain them;
    2. The content created by social media tools tends to be more permanent, unlike the conversations in chat rooms. The longer initial lifespan of content found on blogs, community sites and to some extent, podcasts and vlogs, makes it easier for Google to find, index and remember that content for everyone. Google is the consciousness of the 21st century.

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Since 2001, Ben McConnell has been researching the effects of word of mouth on customer loyalty. His work has been profiled by The Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Fortune, and U.S. News & World Report. McConnell is the co-author of "Creating Customer Evangelists" and "Citizen Marketers." He is also the co-author of the Church of the Customer blog.
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