Huba, Jackie and Ben McConnell

Ben McConnell and Jackie HubaSince 2001, Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba have been researching the effects of word of mouth on customer loyalty. Forbes calls their work in this field "the word of mouth gospel."

McConnell and Huba are the authors of two books, Creating Customer Evangelists: How Loyal Customers Become a Volunteer Sales Force, and Citizen Marketers: When People Are the Message. They also write the popular blog Church of the Customer.

As business advisors, McConnell and Huba have worked with Microsoft, Ulta, and Discovery Education; he alone, with Starbucks, Eli Lilly, and PBS; she alone, with Yahoo and Verio. Of course, this is not a complete list. Both of them have worked with thousands of small and medium businesses at association conferences. Their work in researching passionate customer loyalty has been profiled by the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Fortune, BusinessWeek, U.S. News & World Report, the Financial Times, Fast Company, and several thousand blogs.

[Bio is adapted from their website,]

Citizen Marketers book cover asked on December 5th, 2006 …

Happy Birthday to your book, Ben and Jackie. I understand it becomes available today.

BM: Thank you. Yes, we’re proud parents today. I’m smoking a cigar as we speak.

Congratulations. I’d like to start by asking about the title of the book, Citizen Marketers: When People Are the Message. You talk about the term “citizen” in the book. Why did you choose these words as the title for this book?

BM: A citizen is a member of a community, and the word has in most recent history had a political context. But if you look at the origin of the word with the Greeks, the idea of “citizen” was a way of life. Back in ancient Athens, where the ideas of citizenry and community and democracy really took root, it was called politeia, which meant that people were part of a larger community; that they stuck together. The Athenians had great success in overthrowing the idea of despots and authoritarian rulers; the community ruled itself. The community took ownership of and controlled its future rather than letting it fall into the hands of a single person or an oligarchy.

I think the same can be said of what’s happening with social media today. People are taking ownership of content creation and content distribution. They are the messengers and by who they are, they become the messages themselves. They are citizens of the world, citizens of the internet, citizens of a brand, product, or company.

You’re referring to the UGCers, those who create user-generated content. You say they are the message. Why? Aren’t they just carrying a message that’s already been put out there? What’s the twist here?

JH: When people started creating content for the Web, we saw a lot of folks in advertising taking a look at what was being created. That’s why you see those terms you mentioned, like consumer-generated media or user-generated content. They were just looking at the stuff. But we wanted to look at the people who are creating the stuff, the passion behind it, and the authority garnered by folks who are continually blogging or building a community around a brand.

In the book we talk about Mike Kaltschnee, whose blog is He’s been interviewed by the press many times as an expert on Netflix. He is actually creating content that becomes marketing for the company. He became the message.

He doesn’t even have a press pass, right?

JH: No. [Laughter]

BM: I think “citizen” is a more universally friendly term than “consumer” or “user,” which some people look disparagingly upon. If you’re a user, there can be negative connotations, such as being a drug user. I don’t know that there are any negative connotations associated with being a citizen. I think it’s something which many people are proud of.

In many respects, these folks are uber-consumers. They are consumed with what they’ve consumed, right?

BM: Yes. They have taken an ownership stake in a product, brand, company, or even another person.

JH: One of the amazing things we see is that some of them are obsessed with the brand that they podcast about or that they blog about every day. In the case of Eric Karkovack, he has been working on for four years. We find that often the marketers are surprised that these people would be so crazy about the brand. It’s almost as if these uber-consumers, as you call them, love the brand more than the marketers. Whereas the marketers sometimes think they’re “crazy,” we would say these are some of their best and most influential customers.

Who’s your intended audience for the book? Is it for marketers or is it for citizens?

JH: We see a few different audiences. One is definitely marketers and business leaders who really need to understand this new cultural shift, where ordinary citizens are creating marketing that often is more influential than the marketing they’re creating themselves. So they’ve lost control, the citizens have now started to gain control, and they must understand that shift.

It’s for the citizen marketers who are trying to understand how they fit into the big picture and trying to explain it to their grandparents. It’s also a book for the general public to help them understand how pop culture is changing. Marketing is a big part of pop culture, and since we see the bigger landscape changing, it helps to put things into context.

BM: It’s also for the hopeful middle manager who wants her boss to get it.

You list the 4 F’s of citizen marketing, which for me is a flashback to draft days [4-F is a draft classification meaning unfit for military service]. But maybe that wasn’t intentional.

BM: Not at all. [Laughter] The four F’s are: Filters, Fanatics, Facilitators, and Firecrackers. One of the more prevalent types of citizen marketers out there is the Firecracker. Firecrackers are people who create viral videos or one-off campaigns where they lip-synch to a song and maybe they do some product placement in it. Or they do a rant about a bad customer service experience or some sort of negative aspect of a product. It spreads like wildfire on YouTube or on MySpace or on their own blog.

They’re not necessarily dedicated to positively or negatively impacting the brand. They’re just talking about their experience. It can create a lot of commotion, a lot of noise. The traditional media might pick it up. But in the end it has a very short shelf life and dies off pretty quickly. Some of the effects can be long-lasting, as Google catalogues everything and it has a very long memory.

JH: Probably one of the best examples is the Comcast technician sleeping on the customer’s couch. A guy videotaped a Comcast technician falling asleep on his couch during a service visit and made a music video about it. Many people may have seen that video on YouTube; it probably has had over 800,000 views now. It was picked up by mainstream media around the world and Comcast had a big PR nightmare for about a week.

Right. What happened to the technician?

JH: They announced that they fired him. That was sad, because the reason he fell asleep was that he was on hold with his own company for 90 minutes, trying to activate a modem. It allowed a lot of people to come out of the woodwork and talk about their bad experiences with Comcast on their blogs and other sites. It’s very clear to everyone that they do have a big problem.

Does something like that have a long-term effect on Comcast? Does it change anything?

JH: Absolutely. It actually changes buying behavior. We’ve seen statistics that show that over 80 percent of people who are going to buy something first research it online. If you type “Comcast technician” into Google, you’re going to find that video along with many negative Comcast stories. Now that there’s so much choice in cable and broadband providers, seeing all that negative attention in your online research may cause you to choose another provider (or search for another job).

I’m not sure I agree about the number of choices. I could only have Comcast or RCN here for the number of services I require.

BM: It definitely depends on the category and the industry as far as how many choices exist. But I think it is a lesson for the broader marketplace, that if you are in a very competitive industry with multiple choices, your customers’ experiences are open season for this sort of content creation. And that content will spread.

How are marketers reacting to this? Are they just terrified?

BM: I think that they see this as a new playing field for which they have to be prepared. Some are scared; some wish it would just go away. But I think the vast majority of people recognize this as an opportunity. In many cases, they’ve been unable to convince their bosses of the value of interacting or connecting with customers on a one-to-one scale like this. This allows many brands to create a loyalty system that is highly interactive and scalable, and scalable in a way that won’t break the bank.

Who do you think is handling the phenomenon of citizen marketers the best? Are there a few companies that can serve as good examples?

BM: We could use Dell as a case study here. Over a year ago, blogger Jeff Jarvis [] wrote about a bad experience he was having with a lemon of a Dell laptop. His blog posts hit a nerve with a lot of people who were having the same experience, inspiring many people to blog about it, too.

It exposed what was happening behind the scenes on a larger scale with Dell. Eventually Dell recognized that it had a customer service problem, a big one. What did they do? They invested $100 million to improve their customer service operations, and they reassigned somebody who was renowned inside their company for operational efficiencies to become the new head of customer service. Then they launched a blog that allows the company to better connect with customers. The Dell blog allows people who are commenting on it to be the early warning system for any problems. They can take that information back into the system inside Dell and make adjustments as necessary.

So the long-term effect here is that Dell has actually become much more finely attuned to the voice of their customer. They’re actually listening to everyone.

BM: I think they’ve learned some pretty important lessons through this entire experience, and kudos to them for responding to it.

What about somebody who is making a mess of it?

BM: Oh boy. Who do we want to pick on?

JH: Well, we see people who are jumping on just the consumer-generated media part of the bandwagon. I guess we could pick on Wal*Mart, who saw the explosion of MySpace with young people. Earlier this year they wanted to promote back-to-school clothes. They set up what they were calling a pseudo-MySpace. It was a place for teenagers to log on, create their own page, decorate it, and check some back-to-school clothes from a little menu.

But they really didn’t get it because the success of MySpace is about social networking and connections. The Walmart site allowed these kids to create pages, but they couldn’t talk to the other kids and they couldn’t comment on the other kids’ pages. There was no way for them to connect. There are millions of Wal*Mart customers but only about 600 pages were created. It was a big flop. I think Advertising Age said that it really showed how uncool Wal*Mart was to try and get in this game.

BM: It was so restrictive. It had 12 pages of rules for one of their contests. It was so undemocratic. It was the most un-friendly, un-fun sandbox created for kids that you can imagine.

Speaking of democratic, you also talk about YouTube versus Google Video, and how community interaction and the ability to vote on things separate them. What are the characteristics of truly vigorous and active social networking?

BM: Democracy is at the heart of the success of a product or a company like YouTube. YouTube beat Google Video because it democratized data. It made data available so that anyone could understand their own relative popularity as well as that of others who were creating their own channels, their own profiles, or their own videos.

That democratization of data is vitally important. It allows people to know how well they’re doing in the larger context because it’s real-time data; it’s the number of times a video has been viewed, the number of comments, or the number of links to a particular post. You can find out who the most frequent linkers are or who is delivering the most number of viewers to a particular video. That is hierarchical data but it defines popularity. That’s the culture we live in. Who are the most popular people or who are the most influential people? Democratizing that data makes it available to the larger community, therefore it makes the user experience or the visitor experience more valuable.

JH: All that data feeds the social quality of YouTube, whereas Google Video is limited to uploading videos. Google Video is about the videos. YouTube is about the people: I can have my own channel, I can have my own friends, I can have subscribers to my videos.

BM: Google Video was very spartan in its use of sharing data.

JH: Google has now added a few of these things, such as ratings, but YouTube has such a head start.

BM: Of course Google bought YouTube, so they caught up.

Right. I read an article recently in Advertising Age asking how Google is going to make the acquisition of YouTube pay off since one of the underlying foundations of YouTube is that videos can’t have ads built into them. They can’t be at the front end. Who would want to put them at the back end? So how is Google going to recoup, how many billions of dollars?

BM: 1.6 billion.

1.6 billion. Or does it matter?

BM: I think this is about the tangible asset of community. That’s what Google bought. People have indicated their interests and shared a lot of data on YouTube, and because YouTube was so smart about building in all kinds of metrics and data systems, they have a way to deliver very highly targeted, specific data about their community. That’s valuable for marketers creating targeted ads, whether they’re display ads or special sections on YouTube.

JH: I think that’s the piece that people are really missing. It’s not about ads, because YouTube is really an engagement vehicle. This is the Holy Grail of what advertisers are looking for: a way to engage with people who love what they’re producing. So they need to look at it as a way to engage this community interactively, not just, “How do we slap up some pre-roll or post-roll ads?”

That seems to be the big issue at the moment: authenticity. The reason the people who are making this content have authority is because they have no vested interest. They’re doing it as a hobby or they just believe in something, and that’s why these cynical, jaded marketers think they’re crazy. They think people can’t be that passionate about the product, because they’re being paid to hawk it. Isn’t that the source of all this tension and friction? The marketers end up creating highly produced ads that are intended to look amateurish because the amateurish look is what seems to be moving product right now.

JH: I think that marketers should stop trying to re-create viral videos and step back and think about the behavior they’re trying to inspire. It’s really not buzz. They’re trying to create loyal customers that will buy from them repeatedly and recommend them to someone else.

We’re seeing a few companies who were able to start corporate blogs, which provide a great conversation vehicle and also reach out to folks who are citizen marketers. One example we have in the book is It’s a citizen-organized site around the MINI Cooper. Worldwide, over 41,000 people are part of this site. It’s been around for over five years. Very smartly, when the 2007 MINI Cooper was about to be launched earlier this year and they invited journalists from around the world to come preview it, MINI actually invited the webmaster of this site, Paul Mullett. He took pictures, wrote commentary, and got his group so excited that when he posted them, people were responding on the site, “Wow, I’m ready to make my order.”

Embracing these citizen marketers in your current activities and treating them not quite like press but a little differently is a very smart thing to do.

Now, exists because the MINI is a cool-ass car. If you don’t have a cool-ass product and somebody hasn’t made that kind of site for you, that’s when the marketers think, “Oh, I have to make one.” But the real point is to make a product that’s so cool that people will want to make a site about it, right?

BM: That’s the whole nature of design. Create something, anything—a product, a service—that gets people so excited that they want to talk about it and blog about it.

So the marketers’ hands are tied. They’re not creating the products; they’re brought in to market the product that already exists.

JH: Unfortunately. That’s why we don’t classify this as a marketing book. It’s a book for company leaders, from the CEO to the COO to the head of strategy, as well as marketers. The key, as you said, is really about creating a product that people want to talk about. Build word-of-mouth into the product so that it makes the marketers’ jobs much simpler.

BM: You’re talking about the fundamental challenge that marketers face inside so many companies. They are brought in at the tail end instead of at the front end of a product or service creation.

JH: I feel bad for the poor marketers who are asked to create a viral video about a piece of crap.

That seems to be a very important point: The only way you’re going to be able to market or advertise in the future is to have a really sexy product, because the users are going to be generating all the word-of-mouth. Despite the fact that it’s become a buzzword in the last few years, word-of-mouth is how we’ve always made purchasing decisions. If two different people who are unrelated to each other have mentioned a book to me, I know I have to go out and buy that book. We’ve all lived that way, but suddenly there’s a mechanism for tracking it. It’s always been very personal, but now it’s universal because of the Web and our ability to create content there.

BM: Sexy is a relative term. It’s often put into a consumer context but it can also just be something that solves a problem in a new or unique or extremely valuable way. It could be in a business-to-business context, or it could be a medical device, an educational product, or something else.

JH: I’ve done presentations where I asked people in the beginning, “What are you evangelical about? What do you tell all your friends about?” One woman stood up and talked about dishwashing liquid. She loved it. I don’t know if she has a blog about it, but she goes and checks the cupboards of people that she has told about it to make sure they’ve bought that brand of dishwashing liquid. If she were prone to create content, she would probably create a blog about it.

So again, what Ben is saying is that it only has to be remarkable in the eyes of the person who is using it. It doesn’t have to be the next iPod.

Yes. When I say sexy, I mean remarkable. I had a great experience the other day. I was shopping at my local Whole Foods and I was exhausted. I had 13 items in my bag and I was walking by the 12-items-or-less counter and I caught the eye of the cashier, pointed at my bag, and said, “Too many things?” She said, “Come on over.” It totally changed my day. It’s the kind of place where you can happily bend rules and people aren’t going to flip out. She was so friendly and engaging and energetic about it. It was big. That’s sexy when an experience exceeds your expectations.

BM: This is something that Tom Peters has been talking about for what, a decade or more?

Yes, a couple of decades.

BM: The WOW! experience that causes people to have that outward exaltation of “Wow!” and “This is cool!”

You mention Rocketboom in the book. That’s a huge success story. There were what, three or four people behind the scenes, at most? Amanda Congdon became a computer video star. She’s no longer with Rocketboom. Does anyone know the real story?

BM: Not until her book comes out.

Does any of that translate into the world of traditional media? Does Rocketboom help her become a success in Hollywood? Is that any part of the equation? It’s not quite enough to be a star just on YouTube. Some of these people want to be stars, right?

JH: Well, I think stardom is being redefined, because they had over 300,000 visitors to their video podcast, which actually rivals the audience of some cable TV shows.

There’s one gentleman who got caught up in the Snakes on a Plane phenomenon. Dave Coyne, aka DC Lugi, is a comedian who became very popular by creating hilarious videos using the Snakes on a Plane meme on YouTube. He has now created lots of different small videos and is considering what he should do with the fame that he has. Many people said, “Oh wouldn’t it be great if Comedy Central signed you?” His reply was that he doesn’t want to get signed by Comedy Central because he wants to be able to do the kind of comedy that he wants to do. It’s a little racy. So he’s actually considering launching his own set of DVDs and cutting out the middle man by selling them off a website direct to consumers.

I think we’re going to see more and more of that. It is going to be possible for people to build a following over the Web and make money from that. We’re not there yet. Because of democratization of technology, the same shift with citizen marketers gaining an audience will translate to new media stars.

BM: The traditional formula of media is being diluted and reformulated. Mainstream media, traditional media, whatever you want to call it, is now starting to absorb amateur media or amateur culture. These two life forms are like two cells moving around one another and starting to meld in different ways, and five years from now media will be fairly different than what it is today.

Yes, thank you. This has been fun. And once again happy birthday to the book and I wish you great success with it.

BM: Thank you very much. It was great chatting with you.

Emails: jackie (at) –
             ben (at) –