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People aren’t messages June 16, 2007

Posted by Steve Field in Citizen Marketers.

Last week, I took exception to Jackie Huba and Mitch McConnell’s assertion that in an age of citizen marketers, “the people are the message,” as they articulate in their latest book Citizen Marketers.

After reading the rest of the book, I renew my criticism.

They keep revisiting the statement that people are the message (which, while rhetorically pleasant, is never actually proven by Huba and McConnell). In chapter five, they cite a man name Winter (yes, he has apparently changed his name legally to Winter. I even checked out his Web site to see for myself.) Winter is so passionate about Starbucks that he has made it his personal mission to visit every Starbucks on the planet and write about it.

After telling his story, Huba and McConnell say that (surprise!) Winter is the message.

Except he isn’t. He is a person who is sharing his experience of a brand with others. What he is saying about Starbucks, and perhaps the fact that he is so passionate about the coffee that he has embarked on this quest to visit every Starbucks in existence, are messages. Words and actions can be messages. The man himself is not.

Perhaps a better way to articulate what I think McConnell and Huba are saying is that in an age of citizen marketers, the people control your message. I don’t think the important point is that people are messages. I think it is quite important that citizen marketers are out there and that these influential consumer/evangelists have an increasing impact on brand perception when compared to traditional forms of brand marketing, such as advertising.

This point about the citizen marketer having increased influence is echoed by this year’s Edelman Trust Barometer. Each year, Edelman (my employer) publishes a survey indicating different levels of trust among social institutions. For a second year, the most trusted spokesperson, as indicated by the survey, is “a person like me.” Businesses with powerful brands can no longer ignore that people are talking to one another about those brands and influencing how those brands are perceived.

People are not messages — but they sure are shaping brand messages in a way never before seen.


Citizen Marketers and other reading June 8, 2007

Posted by Steve Field in Citizen Marketers.

I’m back from a month-long hiatus!

After starting this blog for my Introduction to the Digital Age class at Johns Hopkins University with Nicco Mele, I am now reviving it for my Public Relations in an Age of Digital Influence course with John Bell.

I have already written about one of the assigned readings on this blog, so today, I will be focusing on a book that I have not yet had the opportunity to review — Citizen Marketers by Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba.

There are three key points in the opening three chapters:

  1. Empowered customers absorb brands into their personal identities and become part of the brand experience as filters, fanatics, facilitators or firecrackers.
  2. A small — yet powerful group of people (about one percent of customers) take action to share their connection to a brand with others. These people are instrumental in passing along word of mouth about a product.
  3. The advancement of technology allows for the democratization of market forces that impact brands.

McConnell and Huba are right on with all of these points. Web 2.0 has fundamentally changed the way that people and products are related. The collection of tools broadly referred to as social media allow every person to share with others his or her opinion about a product or idea. No longer are the media and the companies themselves the only ones who are able to communicate about a product with others on a broad level. Blogs, message boards and social networks are connecting people across space and time.

Despite all of this, I am not sure I agree with the author’s assertion that we live in an age where the “people are the message.”

There are four parts essential to communication — a sender, a message, a mode of communication and a receiver. Without any one of these, communication cannot exist. It seems that on every occasion where McConnell and Huba argue that the people are the message, they are still saying that people are the sender. Consider the examples they give in chapter one:

People are the message when people say “word of mouth” is the most influential form of media on their decision making. […]

People are the message when the excessive number of advertising messages creates demand for products to block them. […]

People are the message when their intent is authentic. […]

People are the message when they have roots of credibility.

In each of these cases, people are not a message. They are either senders or receivers or both. The content of the word of mouth that they pass along or receive is the message.

Maybe the point isn’t that people are the message, but that corporations no longer control the message.