Engage the empowered consumer

crowd surfing

Book Review
Crowd surfing: Surviving and thriving in the age of consumer empowerment.
Martin Thomas and David Brain.
London: A & C Black, 2008. 194 pp.

I noticed a stack of colorful postcards on the counter of a neighborhood liquor store. They advertised an online art gallery sponsored by Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s Pabst Blue Ribbon brewing company. The online gallery features paintings, sculpture, photography and poetry created by fans of the brand. The site also offers the usual content as well, including the history of the brand and a shop for apparel and headwear.

Welcome to the world of crowd surfing, where businesses (and politicians) bring the crowd into the brand and encourage them to co-create it.

On a less mundane level, newly inaugurated US President Obama used crowd surfing to great effect during his campaign. His team and his supporters all used online social networks and related technologies in a way that serves as a model for politicians and business alike.

A new generation of business and political leaders has learned how to harness the energy, ideas and enthusiasm of empowered consumers, say Crowd Surfing authors David Brain and Martin Thomas. These consumers are emboldened and enthused by a new spirit of enquiry and self-expression, and powered by the Internet.

Crowd Surfing presents a series of case studies showing how savvy business and political leaders realize that “giving their customers, partners, voters and employees a greater say in the way that their businesses operate is, paradoxically, the most effective way to ensure a degree of control over their corporate or political destiny.”

Co-author David Brain is European CEO of the global PR firm Edelman and has a 30 year history in PR, corporate communications and advertising. Martin Thomas heads Snapper Communications where he consults and trains and writes for a number of major brand owners and agencies.

“Whether buying a book, a holiday, or a new car, the opinions of our fellow consumers appear to carry as much, if not more, weight than those of the established order,” they write. And this empowered crowd of consumers and Web-enabled activists can sometimes force powerful corporations to reverse unpopular policies.

A fundamental principle of this book is that collaborative or participative forms of communication, which involve the crowd, are more engaging and therefore more effective.

As an example: The CEO of Canadian mining company Goldcorp flouted mining industry convention by posting the company’s proprietary geological data about its Red Lake mine on a web site. A prize of $575,000 was offered to anyone in the world with good ideas on how to fund six million ounces of gold. The submissions identified 110 drilling targets, half of which were new prospects, and from a final shortlist of five targets, four yielded gold.

The authors emphasize that many business leaders miss out by not taking such opportunities to speak directly to people interested in their businesses, and to listen to what they have to say (even the lunatics). They invite consumers and lunatics to visit the book’s accompanying blog.

“If you already think that customers and stakeholders are becoming troublesome, difficult, and intrusive, then you should probably quit the corporate world now,” they write, “because very few firms and organizations will be able to opt out in the future. Crowd surfing may be something that many in business and politics think is still merely an option, but this change on its own is probably enough to shatter that illusion.

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