December 27, 2004
Marketing's Flip Side: The 'Determined Detractor'
arketers have become fond of recruiting friendly trendsetters to promote their products, but modern technology may now force them to pay attention to another kind of agent of influence making the rounds: the determined detractor.
Determined detractors are persistent critics of a company or product that mount their own public relations offensive, often online. They have roiled corporate plans at least since Ralph Nader famously attacked the Chevrolet Corvair and other cars in his 1965 book, "Unsafe at Any Speed," which prompted General Motors to hire a private detective to investigate him.
But the Internet and affordable digital technology have made its far easier for detractors to contact and mobilize sympathizers, as the presidential candidates found this year: MoveOn.org was critical of President Bush, and the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth posed a challenge to Senator John Kerry.
Now some public relations agencies and research companies are studying determined detractors, dividing them into different groups defined by motivation, monitoring their complaints and trying to help corporate clients decide how to react.
BuzzMetrics, a New York-based specialist in word-of-mouth marketing, has developed proprietary software to scoop up information on trendsetters and potential influencers as they travel the Internet, posting messages on bulletin board sites, updating personal Web pages and sharing information through e-mail mailing lists.
"For brand managers, the big challenge is to predict trouble on the horizon," said Jonathan Carson, head of BuzzMetrics. "When they see a detractor they have to figure out whether it's a single disgruntled customer or an actual smoldering crisis that could explode."
BuzzMetrics would not identify by name the 20 or so marketers it says have used, or are now using, its crisis management or prevention services, but Mr. Carson said the clients included several pharmaceutical companies. BuzzMetrics also looked into the threat posed to a French conglomerate when some supporters of the Iraq invasion were circulating a boycott list. It is now studying the way critics of Dan Rather gained traction so soon after his report questioning President Bush's National Guard service.
The best-known corporate detractor this year was probably Morgan Spurlock, who tried to shred McDonald's image with his documentary "Super Size Me." But Web-savvy agitators have also used the Internet to great effect, with sites like www.ipodsdirtysecret.com (contending that the battery in Apple's
"One determined detractor can do as much damage as 100,000 positive mentions can do good," said Paul Rand, managing director at Ketchum Midwest in Chicago, part of the Omnicom Group. "In the same way that we need to understand who the positive influencers are, it is becoming even more critical to identify and manage determined detractors."
"The technology puts the power of the press into the hands of the everyman," he added.
One of the most widely publicized detractor stunts took aim at Apple Computer's popular iPod. Two brothers who live in New York City, Casey and Van Neistat, discovered last year that dead iPod batteries could not be easily or cheaply replaced. So they recorded a phone call to the Apple help line, where they were told the smartest thing was to buy a new iPod; shot video of themselves stenciling "iPod's unreplaceable battery lasts only 18 months" on iPod posters; and posted it all online as a three-minute video. The clip cost them $40 to produce.
Apple Computer, which did not respond to messages left seeking comment, soon began offering a cheaper battery-replacement program. The protest video, which went up in November 2003, remains online at www.ipodsdirtysecret.com.
Casey Neistat, an artist and aspiring filmmaker, said he welcomed responses from marketers and corporate targets. "If it's just to better their product or avoid a P.R. disaster, the bottom line is that that benefits the customer," he said.
Shortly after the United States-led invasion of Iraq, when some political conservatives urged boycotts of French products in protest against French opposition to the war, a marketer of French products hired BuzzMetrics to gauge the risk of boycott threats in America. After mapping the spread of a big boycott list online, BuzzMetrics collected reactions from various groups of consumers.
"The determined detractors promoted the boycott online and specifically went after enthusiasts of the products on the lists," Mr. Carson recalled. The reaction, however, was anything but monolithic: it turned out that political partisans were split down the middle on the boycott. And, most important for the client, the buyers of its products were overwhelmingly against the proposed boycott.
In partnership with the Pew Internet and American Life Project, BuzzMetrics also analyzed the online response that followed Dan Rather's report on CBS questioning President Bush's National Guard service. They identified small groups of determined detractors of Mr. Rather that had communicated online for years, often through sites like www.ratherbiased.com. When a few critics raised doubts about the documents that Mr. Rather included in his report, the infrastructure was already in place to spread and amplify the questions. Mr. Rather ultimately conceded that he could not authenticate the documents.
"That carries over for a lot of brands," Mr. Carson said. "Where there are disgruntled customers out there who have done some degree of organizing, the infrastructure is there for a major attack to take place."
Mr. Rand, the Ketchum executive, said classifying detractors helped companies decide whether and how to react. The Neistat Brothers come from the "hear me" school, a group that can often be assuaged by acknowledging their concerns and ameliorating any problem, he said.
Left unchecked, "hear me" types can become "reputation terrorists" who have a personal interest in publicly criticizing a company, Mr. Rand said. "These are the folks we have to track and stay on top of," he said. "To not do so can cost money."
There are, finally, "competitive destroyers," who may even be competing companies willing to slander a rival, Mr. Rand said. Companies can protect themselves against this group to some degree by making as much truthful information available as possible.
For now, though, even the targets of "Super Size Me" and www.ihatestarbucks.com say they are not so concerned with detractors.
Lara Wyss, a spokeswoman at Starbucks Coffee in Seattle, said the company recognized that people used many means, including the Internet, to voice their opinions. "With that said, the majority of public responses to Starbucks are overwhelmingly positive," she said.
"We have daily face-to-face contact with our customers," said Walt Riker, a spokesman at McDonald's in Oak Brook, Ill. "That's a huge advantage. They let you know what they're interested in. We don't need detractors."