A brave attempt to plug in to online consumer power

As a marketing writer and a consumer activist, Robert Dwek has often been torn between enthusiasm and rage. WordMouth could help to bridge the divide

Back in the day – December 1999 if memory serves – I almost joined the runaway dot-com entrepreneurial bandwagon. I registered the domain name consumerunion.co.uk and began dreaming of my own corporate titan – one based on giving power to the people by taking it away from other corporate titans.

As a consumer activist whose day-job has been writing for marketers, I have long been struck by the chasm between rhetoric and reality in this industry. With my marketing journalist’s hat on, wooed by silky PRs, I often feel a surge of enthusiasm for the latest gee-whizz corporate project, especially if it involves the internet.

But as Average Joe Consumer, I frequently feel ill-treated by the same companies whose praises I have just sung. Invariably, I have to resort to the PR department, rather than customer services, for satisfaction and redress.

Consumerunion was going to bring these two sides of my personality together. With the Net, I would harness the collective clout of my fellow consumers so companies could no longer divide and conquer. I would begin where the Consumers’ Association left off, and thanks to the Web’s immediacy I would get results in real time.

I was inspired by developments across the Atlantic, with websites such as PlanetFeedback and ePinions generating plenty of publicity. They were positioned as all things to all men: a place for consumers to share information about products and companies; but also a conduit through which those same companies could reach out and embrace their previously anonymous customers.

Can you guess what happened next? Of course you can. The dot-com bubble burst and the breathless hype gave way to a greatly changed reality. The revolutionary websites either faded into the background, were taken over or went bust. Dear old consumerunion, which at one point had been the recipient of an anonymous domain-name bid (far too low of course!), was filed in a bottom drawer marked Big Ideas for a Rainy Day. At some later point I couldn’t even be bothered to pay the renewal fee and as far as I know the name is now floating free in cyberspace.

Why am I now telling you about this revolution that wasn’t? Well, a press release dropped into my inbox the other day, trumpeting a website called WordMouth.com. That’s as in “word of mouth” – as in consumers comparing and contrasting and sharing, sharing, sharing. Yes, it was a major blast from the past, even more so when I read the young founder’s comment:

“Alastair Shortland, developer of WordMouth, says, ‘I believe that WordMouth has the potential to deliver a new, and fairer, way of marketing – promoting services not through money, but through reputation and recommendation. It should also help many people find a reliable and professional service, both in the UK and in their local area, removing some of the risk of hiring a rogue trader or receiving poor service. The ultimate goal is to pull communities closer together and improve standards of service across the board. It is surprising to find that such a simple concept has not been developed into a viable solution already.'”

Surprising indeed. Revolutions are long and winding roads that require a degree of amnesia: ideas that apparently failed first time round can be reworked by people with a fresh perspective and buckets of enthusiasm.

Young Shortland, however, admits that he is caught in a Catch-22: without people posting on his site, he has no content with which to attract users. ‘Twas ever thus, and the challenge remains as great as ever.

The question is whether his type of “top-down” site – ambitiously dividing the UK into regions and then into categories, and legions of sub-categories – is the way to attract the elusive users and content. I feel there is something a bit too clinical about this structure. It works for shopping comparison sites, such as shopping.com (which recently acquired and incorporated ePinions). It works, of course, for Amazon, because we have a sense of place and purpose: we are basically out shopping and having a quick natter with fellow shoppers at the point of purchase.

But consumer comparison websites designed as destinations in their own right face an enormous uphill struggle before they can reach that all-important tipping point. WordMouth wants to replicate the success of Yellow Pages, but there just isn’t that much “pull” yet from consumers, certainly nothing that even begins to emulate the “push” of traditional advertisers.

For the moment, consumers, online or off, are just not ready to “unionise” and transform themselves into a disciplined army of professional purchasers. If they want to check out a local restaurant, they will probably log on to one of the legion of geographically based community websites. Such sites have a “bottom-up”, organic feel that plays to our primeval need for place, orienting ourselves physically rather than virtually.

Nevertheless, I wish WordMouth well and sincerely hope its runaway success proves me to be a bitter old cynic whose dreams of dot-com domination now lie in ruins. Power to the people!

dwek@journalist.co.uk

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