Crowd Surfing

A new book by David Brain and Martin Thomas redefines crowd surfing and examines how today’s savvier customers are influenced.

When asked to review a book called Crowd Surfing I was excited about the prospect of getting under the skin of Iggy Pop’s concert dives. Recent research in Ireland indicates that having ‘cool parents’ has overtaken ‘I want to be famous’ as the No 1 teen aspiration in life, so this book could be the defining moment in helping me bond with my kids. Listen out for ‘There goes my dad’ at next summer’s Electric Picnic!

Unfortunately, I quickly realised that I had been suckered. The book is talking about empowering consumers online, not diving off bar tables.

While we have all witnessed the impact of new technologies on corporate life, this is not a book about the wonders of new technologies. Instead, it deals with brave businesses that have left their comfort zones and invited customers to help shape where they are going and how they should change.

Businesses such as Microsoft, Dell, Benetton and Procter & Gamble are covered, with compelling case studies that bring the concept of crowd surfing to life. The reward is a real ‘I get it now’ experience, in return for reading 180-odd pages, a flight-to-London-and-back read.

Throughout, you will be tempted to question whether or not Ireland Inc would be willing to take on this form of crowd surfing and quickly realise, yes we would. Like the original concept of crowd surfing, the online version is well understood by the youth market and has also become synonymous with the IT industry. Both of these have a significant presence in Ireland.

Many companies have gone through a revolution in the last year and are now blogging and participating in chat rooms – primarily because of the power of word of mouth. I would suggest that Ireland’s word-of-mouth power is unrivalled. We are the world’s greatest storytellers and gossipers. If you screw up and don’t address it, customers will get you back by dinner time. But to be fair, if you do something right, your tills will ring beyond anything a marketing department alone can stimulate. Crowd Surfing offers us superb insights into how to leverage word-of-mouth strategies online.

The general breakdown of trust in corporations the world over has impacted the ability of marketers to get consumers to believe in our messaging. This book shows how the consumer has become smarter and more willing to explore options by seeking advice from independents. They are reading online what their fellow customers have purchased and made their decisions. Being a small community, Ireland is ripe for crowd surfing.

Written in an informative and conversational tone, this book is perfect for the conversation economy. It’s short, sharp, thought-provoking and engages the inexperienced. I picked up four fantastic ideas in the first two chapters that I intend implementing immediately.

One line that stands out, in particular, is from the late Anita Roddick: “If you think you’re too small to have an impact, try sleeping with a mosquito.” It’s classic stuff and might stimulate you to start a blog about a poor or, even better, a great experience you had recently.

David Brain and Martin Thomas explain what marketers need to do to communicate with today’s savvier consumer and provide case studies of successes and failures, including the tale of how one blogger started an internal revolution at Dell. Thomas, who’s Welsh himself, also suggests that the only way to lead a Welshman is to find out which way he is going and then get in front of him. This is apt for most businesses around the world.

Companies tend to travel the populist route. They identify the issues that matter most to employees, customers and shareholders and act accordingly. While this approach is undeniably a safe strategy to adopt, no one has ever criticised business leaders for listening and working on customer needs or shareholders’ narrow interests. But there is another type of business that chooses to think beyond the crowd and aims to lead rather then follow. They decide to align themselves with issues beyond their corporate interests (read Small Giants by Bo Burlington for the lowdown on companies that choose to be great instead of big).

In today’s new climate of sobriety, Irish business needs to be less focused on chasing the moolah and more focused on getting foundations back in place. This book is a superb read and gives us brilliant initiatives that can be easily implemented.

Michael Killeen is managing director of Dialogue.

Crowd Surfing: Surviving and Thriving in the Age of Consumer Empowerment by David Brain and Martin Thomas
Publisher: A & C Black
ISBN: 978-1408105955