Change is in your hands
What's the deal with online campaigns?The marketing people at Cadbury must have thought all their Christmases and Easters had come at once when this summer's web-inspired campaign to bring back the Wispa gathered steam.
Nearly 14,000 users of Facebook, the social networking service, started the ball rolling, then fans of the bar stormed the stage of Iggy Pop's Glastonbury gig waving Wispa banners, online petitions were set up and Wispa ads from the 1980s started appearing on YouTube.
The company was quick (but not so quick as to allow the campaign to peter out too early) to announce that it had succumbed to the will of the people and said the Wispa was on its way back; it should be available in Ireland from October 8th.
"This is the first time that the power of the internet played such an intrinsic role in the return of a Cadbury brand," the company said.
The bar was dropped four years ago because of poor sales, so Cadbury is taking a gamble that the clamour for its return was fuelled by a genuine love of the chocolate and not some silly summer-season joke that got out of hand. If the gamble doesn't pay off, the company could well be figuring out what to do with 23 million uneaten Wispa bars by the new year.
Cadbury is not the only company taking direction from the web-savvy consumer. Businesses all over the world have been frantically monitoring, MySpace, Bebo, Facebook, blogs and thousands of discussions boards in recent years for feedback on their brands. While they sometimes get lucky - as Cadbury seems to have - more often than not, the stories generated by bloggers are less than kind.
In August, Wal-Mart set up a Facebook group with a view to marketing dorm furnishings to US students. It didn't work out and within days, several hundred virulently negative comments about the store's labour practices appeared on the site, forcing the company into a quick rethink.
And a month earlier, a former Dell employee submitted a post to a blog on the US website Consumerist.com. The innocuous piece on an innocuous site offered consumers tips on how to get the best deals on Dell computers, and while it certainly made for interesting reading if you were in the market for a computer, it was not the kind of post to stir the world's bloggers into action. At least it wasn't until Dell's legal people did something rather foolish. They contacted the site demanding that the post be removed because it was "confidential and proprietary to Dell".
Unsurprisingly, Consumerist declined to pull the post and instead published Dell's request. Traffic to the site went through the roof as more than 300,000 people logged on in just a few days to read the post Dell didn't want them to see. Eventually, Dell issued a statement accepting that it had been wrong to try and have the post removed and should have instead concentrated on rebutting any of the material in the original post it believed to be false.
Darren Baarefoot is a Canadian writer, technologist and blogger who has, for years, been using the internet to fight for his consumer rights. He sums up how many people feel about consumer blogging when he says: "I've got to confess, I really dig the power of this site. I do my best to be responsible in criticising companies, but I really dig how blogs can make your complaints public and (relatively) permanent. There's a profound difference between sending off a fiery snailmail letter to some customer-service manager and publishing that letter on your website."
Barefoot told Pricewatch that blogs and Facebook profiles work because they take advantage of two powerful online phenomenon: "They're networked and persistent. Other people read my blog, and some of those folks are bloggers. They may link to my post. The result is an amplification of my voice beyond that of the average consumer."
Closer to home a number of Irish bloggers have taken to the net to highlight bargains and complain about rip-offs. There's the Frugal Tiger, ValueIreland and journalist and blogger Damien Mulley's latest incarnation, IWillNotHold.com.
IWillNotHold.com "has both horror stories of bad customer care, but also positive stories where a customer-care rep or a company goes above and beyond the call. You can't just whack someone with a stick and ignore the good that is done. Good work needs just as much promotion, so much so, that it should then be expected or the industry norm," Mulley says. He insists that "steps are taken" to ensure postings are accurate and "are not intended to be malicious but a way of getting an issue resolved as well as preventing it from happening again." He says while reaction to IWillNotHold.com has been low-key thus far, he is optimistic that once the winter takes hold, it will find its feet.
"Ultimately, I hope such a site becomes redundant as the level of customer service in Ireland improves and I think that sites like this will be a way of doing it. Whether via the Jack-Russell-with-a-bone attitude or maybe one story being the straw the breaks the camel's back, who knows, but at least it will allow some people to feel a little more empowered."
Diarmuid McShane, who runs ValueIreland, is ambivalent about the web's power. "It's an effective way for airing consumer grievances. However, the internet is a pretty much useless way of challenging business. Most businesses pay no heed to items published about them on the internet . . . it seems that most companies aren't all that bothered about negative commentary."
Most, but not all, perhaps. McShane has received two letters from solicitors demanding that posts complaining about "unreasonably high prices" in named outlets be removed. "To be honest, we'd like more," he says. "They'd be good for advertising and publicity."