Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked


August 18, 2009

A User’s Guide To Not Getting Ripped Off

Ben Popken and The Consumerist harness the social web to empower shoppers and embarrass corporate bullies.

David Goldenberg

It’s probably for the best that Gawker Media and its blog the Consumerist parted ways back in December. Besides for being a bit too earnest and un-snarky for a site in the Gawker stable, the Consumerist was also in the awkward position of both complaining about unsavory corporate practices (via its editorial content) and celebrating them (via the ads that graced those same pages.)

Now, after a reported mid-six-figure deal, the Consumerist is owned by the not-for-profit Consumers Union that runs Consumer Reports magazine, and only features ads for the Consumers Union itself. Co-executive editor Ben Popken, who worked for both bosses, notes that while there's still an emphasis on pageviews, nowadays the site operates on "deeper levels" as well.

Ben Popken
"Advertising works on your lizard brain. Never say, 'Advertising doesn't affect me,' because that means you're hooked, baby."

Ben Popken

When the site debuted in 2005, its founding editor Joel Johnson told Gelf that it was basically a blog that complains about "things that bug Nick Denton." Since then, it's evolved into a more supportive place where unhappy customers are given the gumption and wherewithal to get their complaints heard and taken care of. In the following interview, Popken tells Gelf why social media has led to better customer service, how advertisers influence our lizard brains, and what's up with the enduring appeal of the Snuggie.

Gelf Magazine: How has the operation of the site changed since it was bought by Consumer Union?

Ben Popken: We hired back all the freelancers who were let go, hired additional freelancers, and bumped up Meghann Marco to co-executive editor.

Gelf Magazine: Is traffic generation still a primary concern for the site, as it was back in the Gawker days? Is your salary still tied to that?

Ben Popken: [The payment structure under] Gawker was always a flat rate plus the potential for traffic bonuses. It was never like if I didn't get enough Diggs I'd have to eat cereal for a month. Impact is crucial to our mission under Consumers Union and traffic growth remains one of many ways of measuring that, but we also have expectations that are less tangible, but important, and operating at deeper levels. But I get a flat salary. Plus great health benefits!

Gelf Magazine: What are those less tangible expectations?

Ben Popken: How do you define "mattering more?" I'll give you an example: The week that CARD act was being debated, the White House invited us to DC to interview Austin Goolsbee, senior economic adviser to Obama and man in the Treasury Department. Meg and I went down there with a producer and videographer from Consumers Union and taped and talked to the man for a good 30 minutes. We chopped up the video into five posts and they maybe got 25k pageviews. In contrast, a post we did this weekend about how a collection agency sent this guy four different letters in an attempt to collect a $0.04 debt got 42k pageviews. One story took four people a day, including transit time, to produce, and it got beat by a post that took no more than 30 minutes to put together. Both are good stories, but only in one of them did we ask an administration official what they were going to do about mandatory binding arbitration clauses in credit-card contracts. And this month mandatory binding arbitration in credit cards is effectively over, due to some recent folding by the industry in advance of adverse legislative and regulatory action. A lot of people have been working on that issue and I'm glad we played a part in it. Doing things like being able to bring an important consumer issue to the doorstep of the White House is a new kind of expectation that we're happy to have, and we're overjoyed to have the backing to fulfill it, whether or not it generates lots of traffic.

Gelf Magazine: You've mentioned several psychological tricks people can use to be smarter consumers (like pre-thanking phone reps, not touching stuff in the store, etc.) What other scientific knowledge can we harness to get ripped off less?

Ben Popken: 1) Pay only in cash. Using real money makes it more painful. That's why casinos give you tokens, because a representation of money doesn't feel like real money. Credit cards are a kind of token.
2) When you call customer service, be able to tell the person in two sentences: a) what the problem is, and b) how they are going to solve it. Science has shown that making things easier for people makes it easier for them to do them for you.
3) One reader I know, whenever they want to buy something, they put it in their cart on, then make themselves wait two weeks before looking at the cart. They say that most of the time by the time they check back in, the desire has passed. By creating little barriers to spending money, you can help discourage yourself from impulse buys, and thus decrease ripoffs.

Gelf Magazine: Haggling works almost everywhere, but few people seem to be willing to do it. Why is that?

Ben Popken: People like to avoid conflict. Haggling isn't part of American culture. Following the rules set by the home office, however, does seem to be.

Gelf Magazine: As you point out, we're still very impressionable when it comes to advertising. How can we better defend ourselves against it in general?

Ben Popken: Get educated about how advertising works. It's fun! Then comparison-shop, buy based on value, and compare unit-prices. Beyond that, it's hopeless. Advertising works on your lizard brain. Never say, "Advertising doesn't affect me," because that means you're hooked, baby. Hooked. Non-mainstream products get advertised, just maybe not with a national TV buy.

Gelf Magazine: Specifically, what about how advertising works should we try to cram into our lizard brains?

Ben Popken: That's a huge topic, but the underlying principle is being able to identify how advertising creates needs you didn't even know you had and then suggests the product that solves them. They're gotten particularly insidious, especially these cellphone commercials. I'm thinking particularly of T-Mobile and Verizon's. They've evolved to the point where all they have to do is play out an anxious situation and then here comes the soothing product to wipe away that itch. Comedy is just the Trojan horse.

Gelf Magazine: What is it about mail-in rebates that both makes me think I'll send them in and never actually get around to doing that?

Ben Popken: The dollars you save are printed in giant red font and the rules are printed in teeny-tiny font.

Gelf Magazine: You recently wrote a post about how people are using Twitter to solve many of their problems with companies. How else should we be harnessing social media to get corporations to pay attention?

Ben Popken: We can harness social media by using them as an amplifier effect for a good story, well-told. The underlying premise is to self-publish your true story and/or use back channels to get someone to look at it. Twitter is just one medium of many available. Twitter is perfect because it turns solving problems into a marketing strategy, which is awesome because the reason why customer service sucks is because on the spreadsheet it's traditionally been a cost center. If spending on customer service is seen as investing in future revenue generation, we can solve the customer-service crisis.

Gelf Magazine: So is customer service getting better in general? And is that thanks to the social web?

Ben Popken: Yes, customer service is getting better. I think the social web, of which is a part, has been key in promoting how one customer-service horror story can end up becoming front-page news in internet-land, and if it's bad enough, even hit traditional media. Vincent Ferrari and the sleepy Comcast tech story are classic examples. Companies are on notice that we're watching and reporting. To combat that, some are doing a better job of heading off complaints before they become the next online firestorm. Exactly as we planned all along. Muahaha.

Gelf Magazine: Are you pretty good at guessing how many hits a post will get once you put it up on Consumerist?

Ben Popken: I have a decent idea about which posts are likely to pop, and which won't get a lot of traffic but are just good to do. Sometimes I'm wildly wrong about both. You never know what the internet is going to do or not do with your material after it goes live.

Gelf Magazine: Relatedly, do you have a grand unified theory about the Snuggie?

Ben Popken: Cheap products made to sound like they're awesome are a surefire recipe for internet hilarity.

David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.

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Article by David Goldenberg

David Goldenberg is the co-founder and editor of Gelf, and the host of Geeking Out, Gelf's monthly science speaking series.

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