Darren Cronian is one of a new breed of online consumer champions. On his popular website Travel Rants ( www.travel-rants.com), the 36-year-old dispenses advice and reviews everything from airlines to hotel accommodation.
"I started writing the blog after a bad experience with a high-street travel agency," he explains. "I felt quite annoyed about the lack of customer service and wanted to rant about my experiences."
After buying a domain name and installing a blog application from WordPress, he began sharing his views on everything from single person supplements to the prices charged by tour operators during school holidays.
"I soon realised that the travel industry was littered with consumer issues, but there was nowhere to share and discuss them online," he adds. "Readers can now send me their own rants and I will publish as many of them as I can."
Cronian, an IT professional who lives in Leeds, now spends up to four hours a night writing fresh posts and answering questions from readers, while his site was named best travel consumer blog at last year's Travolution awards.
"I enjoy writing the blog and feel it plays a massive part in helping consumers," he adds. "The benefits for me are helping people get issues off their chest, receiving media attention, and trying to make a difference in the travel industry."
Such virtual soap boxes are becoming commonplace. A quick trawl of the internet reveals everything from professionally-produced consumer forums debating a wide range of topics to narrowly-focused sites charting long-running sagas of individuals.
James Daley, money editor of Which?, says the rapid development of websites and the widespread adoption of high-speed broadband connections have helped to empower consumers over the past few years.
"People have realised that blogs and forums are a great way to share their gripes and complaints about shoddy products or poor customer service," he says. "Some of the bigger sites have become real thorns in the sides of companies they target."
Corporations are certainly sensitive about their public profiles. "They hate being singled out as a bad business and that is why these kinds of sites are so effective," he adds. "I'm sure we'll see many more of them appearing over the next few years."
Kevin Ellis started OrangeProblems.co.uk ( www.orangeproblems.co.uk) three years ago after becoming frustrated with difficulties he was having with the broadband internet connection with Wanadoo – the name used before it became Orange.
"I was inspired by the knowledge that I couldn't be the only customer suffering from appalling service," he says. "After attempting to get my problems sorted via the normal channels, I thought that setting up a high-profile website would get the attention of both the company and customers facing similar problems."
The site has attracted more than 10,000 users, receiving thousands of hits every day. The success has also encouraged him to launch two similar ventures – www.TalkTalkProblems.co.uk and www.VirginMediaProblems.co.uk.
"The biggest challenge in running such a large website is controlling the posts – specifically the spam posts where people join the website with the intention of adding links to their own sites or others that are unsuitable," he explains. "I will generally check posts on a daily basis, remove those that are offensive, and bar the member responsible for putting it up. It is very time consuming."
Orange is aware of the site's presence, but accepts that online discussions can influence the decisions made on which products and services people will buy, and insists that it is keen on working with webmasters to improve its offering.
"We believe that the debate is not about whether we are happy that sites like OrangeProblems.co.uk exist, it's about how 21st-century brands behave in these new environments as more consumers are turning to social media for recommendations," said an Orange spokesman. "We are confident in our own customer service channels. However, as social media grows, it is vital for brands like Orange to be open to all kinds of feedback and, if these conversations exist, we need to listen, engage and learn."
So how can you become an online consumer champion?
Phil Szomszor, a director at PR agency, Citigate Dewe Rogerson, advises companies on how to engage with customers online and suggests that would-be consumer champions see what's out there before taking the plunge.
"Creating a new website to communicate to other customers is a time-consuming process, so building a new one might not be necessary," he says. "There might be an existing site whose owner would welcome assistance from a like-minded person."
For those going it alone there are a few things to consider, adds Szomszor. "If you want to campaign for something to be changed or improved, then a combination of blogs and/or forums is ideal," he suggests. "If you want to be taken seriously then make sure your blog is well written, to the point and regularly updated."
So what are your main options?
Form a Facebook group
This is the easiest route. Social networking sites are a potentially powerful weapon in a consumer champion's armoury. Facebook, for example, has more than 200 million active users around the world – half of which log on to the site every day.
Once you are a member – and it is free to join – you can set up a virtual group on the site to which others can belong. As well as having its own page, your group can electronically send out updates to members about developments in the campaign. "It has now become incredibly easy to make your voice heard," says Daley. "These sites are overrun with mini consumer action groups and, by encouraging friends to join, you can build up a large number of supporters in a short space of time."
Facebook has already proven to be extremely effective. When HSBC tried to scrap interest-free overdrafts for its graduate customers two years ago a group on the site – Stop the Great HSBC Graduate Rip-Off – was established. More than 4,000 people joined the group and tasted success when the bank reversed its decision.
Set up a free blog
Another relatively simple way to start ranting is via a blog hosted by companies such as WordPress or Blogger. At its most basic level it won't cost you a penny to run and sites can be live within a few minutes.
You will have a wide choice of templates to use and simple step-by-step instructions take you through the process. Of course, you can pay to have a blog properly hosted, which can enable you to earn money through displaying adverts, but even the free versions allow you to post words, photographs, videos and even online polls.
Start your own website
Although more complicated, it is getting easier all the time and will give you greater flexibility. Many service providers offer free space as part of the monthly connection package, while a domain name will only set you back a few pounds every year.
You don't even require design skills to produce your pages as specialist web companies can provide a variety of templates. All you need to do is add the content and keep it updated. Companies such as DoYourOwnSite ( www.doyourownsite.com) charge around £5 a month to host your site and offer a range of designs.
Establish a consumer forum
Many people simply want to stimulate debate, so a forum – either as the sole or central theme of a site – is attractive. However, as its success depends on visitors sharing their opinions, it can be the hardest and most time-consuming option.
The software is available to build forums into sites. Of course, depending on your longer-term aims, it might be worth discussing the options – and costs – with a professional web designer.
"If you are running a forum, the key thing is to moderate it properly which means clamping down on abusive users and encouraging members to debate maturely rather than get involved in flame wars," adds Szomszor.
Online consumer champions are here to stay, but Darren Cronian says that budding ranters need to be committed to their projects.
"If you want to make your site a success then you will need to put in the hours," he says. "You have to be passionate about your subject and not be deterred from sharing your thoughts and opinions."
Legal pitfalls What to look out for
While being able to strike up a rapport with a company that is the focus of your site can be useful – as long as you are still able to stay independent – that is not always the case. In some cases, both sides remain openly hostile to one another.
But be aware that there are risks involved in such conflicts, warns Claire Gill, a partner at law firm Carter-Ruck. Anyone picking up the consumer cudgels must not publish libellous comments, otherwise they run the risk of being sued for millions of pounds.
"Although the unique global and ever-evolving nature of communications on the internet has required the law to adapt, website hosts and individual bloggers publish defamatory material at their peril – even if their identity is hidden in the cloak of anonymity," she says. "The laws of libel in this country extend to publication on the internet, and the potential damage that could be caused to reputations – both individual and corporate – is huge."
This is particularly relevant to websites that host forums, as the person who runs the site remains responsible for the publication any libellous material, regardless of who wrote it.Reuse content