Blog on and join the online revolution: It's never been easier to take on big business and become a consumer champion

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.

Conclusion

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.

Independent Partners; request a free guide on NISAs from Hargreaves Lansdown

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol
art'Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' followed hoax reports artist had been arrested and unveiled
News
peopleJust weeks after he created dress for Alamuddin-Clooney wedding
Life and Style
tech

Sales of the tablet are set to fall again, say analysts

Life and Style
A street vendor in Mexico City sells Dorilocos, which are topped with carrot, jimaca, cucumber, peanuts, pork rinds, spices and hot sauce
food + drink

Trend which requires crisps, a fork and a strong stomach is sweeping Mexico's streets

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
George Lucas poses with a group of Star Wars-inspired Disney characters at Disney's Hollywood Studios in 2010
films

George Lucas criticises the major Hollywood film studios

Sport
football West Brom vs Man Utd match report: Blind grabs point, but away form a problem for Van Gaal
Arts and Entertainment
Bloom Time: Mira Sorvino
tvMira Sorvino on leaving movie roles for 'The Intruders'
Arts and Entertainment
Gotham is coming to UK shores this autumn
tvGotham, episode 2, review
News
i100
Sport
Adel Taraabt in action for QPR against West Ham earlier this month
footballQPR boss says midfielder is 'not fit to play football'
News
First woman: Valentina Tereshkova
peopleNASA guinea pig Kate Greene thinks it might fly
Voices
Chris Grayling, Justice Secretary: 'There are pressures which we are facing but there is not a crisis'
voices

Does Chris Grayling realise what a vague concept he is dealing with?

Life and Style
The charity Sands reports that 11 babies are stillborn everyday in the UK
lifeEleven babies are stillborn every day in the UK, yet no one speaks about this silent tragedy
News
Blackpool is expected to become one of the first places to introduce the Government’s controversial new Public Space Protection Orders (PSPOs)
news

Parties threaten resort's image as a family destination

Finacial products from our partners
Property search
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Money & Business

    Customer Service Executive / Inbound Customer Service Agent

    £18 - 23k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Customer Service Executiv...

    ASP.NET Web Developer / .NET Developer

    £60 - 65k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a ASP.NET Web Developer / ....

    Operational Risk Manager - Asset Management

    £60,000 - £80,000: Saxton Leigh: Our client is an leading Asset Manager based...

    Project Coordinator - 12 month contract

    £27000 - £32000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our large charity ...

    Day In a Page

    Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

    Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

    Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
    British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

    British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

    Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
    Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

    Salisbury ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities

    The city is home to one of the four surviving copies of the Magna Carta, along with the world’s oldest mechanical clock
    Let's talk about loss

    We need to talk about loss

    Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

    Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
    Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

    'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

    If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
    James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

    Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
    Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

    Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

    Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
    Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

    Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

    Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
    How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

    How to dress with authority

    Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
    New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

    New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

    'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

    The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
    Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

    Tim Minchin interview

    For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
    Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

    Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
    Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

    Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

    Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album