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Special thanks to Marc Gander for taking the time to speak with me on the phone about his inspirational forum and its momentous history.
Interviewee: Marc Gander
Forum URL: http://www.consumeractiongroup.co.uk
Stats as of interview date: 215,819 members; 1,976,275 posts; 170,898 threads.
Interview date: March 31, 2009.
Interviewer: Chris Davis
Interview: The Consumer Forums
The Consumer Forums were founded on January 10, 2006 by Marc Gander in response to ongoing conflicts regarding successive bank overage charges in the United Kingdom. Gander, academic lawyer and university professor, believed these charges to be unlawful and began looking for answers. Gander then began posting on a yahoo group that was discussing similar bank charges. It was at this time that Gander's future (Internet savvy) partner, Dave Smith, contacted him proposing that they create their own forum.
Gander never imagined things to "go crazy" and expected only a hundred or so heated people to join the forum. Gander leveraged his legal expertise and began offering free template letters that members of the forum could use to fight the devious banks. In no time, Gander's free template letters had received over 200,000 downloads. As a result, the banks in question have been said to have returned as much as £ 750,000,000 (approximately $ 1,072,000,000) in lieu of going to court. The largest refund Gander recalls a single member receiving was for £ 36,000 (approximately $ 51,500). Attention has since transferred to the House of Lords (the upper house of the Parliament of the United Kingdom) as the public awaits the resolution of a crucial test case.
Gander worked hard to get his forum off the ground. He would prowl around the web and inform people about the bank charges, he offered free legal templates, and he devoted a lot of time to answering questions and generating meaningful content. Gander made an excellent point when he said that forums, especially in their infancy, must be responsive. Especially in Gander's case, people who were posting were usually posting with strong emotions. People aren't willing to wait for two or three days for an answer. If they are passionate enough about the subject they will have already moved on to someplace more responsive. Gander wisely urges admins to try to respond to all posts within a few hours while the member is still interested.
Gander was kind enough to be honest about one of his other successful strategies; one in which most admins partake, and few admit. The act of seeding a forum with self-created discussions may seem like a shady deal but, if done ethically, can actually add value to the forum. Gander did just that. He added value to his forum by posting a common question under one account and then logged into another account to answer that same question. For Gander this increased the perception of activity on the forum so people didn't immediately leave because there was no activity (the ugly catch-22 of starting a new forum). Meanwhile, Gander was providing another free source of information to potential users by showing how responsive and knowledgeable the admin was. In reality, the admin was even more responsive than users knew, as he was not only taking the time to answer the question, but was posting it as well.
Due in part to continued coverage by UK media outlets like the Financial Times, 8-9 national papers, the BBC, and local papers, The Consumer Forum continues to grow and expand its offerings. That which was once a forum for specific legal advice was now broadening its forumline to cover general consumer rights. At this time the forum was renamed from The Bank Action Group to its current name, The Consumer Action Group. The Consumer Action Group now exceeds 750 new members per week.
WHY IT WORKS
"We were offering people their own money back...there aren't many forums you can go on and 5-6 weeks later you have £ 5,000 in your pocket", explains Gander. The Consumer Action Group builds strength in that the forum functions like a centralized intelligence agency. People are frightened and left vulnerable by threatening letters from collectors. With no one to compare notes with, and often too embarrassed or financially damage to seek professional assistance, most consumers were helpless. The Consumer Action Group allows people to post anonymously and collectively. One member will post saying they received a letter and take comfort when five other members say they got the same letter; they no longer feel alone. Members of The Consumer Action Group have built such strong friendships that many members, calling themselves "CAGGERS", often have "CAG" (The Consumer Action Group) meetings in pubs around the country nearly every month.
Gander's efforts are primarily volunteered. Gander is currently awaiting the ruling from the House of Lords and in the meantime will continue to run the forums as he has been. The Consumer Action Group is supported by a team about thirty strong (all with varying levels of seniority and activity), only two of which (an admin assistant and webmaster) are paid (part-time). The Consumer Action Group encourages donations (pointing out that even a 5% donation of what a member recovers would be far cheaper than if they had paid for legal advice), however donations are few and far between. Gander referred to one individual who recovered something between £ 6-7k. When asked by the community if this member planned on donating anything back to the group, their response was something along the lines of, "I'm not going to donate. All I got was my own money back". Gander understands why some users are reluctant to give back. Many of the members of The Consumer Forums have been taken advantage of and many just want their money back and to get on with life. On the other end of the spectrum, one gracious individual donated £ 800 (approximately $ 1,144). It is donations like these, and the more common £ 10-15 donations that are responsible for funding the forums. Donations also decreased after cases were suspended, pending the ruling of the House of Lords. Gander expects donations and activity to increase again after a ruling has been made. Gander also allows members to purchase legal books directly from his site as a way for members to show appreciation.
As with many forums, forum confrontations have been one of the hardest obstacles for The Consumer Action Group to overcome. Gander attributes the confrontations to pride and passion. Moderators on the forum are very proud of what they do and take things personally when attacked. Members are passionate about the fight and often enter bruised and battered as is it. Since many members are already angry by circumstance, fights can erupt without notice. Gander was spot-on when saying "you feel like they are standing on some large tower with your trousers down and your backside showing". No one enjoys feeling like a fool in front of their comrades. When I mentioned the old idea of stepping away from the computer for 20 minutes (which is said to be enough time for anger to succumb to logic), Gander replied in jest saying, "unfortunately there is no plugin to detect anger and prevent them from posting for 20 minutes". Indeed. If only such a plugin existed there would certainly be fewer confrontations on all forums. Until then, Gander and his staff will continue to mediate issues as they occur.
Gander certainly has a lot to be proud of. He built a thriving, supporting, community from the ground up and has helped thousands recover what is rightfully theirs. When asked which accomplishment he was most proud of, Gander mentioned that he and Dave Smith were nominated for an "OBE" (Order of the British Empire), but (arguably attributed to the powers they were trying to fight) the nomination never lead to anything more. Gander also takes pride in the smaller rewards he gets to enjoy more frequently, like thank you emails from families who have just gone on their first family vacation in years with the money they recovered.
Moderators at The Consumer Action Group are chosen based upon merit. Applications are not allowed. Potential moderators need to be in tune with the forum, offer accurate advice, and show enjoyment in their interactions. Gander also stresses all forums should have a competent webmaster to ensure the technical aspects are properly managed. The Consumer Action Group also holds a yearly meeting (usually in the form of a Sunday picnic) with all team members.
Gander believes in taking a light approach to forum moderation. In the past, he had sent out personal notifications to people to please edit their own posts. With the forum now many times its original size, such a task is no longer practical. Moderator volunteers handle obvious offenses on a case by case basis and any criticism towards the forums themselves are left for other members to handle - their defense often speaking louder than that of an 'official'. Gander clarifies that The Consumer Action Group is a consumer rights forum, not a human rights forum. In the interest of the community, defamatory posts are typically removed and everyone moves on. Some forums have strong stances against censorship and will put the community in jeopardy to make that stand. Gander believes his forum has bigger fish to fry and it is best to remove possible legal issues and be done with it.
Gander's policy on moderator involvement and conduct is brilliant. If a moderator is personally involved in an issue, they are the only moderator that will handle that issue. If the moderator is unsure of what actions to take, they can communicate with other staff in a private section, but will remain the only public voice in that conflict. Gander describes situations that don't follow this policy as, "looking like policemen beating a man down with sticks". Gander goes on to say, "if you are going to be a moderator you need to abandon your ego". If a moderator is blatantly attacked, they are encouraged to lock the thread and be done with it. Often times a moderator will be recognized by other members for resisting the urge to comment and then lock the thread. Too often do forum moderators simply post their last word and then end the discussion. Gander's policy forbids this abuse of power and his community is stronger as a result.
I would again like to thank Marc Gander for taking the time to share his thoughts and experiences. The Consumer Action Group is a truly inspirational community and I wish them continued success.
Author: Chris Davis
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