Journalist Q&A: Ben Popken, The Consumerist

Ben Popken saw The Consumerist ads a few years ago, and took swipes at them on his blog.

Name: Ben Popken
Title: Co-executive editor
Outlet: The Consumerist
Preferred e-mail address:; Twitter:
Web site:

Ben Popken saw The Consumerist ads a few years ago, and took swipes at them on his blog. After some witty e-mails with its management, he was hired as site editor. He talks with Frank Washkuch about the blog's tone, its content, and the sources of his ideas.

The Consumerist has a different take than most consumer outlets. How would you de-scribe its voice?

Ben Popken: Basically we're writing blog post after blog post trying to help consumers, talking about and poking fun at the important consumer issue of the day. We have tools for them to become more empowered, more informed and more dangerous consumers.

Describe the ideal Consumerist blog post – the one thing you really love to write about.

Popken: Probably my favorite thing to do is to post executive and customer-service telephone line information. Also, e-mails and phone numbers of top executives when customers try to rectify their issues and when outsourced or offshore customer service isn't really doing the job for them and they have no other recourse.

How would you describe your daily duties?

Popken: Basically, I live most of the day in my inbox. That's where most of the tips are coming from, and I'm checking out what they have to tell us.

We have readers who highlight what the hot stuff is and I have a few sites I usually check out for story ideas. I also get tips over Twitter and IM. When something seems good, I post it or someone else posts it.

Is there a common angle to all posts on The Consumerist?

Popken: I'd definitely say a sense of humor. It's a very sarcastic blog, and I think that throws new readers off. We'll say something, and they might not know our voice and say, “Oh my god, I can't believe they said that.”

But most of the time, it's under the pretense that we're joking, so just keep the tongue firmly locked in cheek when you check us out.

The economy is dominating the news. How is that affecting your coverage?

Popken: I feel like we've hit our stride with having more people on the blog. There's a lot more receptiveness everywhere from readers, commenters, and from the general-media outlets checking out our stuff. I feel like we have an opportunity here to make an impact.

The economic news cycle is driving the stories of the day, and there's a lot of coverage of the bankruptcies. I guess that's a long way of saying that my job got harder because there's a lot more to write about, but it's also easier because a lot more people are paying attention.

What do you think The Consumerist's big stories will be for the rest of the year?

Popken: Look at what the breakout stories have been. If you look at Facebook and Domino's, and what ties those together and what's the same with other big stories, it's some strange, slap-yourself-in-the-forehead mistake by another company that reveals an important truth about how this business operates at large. That will end up generating substantial coverage.

Describe your readership base. For which people is The Consumerist a must-read?

Popken: We really cut across a huge demographic. I've gotten letters from 11-year-old kids trying to figure out their cell phone bills and septuagenarian war veterans trying to deal with the Veterans Affairs office.

I do think age 30 to 45 is the bulk of the readership, slightly more male, college educated. But everyone is a consumer, so there really is mass appeal. We have readership all over the place.

Describe your interaction with the PR industry.

Popken: It's nearly nonexistent. There isn't a lot going on. We have filters that keep a lot of PR people's e-mails from reaching our inbox because they're spam.

I guess there are two kinds of interaction; there's pitching and putting out fires. Pitching I mainly ignore. For putting out fires... every so often someone will send me a letter basically impugning my very existence as a human being and saying I have horrible, horrible ethics because I got some minor detail wrong. And that doesn't go over well with us, as you can imagine.

We'll connect disaffected customers with the objects of their disaffection, and we'll update the post after there's a resolution.

Do pitches you receive ever add something to a blog post?

Popken: Basically [pitching] just doesn't work. My message is, “Don't waste your time.” There are a lot of other things you can do to help your PR other than pitching me.

Such as what?

Popken: I guess what you could call preventative measures. The best PR you can have is a great product. The second best PR... is great customer service. If more brand managers could push their companies to do both of those, they could put their feet up on the desk and not do as much work.

Companies need someone with total walk-on-water power to solve any customer problems and then create multiple channels for that person to let customers know that he or she exists. Put them on Twitter and IM, and give them an e-mail address. Send him out looking for people with problems and give him the ability to solve them. And there would probably be a lot fewer stories from your customers reaching our inbox.

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