Victory over debit fee is a sign of consumer power

Molly Katchpole, right, led an online campaign against Bank of America's planned debit card fee.

Story highlights

  • Bank of America drops its plan to charge a $5 debit card fee
  • Ben Rattray: 22-year-old Molly Katchpole's campaign helped make a difference
  • He says social media offer people the chance to affect decisions of giant firms
  • Rattray: From now on, companies will be more alert to customers' views
This week marked a watershed event in the transfer of power from large companies to everyday people.
When Bank of America proposed a $5 monthly debit fee in September, bank executives could only hope the customer backlash wouldn't be too extreme.
But 22-year-old Molly Katchpole, a recent college graduate working two part-time jobs, was incredulous that a bank just bailed out by American taxpayers would add a new fee to increase its profits while it laid off employees.
Katchpole didn't just get mad; she decided to take action by launching a petition on Change.org to stop the fee. Katchpole knew she wasn't the only one fed up with the banks' overreach, and thought that if enough customers joined her campaign, Bank of America would be forced to listen.
Ben Rattray
The response was overwhelming. Within a month, more than 300,000 people from all 50 states had joined Katchpole's campaign, Bank of America's Facebook and Twitter properties were deluged with negative comments and media coverage started pouring in. A Bank of America executive personally called Katchpole to try to address her concerns and its CEO had to defend his consumer-unfriendly plan on national television as complaints mounted from bank customers and others.
Katchpole's campaign also inspired dozens of other people to start their own petitions on Change.org challenging their own banks to drop new proposed fees. Within weeks, other major financial institutions like Wells Fargo, Citi, and JPMorgan Chase bowed to the public pressure and dropped their debit fee plans.
Finally, on Tuesday, Katchpole woke up in her shared Washington apartment to an incredible announcement: Bank of America was dropping its fee because of massive "customer concerns." The campaign to get Bank of America to drop its fees had won.
Petitioner helped get BOA to drop $5 fee
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Ten years ago, companies could make unilateral decisions without worrying much about their customers organizing against them. A customer like Katchpole might have reacted to Bank of America's new fee by changing banks, but there would have been no way for her to connect to hundreds of thousands of other disaffected customers to enact a coordinated response.
Social media has radically changed this dynamic, and tools like Change.org, Facebook and Twitter empower everyday people like Katchpole to launch, drive and win campaigns against even the largest corporations in ways not previously possible.
This power shift is already starting to have deep impact. It's not just that companies are now forced to publicly face concerns expressed by mobilized customers; it's that the knowledge that any significant decision will be exposed and could result in coordinated backlash is causing companies to pre-emptively change their policies to better reflect the interests of their customers and stakeholders.
This is not just good news for consumers -- it's good for society.
With hundreds of new campaigns started every day on Change.org, we see this impact up close. Companies not only regularly contact us to see how they can address concerns raised by people who petition them through our platform, but they also let us know they are pre-emptively addressing concerns that Change.org members are petitioning their competitors to change.
Although companies have enormous influence over our communities, ranging from the environment to public health to workers rights to politics, they are often largely unaccountable on these issues. But in a world where social media is making the actions of companies transparent and enabling consumers to hold them accountable through frictionless mass mobilization, this is changing.
As a result, companies will increasingly have a choice: Do the right thing or face the wrath of a million Molly Katchpoles.