Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Asynchronous Transparency: Are Consumers & Brands Playing by the Same Social Media Rules?

The social era is celebrated for bringing a new level of transparency to communications between companies and customers, but has it really? Without doubt, companies are being forced to embrace greater transparency with consumers, but are consumers returning the favor? Or are we in an era of asynchronous transparency--a one-way mirror where consumers demand brand openness and honesty while giving somewhat less of themselves?

During the mass media era, brands that could afford it enjoyed a cozy relationship with the limited and exclusive channels of mass communication. This was a time of opaque and sometimes misleading communications, with some brands abusing their power. Cigarettes were healthy, soda pop was good for infants, Lysol was a safe feminine hygiene and birth control product, magazine "seals of approval" were bought rather than earnedDDT was the benefactor of all humanity, and deep, dark tans saved people from the unhealthy horror of natural, pale flesh.

Consumers of past generations had little leverage to encourage transparency on the part of large brands; instead, this power was wielded by the government and professional organizations.  For example, after decades of misuse, the American Medical Association debunked Lysol's safety as a birth control method and the FTC cracked down on magazines selling commendation seals.

Today, consumers possess substantially greater power thanks to the democratization of media. Anyone can launch a blog, a YouTube video or a wall post within a brand's Facebook page. While any single consumer complaint may go unheard or unanswered, there are an overabundance of examples of companies forced to face the music based on the actions of a few empowered consumers.  Companies such as Delta, Nestle, GoDaddy, United, Motrin, Gap, Tropicana, Maytag, California Milk Processor BoardMarriott, National Pork Board and Groupon have had to address, defend, apologize for and change practices as a result of protests launched from social media, and this list is just the tiniest tip of the iceberg.

But has transparency become more of a one-way street? Are consumers being as honest and transparent as brands are expected to be? That's a question I posed to some peers while attending the recent ANA Digital and Social conference, and our professional discussion quickly turned into a cathartic bonding session. Tale after tale was shared, the kind that social media professionals only tell each other:

  • A social media manager had to defend his bank against claims of account hacking made by a woman who said erroneous withdrawals were repeatedly being made. The bank determined a former boyfriend was responsible, but the woman continued to post accusations in an apparent attempt to shame the bank into reimbursing what her boyfriend had stolen. My peer was frustrated because the consumer felt free to lob many false claims and garner emotional support from others while the financial institution had its hands tied--it was bound by privacy rules to keep the facts of the situation private.
  • A consumer packaged brand faced an ugly incident when a consumer emailed an image of a cockroach found in a box of snacks and threatened to post it on social channels unless a settlement was offered. The company put the social media team on alert to watch for mentions while it investigated the claim. Eventually, evidence was found that proved the claim fraudulent, but the social media team had already wasted a great many hours planning an unnecessary emergency response.
  • One person attending the conference was ashamed that a friend leveraged his considerable Klout score to scam a new cell phone. Weeks after purchasing a phone, the friend dropped it in a toilet, killing the device. Rather than admit he was at fault, the friend tweeted how the phone was a "piece of sh!t," and soon was offered a replacement at no cost.
Is this the transparency we envisioned?

One friend noted that consumers regularly make mistakes when posting gripes on his brand's Facebook page, such as mixing up his brand's products for a competitor's and failing to follow necessary assembly instructions. Mistakes will happen--we're all human, right? But are brands given the same leeway to make honest mistakes? In one well-known case, an employee made the horrifying but predictable error of posting a crude tweet to Chrysler's Twitter profile rather than his personal account; not only did the employee lose his job but Chrysler showed the agency the door. Should an entire organization have to pay for an understandable split-second mistake of a single employee?

I'm not trying to play the victim card on behalf of "the man"--brands still possess a lot of might in paid, owned and earned media--but can we really embrace social media transparency in only one direction? If a former employee has the right to blast a company in Twitter for mistreatment, does that company have the same right to reveal the employee's performance and discipline history? If a consumer can report every perceived slight or insult when dealing with a company's customer service representatives, can the brand report every vulgar tirade or threat made by the consumer on those same calls?

If you read this blog, you know that I am as aware as anyone of the new reality of brand-consumer relationships, but I wonder about the implications of this transparency imbalance. Might brands begin to seek the same transparency demanded by consumers; for example, when a consumer posts a service issue to a public channel such as Facebook, is it feasible for the company to secure permission to publicly share customer and incident particulars that formerly would have been kept secret? Or might some brands throw up their hands in disgust and abandon certain sorts of service and response via social channels, frustrated that consumers can initiate any claim in public channels while demanding brands keep the particulars of their situations private?

Is social media fated to be a channel of asynchronous transparency, or will brands and consumers share equal rights and obligations in the future? Your thoughts, opinions, criticisms and stories are welcome--please comment below!


Brian said...

Brands are taking knives to a gun fight. They are outmanned by crowds of consumers, armed with services designed to act as force multipliers for consumer empowerment, abetted by employees who are often the culprits behind pilferage and shenanigans.

I remember putting together a call forwarding system linking search engines to rental offices. We found many employees gave the toll-free number to distant friends and family for free personal phone calls.

If you're a company, being right is not a bullet-proof vest. It means if you choose to play in a given area, you need to build your own safeguards and processes to protect you from the inevitable bad actors that will threaten the assets you worked so hard to build up.

I've had conversations with GOOG's Chris Messina on how Google + could create blacklists of bad actors: companies submit names of people who act fraudulently, these lists are vetted and then redistributed as a community circle.


Copywryter said...

I think the 10% of 'bad actors' (it's probably really 1%) represent an opportunity to engage your champions and 'really' show observers that you really are transparent, and will take a few lumps to prove it.

If someone's out to scam or besmirch your brand, they're going to. By turning the situation into a open 'call for input' dialogue, you can rally those who love your brand and outsource some of your damage control. Point your advocates to questions on forums or complaints on Facebook or Twitter. Let them engage with the villain -- they'll feel like they've defended a brand they are close to and social media rubberneckers can be exposed to a more balanced argument than 'he said, brand said'.

Here's an example:
I was managing social media for a large tech organization. A tweeter with a vendetta opened fire on the CEO's (public record) salary. Instead of engaging with him directly, I simply retweeted his link to his angry blog post -- with a simple 'what do you think?' prefix posed to the community. thoughts. He felt heard (though not mollified) and a rather one-sided conversation emerged with a number of defenders that made one malcontent look small.

It's win-win engagement. Or at least win-draw. : )

Clearly this is limited to small-scale complains (no BP oil spill, or chrysler tweet fiasco)

Sidebar: Chrysler blew that opportunity at every point of contact.

Caveat: you need deep social media roots to do this effectively. Companies that are relatively new to social media are just going to have to take their lumps.

2) Brands need to figure out how and when to grow a pair. Customers are most enraged by blatantly unfair practices and/or stonewalling tactics by brands. They don't expect brands to roll over or turtle at the first sign of trouble. Give your social media people some latitude here - they'll know how to stand up to bullies and villains without appearing defensive or dismissive.

In any case, asking for true customer transparency sounds like whining. In 90 per cent of cases (probably 99) consumers are voicing legitimate complaints.

Augie Ray said...

Thanks for the comments, Brian and Copywryter.

Brian, interesting concept for using G+ circles to identify "bad actors." Of course, one person's "bad actor" could be another's consumer champion.

Copywryter, I worried about this post coming off a little like whining. I appreciate the dialog, and I certainly agree that fostering advocates helps.

Mike Johansson said...

Augie you make great points and I think most brands in social media have the nagging feeling that, yes, social media transparency seems almost one-way at times. But here's the thing, are those same brands willing to call scammers and other flim-flam-artists on the carpet? One of the reasons people keep trying to get one over on "the man" is because "the man" too often doesn't want to be seen as the heavy by taking on the scammers. There may even be a new profession springing from this - some kind of social media forensic detective who uncovers the truth and exposes these scammers for who they are so brands can, with a clear conscience, take them on. Just remember, yo heard that here first! Thanks for the thought-provoking post.

Augie Ray said...


Thanks for the great comment. You raise an interesting point about the potential for a new type of career to spring out of this. But you larger point is exactly the thing I was shooting for with this post: Why should brands feel hesitant about calling out those who are not playing fair?

If brands are expected to isntantly own up to problems and apologize, why can't they instantly call out scammers (or even unreasonable customers) with the same transparency and speed? I don't expect this to happen overnight, but I think the nature of "privacy" in brand/consumer relationships must change over time.


Shawn said...

Having spent 15 plus years in customer service PRIOR to the social media transformation, I think at the foundation, not much has changed. Companies are not perfect and customers will complain and tell others when they are not happy. Back then the measure was not whether you were always perfect, but what you did to make it right. Plus, you won't always get credit for making it right. Nevertheless, it's still important. My CEO told me once when I was complaining that a customer's expectations were unreasonable and that he had crossed the line. The CEO said, "there is a line but you haven't crossed it yet." I said, "well where is it then?" He replied, "I don't know and neither do you. It's out there somewhere." Bottom, line, I put a guy on a plane, traveled across the country and spent 30 minutes helping the customer clean a virus off his computer. That trip became a badge of honor among our team because after that, we could say with confidence that we would do almost anything to make our customers successful using our products.

You can't control what people will say about you. You can only control your response. That's never changed, even with the advent of social media. Blow hards will eventually reveal themselves and reasonable people will recognize it for what it is. If the product provides value and you delight your customers, you should come out ahead. I do love my iPhone!!!!!

Claire I Powell said...

Hi Augie,
Great post, really made me think.

Those consumers that are revealed to be scammers I would imagine are very limited in number [even less than 1%] and it is always a "small number that ruin it for the rest". Indeed Mike's suggestion of coming down hard on those is a good suggestion.

It is important to be able to filter those scammers from the genuine complaints based on genuine grievances about privacy abuse and concerns.

At first transparency will be a one way street, there always has to be one side of the party that makes the 1st move, so brands making that move I would imagine over time will be rewarded/repaid by consumers trusting them to do the right thing with their data, [like your Amazon example on your Forrester blog].

Your comment about "nature of "privacy" in brand/consumer relationships must change over time" - I believe honest is the best policy always! People don't like to find things out after the fact. I believe a brand being honest up front, rather than after the fact, is better. Especially true for those online publishers that rely on 3rd party advertising income - they may even find that with "being transparent about the value exchange of data" free users turn to subscribers.

Cheers Claire