Is Your Organization Transparent Enough? Easy Ways to Become a Leader in the Transparency Movement.

@Anna Seacat Ethical Marketing

@AnnaSeacat Ethical Marketing

In “Ethical Marketing” the authors begin the book by describing the following marketing campaign:

“Ford recruited several opinion leaders in a few markets and gave them each a Focus to drive for six months.  The responsibility of these individuals was to hand out Focus trinkets and talk up the car to anyone who expressed interest in it, but not tell them that Ford had given them the car to drive. Is this an ethical technique? (2005, p. 2)”

The article below will show that these types of marketing campaigns are unethical, because they lack transparency.  Moreover, they are also representative of an old-fashioned marketing approach where it was believed that the only way to create a competitive advantage was to develop a “pervasive hypercompetitive ‘see no evil,’ ‘take no prisoners’ culture, both within the firm and in its dealings with many of its stakeholders” (p. xv).  This type of culture, while successful at earning short-term gains has proven throughout history to topple giants, i.e. Enron and Arthur Andersen in the early years of the 21st century, as well as the host of financial institutions during the Great Recession.

I am Not as Big or as Bad as Enron

Think this discussion about transparency does not apply to your nonprofit or small, socially minded business?  It is true that in response to the unethical corporate behavior that heavily contributed to the Great Recession, transparency has become a new platform for many socially minded businesses and organizations, including political groups.  For example, the White House has an entire section of its website dedicated to “Transparency and Open Government,” where it touts that government should be transparent, participatory, and collaborative.

There are most likely areas where you could stand to be a bit more transparent.  This is a difficult, but important, fact to acknowledge.

Your Business May Not be as Transparent as You Think

Even if your organization is not in the business of hiding “bad news in order to sell tarnished securities to unknowing clients” (p. xvi), there are most likely areas where you could stand to be a bit more transparent.  This is a difficult, but important, fact to acknowledge, because consumers are becoming increasingly demanding that organizations, especially nonprofits, be as transparent as possible.  Paige Wolf, owner of a Certified B Corporation and author of “Spit That Out: The Overly Informed Parent’s Guide to Raising Children in the Age of Environmental Guilt,” explained that transparency is “more than a trend.  Consumers have been duped for a long time and as awareness grows about harmful ingredients, bad business practices, and deceitful marketing, consumers are making themselves heard through their voices and wallets” (A. Seacat, personal email communication, August 27, 2013).

Three Ways to Use Marketing to Communicate Transparency as a Priority

(If you are not doing all of these and more, you are not as transparent as consumers expect you to be).

1.       Lift the Corporate Veil to Reveal the People Behind the Brand

  • Publicly Identify Employees on Social Media Channels and Throughout the Customer Service Experience.  Mark W. Schaefer, author of “The Tao of Twitter,” wrote a post on his blog titled, “Your Company’s Single Biggest Mistake on Twitter,” wherein he suggested, “Whether you’re a person or mega-brand, let’s move away from trying to create a personal connection with a picture of an office building or a truck [or a logo].  It’s time to get personal” (2010, Tweets in Transition section, para. 8).  In other words, Twitter is a social media channel that is intended to connect people with other people, not people with a logo.  This is not to say there are not plenty of successful Twitter accounts that use logos as their avatar, but it certainly is not considered a transparent marketing tactic.
Anna Seacat's copy of The Tao of Twitter

Anna Seacat’s copy of The Tao of Twitter

Truly transparent organizations want to build relationships with their constituents and understand that, to do so, they will need to lift their corporate veil by introducing the world to the people behind the brand.

Truly transparent organizations want to build relationships with their constituents and understand that, to do so, they will need to lift their corporate veil by introducing the world to the people behind the brand.   Two companies that understand the value in publicly identifying their employees are Comcast and Kodak, although, as shown below, their tactics in doing so are slightly different.

Comcast uses a Team-Twitter approach, where they have created an official Twitter list that outlines the members of the “Comcast Cares Team.”  Currently, Its team has seven members that manage the official Comcast Twitter presence.  Each team member uses a personal photo as the Twitter avatar and their handle is the brand name, Comcast, followed by their first name.  For example, the members of the official Comcast Twitter list include, @ComcastMelissa, @ComcastMark, and @ComcastBill.  Additionally, this team is led by the official @ComcastCares account, which is publicly claimed by Comcast employee, Bill Gerth.  See tweets from these team members below.

Kodak uses a branded avatar approach, where an employee’s personal headshot is anchored by the Kodak logo.  For example, below you will see that the avatar for @KodakCB is a headshot of Kodak’s Chief Blogger & Social Media Manager (this author’s dream, professional title someday, not necessarily at Kodak).  Also, notice that Kodak, like Comcast, has an official Twitter list, titled “Kodak on Twitter,” which includes the logo/ headshot avatars of other tweeting employees at Kodak.

Something important for marketers to discuss is that while J Cisney, of Kodak, has 40,515 followers and Bill Gerth, of Comcast, has 63,923 followers, their respective employers’ presence on Twitter is not only limited to these two personalities.  In other words, Kodak and Comcast understand that having dozens of employees tweet on their behalf not only contributes to the overall transparent online presence of the brand, but that this tactic also multiplies the number of followers.  The potential number of followers is naturally amplified by using this method, because more consumers can be served at a faster rate.  Furthermore, by having multiple personalities available to serve customers, the customers are able to pick and choose who within the corporate Twitter teams they wish to engage with based on their own needs, interests, and motivations.

  • Publicly Identify Employees’ Roles and Contributions.

Through a very unfortunate experience the author of this article recently had (twice in the matter of three years) with La-Z-Boy (if La-Z-Boy promises delivery by Thanksgiving, plan on getting it around Easter…not an exaggeration), it was learned that La-Z-Boy’s current Twitter presence is apparently maintained by their “Facebook Team.”  For instance, when the La-Z-Boy Twitter account was prompted, as shown below, with a customer service request, the corporate tweeter responded with directions to email Facebook@La-Z-Boy.com.

What ensued was a lengthy (still-on-going) email exchange between the author and a mystery La-Z-Boy representative, who even when requested to identify him or herself, stubbornly signed each and every message with the automated email signature:

Regards,

La-Z-Boy Facebook Team
La-Z-Boy Comfort Care

1-855-802-6636

facebook@la-z-boy.com

Live Life Comfortably

La-Z-Boy’s stubborn refusal to publicly identify its employees’ roles and contributions to customer service is tragic for two reasons. 

First, as illustrated in my recent article, http://bit.ly/12d69aQ, socially minded businesses should not organize their marketing efforts, nor should they identify marketing teams, around technologies.  What if/ when, for example, Facebook becomes the next MySpace.  Moreover, as I suggested in http://bit.ly/12d69aQ, focusing on the individual media channels, i.e. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc., wrongly communicates to employees that the technologies are superior to the relationships and marketing objectives that those channels are intended to fulfill.

Second, customers want to know that a real person at La-Z-Boy cares about his or her problem and is willing to be held personally accountable for solving it.  For instance, at Marriott International hotels every employee, regardless of their title or position, has to “own” a problem if a guest presents them with one.  That means if a guest walks up to a member of the maintenance team and says that they have been waiting for towels to be delivered to their room for almost an hour that team member is supposed to point to their name tag and say something to the effect of, “I’m Anna, and I will personally make sure your problem is solved.”  In the ideal Marriott world, that employee drops what they were doing and does not leave the property until they have evidence of a solved problem.

To be a truly transparent organization, employees must always willingly and confidently share their name and what their role within the customer service process is.

Clearly, Marriott International’s transparent approach to publicly identifying their employees’ names, roles, and contributions to customer service is a far superior to La-Z-Boy’s approach.

To be a truly transparent organization, employees must always willingly and confidently share their name and what their role within the customer service process is. An advanced version of this concept is to nix the “About Us” page, which links to your Director’s headshot and bio, and replace it with a “Meet Everyone” page that incorporates pictures, videos, and links to employees’ corporate email, Twitter, and Google+ accounts.

2.       Create an Online Stream of Relevant Photos and Rich Media (in real-time)

Image used with permission from Ramón Ulldemolíns Andreu of trustparency.

Image used with permission from Ramón Ulldemolíns Andreu of trustparency.

Trustparency, a Madrid-based start-up, was launched to help nonprofits better communicate transparency to their donors.  Trustparency was founded on the belief that savvy online consumers expect transparency not only from the consumer goods industry, but from charitable organizations as well.  What is more, most donors insist that transparency among nonprofits need to be synonymous with the even bigger T-word, trust.  However, being truly transparent and earning a donor’s trust can seem like unachievable ideals for large nonprofits that are running dozens of multi-national campaigns and projects at any given time.

In response to transparency seeming like an unlikely ideal, Trustparency offers an online mobile application that enables organizations to communicate and show why they are trustworthy, one project at a time.  In other words, rather than trying to use marketing to communicate transparency across an entire organization all at once, as shown in the video below, Trustparency’s app works to earn a donor’s trust by showing the progress and impact of each project/ campaign individually via photos and rich media.

Critical to this process is that the organization feed Trustparency’s platform with video and photos to update the donors of the projects in real time.  Ramón Ulldemolíns Andreu , co-founder of Trustparency, explained that “transparent organizations should keep their supporters informed about [the] project’s progress and milestones in real time” (A. Seacat, personal email correspondence, August, 29, 2013).  Trustparency users follow their favorite organization’s projects via photos and rich media from cradle to grave and beyond (in the form of measured results).  To accomplish this, Trustparency sends donors notifications in a slick mobile format each time the organization has provided a new photo or video update.

Whether your socially minded business employs a sophisticated mobile app like Trustparency, or whether it manually posts videos to YouTube and emails followers a link to the rich media, providing modern consumers with an on-going stream of images almost immediately after the images were taken is an effective way at communicating that your organization values transparency.

Image used with permission from Ramón Ulldemolíns Andreu of trustparency.

Image used with permission from Ramón Ulldemolíns Andreu of trustparency.

A secondary theme in this section, and a lesson that can be learned from Trustparency’s platform, is that the images and rich media that are shared should be grouped in digestible units.  In other words, a socially minded business’ images should be organized around a specific project or theme.  Ramón Ulldemolíns Andreu explained that this tactic is especially effective for nonprofits, because “People love the idea of donating to a specific project rather than an organization’s global purpose.” http://clicktotweet.com/k38q9

For example, many donors would not necessarily perform a Google search for or engage with a group of pictures tagged and titled with the words “Primate Rescue Center,” but they may tweet about a video titled “Only $2,000 Needed to Finish New Habitat for Rescued Chimps.”  The take away here is that Trustparency has found that consumers tend to be more willing to respond to transparent communication and images that reflect the real-time progress of a temporary project (whether it be a charitable project or a for-profit sponsored event), rather than a never-ending, lofty mission. http://clicktotweet.com/9bBjR

3.       Acknowledge a Problem Before Anyone Uses Social Media to Complain About It.

On the afternoon of Friday, July 19, 2013, the President of Southern New Hampshire University sent an unexpected email message to his students.  In the message Dr. Paul LeBlanc wrote:

“If you have been trying to reach someone in Financial Aid lately, you have probably been subjected to long periods of bad music and then, in some cases, asked to leave a message.  If you got that far, you may have waited a long time for a return call.  This is not some form of initiation ritual, hazing, or an attempt to test your patience, though it has almost certainly done that last bit.  We have not kept up on our staffing level in Financial Aid, and you have suffered the results and I am sorry.”

It is not every day that a student at a university gets an apology letter from the President, but LeBlanc is not your everyday type of academic leader. http://clicktotweet.com/Oh49b He firmly believes that exceptional customer service will contribute to the sustained success of SNHU, and, furthermore, understands that being as transparent as possible is the first step towards exceptional customer service.  LeBlanc said that the intent of the email was to “own our problems, explain what happened, and what we will do to fix things” (A. Seacat, personal email communication, August 27, 2013).  The President also shared that the response from the email was overwhelmingly positive.

Anna Seacat's email message from Dr. Paul LeBlanc of Southern New Hampshire University

Anna Seacat’s email message from Dr. Paul LeBlanc of Southern New Hampshire University

There is power in being the first to write about a problem.

Consequently, by owning the problem, LeBlanc was also controlling the situation and his constituents’ perception of the problem.  Before potentially hundreds of students took to social media to vent about the negative experiences with SNHU’s call center, LeBlanc communicated that he was personally sorry for the experiences and that he would be taking immediate action to remediate the problem.  In a world where negative customer experiences can be published and shared for the entire world to see, e.g. La-Z-Boy, there is power in being the first to write about a problem.  LeBlanc was most likely the first to write publicly about SNHU’s snafu, so he was able to shape perceptions, while showing that transparency is a priority for the university.  LeBlanc said “people felt better about us, not worse, for sharing as we did” (A. Seacat, personal email communication, August 27, 2013).

Summary

Encouraging these transparent behaviors would have strengthened Ford’s marketing campaign and most likely kept it out of the introduction of an ethics textbook.

At the onset of this article, it was proposed that the marketers at the Ford Motor Company were being unethical by not allowing their brand advocates to divulge how they were being compensated by the business.  To be clear, it is not the intent of this article to suggest that influence marketing is unethical.  In fact, energizing a business’ best customers/ donors to bring new recruits on board is a highly effective and strongly recommended marketing tactic.  However, this tactic is the most powerful when it is done so in a transparent manner.  It is likely that the marketers at Ford would have been able to generate more exposure for the Focus brand if they would have encouraged the brand advocates to publicly identify themselves as testers of the new model, take and post real-time photos and videos of them interacting with the vehicle, and openly report any problems that they experienced via social media.   Encouraging these transparent behaviors would have strengthened Ford’s marketing campaign and certainly kept it out of the introduction of an ethics textbook.

Consider how different the rules were for Ford’s Focus testers as compared to Google’s Glass ‘Explorers.’

Regardless of whether or not the reader agrees or disagrees that what Ford’s marketers did was unethical, using marketing to communicate transparency is becoming an obvious movement within the marketing industry.  For example, consider how different the rules were for Ford’s Focus testers as compared to Google’s Glass ‘Explorers.’

References

Bowie, N. E., Klein, T. A., Laczniak, G. R., & Murphy, P. E. (2005). Ethical Marketing. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Schaefer, M. W. (2010). Your Company’s Single Biggest Mistake on Twitter. Grow: Marketing. Social Media. Humanity. Retrieved from http://www.businessesgrow.com/2011/01/17/your-companys-single-biggest-mistake-on-twitter/#

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