We see billboards while we’re driving down the road; soft drink commercials while we’re waiting to see our favorite movies in the theater; sponsored Tweets while we’re just trying to post a photo of our dinner; and on, and on, and on.
With all of this noise, how can companies effectively reach customers in a way that matters?
As Chris Brogan writes in his best-selling book Trust Agents:
“We are currently living in a communications environment where there is a trust deficit. As a society, we no longer have confidence in advertising. We are hostile to those who appear to have ulterior motives, even if theey’re just selling themselves. The result is our tendency to join together into loose networks, or tribes, that gather based on common interest. We are suspicious of anything that comes to us from outside our circle of friends.”
To some degree, we have always had this “tribe society.” It’s the founding principle of word-of-mouth marketing which, although made more efficient and effective by new online tools, has been around for ages.
Old fashioned grassroots politics and “community organizing” is based on getting a small group of dedicated volunteers to recruit their friends and neighbors to action.
That same principle holds true today. Modern communications tools have just made this process more efficient.
So how do businesses and corporations conduct themselves in this new environment of “tribes” and “mistrust”?
One word: Authenticity.
According to a story from the December 2008 issue of Brandweek:
Fifty-nine percent of Americans believe they can judge a company’s values by its online presence.
How can this be? How can consumers truly tell anything about a “company’s values” simply from how that company is portraying itself online. There are certainly companies that promote their “social responsibility” efforts online (as they do in other communications media) but those poll numbers go well beyond the mere issue of how a company is promoting its community relations activities.
As Sydney Ayers writes in the PR Tactics and The Strategist Online:
Information is so readily available that existing and prospective customers have immediate access to knowledge of the quality of a company’s products and services.
Treatment of employees — both present and past — is visible not only within the corporation itself, but with potential candidates and other interested groups. Its citizenship, environmental behavior, corporate governance, executive compensation and public policy stance are transparent to all.
So what does this mean for us as communicators? It means we must take a stronger, more active role in not only positioning our organizations but in defining them as well. In addition to discussing organizational expertise and brand premise, we must also talk about culture, business models and most important, core values.
This idea of an organization’s online presence providing a “window to its soul” is based upon the old tenet that personal communication is always more effective than mass communication. An engaging, effective salesperson in your office is more effective than a 30-second television ad. A political candidate at your doorstep is always more effective than a slick direct mail piece.
By building its online infrastructure effectively, a company can bridge the divide between mass and personal communications.
Of course, an organization can use its Web site to promote it’s social responsibility efforts. And that’s important.
But the authenticity is achieved through two-way communication: A organizational blog in which the CEO posts candidly (not a marketing staffer posing as the CEO) and the company engages in a conversation with employees and customers; Tweets by organizational leaders sharing their thoughts and the company’s guiding philosophy; online video or photos from employee holiday parties or events to show consumers a happy, healthy working environment.
All of the above work to help give insight into an organization’s “values” system. More than just a slick online brochure, two-way interactive communication gives the sense that an organization has nothing to hide. The aura of transparency.