Consumers Depend on Us

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Today how consumers adapt to our new social era and their willingness to share openly depends a lot on marketers. Because while the consumer trends are unmistakable, they are subject to change based on the experiences people have (and those we give them).

Social seems new, but the rules aren’t. Permission is still king and trust is a vital but often overlooked brand attribute. If marketers fail to understand permission in social networks and they violate trust, brands are harmed.

Marketers can be so caught up in what technology allows that they neglect to recognize what consumers will tolerate. This results in missteps. Take, for example, brands like Sony and Wal-Mart, which were caught utilizing flogs (or fake blogs) to spark attention and social influence, or the manager of product planning at Honda who was caught masquerading as a consumer posting praise to the Crosstour Facebook fan page.

The actions of brands and employees matter when trust is on the line, and our track record as marketers isn’t great. Forrester asks consumers about the information channels they trust. “Social networking site profile for a company or brand” and “Blog written by a company” are two of the least trusted sources of information.

If brands fail to build trust with consumers, there are implications. While consumers embrace openness, they may remain private when it comes to their relationship with brands. What benefit do brands receive if consumers “Like” the brand but then hide the brand’s frequent promotional status updates from their Facebook news feed? And with social media clutter rising, can we reasonably expect consumers to follow every brand in their grocery store shopping cart with the same attention they give to their family and friends in social media?

Being friended or followed is one thing; being trusted is another. The difference depends not on how we use social technology but on what we say and do with consumers. Many brands have a “Follow Us on Facebook” link on their sites, but how many define the benefits consumers will enjoy by doing so? Companies invite consumers to be transparent and share their information, but how many are transparent in return, defining what information will be collected and how it will be used?

Most brands leave the responsibility for communicating the implications of a social media connection to Facebook. When a consumer clicks a Facebook link or button on the brand site, he sees a Facebook “Request for Permission” pop-up or, as I like to call it, “the scary Facebook page.” Consumers are presented with a list of ominous statements: The brand will have access to my list of friends—will it spam them? The brand has access to my contact info—will it sell the info?

Amazon.com exemplifies a company doing it right. It doesn’t delegate communications to Facebook. Before you reach “the scary page,” Amazon.com gives consumers a page that defines exactly what information the retailer can access and what it will do with the information. Not only does Amazon.com build trust, but it also defines the benefits consumers will receive by connecting with Amazon.com—better discovery of relevant products, reminders of friends’ birthdays, and other advantages that encourage consumers to act.

Privacy attitudes are changing, but brand relationships are not. To make the most of changes in social technology and consumer social behavior, marketers must do more than place a “Like” button on every page and product.

Augie Ray (aray@forrester.com) is a senior analyst of social computing at Forrester Research, serving interactive marketing professionals. A leading expert on social networks, social media strategy, marketing organization, and consumer digital behavior, Ray has been quoted in publications such as BusinessWeek, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and The Wall Street Journal.

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