February 21, 2008
Transparency and Viral Media--Notes from the CMS/C3 Colloquium

The Viral Media--Hows and Whys colloquium event I wrote about in my previous post earlier tonight featured a discussion of a few issues that are of particular interest of me with regard to the issues I've been writing about here on the C3 blog over the past several months.

During the panel, Natalie Lent brought up issues of transparency and authenticity when it comes to promoting word of mouth as an advocate. I've written a few posts recently about transparency and what I see as its great importance in that, despite being a buzzword, it still seems to be primarily undervalued as an essential component of online presence for many companies. See a couple of the anecdotes I shared regarding transparency here and here.

In particular, Natalie talked about some of the "astroturfing" missteps that companies have made and how, as a practitioner, Fanscape always veers away from situations in which they would misrepresent their being an advocate for a company and likewise tries to express to companies the many economic reasons why not being transparent when marketing is a bad idea. She pointed out, for instance, that the Word of Mouth Marketing Association requires its members to pledge to always be completely honest and transparent about the type of work they are doing.

For more on the astroturfing issue, see see Henry Jenkins's post on the issue from back in 2006, my post about Federal Trade Commission concerns about a lack of transparency in viral marketing, and a couple of particular examples of astroturfing being discovered by audience members, in particular Sony's PSP campaign and the Edelman/Wal-Mart "Wal-Marting Across America" controversy.

The concept of authenticity also came up fairly often, with regard to the intuitive sense that online community members have about the transparency of a message being posted in their forum and whether the voice is truly a fellow user or someone who is being paid to "hock" a good or service. She pointed to Yelp, which I found of particular interest based on my recent writing about authenticity, Yelp reviews, and a local restaurant in Belmont called Linda's Donuts. See our conversation with Joe Pine on the issue from last fall, my post on authenticity and Linda's Donuts, and this followup post.

Natalie said that, from her perspective, trying to censor criticism of a brand just doesn't work in the long run. She pointed out that, at FoE2, Faris Yakob said that conversations about brands, and criticism of brands, have long been taking place offline, but companies are getting upset currently because there is a textual record of it when it happens online. She said that she stresses that it's still important to get conversations with consumers started, even if that means that everything they say won't be complimentary. She gives an anecdote of situations in which companies have seen negative comments made about their local business through Yelp and subsequently reached out directly to those disgruntled customers, apologized, and ultimately created positive buzz based on initial criticism, by showing that they were receptive to and thrived on critical feedback to improve their business.

As a side note, C3 Research Manager Joshua Green makes reference in the discussion to a blog post I wrote at one point about the counter-intuitive use of a press release to signal the launch of a "viral campaign" and how it's hard to signal something as "being viral" if it hasn't been virally spread. That post, about the Xerox "Ink Is It" campaign, is available here.