Consumers Exert Ownership

I have written on several occasions about how social network users and online community members have exerted their shared ownership of a service to affect changes in policy and feature. This comes about from the reality that a social network without members isn’t much of anything therefore the users in a network have a purposeful sense of shared ownership.

@wendyslea sent me an interesting article in Forbes about how this is spilling over to corporations more broadly. It’s worth the time to read this despite it meandering across a range of topics, although all are rooted in the notion of consumer power through the ability of social networks to form groups.

The one area that I get conflicted on is the notion of showing your weaknesses in order to appear authentic. While there is certainly truth to this, the other truth is that customers want a wide range of things from businesses, but mostly they want to be heard and they seek competence. If all you are doing as a company is exposing the things you are not doing well then you need to ask yourself why that is before you let it all hang out and expect people to just get over it.

Benioff is right, social success is based on trust, much like relationships between people. I think this is where a lot of companies go wrong, they seek trust by attaching people’s names to statements made publicly in an attempt to cloth themselves in the silk of authenticity without actually changing anything else about how they interact with their various constituents… a CEO blog isn’t going to help you if your customers are always pissed off about the customer service they are getting and the quality of your products and services.

The second thing that catches my interest in this is the power of advocacy in an age when the barriers to forming groups in the public space are so low. One person tweeting about the cable guy sleeping on their couch wouldn’t get much attention if millions more didn’t share it, effectively attaching their advocacy to the unstated cause and achieving an exponential effect. Governments in the Middle East would not be falling today were it not for the power of people – everyday people – to connect and organize online (much to the dismay of Malcolm Gladwell).

What does this mean going forward? It’s subject to a lot of interpretation but a couple of no brainer things seem to emerge:

  1. Companies no longer have a behind the firewall presence and a public one. The boundary between employee and customer is very porous so rather than attempting, futilely I would add, to control it the time is right to plow forward and aggressively connect all parts of your company to the customer experience.
  2. Authenticity is critical but so is being good at what you do. Your customers are your marketing team and they don’t care about how efficient your business operations are from a P&L standpoint, they are demanding that you deliver a good product with good service wrapped around it. If your idea of being authentic is to shrug your shoulders, kick the dirt and say “yeah we could do better” without actually making the sincere attempt to change the things that are wrong, then go home now and save us all the trouble.
  3. Connect with your customers where they are because that is where your brand is. Don’t go to Twitter or Facebook or, ultimately, Google + with the idea that you are going to drive that traffic back to your website… engage your customers where they are and if that means you need to invest in technology that connects your front office with social networks, then by all means get it done.
  4. Lastly, and this is the one that will cause the most heartburn in the CEO suite, is that your customers have an interest in your success or failure. Gone are the salad days when all you had to care about were shareholders, now you have to address the needs of customers in ways that go beyond products and services. Customer advocacy is built on the foundation of your customers expressing a deeper connection with you as a company, they care about your values because whether they realize it or not the expressing of advocacy is ultimately the connecting of their personal values with yours as a company.