by Sharlyn Lauby (MASHABLE)
You can hardly have a conversation about social media today without discussing the concept of transparency. More and more, companies are incorporating transparency into their marketing efforts. Why? The reason, according to Debbie Weil, a corporate social media consultant and author of The Corporate Blogging Book, is because customers and stakeholders increasingly expect it. “It (transparency) is the new operating standard,” she said.
Transparency is about being open, honest, and accountable. It’s about responsibility. People are listening to you and making evaluations and decisions based upon what you say, and as such, it’s important to take responsibility for the messaging you put out there. Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh explains it best, “I think people worry too much about bringing their personal selves into business, when I think the way to succeed in today’s world is to make your business more personal.”
For those looking to refine their social media messaging, here are five ways to become more transparent.
1. Don’t Fake It — Talk About What You Know
Web designer Jeffrey Zeldman talks about web design. That’s it. And, he’s good at it. If you want to know about web design news and info, he’s the king. Literally: Business Week even dubbed him the “King of Web Standards.”
Zeldman’s example teaches us that transparency is about being who you are. Talk about the things you know and can do well. You can actually enhance your personal/company brand by sticking to what you know. Then make sure you have a list of go-to people or lifelines that specialize in related areas. For example, I’m a human resources consultant. I’m not an employee benefits consultant. So, when my clients ask about employee benefits, I refer people to one of my colleagues. This makes me look good, because I’m not trying to be something I’m not, and my clients get the right services and information they need.
It’s just as important to be viewed as a person with a lot of talented resources as it is to be viewed as an expert.
2. Have an Opinion, But Stay Open to Other Views
We all know that part of transparency is being responsible about the information you share. As Weil mentions, “If you’re an organization using a blog or other social media to ‘get closer’ to your customers you’re never going to reveal proprietary information, internal office politics or forward looking financial information. Common sense reigns.”
This also applies to offering your opinion. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-opinion. In fact, I find it quite educational to hear different viewpoints. It’s really nice to read a well-thought out stand on a particular issue.
But when you offer your opinion, think through the implications. What happens if others don’t agree? A recent example involves Whole Foods, a company that has embraced social media at many levels. They have created a presence for themselves on Facebook (), Twitter (), YouTube (), and other social media sites. CEO John Mackey’s recently published an op-ed regarding healthcare reform that caused a minor controversy among Whole Foods customers. In response, the company wisely kept to their social media philosophy and encouraged comments (both positive and negative.) My takeaway from this incident: people might not like the opinion, but the company remained open to hearing differing views and criticism. That kind of openness earns respect.
For some businesses, taking a stand on social issues is a part of their culture and something we, as consumers, come to expect. Having an opinion is actually a part of their marketing strategy. Ben & Jerry’s actively promotes corporate social responsibility. Their most recent announcement, changing the name of the Chubby Hubby flavor to Hubby Hubby in support of same-sex marriage, is simply a part of the iconic corporate culture they are known for.
3. Be Truthful
I know, that sounds obvious, but keep in mind that part of transparency means putting all the pertinent details out there. If you neglect to include something – that others might have thought was important – this will impact your online credibility as much as lying outright.
One way the truth is sometimes challenged is when new projects or initiatives are implemented. When Facebook revised their user terms of service, for example, the company did a poor job of communicating the changes to users. As a result, Facebook was forced to go on the defensive when users instinctively mistrusted certain changes that affected their user rights. Everything in social media is so immediate and change in general can sometimes be hard to digest. Surprises can be met with an equally swift response.
When considering and implementing changes, it could be beneficial to use crowdsourcing for gathering information, announce changes in advance, and garner customer buy-in. Then, roll the changes out in phases. This can alleviate confusion and negative perceptions.
4. Be Timely and Responsive
Because social media is so immediate, you need to start or participate in conversations as they happen. Recently, a fairly high-profile Twitter user was in Miami for a business meeting. The meeting was extended and he needed to find a hotel for the night. He sent out a Tweet asking for hotel recommendations and got very limited response from local hotels. Since I live in the area, I retweeted it for him, and three days later a Miami hotel got in touch to ask how they could help me. Major FAIL.
If you are going to be a part of social media, then remember that timeliness can often mean the difference between success and failure.
Timeliness is also important when a crisis or controversy is occurring at your company, Weil told me that, “you can always blog and/or Twitter that you are aware of the situation, working on the problem and will get back to people as soon as possible.” That’s better than leaving people hanging to draw their own conclusions.
5. Think Community
None of us can or should operate as an island in social media. Transparency means creating community, giving credit, and being caring.
While some industries, such as the cruise industry, are natural fits for using social media to build community, there are other industries that are not traditionally known for building community turning to social media as a way to educate customers and generate ideas for new products and services. Mashable () recently published a post, for example, about how banks are turning to social media as a way to build community, which is proof that just about anyone can benefit from growing their community through social media.
Another key component to understanding community is knowing your audience. Companies like Disney have realized that it’s not only important to be kid-friendly, but that they need to appeal to parents as well. They launched Family.com in 2008 as a way to share info with moms and dads.
While it might appear on the surface that transparency is nothing more than telling the truth, sometimes telling the truth is hard. In general, we don’t like to let people down or admit mistakes, and transparency is about putting our unguarded self out there. But embracing transparency will help you to be more open, honest, and accountable and connect better with customers.