Re-inventing the truth: How honest can you be with your audience?

Re-inventing the truth: How honest can you be with your audience?

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  • August 12, 2015
Erika Varagouli

Erika Varagouli

Content Marketing Manager

As brands are increasingly being urged to function as publishers if they want to see a rise in their online popularity, one question is surfacing: How honest can their content be before it causes the demise of their market share?

How much honesty is too much honesty?

Churchill might have once said that “a lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to put its pants on”, but he obviously never got to spend 30 seconds on Twitter. The game has changed, and what was once an unofficial prerequisite in journalism, politics, marketing, and other noble professions of our times, has become their curse.

Lie to your audience and, when it backfires (because it will), you’ll find yourself wishing you’d been sent to Dante’s Inferno instead.

On the other hand, tell the truth-the-whole-truth-and-nothing-but-the-truth and risk your reputation, or end up selling your services or products to the few who are brave enough to stick with you.

Take Hubspot’s press release last week on the firing of its CMO, Mike Volpe; you can’t deny the organisation’s attempt to inform and come clean with its audience (and personally I applaud this approach of letting people know what actually happened). But when it ended up looking like a gossip article you would only come across on TMZ or the Daily Mail, other people started noticing, including Content Marketing Institute’s Joe Pulizzi and Robert Rose.

 

The importance of being honest

There is a very fine line between telling the truth and lying, on which journalists and publishers have been attempting to balance for a very long time (admittedly, failing miserably on numerous occasions – even the best ones amongst them).

Scholars, publishers and journalists alike have long been asking themselves: “Is a half-truth still a truth?”, “Is a ‘small’ lie aimed at amplifying the effect of news more acceptable than a truth which would condemn it in latency?”, or “How much can we play around with words before the true meaning is altered by the very words themselves?”.

In my experience as a journalist and editor, there are no definitive answers to such questions, so the interpretation of philosophical terms like “truth” and “lie” are left in the hands of individual journalists, editors, and publishers (and, of course, their investors and clients).

Marketers, on the other hand, had never had to hassle themselves with such moral dilemmas to the extent they do so nowadays. There had always been a type of “social contract” in place between marketers and audiences, whereby audiences would know in advance that they would be lied to (or, at the very least, that there would be a tad exaggeration around the truth) and marketers would do their best to make audiences ask for more lies.

In the immortal words of Gregory House:

Alongside the social media boom came consumers’ access to all kinds of information around brands and their offering, meaning that an unreliable coffee machine could no longer be presented as a ground-breaking technological miracle comparable only to space engineering (although TV ads are still there to nurture this type of blissful ignorance).

Which, in turn, gave birth to another phenomenon: Consumers actively seeking honest and independent content around brands and products.

Cue user reviews.

In a recent article, Graham Charlton at Econsultancy proposed that 61% of customers read online reviews before making a purchase decision, whereas in Nielsen’s Global Survey of Trust in Advertising guess which form of advertising rose as the most efficient? That’s right – word of mouth. 84% of participants stated that they would take action if a product, service, or brand had been recommended by people they know, followed by 70% who would take action following consumer opinions posted online.

In a word-of-mouth world, how can brands talk about themselves and their offering without risking their reputation (or their profits)?

Lay your cards on the table…

I really hope you’re not expecting me to give you a definite answer to the previous question (and trust no one who feels comfortable enough to say “Be 100% honest” or “2% truthful should do”).

What I can tell you though, is that marketers and brands need to stop behaving like that girl who wakes up an hour before the guy in order to brush her teeth, apply her makeup, and straighten her hair in time to pretend she just woke up by his side looking more flawless than Kim Kardashian’s airbrushed selfies. Because, sooner or later, the guy will wake up in the middle of the night and he won’t like the view (true story).

There are countless examples of brands who excel at social media (like Starbucks with @MyStarbucksIdea or Xbox with @XboxSupport), receive positive reviews and have turned members of their audiences into brand ambassadors. It’s not because what they offer is perfect, nor because they’ve never made a mistake. It’s because they make their followers feel respected.

Rather than dreading the moment a bad review will appear on a site or on Twitter, brands can do a great job of dealing with it, from apologising and clarifying matters to guiding and compensating their customers.

Don’t just go for the apology all the time, as this is probably what your competitors are doing, too. Take a look at this study, which revealed that corporations use the words “sorry”, “apology” (or “apologise”), and “regret” on Twitter 8.6, 7.4, and 37.5 times more frequently than individual users (source: here).

What this means is that word is already out there that Twitter can be used as the apology platform. Surely customers are growing tired of receiving a plain “we’re sorry” tweet as an answer to their frustration or complaint; brands have to go above and beyond to offer more to their audience than a (free) apology.

To add to the above, use SWOT analysis for the right reasons: Being honest and ruthless with yourself helps you understand your weaknesses before anything else, which in turn helps you plan, anticipate, and improve. Let your weaknesses inform your business strategy, from product development to customer service and marketing strategy, rather than trying to hide them under the carpet.

It’s also important to consider how you lay those cards. Laying them is vital, but doing it in the right way is, if you will, vital-er. A recent study by researchers at Dartmouth University found that if someone with a false or unsubstantiated belief is presented with corrective information they’re more likely to hold onto their initial ideas even tighter.

Though this is a research focussed on political beliefs, it gives us an insight into how our brains might work in similar occasions: Attack one’s illusion and they might reject the blunt truth altogether. Therefore, forcing the truth down someone’s neck might not be the best approach, and this is where the old journalistic trick of persuasion comes into play.

… Just keep an ace up your sleeve

Even in the era of overblown communication and socialising, the most important asset that brands still have is what they offer. To put it simply, if your offering is weak, outdated, of low quality, or if, for any other reason, it doesn’t resonate with your audience, then you must either reconsider (1) your offering or (2) your audience.

As for those who work in content marketing, the game is on. Acting as publishers means that we need now more than ever before to redefine honesty, trust, truth, objectivity, and usefulness. Acting as marketers means putting all the above into context whilst still luring our audience into dreaming, desiring, wanting, and needing.

It remains to be seen if, in the future, big brands will find the courage to make honesty a core ingredient of their marketing soup and voluntarily risk exposing a weakness to gain something great (and often disregarded in marketing): respect.

Remember, there are two types of people out there: the glass half-empty type and the glass half-full type. Your audience will be made up of both. Brands have tried for too long to convince consumers that the glass is full. It’s time to start acknowledging there’s always room for improvement.

* Image Credit: Kay Kim

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