Why the future of marketing is transparency

Why the future of marketing is transparency

When the internet started it was meant to be open – anyone could create a website if they had the technical skills and access to do so. The internet of course grew very quickly, and over time we’ve started to see big players enter the scene who are creating “walled gardens” of information – Google and Facebook come top of mind quickly.

But is this the type of internet we want to build or operate in?

Getting people into your ecosystem is smart and obviously great for business, but is keeping all of your information locked up and only given to a privileged few really what is best for building your audience and your business?

I argue that it is not.

Opaque industries have been blown open

Culture has shifted remarkably since the internet began. Back in the late 1960s and early 70s, when ARPANET started and the term “internet” made its way into the English language, people were used to receiving information in a packaged way via newspapers, radio, and at that point increasingly television. You watched the news channel to get your news, listened to the radio to get sports, and continued on with your life.

Life now is very different. Everyone is used to doing their own research using their computers and increasingly their mobile phones. We’ve gone from “normal” being calling someone to help you book a trip to doing a few hours worth of research online to find the right flight times, the right hotel, and the way to said hotel for minimal cost and pain. And the tools we use have evolved, some better than others, to increasingly help us do that.

Expedia did this back in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and Expedia Inc went public in 2005 six years after being spun out of Microsoft as its own public company.

How crazy is it now that if you were looking to buy a house in 2006, you had to find a real estate agent to tell you when new houses were for sale? There was no (good) way to go online and find out if houses were available in your desired neighborhood, how much they cost and what the price history was, and if they were having an open house soon? It seems crazy today, but it was reality 10 years ago.

Zillow has done this and went public in 2011, with a current day market cap of $6.53B.

Obviously these are two very specific examples and it is absolutely possible to build a very successful public company without being transparent and in keeping with transparency laws for the sake of shareholders, but I would argue that this transparency trend is becoming increasingly popular.

Transparency as marketing

We have seen a shift in recent years away from controlling company and industry data, and moving towards more transparency around user numbers, company revenue, and other data that people need to make smart decisions.

I worked for Zillow Group for a few years, and Expedia/Zillow/Glassdoor founder Rich Barton’s mantra of “power to the people” has had a big effect on my career and thinking.  Instead of keeping real estate data locked up in the hands of the chosen few (aka real estate agents), Zillow has taken housing data and put it in the hands of those who really need it – the buyer.

Similarly, smaller tech startups are increasingly seeing the power of transparency in their marketing. Interestingly, marketing through transparency only really works well when the startup is committed to it throughout their DNA, both in good times and in bad.

First look at Buffer. They are, in simplest language, a social media scheduling and analytics tool. It’s a relatively simple idea that many have failed to build into a sustainable business before mostly because of lack of users. Buffer has solved this by telling stories around building their business, from their Open Blog which has stories ranging from gender salary comparisons to tough news of layoffs, to their BareMetrics open metrics dashboard.

You can also look at Moz, a leader in the search engine optimization industry. Their TAGFEE mantra has transparency there at the very beginning. Transparency is not without limits, as they are sure to say with “Our goal is to be as open and honest as possible, without causing any harm.” They are known to share their annual report as well as news like layoffs as well, all handled in open yet empathetic ways so as to be fair to all, employees and customers alike.

Two more much smaller companies that are leveraging their data in transparent ways to build their business are Crew and Credo (my company).

Crew (recently acquired by Dribbble) leveraged what their founder Mikael Cho calls “side project marketing“. They built tools like howmuchtomakeanapp.com and howmuchdoesawebsiteco.st which allow users to input what they need and then see how much it will cost to get their app/site/etc built using a team put together for them by Crew.

According to Mikael, “The microsites were awesome for us, especially the estimators. [They] bring in a lot of noise but they perform orders of magnitude better than blog posts on the same topic.” And in Crew’s case, a side project called Unsplash has now become their main business after selling Crew.

Learning from Crew and in keeping with my own desire to build Credo transparently, I recently launched howtohireanseo.com. Built in a long weekend, it serves as a resource for businesses looking to learn more about SEO as well as potentially getting some SEO work done by the consultants and agencies on Credo. The numbers used are taken from over 600 SEO projects I’ve seen come across my plate since late 2015, and by providing both this resource and digital marketing pricing results from 184 agencies and consultants worldwide we’re aiming to help businesses hire better agencies and consultants and to help agencies and consultants charge more fair rates for their work.

No transparency is bad marketing

Consumers expect more of brands than ever before. While I don’t think that consumers want to have “conversations with brands” like a lot of social media marketers want you to believe, consumers do expect brands today to be approachable and doing good things in the world.

People rarely notice good customer service, but they do notice exemplary customer service as well as terrible customer service. The squeakiest wheel gets the grease, as long as the squeaky wheel doesn’t break first.

Look at all of the recent PR nightmares for a number of brands we know well – Uber and United specifically.

Uber has been under fire for months now around sexual harassment, not doing due diligence on a specific exec who had been accused (though not charged or convicted) of sexual harassment at a previous employer, and most recently for buying anonymized Lyft ride receipts from Unroll.me. Even their recent attempts at transparency are being met with extreme suspicion because their company DNA is not set up to be transparent or approachable.

And United. Oh United. When the recent video of a doctor being dragged off a flight went viral, the internet was quick to dogpile onto the brand. While the video was upsetting to many, I believe that people would have been a bit slower to jump on United had United been building brand loyalty over the previous years instead of constantly only thinking about the bottom line and never its customers, even its best customers who fly with them sometimes millions of miles per year. I have my own examples, but there’s no need to add to the fray.

Would people have been less quick to jump on these brands and public roast them if people loved these brands as something other than just a cheaper utility that makes their lives easier? There’s no way to predict for sure, but I’d be willing to argue that this would be the case.

Look at Moz and Buffer when they did their layoffs. To be sure, there were haters. But overwhelmingly the response was one of first shock, then empathy for those who were laid off (and both companies did a lot to both be empathetic to those affected as well as supporting them in finding new jobs), and finally a banding together behind the brands and hoping for them to succeed on their newly charted courses.

You don’t get that when you are just a utility. You get that when you have built something people love, and you can build a brand that people love and respect through transparency.

Hero image via Unsplash

This post is part of our contributor series. It is written and published independently of TNW.

This post is part of our contributor series. The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily shared by TNW.

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