The Press, August 2010

With the Wikileaks website applying the blowtorch to the nether regions of various governments and corporations, anybody selling their products to an internet-savvy market should take careful note. The transparency engendered by our hyper-connected world brings plenty of risks for marketers.

Started by an Australian journalist called Julian Assange, Wikileaks is a website based in Sweden that puts all manner of sensitive documents online for anyone to access. 90,000 US government documents about the war in Afghanistan is the latest bunch of controversial documents it has released.

You can read anything from “A manual of female beauty for Mormons” to the Bulgarian secret service’s “high-level corruption report” from 2008. This information has been spread quickly and effectively through a web of social networks like Twitter and Facebook.

The Wikileaks organisation has been labelled as everything from traitors endangering soldiers’ lives, to white knights exposing corruption and evil worldwide. Whatever your view, Wikileaks is using the ubiquity of the internet to expose all kinds of information to a wide audience. Where governments and large corporations could operate under some degree of anonymity, every move now has the potential to be revealed to the world.

This heightened transparency has real implications for marketers. Even the incredible Apple brand juggernaut has been slowed by the worldwide exposure of the problematic launch of their iPhone4 mobile. Judging by the huge line at my local Vodafone store last Friday, it hasn’t exactly devastated the company, but there is evidence there has been some impact.

Since its release in the USA, the iPhone4 has been dogged by problems, including antennae faults. Held a certain way, labelled the ‘death grip’ by delighted critics, the iPhone 4 reduces signal strength and drops calls. Apple have tried to downplay the issue, but the huge army of users online, as well official sources, have identified it as a more serious issue.

“Every smartphone has a cellular antenna. And nearly every smartphone can lose signal strength if you hold it in a certain way,” Apple says rather plaintively on their website. And the aggressive defence of the issues by CEO Steve Jobs allayed criticisms for a while.

However the US equivalent of New Zealand’s Consumer Magazine, called Consumer Reports, delivered a hammer blow by recently declaring the phone unfit for public use after extensive testing.

While in times past Apple may have been able to spin their way out of the problem using the mainstream media, it is now much harder with armies of punters sharing their views of the iPhone 4 through social media channels. Consumers could directly share their experience with no media filter.

And it seems to have dented a brand that previously couldn’t do wrong. An article on the Cellular News website, covering a UK survey from Opinium Research, found a quarter of consumers said they were less likely to move to an iPhone 4, and 45% of owners of the previous model, the iPhone 3GS, would now delay their purchase decision.

The importance, particularly in technology markets, of delivering an excellent product experience after launch, was underlined in a recent study published in the ‘Journal of Product Innovation Management’. It found that influential members of social networks had a significant effect on the uptake of new technology products. That is, consumers and businesses, closely observed trusted users of products online to help them with their purchasing decision.

As marketers we are often focussed on building up excitement and expectations about products. The marketing challenge is seen as raising brand awareness, generating demand in the form of leads and then doing what we can to move the sales process along.

Too little effort is given to thinking about the experience being delivered to the customer. In this highly connected world this is becoming crucial. It is so easy for a customer unhappy about your product to share that with others, so it’s easy for negative information to be shared amongst the network of customers you are targeting.

Of course it depends on your target audience. If the people buying your products are highly connected online you need to accept this new era of transparency. If you are selling something to my mother’s demographic, you probably only have to worry about the repercussions in the local bowling club or church.

Hyping up a new technology product and then not delivering a good experience is a recipe for a disaster. Customers will share their experience directly and instantly.

As a marketer what can you do to influence how the customer encounters your product? Isn’t that the job of the engineering, operations and customer support teams? They do play the crucial role to creating and delivering your product or service, but marketers can play a key role in reflecting the customer experience back into the business.

Too few businesses regularly measure levels of customer satisfaction. Those metrics are as important as the levels of brand awareness you are achieving or the number of leads being generated.

This is because any business is only a mouse click away from being ‘Wikileaked’. Transparency is the new reality for business and government (just ask MP Shane Jones and the fact everyone knows of his penchant for adult movies), and you can’t hope to avoid it having an impact of your sales.

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