When I first read a blog post by J.C. Kendall, I had no idea who he was or what he did for a living. All I knew was, the guy's writing had pluck. And that's why I liked it.
Come to find out, Kendall is the chairman and CEO of a company called TekPersona, which he says "teaches businesses how to turn audiences into customers." He writes curmudgeonly musings each week that often have nothing to do with his business. For example, recently he posted a picture of sportscaster Erin Andrews with a big red X across her face because of her "chalkboard-screeching voice," called Seal a "dick" for dragging Heidi Klum's name through the mud for their children to watch, and pronounced that "If you feel the need to shoot anyone who offends you, you are a...meow."
Now, most CEOs I know would never dream of being quite so honest. Not Kendall. Recently, I asked him a few questions about why he's a such firm believer in the value of being authentic online--and especially when dealing with customers.
Why is authenticity important when you're dealing with customers in social forums such as Twitter, Facebook, and Google+?
I don't believe you can be successful if people do not get a true sense of who you are in business or in your personal life. People want to do business with someone they know. If you attempt to put forth a false image or representation of yourself, I think people can sniff that out, in the same way dogs can sense who loves them and who does not.
If you look at the popularity of golf in the corporate world, I think that it occurred because companies got an opportunity to see people handle themselves under stress. Was that person honest about their handicap? Did they ask for a few mulligans? Did they blame the wind for a bad shot?
Social media is no different. I like to say that nobody buys anything important from a stranger except for gasoline and Gummi Bears. If you cannot give your audience a sense of who you truly are and gain acceptance for same, good luck getting them to sign on the dotted line.
How do you balance being real with not alienating people?
You simply cannot avoid offending some people. No brand should waste undue time trying to appeal to everyone. When you are developing and supporting your brand, you are creating an expectation of what will occur through a transaction with your company. Your messaging has to focus on your target customer.
If a brand were to pander like a politician, trust would be the first thing to go. Look at Cadbury, which is doing very well through its presence on Google+. Well, guess what? Not everybody likes chocolate. Should they pander to the objectors with white chocolate? No, because white chocolate is nasty. In the case of someone truly offended over a slight or insult, a brand should seek to deal directly with the offended ASAP, before what might have been a simple misunderstanding becomes a viral example of poor customer service plastered across the Internet.
A lot of brands fear criticism and, as a result, play it safe--which almost always means they're boring online.
Yes. That's OK--if you don't want to earn any business online. Brands that seek to be safe and tow the popular line will never break from the crowd of mediocrity that is rife within the social media consulting community.
Popularity and influence are not the same thing. I am known for being both a huge fan and a harsh critic of Google, and some do not appreciate it when I go after them on an issue near and dear to me. Nevertheless, many of my suggestions and critiques have resulted in positive outcomes, so I don't mind being the squeaky wheel at times.
Above all, you cannot be fake. It is not a lie to show sides of yourself and your opinions online, with an understanding that not everyone will agree or appreciate what you have to say. I suppose in the case of my own organization, I work hard to do as much in demonstrating my professional abilities as I do in describing my personal perspectives online.
What else should brands know about interacting online?
There is a meme in the online world with respect to social media that suggests businesses should just dive in. I think this advice is both wrong and potentially dangerous. If you don't have a message, a strategy, and a plan for how to establish a memorable and positive brand online, consider holding back until you do. It's no different than the proverbial elevator speech, in that you might get only one shot to describe your brand to an audience of potential customers. Get it wrong out of the box, and you will spend marketing dollars competing against your own negative branding.