[Image courtesy of Facebook(Let) at Flickr Creative Commons]
I recently read an article by Brett Easton Ellis that set me thinking about the social world we live in and the effect it has on how we communicate in business.
Ellis, you may remember, shot to fame back in the 1980s at the tender age of 21 with his international best-seller Less Than Zero, chronicling the lives of privileged youngsters in LA. But he’s best remembered for the cult novel American Psycho, which came out in 1991.
He’s no stranger to controversy and has been familiar with the concept of ‘reputation economy’ since before the term was even coined.
But now, he says, the whole thing has gone too far. Everybody is rating everybody and everything, so we’ve all become reviewers.
That might sound like a good thing – crowd-sourced opinion is probably more reliable than marketing messages, after all – until you realise that it’s a two-way street. When reviewers are being reviewed themselves (think Airbnb) they’re less likely to say anything negative.
Or Ellis puts it, “Now all of us are used to rating movies, restaurants, books, even doctors, and we give out mostly positive reviews because, really, who wants to look like a hater?”
Not me, that’s for sure.
So instead, we become ‘virtuous robots’ who ‘Like’ everything, for fear of being branded negative – or even reviewed unfavourably ourselves.
If you’re a Facebook user, even an occasional one like me, you’ll have experienced the pressure to be positive about everything. Even Facebook themselves realised that a ‘Dislike’ button would be counter-productive and sow discord among users, so they quietly dropped the idea.
The result is a bland rush to the bottom, as everybody tries to outdo everybody else in the Like stakes. So what started out as something positive ends up just a saccharine mess of sweet platitudes guaranteed not to get us into trouble.
All of this has a direct effect on how organisations interact with their customers. And on how they communicate with them. Just as people don’t want to be seen as haters, or even mildly negative, so companies want to be seen as the good guys.
So they play it safe by playing the game.
The thing is, that makes it very difficult to differentiate yourself from the competition. If you’re going to innovate, you need to make mistakes. But then you run the risk of not being liked – or worse, not being Liked.
Ellis says the reputation economy’s real crime is “stamping out passion” and “stamping out the individual”. The same is true of corporate passion and corporate individuality.
Because making mistakes can often be hugely positive. Another article I came across this week at Lifehacker.com confirmed this idea, this time in connection with a summer programming course:
By the end of the summer, the stronger students were those who had made more mistakes: they’d tried more things, compiled more bad code, hit more runtime errors, and confused the REPL more soundly.
REPL just stands for read-eval-print loop, by the way. It allows you to check a chunk of code to see if it’s OK or needs revising.
The point here is that the ones who tried hardest made the most mistakes – and the most progress. Just imagine if there had been a ‘Like’ button at each stage of their journey. Or reviewers constantly picking apart their efforts and rating it out of five stars.
Now I’m not saying you should throw caution to the wind here and put out any old message written any old way. But there’s a huge pressure when to marketing to be like everybody else. And that in part is driven by the tyranny of the ‘Like’ button. And for marketers, it means we:
The most important one, of course, is the last.
Because in a market where price and product – and sometimes service – have become commoditised, setting yourself apart is no easy task. You have to dare not to be liked, and that takes guts.
To take a current example, just look at Donald Trump.
His hugely controversial comments have brought a chorus of disapproval from the political class, press and bloggerati across the globe. And you know what? He doesn’t care. He’s raised issues – albeit in an outrageous way – that have touched a nerve with people. He can’t be dismissed as a complete irrelevance, as he’s streaking ahead in the polls.
And he more he’s criticised, and the more he responds, the higher his poll ratings go. He’s blind-sided his opponents, who don’t know how to handle the political hot potato he’s lobbed their way.
Now we can’t – and shouldn’t – all go shooting our mouths off and offending people across the globe, but we might just think what positive take-aways there are in this mostly negative story.
And here, I think it’s that if you really, truly believe something, you should just go ahead and say it. (It does help if you’re armour-plated by unimaginable wealth, but all the same, the principle still stands if you’re an ordinary mortal.)
So are there any upsides to the reputation economy? Of course there are. Not everything is as black-and-white as Donald might imagine. Here are some:
But the cult of Liking shouldn’t stop you daring to be different. You don’t need to do a Donald, but you might consider revisiting your marketing communications to:
Once upon a time, I went on a course, the content of which has slipped through the sieve of my mind, all except for one frightening and thrilling challenge.
Do something every day that scares you.
In other words, push back the boundaries and live dangerously. It’s something we should all try now and then – whether we ‘Like’ it or not.