Various studies have estimated the average consumer sees anywhere from 3,000 to 20,000 marketing messages each day.
Of course, most of these go unnoticed. One possible reason? People are increasingly tuning out inauthentic and blatant marketing attempts.
For this reason, we’ve seen a recent rise in what’s known as ‘transparency marketing.’
Though transparency and authenticity have always been virtues extolled by thought leaders, certain blogs, companies and movements have given greater exposure to transparency in marketing and how it can work as a growth strategy (not just on an ethical level).
What’s So Great About Radical Honesty?
A few years ago a story propagated major publications and garnered some interest. The subject? A little movement known as “radical honesty.”
It was started by Brad Blanton, a Virginia-based psychotherapist, with the hopes of improving lives through telling the truth – seemingly simple, yet exceedingly difficult in practice.
Not only did Blanton advocate the lack of lying, but he advised people to lose the brain/mouth filter. In other words, you should say whatever you’re thinking at all times. Which is totally insane, right? Read the Esquire article on radical honesty. Here are a few things they pointed out:
- If you want to sleep with your wife’s sister, tell your wife. And then tell her sister.
- If you don’t like someone, tell them.
- If you’re bored with a conversation, say it.
Exhilarating yet terrifying, this Radical Honesty movement may sound extreme (it is), but the underlying concept – that of pure authenticity – is something that we seem to long for not just in personal relationships, but in leadership and marketing as well.
The Rise of Transparency Blogs
“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
― Ernest Hemingway
If you want evidence of an increasing popularity of transparency in leadership and marketing, look no further than the most popular bloggers of our time. With that also comes the rising trend of ‘transparency blogs’ for startups. You know, like Moz, Buffer, Groove, that release key metrics and speak in a candid tone.
Let’s start with maybe the most popular and clear example: James Altucher.
Altucher has made a name for himself by “bleeding on the page.” As he signs off each post, “for some reason, I’ve turned myself inside out and all my guts have spilled onto my blog. One day I’ll run out of stuff but not yet.” How accurate this is, which blog posts with titles like these:
- “I Want to Die”
- If You Want People to Like You, Then Kill Yourself
- I Don’t Know How to Be a Good Father
- What it feels like to be Rich
…and on and on. He’s truly speaking in the vein of the Radical Honesty Movement. He’s not the only one, and it’s not necessarily a new thing. Part of what I love about reading great writers is that radical honesty that bares certain truths and relatability. However, it is a pretty new thing for it to be a business writer putting out articles like that.
Clearly, for Altucher, it’s working. He just mentioned that he’s sold over 350,000 copies of Choose Yourself in the last 2 years, and he’s been prolific as ever, churning out tons of books in the same genre.
While this seems to work for selling a certain type of book, would blogging with this transparency work for the CMO of Marriott? I’m really not sure. Transparency is hard to argue against, ethically – clearly being your authentic self is better than being deceitful.
But the question here is rather about effectiveness. Is sharing everything (metrics, opinions, etc) an effective strategy for growth? What support is there that it actually works?
People Like Transparent Leaders (and Companies)
“Your personal brand should be like water: not only clear, but transparent to the public. People thirst for that, and they will drink you up.”
― Jarod Kintz
While it is common advice for leaders to be transparent, it’s rarely been rigorously researched. At least until a 2010 study empirically supported that notion.
To do so, the researchers had 304 participants randomly assigned to one of the four conditions of high (or low) leader positivity and high (or low) leader transparency. Results indicated that both the leader’s level of positivity and transparency impacted followers’ perceived trust and evaluations of leader effectiveness.
The study concluded:
“With followers, leaders need to be very transparent and in addition be confident in themselves, hopeful of the future with both the desire to succeed and a plan to accomplish that success, optimistic toward the future, and demonstrate their resilience to bounce back and beyond. Followers who perceive their leaders to be transparent and positive seem to trust them and judge them to be effective in leading them through challenging times.”
Trust in leaders, government or business, is not high – an area of opportunity, perhaps. An Edelman report also showed that the large majority of people want businesses to be transparent in their practices (a few years ago they found 90% of responders wanted corporations to be as transparent as possible.)
And companies are doing so. According to the report, “Business has recovered trust from the crisis period because it is seen as having made demonstrable strides in transparency.”
Startups and Transparency Marketing
“There’s no going back, and there’s no hiding the information. So let everyone have it.”
― Andrew Kantor
There are probably a few blogs that come immediately to mind when I say “transparency blogs,” like Groove, Moz, and Buffer. This is where the intertwining of company and leadership transparency is abundantly clear and effective.
At Buffer, not only do they release their employees’ salaries, but they openly display all of their revenue numbers and other financial information as well. Their code is open source. All of their emails are open for everyone else to read. Transparency is one of their most important, and publically defining, values.
While Buffer has received some criticism for posting employee salary info (privacy rights, etc), it appears the strategy has worked exceedingly well overall.
Similarly, Groove has paved the way in startup transparency by outlining their journey to $100,000 MRR (now $500,00) step-by-step on their blog.
Their strategy, as well as many others who are ‘blogging as they build it,’ seems to be very effective. In the larger view, it also helps other entrepreneurs build and grow their own companies, as their tends to be a void of instructional content from startup founders in the trenches. Blogging as you build helps others learn from successes and mistakes and hopefully lets more people build better companies.
Silver Bullet Strategy? No Such Thing.
Transparency is no magic trick, though. Groove’s founder, Alex Turnbull, actually wrote an article that sort of advocated against transparency of the sake of transparency. Here’s how he put it:
So perhaps just sharing your numbers won’t result in millions more in revenue or thousands of backlinks (though it might). The important thing is, you have to be providing value with your content in the first place. Transparency for the sake of transparency is relatively useless for someone buying a SaaS product.
Transparency as a Long Term Growth Strategy
Customers long for transparent (and ethical) leaders and companies. Startups seem to be, for the most part, collecting substantial victories from blogging candidly as they go. But what does transparency mean for the broad world of marketing and growth?
Turns out, transparency is a strong trend that doesn’t appear to be reversing. Consumers are pushing for it, and strong brands are aligning their values and marketing with this in mind. As Brett Henley put it, “Hype is finite and real is inexhaustible.”
The postmodern consumer doesn’t seem to be as trusting, or as interested in, corporate BS, hype, or inauthenticity. MarketingExperiments put it well:
“As we race into the new millennium, the rules are changing; people are changing. The “old school” methods of selling products are growing stagnant. Social Scientists call this new era The Age of Postmodernity.
And the Postmodern Consumer will not tolerate multiple “closes,” self promotion, or invasive mail. He doesn’t even like “suits and ties.”
Cool, so what do you do about it? Start by being more transparent and direct in your copywriting.
Transparency in Copywriting
Peep wrote an article a while ago on writing headlines for the modern world. Apparently, lots of people still believe you can sell serious products with fluffy hype. Here’s how Peep put it:
Copywriting today is a bit different. No more difficult, just less effective if you spout BS. MarketingExperiments ran a fun test supporting this, where they placed an ad for ModocOil in the Altoona Mirror using the same copy they used in 1885. This is how it read:
“Modoc Oil – The greatest medicine on earth. It has no equal. It relieves all pain instantly: Toothache in one minute – Headache in one minute – Earache in ten minutes – Sore Throat in one night – Neuralgia in from three to five minutes.”
Now, in 1885 it sold like hotcakes. It was insanely popular. How do you think it did today? Here were the results results:
- Medium: Altoona Mirror
- Length of Run: One day
- Circulation: 35,000
- Sales: 0
Not a great conversion rate.
When writing authentic copy for the modern age, it may help to abide by these two simple (yet not easy) principles:
- Be Truthful and Specific
- Admit Your Weaknesses
Be Truthful and Specific
“Write the truest line you know.”
– Ernest Hemingway
Instead of jargon, half-truths, and superlatives, only tell the verifiable truth. In other words, say what it is. As MarketingExperiments said, “if the Postmodern Consumer can’t instantly verify a claim he will assume that it is false.”
Remember that scene in Portlandia where they ask every imaginable question about the chicken they’re about to eat (and then go visit him on the farm)? That kind of specificity (without the creepiness):
Here’s an example of vague and superlative-driven copy:
Take out all the modifiers and superlatives. What do you have? Not much substance.
How do you get people to believe what you write? Avoid superlatives, write in specifics:
- “We have the best italian restaurant” vs “Our restaurant has won 6 Golden Spoon awards in the Italian Food category“
- “Cheapest web hosting plans” vs “Our monthly plans start from $1.99“.
- “Best tasting coffee, guaranteed” vs “Major competitions have voted Esmeralda the consistent winner five years in a row“
Things like ‘best-in-class,’ ‘unmatched depth,’ and ‘breadth of experience’ are opaque and vague. People don’t believe them.
Admit Your Weaknesses
Candor isn’t a new thing. Over 20 years ago, Jack Trout and Al Ries named the Law of Candor their 15th (out of 22) Immutable Law of Marketing. As they put it, “one of the most effective ways into a prospect’s mind is to first admit a negative and then twist it into a positive.”
They gave some classic case studies:
- “Avis is only No. 2 in rent-a-cars” (but they try harder)
- “With a name like Smucker’s, it has to be good.”
- “The 1970 VW will stay ugly longer.”
Why is this effective? Here’s how they put it:
”First and foremost, candor is very disarming. Every negative statement you make about
yourself is instantly accepted as truth. Positive statements, on the other hand, are looked at as dubious at best.”
This is sometimes called a damning admission and is actually somewhat common on effective long form sales pages. They do it Eminem in 8-Mile style, and address all of the weakness, fears, and doubts up front, and then answer them, sealing any doubts you may have had:
“When a company is humble enough to admit a weakness, they immediately distinguish themselves from the competition. It opens the door for a trust relationship. The consumer is all too aware of the fact that we are not perfect. To pretend otherwise only serves to raise their suspicion. Tell them what you can’t do, and they’ll believe you when you tell then what you can do.”
Important: You’ve Gotta Back It Up
Whatever the efficacy of transparency marketing for business growth, there’s one thing that seems pretty clear: the trend of transparency is good for consumers, mainly because companies actually have to back up their goodwill marketing campaigns.
As an example, five years before Enron went bankrupt, they won a “corporate conscience” award from the Council on Economic Priorities. That’s right, Enron, before their fall from grace, was a supposedly shining example of corporate conscience. As Suzy Bashford from Marketing Magazine put it:
“With ultra-transparency now paramount, for companies to be taken seriously as ‘good guys’, well-meant corporate values must be embraced by every employee and sit at the organisation’s core. Fortunately…this is happening.”
Buffer’s transparency, then, works because what you see behind the glass curtains is admirable. They’re a thoroughly likable company. All of the successful examples above are likeable behind the curtains. Bloggers like James Altucher are likable people. Cleary, transparency marketing would not work, and would induce a backfire effect, if your company were reprehensible.
Note, however that companies may not have a choice as to whether they are transparent or not. As Tony Hsieh said in The Naked Brand, “companies are becoming more and more transparent, whether they like it or not.”
Because of the increasing demand of transparency, along with the increasingly powerful voices of bloggers, YouTubers, and product reviewers, the smart strategy is to align your company’s values and branding with what you’d be happy for the public to know.
Transparency marketing sounds like a swift strategy to collect some investor checks or new subscribers, but it’s infinitely more difficult than it sounds.
That’s because it’s not a marketing strategy. It’s a top-down business strategy that your whole company must embody. You can be transparent on your blog, but if you have really sketchy practices, they’ll leak out in other media and you’ll be left looking disingenuous, worse off than before.
Let me also note that some of the biggest companies in the world (Apple, Nike, Coca Cola) aren’t necessarily transparent in the same way that Buffer is. Their brand identity involves a certain level of mythology. However, they are authentic in their communications. Different, but related.
Overall, it looks like transparency in marketing is more a result of a shift of power from the corporation to the consumer. With a proliferation of powerful voices that can make or break a brand, in addition to real-time marketing, social media, and other new channels, being transparent is effective because it is often necessary.
You can practice transparency in your copywriting, but that’s only the outer shell. Here’s how MarketingExperiments summed it up:
“In the final analysis, it’s not the prose; it’s the principles. Transparent Marketing™ is about values not sentence alchemy. It asks that we treat the customer with the same integrity that we would expect to be treated.”