If a bar had the opportunity to replace its bartender with a bartending machine, do you think it should? Even if the machine could hold a decent conversation because it was operated by a real person, do you think the bar would be as successful as one that used the real deal? Hold that thought, as we'll be returning to it soon.
Anonymous online communities have a bad reputation; but essentially they’re just powerful tools for collaboration and the spread of information. They can be used for good or ill.
For a quick example of how anonymous communities help brands, look no further than the online series “My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.” Thanks to one of the most infamous anonymous communities online, this cartoon went from an effort by Hasbro to create brands as successful as Transformers to an Internet subculture.
One of the reasons the series rose in fame was because anyone who liked the series could be open about it, regardless of gender or age, in the anonymous community of 4chan. Since users could not be identified, there were no consequences, such as the social embarrassment of men admitting they liked a cartoon show for girls (it's not as creepy as it sounds, as My Little Pony was also designed with parents in mind). [Ed. note: It is as creepy as it sounds.] The community participants were far more forthcoming with information and honesty using the identity of “anonymous poster” than they would ever be on a network like Facebook.
The lesson for brands to learn here is that if they really want to know what people are thinking, give them the option of talking from behind a mask. This allows brands to achieve the following:
- Calmly and fairly handle complaints. On anonymous communities, people are more apt to complain (and do so rudely), creating opportunities for the brand to demonstrate superior customer service in its responses and instill confidence from the target market.
- Put privacy back into the hands of the consumers. Anonymous commenting gives the choice of privacy back to users, making them feel empowered.
- Generate more comments. When people don't have to create yet another sign-up name and password, they are more likely to keep the discussion flowing.
Of course, the two major disadvantages of this approach are noise pollution from low-value comments and the amount of moderation required -- as news outlets will attest.
Ironically, to really reap the benefits of anonymous communities, a brand will have to give up its shield of anonymity and engage completely, allowing its employees to speak out on its behalf. A brand listening on a network is a faceless entity, inhuman and untrustworthy. A Scott Kinoshita who works for a brand on a network, however, is Scott Kinoshita first and a representative of the brand second.
Scott is human, he has a face, he is the bartender for The Brand (I told you we'd come back to it). Not only is a very human "bartender" more personable and transparent, but individuals who never wore a mask to begin with lend a distinctively authentic voice to their organization. The bartender becomes a familiar, trusted face the community opens up to.
While the setup of anonymous networks with "naked" organizations will have its fair share of challenges, it also offers a combination of consumer privacy with transparent engagement for brands, potentially generating superior data, engagement, and loyalty.
An anonymous community won't be appropriate for every organization, but it gives back consumers what they've lost -- privacy -- while offering brands the benefits of social networking.
— Scott Kinoshita is a computer programmer turned online marketer.