What Happens When You Think Your Customers Will Kowtow To You?

It’s often a good thing I’m using Twitter because otherwise I wouldn’t have come across this great new video that explains a lot and demonstrates the power of a community.

As you may know, currently President Obama is trying to get his health care reform bill passed in the United States Congress and everyone is trying to educate others about why or why not the plan offered by the administration won’t work. One such organization is the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) and in the video above, it gives you a peek at what happens when the “volunteers” and employees of AARP are in a town-hall meeting and it goes awry. In what appeared to be termed a “listening” session, the AARP were verbally abusive to those in the audience -their community & membership – when they wanted silence in the room during their talk and when confronted with questions (which I gathered to be legitimate ones), they immediately pulled the plug (and one lady quite literally did that) and it supposedly “ended” the conversation.

I’m sorry to say that this isn’t the way that a community can be controlled. In fact, you have no control over your community. Why would you, as a brand, assume that your community that you have believing in you and your mission/cause/product, would simply accept such treatment? Realistically you can treat them as good as you want and also as bad as you want, but your actions will do nothing to prevent a huge wave of backlash that will ultimately destroy your brand and reputation. The community is not here to serve your company.

Your company is here to serve the community.

This sort of harps back to the presentation given by technology and geek evangelist Chris Pirillo during a past edition of WordCamp in San Francisco that I also blogged about recently and there were several steps to cultivating your community. To recap, those were:

  • Look at where these communities are forming and then go to them.
  • Communities are becoming increasingly distributed.
  • Community requires tools that can’t be built.
  • Communities grow their own leaders.

The bottom line behind a community is that you can’t grow it organically in some petri dish. Rather, communities form in the wild without any outside interference from your company. With such “autonomy”, these communities will have a mind of their own and just doesn’t have tolerance for taking guff from a company imposing its will. Just because these people love to evangelize the company’s product doesn’t mean that they can’t (or won’t) stop promoting your product and instead tear you apart. Nothing is worse than having a evangelist doing a 180-degree turn and spread hatred about you because not only does it come from one person, but it’s contagious. And you can see it near the end of the video where people are shouting to rescind their membership in the AARP organization.

Just because it’s offline doesn’t mean your community doesn’t exist.

I’m sure that there are plenty of organizations online that engage with retired persons in a social network fashion. There are communities all across the World Wide Web. But just because you go from digital 1’s and 0’s to face-to-face communication doesn’t mean that you can ignore the rules of the community. The old adage holds true in retail and also with communities: “The customer is ALWAYS right.” In this case, the customer is the community. Remember to respect the way that your community is engaging with you and just because you talk nicely and open a dialogue online, don’t think that you can use that “goodwill” to be abusive in real life. If you do that, you’re going to anger your customers and to complicate the matter more, they’re going to now have a face to associate with their hatred of your company.

But in sticking with the AARP example for a second, notice that they keep reminding everyone that it’s a “listening” session but yet the people on the dais are expecting those in the crowd to sit there quietly and listen? Even though it was dialogue that was contributing to the discussion, AARP did not want to hear about it. Instead, they sought to simply push out their information (remind you of traditional marketing) and didn’t want to converse about what they’re selling.

Don’t hate. Participate.

Why would AARP or any organization simply resign itself to stepping back from the threshold of social media when they’ve done a good job rallying their customers in the community? Sure, you might expect them to be all jolly and even exuberant about talking with you, but if you’re simply pushing out information and expect the people to sit there, shut up & absorb the information like a sponge and accept it as face value, it’s a mistake.

Companies and organizations must learn that the days of one way information is over. It’s all about two-way conversations to make your product and campaign a success. If you want your customers to do an action, you can explain why it’s a good idea for them to do it, but be prepared to hear their side of it and then collaborate to make something outstanding. If you’re not getting your way, just relax and find a way to compensate, but please don’t show your anger because that will only go to show the community that they’re not appreciated and will think the company only cares about them when they need something.

You’re either with us or you’re against us.

Companies shouldn’t think this way. There’s an interesting paragraph that conveys this sentiment in a book called now is gone written by Geoff Livingston & Brian Solis (go ahead, buy the book…I’ll wait) where it talks about how to encourage promotion within the community:

…hosting it [your content] with an “us vs. them” mentality will immediately segregate the the community, thus beginning its demise before it can flourish. As the social media environment crowds with more and more people, including businesses and organizations trying to participate in their various communities, it creates competition for your community members’ attention.

This is probably the mentality that AARP thought they could have over those in the audience. It’s all about AARP and what AARP wants, right? WRONG! It’s all about what the members of AARP wants because they’re the ones who sought out an organization to represent them. If you watch the video, you’ll notice that when some employees of AARP walk out, the meeting continued. That’s right. It continued. The community doesn’t end simply because the brand isn’t represented. They all share a common interest and wants to have that conversation. And you’ll notice that eventually people are demanding the refund of their dues and could potentially seek out another organization that will actually represent them and learn to talk to them.

What does it all boil down to?

AARP basically put itself in an odd predicament. They shot themselves in the foot by acting juvenile in the face of their community. They forgot that they do not control the message or the conversation, but they can have a part in it. Communities have some considerable power behind them and it would be great for companies to engage with them, but don’t expect the people to bow down or even kowtow before you when you enter the room. I’m thinking it should be the other way around.

By Ken Yeung

Ken Yeung is a journalist fascinated with the tech industry and internet culture. He's currently Flipboard's Assistant Managing Editor, overseeing news curation in technology, science, gaming and health. In addition to his day job, Ken's the co-host of "The Created Economy" podcast, examining the Creator Economy. In a past life, he was a former reporter for VentureBeat and The Next Web, covering tech startups, the industry's innovations and funding.