OPINION9 September 2009

Getting to know your consumers – a game of give and take

There’s an interesting article by Chuck Chakrapani and David Scholz in this month’s Vue (the magazine of Canada’s MRIA) about social relationships between companies and consumers.

Business transactions tend to be based on market norms, but the only way to build loyalty is to start basing them on social norms too. However, the authors warn that if you then break those social norms and return to your old ways, (in other words, you display disloyalty to your customer), then the customer is highly likely to be disloyal back to you – and leave you for a competitor.

Social norms imply treating someone more like you would a person – recognising and reciprocating honesty, trust and loyalty.

But the really interesting bit is that when the relationship is based purely on market norms, “the intention to defect is substantially lower than when social norms are adopted and then abandoned”. [my emphasis]

“Reciprocity is the price a firm should be prepared to pay when it adopts social norms,” they write. “If a firm is not willing to pay or cannot afford the price, it is in the firm’s interest not to adopt social norms. There is no free lunch for companies any more than there is for its customers.”

The conclusions are based on an online survey of 1,600 people in Canada, which asked respondents for their reactions to hypothetical situations in which firms either acknowledged or ignored social norms.

I’d like to see this research followed up with something based on real behaviour rather than hypotheticals, but it certainly makes a strong argument for authenticity in what brands do and say. The study’s about loyalty marketing, really, and doesn’t touch on the use of social media for engagement and research, but the parallels are clear.

The rewards of developing a ‘social’ relationship with consumers make it a tempting strategy, but if you don’t walk the talk, you risk doing yourself more harm than good.

Unfortunately, when marketers hear the message that they need to start being authentic and sincere, they are trained to interpret it as, “I need to start saying that I’m authentic and sincere.” Which, of course, isn’t quite enough.