Transparent Marketing and Social Media: Twitter and Facebook are the new Woodward and Bernstein


From time to time here on the blog I like to revisit Transparent Marketing: How to earn the trust of a skeptical consumer, which I believe to be an excellent blueprint for the modern marketer. Of course, I may be biased because it was written by my boss, the Director of MECLABS Group, Flint McGlaughlin.

But I consider it to be one of the best things Flint has ever written (second only to his name in the lower-right-hand corner of my paycheck), because it was so incredibly prescient. It was written in 2003. And while it was certainly relevant at the time, it has become an even better guide to modern marketing thanks to the rise of social media.

Rage against the machine meets unbridled access to information plus megaphone

The recent meteoric rise of social media, coupled with Google’s impressively fast and accurate algorithim, means that now every 13-year-old with an iPhone is an instant fact-checker. Teen angst can be channeled at “the man” (sorry, that’s now you) with the tweet of a button. Or even worse…mom angst.

Bill Maher sums it up best, “…we just had the fifth anniversary of YouTube and the twelfth of Google, and between them, they’re killing off a great institution: lying. You just can’t lie anymore – facts are too easy to check, everything is on video…our Internet conversations are forever.”

Of course, where’s the line, right? Unless your email marketing is trying to help a Nigerian prince get his oil wealth safely to the shores of America, you’re probably not outright lying in any of your marketing. So I’m going to present a few examples and we’ll play “You Make the Call.” Share your opinions via the comments section, Twitter, however you want.

And when you read the below examples, you might be thinking, “Wait a minute Dan. You are a supersleuth private eye type who has an uncanny knack for getting to the bottom of things.” Really, I only have two assets. A free, unlimited, lifetime plan for Google searches. And the ability to read. Yes, it’s that easy for your customers to dig stuff up.

Like a rock? Or like a brick?

If you’ve taken any MarketingExperiments training, you know that we often recommend using third-party credibility indicators to reduce anxiety. And a central tenet of Transparent Marketing is “Let someone else do your bragging.”

However, it doesn’t say “Let anyone else do your bragging.” You can’t pick just anyone. You must choose wisely. Chevy’s homepage proudly boasts, “No one has more Consumers Digest ‘Best Buys’ for the 2010 model year than Chevrolet.” And it’s not just the homepage. TV ads, magazines ads, banners ads…the entire campaign is built around Consumers Digest.

The first thing that comes to my mind is, “What the heck is Consumers Digest?” To the Google…

Let’s first talk about what Consumers Digest isn’t – Consumer Reports. (bait and switch?) According to Wikipedia, “The publication has no connection to the Consumer Reports magazine published by Consumers Union (which, unlike Consumers Digest, is an independent non-profit organization).

Consumers Digest is a for-profit magazine. And how does it make a profit? Not through subscriptions, it has zero subscribers. “Many car makers have financial ties to the publication,” according to The Wall Street Journal (although, in fairness, it does sell some issues on the newsstand. How many? Nobody seems to know).

Consumers Digest website (I’m not giving them the link juice, use Google or common sense to find it) is poorly designed, to put it kindly. After a thorough (five-second) analysis, Senior Manager of Research Partnerships Andy Mott remarked, “It looks like it was built by a third-grader.” And I’m not trying to be harsh, no website is perfect, but they don’t even look like they’re trying. The site is essentially

  • There are several bullet points in both columns purportedly stating what they review (baby gear, cameras, etc) that are not links, you can’t click on them and find out more
  • In fact, there are essentially only three pages to the whole site – homepage, latest issue (table of contents has no links to content), and automotive best buys (in fairness, you can click-through for a paragraph-long “review” of each car)
  • Best line on the site… “If you are interested in receiving information on how you can subscribe to our Web site, please write to: Postmaster, Consumers Digest Communications, 520 Lake Cook Road, Suite 500, Deerfield, IL 60015 or send an e-mail to:”

And then there are the Automotive “Best Buys” themselves. While different independent ratings organizations may disagree, you would think that there would be some overlap. Consumer Reports’ Best Car Overall for 2010 is the Lexus LS 460L, which “scored an outstanding 99 out of 100 in our road test, making it our highest-rated vehicle.” While Consumers Digest has 44 “Best Buys” for 2010, the LS 460L is not one of them.

In fact, of Consumer Reports’ top cars in ten categories, only two made it onto the Consumers Digest list. You guessed it, both were Chevrolets.

Before I ask you to make the call for this campaign, let me set the tone. First of all, Chevy is in a segment – automobiles – that is usually heavily researched by customers. Cars tend not to be a point-of-purchase decision, like cereal or gum. So if a customer was interested in a Chevy, how hard would it to be to Google “Consumers Digest” to learn more about these awards the carmaker has been boasting about?

Secondly, Chevy isn’t just any car company. In fact, the only reason it is in business is because just last year taxpayers bailed the company out, at which time then General Motors President and CEO Fritz Henderson said, “We are deeply appreciative for the support we have received during this historic transformation, and we will work hard to repay this trust by building a successful new General Motors.”So while third-party awards could certainly help Chevy regain that trust, does Consumers Digest fit that bill? In other words, I won Who’s Who Among American High School Students but I didn’t brag about it and put in on my resume.

Social media factor: So far, with the notable exception of The Wall Street Journal, the mainstream press hasn’t reported on this campaign as far as I can tell. But the first hit in Google for “Consumers Digest fake” is a blog. And I found tons of blog posts claiming that Consumers Digest is fake, from the well-known (Clark Howard) and the unknown. So, for even the mildly curious, it is quite easy to learn more.

Now marketer, I turn it over to you, if you worked in the Chevy marketing department, would you have green-lighted this campaign?

You Make the Call

So real, it’s fake

OK, not to bias you, but that first one it a bit of a gimme. So let’s ratchet it up a notch. This next call comes courtesy of my wife.

For my last transparent marketing blog post, I told you how impressed I was with Domino’s “The Pizza Turnaround” campaign by Crispin, Porter & Bogusky.

As a follow up, they came up with their new “Pizza Holdouts” campaign. If you’re not familiar with it, they basically stalk people who haven’t tried the pizza yet with a personal ad campaign. Billboards that say, “Bill Johnson, our sauce is now herbier” along with signs, trucks, planes, radio announcements, etc.

Eventually the person takes the hint and, surprise, loves it! My wife is convinced that these are fake. And ever since I wrote about Domino’s Pizza the first time, she’s wanted me to do a follow up to expose how they turned their backs on transparent marketing this time. To the Google!

Well, it turns out, as best as I can figure, this is for real. Again, my research is not extensive. For the Chevy info above, I simply typed “Consumers Digest” into Google, found an interesting Wikipedia entry, and then tried “Consumers Digest fake.” “Pizza Holdout fake” didn’t provide me with the same flood of bad publicity, but it did show a very wise use of social media by Domino’s – they listened. And responded.

The first search result was a YouTube video of the campaign. Right below the video are negative comments, most notably skepticism over the reality of the video. Domino’s responded to those negative comments with more info about the campaign. And since “Uploader Comments” show first in YouTube, you quickly see these replies. While they didn’t address every negative comment on the page (there will always be naysayers), they did prominently speak to a few key issues.


And that was about the extent of my research. After all, who researches the purchase of a pizza that much?

Of course, just using common sense, there are a few obvious things to be skeptical of. After Domino’s made a personal ad campaign for you in your town that your friends and family were in on, and then shoved a camera in your face when you tried the pizza, could you really bring yourself to say, “Tastes like cardboard warmed over. Honey, call the local pizza joint.”? (And what town has only one Bill Johnson?)

Social media factor: Social media played a positive role in this case, thanks to Domino’s proactively responding to skeptical customers. Also as part of my lazy research, I went to Domino’s microsites where they promote use of Facebook and Twitter. Since they’re encouraging social media and giving people positive things to tweet about (such as a contest to capture so-called pizza holdouts), not surprisingly, there seems to be mostly positive stuff out there.

So the campaign is real yet it looks so real some people think it’s fake. If you were asked to green-light this campaign, what would you do?

You Make the Call

Trust but verify

You didn’t think I could write a post about transparent marketing without shining that harsh light of analysis in the mirror, did you? You did? Really? Then just skip the next part and move right along.

Here at MarketingExperiments, our job is to serve you, our audience, and help you do your job better. To that end, we freely publish our experiments.

However, in publishing those experiments we have a debate raging internally, because we anonymize our experiments. We don’t share the name or our Research Partners and we obscure identifying information as well. And just in case a competitor could figure out which company we’re talking about, we also don’t share data like “number of conversions.”

On the one hand, we feel that this does a disservice to you, our audience. We want to be transparent and share as many juicy details as possible.

However, we do work with real-world Research Partners on their actual marketing campaigns. We believe this provides far greater value than running hypothetical experiments with brands that don’t exist. But because our Research Partners are actual companies competing every day for business, they view the experimentation we do as sensitive information. They consider “number of conversions” and other data we use in experimentation to be sensitive business intelligence that could give competitors a leg up.

Social media factor: Zero. I’ve never seen anyone tweet, blog, or even Foursquare about this, and I listen to the conversation every day. In fact, other than this blog post, no one probably even noticed.

So what would you do if you were in our shoes (well, mostly sandals, our office is by the beach)?

You Make the Call

True perfection

If you follow the news at all, you probably know where I’m headed with this “You Make the Call” theme – the imperfect game. Long story short, Armando Galarraga was one out away from a perfect game when umpire Jim Joyce blew the call. Galarraga didn’t throw a temper tantrum. And after the game, once Joyce saw the replay on TV, he apologized for getting it wrong.

That’s transparency. No one is right all the time. And your produce isn’t right for everyone.

So how can you apply these lessons to your own transparent marketing?

  • Don’t be everything to everyone – Focus on what you do best and hammer it home.
  • C’mon, keep it clean – That line isn’t always totally clear, as I’ve referenced above, but some practices are egregious. Quick hint: If you’ve hired a consultant or agency with the words “Black Hat” in its name, you’ve crossed the line. Stay on the sunny side of marketing.
  • Listen – Social media makes it very easy to listen to your customers. Don’t just use “powerful auto-tweet technology” to build followers and blast promotions. Hear what they have to say. Then go the extra mile. Ditch the auto-tweet technology and actually have a conversation. You may be tipped off to (and mitigate) a mistake before it becomes a full-blown crisis.
  • Test – Good marketers with good intentions can disagree on how transparent your brand should be and what will work best. While one of you might be wrong, the customer never is. So test. See what works.
  • Hear it straight from the source – Heck, just read Transparent Marketing: How to earn the trust of a skeptical consumer. It’s all in there. And it’s a free download.
  • Of mice, men, and marketers – In the end, even with the best intention of transparent marketing, you will go awry. While writing this very blog post I got a note calling a promotional email I wrote a scam. Ouch! But, as with anything, if your aim is true, you’re more likely to hit the target.

Related Resources

Transparent Marketing: A slice of honesty from Domino’s Pizza

Holistic Marketing Optimization: What’s more likely to show up on Twitter?

Resources on Transparent Marketing

Photo Attribution: Ruovesi
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  1. Samarillo says

    re: Dominos Pizza – additional scenario

    Now what say, due to the significant pressure from the campaign Bill Johnson orders a pizza and eats it – something that he hasn’t done in years. Only to find out that Dominos gets their wheat from a suppler that also processes nuts on the same production line. Given that Bill is allergic to nuts he goes into anaphylactic shock and dies of asphyxiation.

    With a massive law suit pending, will Dominos still stand by the campaign saying it was real or would they distance themselves suggesting that there are 100’s of Bill Johnsons in the state and the marketing was not specifically targeted?

    1. Daniel Burstein says

      Hah! Just goes to show how you have to make sure to do your homework before running a campaign like this.

      And even if you do…reality and social media have their benefits, but the risk is that there are an infinite number of variables to manage and plan for. Far less can go wrong (and right) in an artificially created world, i.e. the average traditional campaign.

  2. Gayle Dillavou says

    It will be the conventional demand and supply principle that governs the costs of these financial derivatives. At times the marketplace has quite a few buyers, but there’s a shortage of stocks.

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