Today, social networks and online advertisers can cobble together a fairly accurate picture of most web users’ preferences and daily activity. That data can yield benefits to users, such as more tailored content, but it can also leave them feeling vulnerable and invaded. In response, many users, particularly younger ones, are adopting networks and apps that promote anonymity, such as Whisper, Secret, Snapchat, Yik Yak, and Gossup. Others have adopted the networks as a way to share more authentic stories and feelings than they would on Twitter or Facebook (which, incidentally, is reportedly developing its own anonymous app).
But this online anonymity also opens the door to spreading rumors and venting about both people and brands, with little fear of repercussion. Critics, such as the prominent venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, have warned that the high potential for unethical behavior puts these apps on shaky moral and legal ground. It can certainly put brands in a difficult position. Most networks have terms of service banning libelous, fraudulent, or harassing posts, as well as an avenue for reporting abuse, so brands have some recourse. But once a post is out there, the damage may be done. While this new dynamic is still in flux and the roles remain undefined, there are a few core ideas that will help brands find their footing on this new terrain.
RESPECT THE RULES AND THE COMMUNITY SPIRIT
As with established social networks and search engines, subverting the intended usage of the channels, either intentionally or accidentally, is asking for trouble. For example, brands may be tempted to take advantage of account anonymity by posting in the guise of an ordinary customer, sharing positive messages to counteract negative posts. Tactics like this set brands up for damaging blowback, while offering little benefit.
Before engaging in an anonymous community, take the time to understand both the network’s own rules and users’ expectations. Then approach your channel strategy within those parameters. If there’s not a natural way for your brand to participate productively, hold off on getting involved directly.
So far, few brands have established official presences on anonymous networks. In this environment, standard brand publishing tends to come across as “missing the point.” Brands known to be active on these platforms also risk having their identities hijacked, as anyone can claim to be a brand.
Even if it doesn’t make sense to begin posting to an anonymous network, monitoring conversations can be beneficial. Some anonymous networks have already earned a reputation as sources for rumors and inside information. Much of Secret’s initial user base comes from the tech industry, with Silicon Valley rumors as a key content vein.
For example, a Secret post in April broke the story that Nike would be killing off its FuelBand device and laying off the engineers behind it. Then in February, a Secret user, claiming to be an Evernote employee, shared that a corporate acquisition was eminent. Both stories took off and spread beyond Secret, calling for the brands to get involved. Brands that are paying close attention to notable industry conversations on anonymous networks will be able to react to damaging rumors or accusations like these more quickly.
RESPOND VIA ESTABLISHED CHANNELS
If a brand does discover a rumor or negative accusation gaining traction on an anonymous network, the network itself isn’t necessarily the best channel for a response: it’s difficult to have an official presence when everyone is anonymous. Instead, brands can join the conversation via established channels, such as a corporate blog or accounts on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn. Other users can then share these updates on the anonymous network.
Nike and Evernote both shifted the conversation to other channels to address the Secret posts about their brands. Evernote CEO Phil Libin refuted the acquisition rumor as entirely false via a Twitter post; Nike confirmed the news of layoffs with CNET, while providing additional details and corrections to reframe the message.
NURTURE A COMMUNITY OF ADVOCATES
Vocal supporters are a key resource for mitigating negative discussions on any network, but they’re even more critical on anonymous platforms, where a brand has limited room to speak for itself. RedBus, a startup that allows users in India to reserve bus travel online, received criticism from employees on Secret for allegedly failing to honor all their stock options following the company’s acquisition by another portal. The Secret posts told an incomplete story, but they seriously damaged both the company’s image and the founder’s reputation when the story appeared in one of India’s leading financial dailies. If RedBus had had people willing to speak up and defend them, on Secret and elsewhere, they would have mitigated the impact of the allegations.
Of course, it’s not feasible to assemble a strong foundation of advocates overnight. It requires consistently building trust and goodwill, on multiple fronts. Brand publishers can inspire advocacy by being consistently authentic, transparent, useful, and responsive across their content efforts.
While no one can say with certainty where anonymous networks are headed, it’s clear that their success to date stems from users’ desire for authenticity and community empowerment. Brands that embrace this drive will be in a better position to succeed in this new arena than brands who try to exert control.