There’s a new catch-word being tossed around by marketers: transparency.
According to Neil Patel, it the “new marketing.” According to James Sherer, it’s a “content opportunity.”
I’m not alone in questioning this trend. Granted, transparency in business seems to be getting good results (more on that in a minute), but are they the right kind of results and are they sustainable?
What do we mean by transparency?
Transparency is a relatively new trend of being completely open with your followers. We’re talking about everything from sharing personal struggles and random thoughts to letting people see your strategic plans, income, salaries, etc.
As I thought about the topic, a few brands came immediately to mind, each at a different point on the scale from social to radical transparency. Here they are, ranked according to their degree of openness, from my perspective.
Two people stand out in this space, both of them online since the 1990s. They are fully transparent about who they are, what they stand for, and what they care about.
I’ve been following Chris for a while now. He first caught my eye as someone who was really good in social media and blogging. As I watched his posts, I realized that much of his success derives from his honesty about who he is—successes, sure, but also his doubts and insecurities.
He isn’t trying to create a high-powered success persona. He openly shares health challenges and his struggle with depression along with his business tips.
Even before I knew transparency was going to be a thing, I liked how Chris was doing this. It humanized his brand, making him more accessible to his followers.
According to Chris, blogging is a way to express himself and help others.
I love it. I love having a platform where I can reach out to people, share my thoughts and ideas and insights, and find ways to help others.”
Because he started blogging when it was called journaling, he maintains that approach. He even confesses to changing his focus every few years, which, again, makes him feel incredibly authentic.
Type of transparency: Genuinely Human
Follower response: If he can do it, so can I.
Chris Pirillo’s vlog
I found Chris Pirillo when Google+ was new. Soon after, I found his vlog, which has chronicled his business and life since 2012. Talk about transparency. You see his home as well as his office. You ride with him in his car as he shares his thoughts. You even see his dogs, his wife, and now his daughter.
Chris does this so naturally, it feels like you’re a close friend, getting invited into his inner circle. Now, in reality, that may not be the case. But it feels that way. Chris even vlogged throughout a period of crisis, when he was obviously depressed and questioning the future of his business.
This level of openness builds relationship. I feel I know Chris, though we’ve never met.
Type of transparency: Opening the Home
Follower response: I’m rooting for him because I know him so well.
In this space, two corporate blogs and an entrepreneur’s blog stand out. I’m particularly intrigued by the two businesses, because most aren’t willing to adopt this level of transparency. It could affect public perception of the brand, and that could affect profitability.
But there’s another trend that parallels the transparency trend, and that’s the trend of businesses becoming more human. Groove and Buffer are doing this exceptionally well.
Let’s look at how they handle it, and then we’ll look at an individual who may well have inspired them.
Visit Groove’s blog, and you’ll see this:
Groove seems to be following a popular success strategy—setting a goal (it was $100K/month when they started in 2013) and making it public. The blog, then, is their report on how they’re doing.
Interestingly, in order for any revenue reporting to make sense, they also have to share what goes on strategically: integrations, investment decisions and acquisition offers. Alex Turnbull describes these as “hard-earned lessons from [their] own experience.”
And that’s exactly why this works for Groove. Their transparency isn’t self-indulgence or bragging. Many of the posts are simply stories. They’re fascinating because you get the innermost thoughts of a CEO as he struggles with different challenges in his business.
So it isn’t just a “woohoo! Look at me!” type of blog. It’s a great resource for other businesses.
Type of transparency: Inside the Mind
Follower response: Super helpful for other businesses. I want to bookmark this.
Buffer’s Open Project
In 2013, Buffer announced their new Open Project, a blog dedicated to complete transparency about their business. They describe it as their “journey to greater productivity, more transparency and a happier work culture.”
The most notable aspect of the Open Project is the publication of salaries. This probably creates the impression that they equate transparency with financials. But that’s not true. Buffer regularly shares what they’re reading, how they’re working to improve themselves—even the mistakes they make.
For this brand, transparency is a core value. They’re willing to break tradition to create the best work environment and product. I can respect that.
This quote, compiled from a founder’s chat with Joel Gascoigne and Leo Widrich, says it all.
It’s the right thing to do. It keeps us honest and focused on what needs to be fixed. It helps us live up to a higher standard.”
Type of transparency: Cultural Transparency
Follower response: Wow! I’m impressed.
On Smart Passive Income, Pat has been sharing his income since 2008. I love his value proposition: “I’m the crash test dummy of online business, sharing what works (and what doesn’t) so you know exactly how to build your business better.”
And after seeing the income report Pat shares on his blog each month, you can understand why Pat is influencing other bloggers to dive into the deep waters of transparency. They’re impressed by his success and the attention he gets for being so open.
What I like about Pat’s approach is his humility. Transparency isn’t a strategy to win followers. It’s just something he started doing “to help others answer the questions [he] once faced as well as share the tools and techniques that work for [him].”
He just takes it a little further than most of us are willing to do.
Type of transparency: Radical Transparency
Follower response: With numbers like that, he obviously knows what he’s doing. I’m all ears.
What do you see here?
Transparency is a relatively new phenomenon. Most of these brands began openly sharing after social media became prevalent—in 2012 and 2013. Perhaps it felt like a natural progression after building up their Facebook presence.
Of the people and brands I’ve reviewed, Chris Brogan has been doing the transparency thing the longest. He started blogging in 1998, when it was considered an online journal. Yet his style of transparency is pretty mild. It’s personal, but it doesn’t include his financial statement.
For all-out openness, Pat Flynn probably takes the cake. He started sharing his financials in 2008, before that level of openness was in vogue.
This flies in the face of nondisclosure agreements
Not too long ago, brands kept their strategies and ideas close to the vest. But on the social Web, we’re so used to seeing people’s innermost thoughts, it seems antisocial not to share at least a little of your personal stuff.
But how far should you go? Does this level of transparency truly engage people and build your business, or is it a mine field?
According to the articles I’ve read, much of Buffer’s and Groove’s rapid success comes from their decision to make transparency a core value. People feel they can trust these brands. And they get a lot of publicity for differentiating themselves in this way.
Why is it working?
In all honestly, when I began researching this article, I thought the transparency trend was a short cut to content creation. Content is hard to produce and telling your personal story makes it easier.
But I think there’s more to it than that. We live in an age where Big Business is suspect. People who seem to succeed too easily get trashed online in a very social way. Transparency allows you to show people how much work goes into that success.
Having said that, notice that most of the people above (CEOs and individuals) are young. These are people who grew up with the Internet and are most at home on the social Web. They come from a demographic that’s connected 24/7 and that equates transparency with trust.
Perhaps this is a knee-jerk reaction to traditional business. It’s a movement to be authentic in business as well as your personal life.
It does, however, make content creation easier. If you’re at a loss for what to write about, just talk about your newest project.
Especially if you look at Pat Flynn and Groove, transparency allows you to give advice in story format. This supports the first rule of writing: show, don’t tell. This is far more interesting than the typical how-to article.
It’s also believable.
If you say you did such-and-such and got XX results, I might believe you. But if you tell me all the details, I’m sold. Why would you make up specific numbers and exact steps, especially if your results fell short of expectations or led to an end result you weren’t expecting?
The dangers of being too transparent
It’s easy to look at the success stories above and decide transparency is the way to go. But you need to evaluate the dangers as well as the benefits.
The Opening-the-Home style of transparency breeds good will, yes. But it also invites personal attack, something Chris Pirillo has mentioned from time to time. Haters gonna hate, hate, hate, you know.
But you can make yourself a target in other ways too. Here are a few comments pulled from a Google+ discussion on transparency. This one relates to Pat Flynn’s financial reports:
(1) he doesn’t disclose until way down the page the pre-tax net income and (2) those numbers are waving a deep pocket red flag to (a) anyone who wants to sue him, (b) the FTC and state consumer protection agencies if they need to make an example on any particular screwup, and (c) the IRS and state department of revenue looking for someone with money that can pay if audited.
There’s transparency and there’s just painting a bulls-eye target on one’s forehead.
P.S. And for those who are married, those numbers can come back to haunt an Internet marketer going through a divorce. It happens. ~Mike Young
Another commenter used the term “litigation/audit bait,” which rings true.
A final danger is a PR issue. If you’re going to be transparent. You need to go all-in.
Decide in advance how personal you’re willing to get. Where are the limits? Will you simply share your health struggles or will you also share your income statement? Your decision boils down to two things:
- Your Transparency Space. By that I mean the areas in which you’ll be transparent.
- Your Depth of Transparency. How open will you be about the things in your Transparency Space?
When it comes to transparency, consistency is key. Being open about something one day and coy the next makes you seem self-serving. If you’re going to adopt transparency, it needs to become a core value.
On that note, let me add that transparency seems to work best when you aren’t doing it to achieve a business goal. Look again at the examples above. These people chose to be transparent because they believed it was the right way to do business. As a result, they come off as authentic and trustworthy.
If your goal is to achieve their level of popularity or business growth, you’re missing the point.
The bottom line
Transparency can help you create a better blog and a stronger community. It might also make people want to work for you or buy your products. But that’s not what this trend is about.
Transparency is about trust. The idea is to be yourself. And if, for you, that means you share everything, then so be it.
Be aware, though, that you can probably achieve the same result sharing your strategies and inner thoughts, sans revenue numbers.
Transparency is about being honest.
So be honest.
However big or small your Transparency Space, be completely open about the stuff in that space. Good, bad, ugly. It doesn’t matter. Share it all.
That’s the point of transparency.
What are your thoughts? How comfortable are you with radical transparency? Are you willing to go all-in?