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Butting heads with your fans and customers: is it ever a good idea?

By October 17, 2007 August 31st, 2014 No Comments

While reviewing my feeds, I’ve come across several posts that speak to the same challenge from very different perspectives: how important it is to reexamine policies as technology changes the marketplace. This happens often enough that it’s become somewhat of a sport for me to watch companies cling to the way things have always been done as their audiences change rapidly around them.

The example that is rapidly becoming the poster child for reactionary behavior as technology advances is the RIAA. I’m lumping Sony in there with them, because the points that a Sony exec made in a trial recently echo some of the disconnect I sense between the RIAA/Sony’s positions and reality. Sony BMG executive Jennifer Pariser’s testified during the trial that making even one copy of a song you’ve purchased constitutes theft in Sony’s eyes. The market for music has been changing for a long time now, and the RIAA can try and catch up. Recording labels are going to find themselves irrelevant as bands like Radiohead innovate and create to adjust to the market (and consumer demands). RIAA won its case, but at what PR cost to the industry?

On a related note, we have Twentieth Century Fox Television freaking out over Buffy The Vampire Slayer sing-alongs. Sing-alongs, you ask? Yup, one of the more popular episodes was a musical number (“Once More, With Feeling”—yes, I am a fan). Legions of Buffy followers gather in theaters, dressed as their favorite characters, and sing along to a screening of the episode. And then, like a band of zombies, cometh the Fox TV lawyers. What’s baffling to me is why Fox is raising a fuss—these types of sing-alongs have been popular for years. Two of the most popular that come to mind are the Sound of Music sing-alongs, and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. These performances bond fans, create buzz, and present all kinds of promotional marketing opportunities. Fox should be hosting these parties, not trying to stop them. It might be beyond “the scope of what they had licensed,” but taking a hard line against devoted fans seems like a bad idea to me.

In both of the above cases, we have companies struggling against their fans—this must make the marketing and PR departments crazy. Building loyalty, creating fans—this is exactly what those departments are tasked with doing. And yet, they are now facing PR challenges because the companies are clinging to business models that aren’t changing with the market.

What churned the thought process on the two (older) stories above was a post on Consumerist today concerning retail stores’ policies prohibiting taking pictures of merchandise. This policy makes perfect sense from a retailer’s point of view (short explanation: competitors price compare and map out paid shelf space so they can match, etc.) but in an era when everyone has a camera phone, snapping a picture is quicker and easier than taking notes for comparison shopping, thus the run-in experienced by the shopper in the piece.

One of the commenters to the Consumerist story had an interesting and in my opinion valid point, if somewhat crudely delivered. Marketers have been using technology for years to pinpoint our likes, dislikes, and so on, refining their processes to an almost scary level of information. Now consumers are using technology to streamline their processes, whether it’s price comparing or sending a picture of a household item to the Significant Other to make sure you aren’t going to have to return the thing if it isn’t the right color. Improved technology is a two-way street, providing benefit to marketer and consumer alike.

How is this going to play out? Chasing each consumer in possible violation of a code or policy will amount to a giant game of Whac-A-Mole, and it makes for angry customers and disillusioned fans. There is no way to keep up. Relaxing the codes/policies becomes a slippery slope—and don’t companies have some right to maintain competitiveness? Where’s the balance? Is there a balance?