I woke up at 5am this morning to order a new iPhone. I did this because I wanted the new camera upgrades along with some other nice-to-haves. Why did I get an iPhone and not a new Samsung? Why didn’t I look at any of the other phones on the market? It’s because I am a loyal Apple customer at this point. Does that mean I think the iPhone is perfect? Far from it! But I will choose it in spite of the flaws because I know it has room to be better.
That whole story is repeated time and again in technology. People find themselves drawn to particular companies or brands. They pick a new phone or computer or car based on their familiarity with the way they work or the design choices that are made. But does that mean they have to be loyal to that company no matter what?
Agree to Disagree
One of the things that I feel is absolutely paramount to being a trusted advisor in the technology space is the ability to be critical of a product or brand. If you look at a lot of the ambassador or influencer program agreements you’ll see language nestled toward the bottom of the legalese. That language usually states you are not allowed to criticize the brand for their decisions or talk about them in a disparaging way. In theory the idea is important because it prevents people from signing up for the program and then using the platform to harshly and unfairly criticize the company.
However, the dark side of those agreements usually outweigh the benefits. The first issue is that companies will wield the power to silence you to great effect. The worst offenders will have you removed from the program and potentially even sue you. Samsung almost stranded bloggers 10 years ago because of some brand issues. At the time it seemed crazy that a brand would do that. Today it doesn’t seem quite so far-fetched.
The second issue is that those agreements are written in such a way as to be able to cause issues for you even if you didn’t realize you were doing something you weren’t supposed to be doing. Think about celebrities that have tweeted about a new Android phone and the tweet has metadata that says sent with Twitter for iPhone. How about companies that get very upset when you discuss companies that they see as competitors. Even if you don’t see them as competitors or don’t see the issue with it you may find yourself running afoul of the brand when they get mad about you posting a pic of their product next to the supposed competition.
In my career I’ve worked at a value-added reseller (VAR) where I found myself bound by certain agreements to talk positively about brands. I’ve also found myself on the wrong side of the table when that brand went into a bidding process with another VAR and then tried to tell me I could say bad things about them in the process because I was also their partner. The situation was difficult because I was selling against a partner that went with another company but I also needed to do the work to do the bid. Hamstringing me by claiming I had to play by some kind of weird rules ultimately made me very frustrated.
Do companies really want ambassadors that only say positive things about the brand? Do they want people to regurgitate the marketing points with everyone and never discuss the downsides of the product? Would you trust someone that only ever had glowing things to say about something you were trying to buy?
The reality of our world today is that the way that people discuss products like this influences what we think about them. If the person doing the discussion never has a negative thing to say about a company then it creates issues with how they are perceived. It can create issues for a supposedly neutral or unbiased source if they only ever say positive things, especially if it later comes out they weren’t allowed to say something negative for fear they’d get silenced or sued.
Think about those that never say anything negative toward a brand or product. You probably know them by a familiar epithet: fanboys. Whether it’s Apple or Tesla or Android or Ford there are many people out there that aren’t just bound by agreement to always speak positively about something. They will go out of their way to attack those that speak ill of their favorite product. If you’ve every had an interaction with a fan online that left you shaking your head because you can’t understand why they don’t see the issues you know how difficult that conversation can be.
As a company, you want people discussing the challenges your product could potentially face. You want an honest opinion that it doesn’t fit in a particular vertical, for example. Imagine how upset a customer would be if they bought your product based on a review from a biased influencer only to find that it didn’t fit your need because the influencer couldn’t say anything negative. Would that customer be happy with your product? Would the community trust that influencer in the future?
Honesty isn’t negativity. You can be critical of something you enjoy and not insinuate you’re trying to destroy it. I’ll be the first person to point out the shortcomings of a product or company. I’ll be fair but honest. I’ll point out where the improvements need to be made. One of the joys of my day job at Tech Field Day is that I have the freedom to say what I want in my private life and not worry about my work agreements getting me in trouble as has happened with some in the past. I’ll always tell you straight up how I feel. That’s how you protect your brand. Not with glowing reviews but with honest discussion.