The Illusion of Transparency

There's a lot of talk in marketing and social media circles today about the concept of "transparency." I use the term myself -- usually when trying to explain the impact of digital and social media to my clients. These technologies tend to expose the soft underbellies of our companies, by providing customers with greater visibility and more intimate knowledge of our brands, employees, products, services and operations. As a result, we are forced to work in a more transparent manner to address customer needs across a spectrum of online and offline channels.
That makes a bit of sense, I hope.

The problem is, the way most people are using the word "transparent" in this medium today feels terribly inauthentic to me -- as if we will all become as clear as glass, someday. The truth is, while these new channels force us to be more transparent, we will always seek a degree of opacity. Call it a fig leaf to cover our nakedness; a closet for our skeletons; or an illusion of transparency.

Will we ever become truly transparent? I think not. We've all got some damage; some ugly we're trying to hide. We've all got things that need to be fixed. Stuff that perhaps it's better others do not see. Do we want everyone to know our business? Nope.

So when we use the term transparent, what we're really striving for is balance -- creating an acceptable level of honest visibility for customers, which makes us more real and more accessible to them. This helps customers understand our plight as we attempt to service their needs, while providing enough opacity to shield us from over exposure.

Sounds a bit like dating, to me.

What do you think?

I'm going to write a bit more about companies that fight transparency in my next post. Stay tuned.


Mike Billeter said...


Your thoughts on this subject are well-spoken and they bring up a great point. As you mention, "transparency" has become slightly overused in recent months as far as the social media realm goes. I think a better word to use would be "authenticity" (or as you put it, "honest visibility") to describe the approach companies should be taking with their customers/audience/clients/etc. As you mention, companies don't need everyone to "know their business," but they should be willing and ready to be much more open and real than they needed to be in the past. It's authenticity, not transparency, that helps me connect with a company.

Just because I can see how things work doesn't mean I'll necessarily connect with a company. It's when I feel the genuine connection of authenticity and trust that the relationship really blossoms.

Unknown said...

Hey Mike,

Thanks for the comment. I think I have equal hangups with the word "authentic". I think that what we're seeing is mostly authentic. The transparent nature of the medium makes it so... Granted... it may be authentic ego-centrism, authentic dedication to spin.... or authentically BAD behaviour! But it's authentic.

I would argue that most people really just want to be taken care of. So we must pair the word "authentic" with the concept of dedication to customers...doing the right thing... etc.

But I certainly hear where you're coming from.

Beth Harte said...

Leigh, I think you're spot on. I like to think of it as being "translucent" versus being transparent. Honestly, there's a lot that I don't want to know from people let alone companies. But this notion of transparency has made some folks paranoid to the point where they share things they probably shouldn't. Filters and being slightly opaque are sometimes a good thing. As for connecting with a company, authenticity and honesty are important, but sometimes I find that’s easier to achieve (for both parties) when there’s an online/offline relationship.

Beth Harte
Community Manager, MarketingProfs

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I’m Leigh Durst, a 20 year veteran in business, operations, customer strategy, ecommerce, digital & social media and marketing. Simply put, I’m a strategist that helps companies (start-up to blue chip) achieve business shift, create more compelling online and offline experiences. I also write, speak and teach about experience design and next-generation business. I’m a futurist, visionary, strategist, doer and connector with a passion for people and helping others. When I’m not on the road, you’ll find me in the San Francisco bay area, working, beaching it and hanging out with my family and dog.


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