Business Advice

Why companies should stop pretending their customers are friends

Michel Hogan /

As more of our interactions become digital, the desire to translate them into a relationship is creating a faux familiarity that bugs me.

Acknowledge me, yes, but too often it slips over the line into something less appropriate. Tone is a tricky thing, and the gap between formal and familiar can be a couple of words. One tone doesn’t fit all.

Over time, things can and should change. After all, you’re getting to know me, the key phrase there being over time. You can’t get me from like to love overnight.

I once signed up for and quickly unsubscribed to a newsletter when the confirmation email felt way too personal. The company was pretending to be my friend, but they didn’t even know me. While treating people the way you’d treat your friends isn’t a bad rule of thumb (although I guess it depends on how you treat your friends), thinking I am your friend goes a step too far.

In a thoughtful piece about friendship on the Brain Pickings blog, Maria Popova categorises different types of relationships from acquaintances to friends. The latter reserved for those few “people with whom we are willing to share, not without embarrassment but without fear of judgment, our gravest imperfections and the most anguishing instances of falling short of our own ideals and values.”

By this definition, the introduction of a friend into the commercial world and social media landscape feels wrong.

A similar exercise of interrogation for organisations is a good idea because the age-old stakeholder groups don’t cut it anymore. Employees can be investors and partners can be customers. The internet of things has created interrelationships. Think about the people who orbit your universe. What groups would they fall into? Are there other more meaningful dimensions to influence how you engage with them?

How you talk to the people you engage with matters because a failure to communicate appropriately about the right things is the number one cause of problems organisations face.

To learn more about how to write better click here.

There’s a world of difference between using a friendly tone, talking to me as a person, not a data point and thinking I’m your friend.

If you’re wondering what appropriate looks like, I don’t know. I don’t know what the basis is for your relationship with the people you’re talking to, and that’s the key ingredient.

An example of a company getting it right went viral last week in the form of a fabulous cease letter from from Netflix to a couple of over-enthusiastic fans of the TV series Stranger Things.

Why does this work?

It talks to the people, as people, in a language they can appreciate. Without the lazy layering a faux familiarity onto it. And without sacrificing the critical part of the message – don’t hijack what we’re doing for your own purposes without permission.

It also demonstrates the “push it into the corners” thinking it takes to get a brand result people care about. So when you peel away the idea, engaging with people like they’re your friends, what are you left with?

See you next week.

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Michel Hogan

Michel Hogan is an independent brand thinker and adviser dedicated to helping you make promises you can keep and keep the promises you make — with a strong, resilient organisation and brand as the result. You can find Michel at michelhogan.com.

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