Improve your business strategy through transparency

Right now, I want to talk to you not as a business owner but as a consumer. As a consumer, we want human experiences. We want experiences were we feel valued and where we feel connected. That’s why we so highly we value brands that make us laugh or teach us something. We appreciate interactions where we feel understood. I’d go so far as to say we crave brands that make us feel understood. Shit, I know I do. It’s human nature to feel like we belong that we’re among others who are like us and get us.

Numbers, metrics and the design department

In business, in marketing and even in design, we often look at numbers, analytics, conversions, and all sorts of KPIs. I find these numbers to be impersonal and detached. At the same time, I don’t think we look enough on impact. As of right now, I haven’t found a specific metric to measure connection or impact. It’s a difficult thing to KPI. Although customer loyalty is a decent one to start with.

I can understand why we may ignore then so often. The effects of this impact are nearly impossible to measure compared to, say, click-through rates. We know that’s what makes the most significant impact on our bottom lines.

In design, it’s a little different. We always have to think about the end-user. We’re often empathetic and try to stand up for the user in company meetings. That’s why we do user research and testing. We look at our work a little differently. That’s why we argue for more emotional micro-copy, and features that users need instead of robot speak and features that just sound cool (how valid). I don’t see why that view can’t be adapted in other departments also. I don’t see why it can’t be a business strategy in itself.

This brings me back to the topic of this post’s title, transparency. What if transparency was a business strategy? Now, transparency is a broad term. I’m going to keep it that way because it means different things to different businesses and its people.

For SumAll, it means transparency about their salaries. For Buffer, it means building a transparent cultural environment by being open about wages, equities, real-time company financials, pricing, emails and a whole lot more. For Groove, it meant creating a blog sharing its struggles in keeping its doors open. For Everlane, it means talking about their factories and the cost of goods. For WholeFoods, it continues with fighting against GMO products. For Patagonia, it means to manufacture a quality product as safely as possible for the environment.

Now let’s circle back to the introductory paragraph. Think again like a consumer: you want a human experience, short of an actual relationship with the brands you buy. You want to feel understood, entertained and connected. As a business person, you can give this to your customers by being transparent.

Can transparency be a competitive advantage?

Abso-fucking-lutly. How many companies are transparent at the core? The list is short, and I had to do some Googling. SumAll, Buffer, Groove, Everlane, Patagonia, WholeFood, Baremetrics… Although I’m sure there are others, the list is still unbelievably short!

In all honesty, I think it’s stupid that transparency can be a competitive advantage. But, business is business, so I digress here. At the same time, transparency is still a competitive advantage. Think about that. Let that sink in.

What can your company be transparent about? How can you connect with your audience on a human level? What can you share with your customers or prospects that will make them feel understood by you? What can you be open about that will resonate with your target audience?

Why be transparent?

There are many reasons for transparency such as to be open with your customers (Buffer), to connect with your customers on a personal level (SumAll), to prove your efforts in a cause (think Patagonia or WholeFoods), to generate more eyeballs on your blog (Groove).

Whatever the case may be for you, I have to tell you two things. First, if transparency isn’t part of your core strategy, don’t bother. You’ll lose interest in this campaign after a few months just like everyone lost interest in Periscope. Second, it will become evident that it wasn’t real and it will end up doing you a disservice.

If transparency is vital to your business, do it for your company. Do it because you want to be open and connected to your kind of people. Maybe because you want to start honest conversations. Or just do it because you want your customers (potential, current or recurring) to know the people who they are doing business with. Let’s get into some examples of companies embracing transparency in their core strategy, to give you some brainstorming ideas for your own company. First up, Groove.

How Groove’s blog saved their company

Like many companies and especially startups, Groove ran into serious growth issues. They weren’t growing at all and were close to shutting down; they build and rebuild, but nothing moved the needle. Eventually, the Grove team decided to give content marketing a try and started a blog. Again, the needle didn’t move. Alex Turnbull, the founder and CEO, was growing frantic. He decided to give blogging one more chance but this time treated it as a product problem.

He spoke to Groove’s target audience to learn what they wanted to read about. It turned out it was the same issues Groove was dealing with at the time including cash flow, hiring, product, marketing, and growth challenges.

Holy shit. These people are going through exactly the same things as we are.

Alex Turnbull

Alex decided to write about those exact issues. But, to make a deeper connection with the readers, he also needed to share Groove’s numbers, Groove’s snuggles, Groove’s wins, even if there weren’t many.

If we wanted it to be truly authentic and transparent, we decided, we’d have to actually share our own numbers (which, at the time, were embarrassingly bad).

Alex Turnbull

They launched a blog called A SaaS Startup’s Journey to $100,000 a Month. Of course, they weren’t idle about incoming traffic. They reached out to influencers to get the initial word about the blog and to the small businesses which they did their research with. Over the next three years, their blog helped them build a $5.5 million/year business. (That number is from January 2017.) Grove is still growing today. Their next milestone is $6 million a year. They are very close. If you want to know exactly how they’re growing, read their blog. It’s all there.

One of the most common feedback Groove and Alex receive about the blog is that many people were thankful that their resource existed. Groove themselves wished this blog was available for them when they were starting out. They decided to go through with the idea, so others don’t have to struggle with these issues in the dark.

On their blog, Groove shared their lessonswinsfailuresmistakes and so on. This helped their audience connect with them. On top of that, it helped their audience to know what and who Groove is.

To further prove my point, I want to tell you a quick side note. I have personally never used Groove. I know about the company from their blog. And, I’m advocating for them because of it. I’m not the only one.

Improve your business strategy the Everlane way

Michael Preysman founded Everlane back in 2010. Everlane’s competitive advantage lies in its complete transparency of its pricing model and manufacturing process. For each item the company sells, albeit it a shoe or a sweater, they tell you the cost of materials and labour. This is the true cost of the product. Then, they share the true price and the profit for Everlane. Furthermore, anyone can read about Everlane’s factories. You can learn about the location, its working condition, what they are manufacturing there, and so on. You can read about what initiatives Everlane has in place for each specific factory.

Everlane even designed their office with openness in mind. There are no closed off offices and communal lunch tables. Preysman goes so far into transparency that when the company holds events in their office, nothing is off limits to the visitors. Honestly, that’s pretty damn cool. Everyone is curious, and when you attend an event, it’s nice to feel that you saw something awesome from the company. We’re all a little nosy or curious. It’s a great feeling when you get a little peek.

My favorite thing is when we host an event and customers walk into the production area and start looking at things. And we don’t say no. I’ve always believed that being more open, although it sometimes feels reckless, is the right strategy for the long term.

Michael Preysman

The company launched a small campaign in June 2017 on Instagram #FactoryFriday. Once a week, they profile factory workers. They post a photo of a worker or factory owner and a little blurb about them. The campaign launched with Franca, an Italian leather maker. There was also Lê Văn Dương, Mã Mỹ Linh, and Trãn Thị Mỹ Hạnh from a Vietnamese denim factory.

Everlane did get some criticism about not being as transparent as it seems. For instance, they claim to assess every factory through rigorous compliance audits but don’t explain what those are. In all honesty, I don’t think it matters. They are transparent enough about the costs of manufacturing and other factors that they gained a lot of traction quickly. If anything, it shows how some transparency goes a long way in building trust and connection with one’s customers.

I’m not suggesting you have to share everything there is to share. Most people couldn’t care less about how much coffee your office is chugging weekly. I’m suggesting you share things that will resonate with your audience, make them trust and connect with you. In Everlance’s case, it’s the pricing transparency.

Buffer’s aim for an all transparent culture

I wanted to save the best for last. Buffer is taking transparency to another level. They have a transparency dashboard dedicated to its different transparency initiatives such as salary, and equity formulasrevenue and pricing breakdowns, all the way to the books Buffer’s employees are reading.

Joel Gascoigne, Buffer’s CEO, explains that sharing lessons learned has always been a thing that happened at Buffer. Over time, this opens to share developed into their current radical transparency movement. Gascoigne explains that transparency helped the company tremendously. Transparency helped Buffer breed trust, improve innovations, promote equality and fairness and it opened the door to more, quality feedback.

Transparency breeds trust, and trust is the foundation of great teamwork.

Joel Gascoigne

What about transparency during times of hardship?

Buffer admit that it’s not always easy to be so publicly open about its failures. There were layoffstraffic losses and that time they got hacked too. However, Courtney Seiter, Buffer’s Director of People, believes that during hard times, transparency helps you thrive.

Of course, it’s not easy to share the hard to learn lessons, failures or shortcomings. Just like it was essential to Groove to share its embarrassing numbers and their failures, it’s vital to Buffer to share its hardships too.

When you show your mistakes, you make yourself vulnerable. And—somehow, counterintuitively—that makes others want to cheer for you.

Courtney Seiter

The takeaway

Seriously sit down, by yourself and with your team, and think about how becoming transparent with your audience can help boost your business. In the long run, it will help. Transparency works to build following, it helps people connect with you, it helps increase brand loyalty, it adds humanity to a faceless company.