It has rarely made sense for a business to advertise its weaknesses. Until the Web, that is.There is a book on Amazon called "Introducing Operations Management". It has received a one-star average from readers. One review begins: "I am a senior in college and I have used and read many, many textbooks but this is the worst one ever!"
Amazon sells books. The more books it sells the more money it makes. It doesn't seem to make sense that Amazon should allow customers to come to its website and tell other potential customers not to buy certain books.
Progressive is a successful American auto insurance company. On its homepage it provides the latest auto rates for itself and its competitors. Progressive is often cheaper but I saw numerous occasions where it was the more expensive option. That doesn't make sense, does it?
Hostelworld.com lets customers review the hostels they stay at. Dumil hostel in London gets this review: "Manager was very nice and understood he was running the worst hostel ever." Why does Hostel World allow this? Surely it is bad for business?
The truth is hard to come by, and it is particularly hard to come by when you want to buy something. We realize that most organizations that are selling to us are either exaggerating, omitting the truth, or outright lying.
That's why hearing from other customers is so reassuring. They're on our side. Of course, we know that not every customer review is truthful, but once there's enough of them, we can get a sense of the average-the collective intelligence.
"Dumil hostel is one of the best hostels in London for its price and area. We try to make sure that all our customers get more privacy and enjoy a pleasant stay," the marketing material says. However, one reviewer writes that, "This place was horrible!!! It was so dirty and I have never felt so unsafe in a place before."
The Web customer is savvier, educated, less gullible, more sceptical. The Web is illustrating that there is a place for honest business.
Much marketing and advertising is about association. We see cool, happy and beautiful people using a particular product. The association is that if we buy this product we too will become cool, happy and beautiful.
The Web is different. Not totally different, but different all the same. The Web is where people go to be informed. We're on the Web because we don't believe the hype, because we want to get some more facts. We're driven by logic not by impulse.
We trust the reviews of other customers because they're like us, and we know that organizations lie to us. When we arrive at a website like progressive.com, we are surprised and impressed by its honesty.
Honesty is selling on the Web. Honest websites are not better because they are morally superior but because they are more believable and trustworthy. The customer has matured. The customer is better educated, better informed.
These are interesting times. Society is moving to another level of sophistication, and marketing must learn to follow.
Gerry McGovern, a content management author and consultant
, has spoken, written and consulted extensively on writing for the web and web content management issues since 1994.