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Harvard Business Review

When Annoying Your Customers is Best Practice

Posted on Harvard Business Review: January 20, 2012 10:20 AM

Outrageous? Gimmicky? Obnoxious? Perhaps. But the cleverly coordinated web protests against SOPA and PIPA are better described as the in-your-face future of “Corporate Social Responsibility” marketing. Call it “Annoy-vation.”

The New York Times was wrong (of course) when it declared the protests “A Political Coming of Age for The Tech Industry.” That’s laughable; the substantive issues underlying the controversial legislations are sideshows. No, the real story here is the willingness so many companies displayed — Wikipedia going dark; Google’s logo blackout — to irk, irritate and/or annoy their users into awareness about a cause that infuriated them. What a novel twist to that famous saying that “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” These protests unambiguously let hundreds of millions of users all over the world know how much they cared about these potential laws.

Workers can strike; consumers can boycott; and firms traditionally lobby and/or advertise around causes and principles that matter. The digital agility of web technologies, however, offer particular powers to companies seeking to provocatively make a point. With apologies to the Occupy Wall Street crowd (that’s meant ironically), the SOPA/PIPA protests are how the 1% take over a seemingly public place to rebel against a seeming injustice.

Of course, MPAA Chairman, CEO and former Senator Christopher Dodd warned/whined that the blackouts were a “dangerous gimmick” and a “stunt,” not to mention an “irresponsible abuse of power.” But this reaction from SOPA’s ostensible rival industry reveals more about the apparent effectiveness of this digital cause-related marketing effort than its legality, morality or ethics. After all, it’s unclear why public protests by private enterprise should be more “dangerous” or “gimmicky” than sweetheart deals cut behind closed Congressional doors. The web organizations inflicted their unhappiness upon their public because they thought their misery would successfully get company. They appear to be right.

The logical question is whether this sort of corporate “hacktivism” will emerge as a new normal for cause marketing worldwide. If more customers are intrigued than exasperated by such innovative intrusiveness, who knows what Google Bombs or IEDs — Internet-Enabled-Diatribes — might emerge to champion future positions? After all, one industry’s “dirty trick” is another’s savvy guerrilla marketing tactic. No great leaps of imagination are required to craft scenarios where banks, retailers, health care providers and food companies obtrusively leverage their digital assets to raise customer consciousness. Why not emulate success?

Media annoyvations are hardly unique to the net. Politically correct television networks consistently inject their pet projects directly into their programming. For years, NBC/Universal promoted its “Green Week” celebrating the importance of environmental virtue by placing it in sitcom plotlines and nightly news specials alike. CBS has pervasive “CBS Cares” public service announcements promoting all manner of benign do-gooderism including colonoscopies, osteoporosis and prostate health. Whether customers actually enjoy or appreciate these promotions is beside the point.

The “Corporate Social Responsibility” trope has become a global invitation for enterprise worldwide to utilize every medium at its disposal to publicize causes that support the brand, the business or some theme a significant minority of employees care about. Some of these CSR campaigns are quiet, classy and low-key; others shriek with self-promotion and self-importance. The most important common denominator is that organizations want to be seen as championing a cause.

What’s different — and so fascinating — about the blackout protests is their unashamed and uninhibited presumptuousness for their cause. They don’t simply irritate or intrude, they outright impose their principles and point-of-view upon their customers. They’ve made intrusively communicating their (legitimate) priorities more important than serving their customers’ (legitimate) needs.

Is this tactically brilliant but strategically unwise? Or is it tactically stupid but strategically smart?

Is it good business practice to annoy your customers to make an important point about your cause?

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Copyright © 2012 Harvard Business School Publishing. All rights reserved. Harvard Business Publishing is an affiliate of Harvard Business School.

Michael Schrage is a researcher at MIT Sloan School's Center for Digital Business and a visiting fellow at the Imperial College Business School

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