Transparency is the new black

How retailers can use transparency in marketing

In the digital world, being customer-centric is more important than ever before— and it was already incredibly important. Companies invest huge amounts of time and money in finding better ways to win and retain customers, and something that comes up often is transparency.

Being transparent is all about letting the customer in, being truthful about what you do and why you do it, and establishing an operational consistency that people can rely on. It’s something every retailer needs to embrace in its marketing efforts, and here’s how I suggest doing it:

Seek and learn from criticism.

When you have some kind of problem with your operation that might affect your business (or is already affecting it), you have two options: you can keep it quiet and address it internally, or you can openly comment on it through your marketing. Naturally, most companies would like to avoid mentioning negatives, but the latter option is often the better one (contrary to common perception, focusing on positives isn’t always the best approach). Here’s why:

If you avoid an issue that you know is going to irritate your customers, their perception of you is only going to get worse. Customers want to feel heard and know that their opinions are being taken into account. Ignoring, avoiding or minimising their concerns will leave them viewing you as negligent and indifferent, and very unlikely to want to hear from you again— but if you readily address them and show that you want to improve, you can turn negatives into positives.

Don’t oversell, but over deliver.

Product descriptions can really get out of hand if you’re not careful. There’s a fairly thin line between dressing up the truth and breaking it entirely. Imagine that you’re selling a phone accessory, and you put up promotional information that boldly states, “Compatible with any smartphone!” even though you’re not absolutely sure of that. Inevitably, someone will come along with a phone you’ve never heard of and find the compatibility lacking, leading them to take a very dim view of your business.

Then imagine instead simply putting “Compatible with most smartphones, including [list]. Contact us if you’re unsure”. You might not make quite as many sales, but you won’t run the risk of incurring complaints and returns from buyers irate that you misled them. In fact, you may just get a great review from someone who bought the accessory for a supported phone only to find that it also worked with an unlisted one. Be honest with what your products involve— it’s the best approach in the long run.

Use self-deprecation to win people over.

Ever since the rise of social media, turning even the driest of businesses into social-facing brands, the value of calculated informality and charming self-deprecation have become readily apparent. Because the line between individual and company is blurred online, users end up drawn to brands for the same reasons they’re drawn to friends: they like them, associate with them, and view them as honest and aware of their faults.

As a result, it can be incredibly effective to lampshade your more contrived tactics. You can still use all the tricks of the trade – apply pressure through social proof, draw people in with cryptic subject lines or use countdown timers – but whenever you think you might be getting too nakedly promotional, throw in a simple self-effacing remark about your sales tactics being a bit excessive. In doing so, you might just hang on to users who would otherwise have been angry with you but instead end up being empathetic.

Turn customers into advocates.

I touched upon the prospect of getting good reviews through providing customer experiences that overdeliver upon what you lead them to expect, and the added social proof of reviews isn’t the only benefit of that approach. In fact, it isn’t even the biggest benefit if you do it correctly, because that would be long-term customer loyalty and advocacy.

Why is this? Well, customer retention is a massive part of running a successful business of any kind, let alone in the commerce world where people have good reasons for spreading their purchasing around. Stats continue to show that recruiting new customers is much more expensive than keeping the ones you have, and that customers typically spend more through businesses they’ve used for some time.

The more you do to demonstrate to your customers that you’re willing to be transparent with them, the more loyalty you’ll engender, and the more eager they’ll be to not only stick with you but even defend and recommend you on an ongoing basis. Consider how powerful that can be – impress someone with influence in a relevant community, and they’ll single-handedly drive sales for you at no extra cost.

Transparency is all about winning trust, not only in the short term to yield a few sales but in the long term to retain a loyal customer base that loves what you do and will support you without you needing to ask. By working it into your marketing, you can cut down on the churn and earn a great brand reputation for years to come.

Victoria Greene is an e-commerce marketing expert and freelance writer who admires brands that embrace honesty. You can read more of her work at



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