How To Corrupt The Social Data You’re Gathering (And Kill Your Focus Group In The Process)

The trend du jour for virtually bringing people together (with no actual physical or emotional commitment) is inside the protective walls of a secret, members-only group on a certain social network. Sometimes this is under the aegis of a brand, while, at other times, the group forms spontaneously — creating a ready-made focus group for […]

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The trend du jour for virtually bringing people together (with no actual physical or emotional commitment) is inside the protective walls of a secret, members-only group on a certain social network.

Sometimes this is under the aegis of a brand, while, at other times, the group forms spontaneously — creating a ready-made focus group for marketers. But whether you’re running one of these groups or simply “listening” or participating, marketers must be fully transparent to avoid becoming a cautionary tale — like the one I’ll tell you about in today’s column.

The “Secret” Group

I recently became a part of such a club for Elite Flyers of a certain airline – we’ll call it Airline X. I was tipped off about this private group by someone sitting next to me on a flight and within hours, after satisfying the exacting admission standards, I was propelled into a world of people just like me.


Within days, I was consumed by the fact that there seemed to be so many kindred spirits. I was amazed and overjoyed that there was a place where the top tier met and kanoodled.

I noticed the “group” included some people I knew, along with others I didn’t know — Chief Executives and Chief Marketers along with other chiefs. There are a lot of Chiefs out there flying the bigwig skies. It felt like Skull and Bones. Or, since I am not in Skull and Bones, what my perception of Skull and Bones might be.

Second Thoughts

Then, I started to notice some interesting things occurring in this supposedly independent group.

I noticed when a complaint about Airline X would come through, certain people seemed to suffer from the social “knight-in-shining-armor syndrome,” meaning they would defend the corporate position over and over.

When I started peeling back the onion, I noticed the knight-in-shining-armor people had some social ties to the Airline X. Often, there would be a post seeking specific feedback from the group about a company service offering. Since there were no disclosures about airline employees being in the group, and since the process of being accepted to this group was quite elaborate (you had to prove your elite flier status), this got me wondering who was running this thing.

One day the fit really hit the shan when Airline X announced a very big change to its frequent flier policy that wasn’t well received by the group. The “admins” of the group announced there would be a call with airline management so members could share feedback with the company. A long thread with direct, heartfelt and often emotional feedback was offered for this magical call that was yet to be scheduled. If such a call was being scheduled, surely the airline execs would listen and take customers’ thoughts into account, right? Um… nope.

Some time went by, and I discovered the call had apparently taken place (how dare they) without me. The unnamed airline execs had ignored the list of group members’ demands, and came back with their own list.

Conspiracy theories flew around like mad, a splinter social group was formed, and the move incited the kind of social outrage we saw when Netflix hiked up its rates.

Through the group’s administrators, the members were told to stop making fun of the airline, to stop making inside jokes, and to stop posting pictures of kittens and feet in order to be taken seriously. In exchange for better behavior, group members were offered, well… nothing.

As a marketer, I looked at the list of demands with bewilderment. You just told your *best* customers (via an unpaid third-party) to behave themselves and stop messing with your data feed?

Secrets Of The Secret Group


And that’s when it occurred to me that I should Google some of the people in this “customer group.” Sure enough, I found: airline employees, friends of employees, people that had been invited to special boondoggles and, drum roll please, the head of social media for the airline. Well, isn’t that a nice how do you do!?

The only thing that surprises me here is the lack of transparency about these ostensible group members. Why all the cloak and dagger? This complaint isn’t about the airline or even the group itself. When I complain about something in social media, I’m not complaining in the hopes of resolution (that wish has long since passed), I’m complaining to commiserate with others — and, hopefully, to illustrate to the wider world of marketers what not to do.

Loyalty, Schmoyalty

Rather than feeling warm and fuzzy about the airline, people in this group now not only wonder who’s listening and might be taking retribution for negative posts, but whether the content has been either directly or indirectly seeded as market research (or heaven knows what else) for the company in question.

So, it turns out my elite secret group, which seemed so promising, is really just a corporate blog. And it will continue on, with the occasional useful thread about carrying liquids or pets on the plane, but the real irony here is the more “focused” and “guided” the discussion is, the more any learnings garnered will now be soiled by the very presence of the brand. Responses will be tempered and, as more people “discover” the presence of employees and brand managers, the more they will feel betrayed. The data gatherers would have better luck with a mall psychic in the Jersey ‘burbs.

So what lessons are to be learned here? Transparency is the foundation for building a social relationship. When I say transparent, I mean, don’t bury the facts in your terms and conditions. Comedian John Oliver recently said that Apple could put the entire text of “Mein Kampf” in their user agreement and people would still click agree. But even if your customers have legally opted in to live in a Fascist state, you’re not winning any loyalty by forcing them to abide by terms they haven’t really read.

After all, it’s a lot easier to mute a social group than to abandon the fruit company. If you want to have a presence among the people, wear it proudly. There is a big difference between listening to your best customers and lurking among them to gather information; in the former, you have initiated a meaningful dialogue, while the latter will leave your customers feeling like lab rats.


P.S. I would like to add that the Airline X is awesome, so please don’t put me on the super-secret-never-again-to-clear-an-upgrade list because I said something bad on your Facebook page. Additionally, it would be cool if you looped me in to any super-secret discussions about me in meetings.

P.P.S. Just to recap, love the airline, want to keep getting the occasional upgrades, you can do anything you want to me, I will continue to complain about it incessantly, but since I have little choice but to take it all, that is exactly what I am going to do. Put that in your social analytics pipe and smoke it.

P.P.P.S. Please disregard the pipe smoking comment above — I totally meant the thing about the upgrade list.

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Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily MarTech. Staff authors are listed here.

About the author

Kevin Ryan
Kevin Ryan is CEO of Motivity Marketing. Motivity ‘s focus is helping companies in the world of connected marketing move forward with greater impact and return than they may ever have thought possible. Kevin takes an active role in guiding the day-to-day strategic execution of client initiatives.

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