The Wall Street Journal is reporting on the settlement of a lawsuit that Apple & Steve Jobs filed against Nicholas Ciarelli, a student at Harvard who ran an on-line site that reported on Apple product news and rumors called “Think Secret.” Apple wanted to know the source of some significant product information leaks; those were never revealed. Wall Street Journal reports, “Mr. Jobs never got the names of Mr. Ciarelli’s sources, but he got part of what he wanted: Think Secret will stop publishing as part of a settlement Mr. Ciarelli and Apple announced today.” You can read the full article here:
This lawsuit brings up an interesting dilemma for marketers who are serious about consumer engagement. Part of consumer engagement is allowing – even encouraging – fans to build communities where they can talk about your products. It deepens the bond with the brand and strengthens customer loyalty.
But what about confidentiality? Trade secrets? There are serious competitive issues (not to mention a whole host of free speech and other judicial questions) to be considered. But let’s stick with the question of active consumer engagement. Other companies have run into this problem and it is one that needs to be managed carefully. In my experience, it pays to build relationships with those hosting such sites. These people can be seen as HUGE assets, not liabilities. If people are going to talk about you anyway, wouldn’t you like to have a seat at the table? I’m not saying that Apple doesn’t work with their community. Of course they do, many times with tremendous skill. There may have been no way to avoid this lawsuit. But there are marketing lessons to be learned.
I think of my own experiences, most notably with LEGO. LEGO has a huge fan base, with fan sites too numerous to count. There was direct interaction between the Marketing Department and the fans. In addition, there was a whole team of people devoted to developing and managing those community relations, building a mutual trust, finding ways both parties could benefit and, yes, working actively to avoid the kinds of sticky situations the Wall Street Journal article discusses. One guy who worked masterfully with LEGO fans while I was there now devotes all his time to helping companies think through, manage, and build community relations (you can find him at Communityguy.com).
Community management is an important part of your marketing efforts. It can have a huge, positive impact in building buzz about your product before it launches (hmm, kinda like when the iPhone came out). But if you don’t manage the relationships, you can end up on opposite sides of a lawyer’s conference room table (kinda like Steve Jobs and Think Secret did).
Make sure you actively work with your customer base, not against them.