In an effort to boost its ad marketing platform aimed at television advertisers, Twitter fabricated positive comments from several users. The company apologized, but only after the SF Gate newspaper outed these fake testimonials.
As Twitter well knows, user testimonials occupy a significant role in enterprise marketing. For technology vendors, genuine quotes from real buyers convert abstract, conceptual sales pitches into meaningful statements of product importance and relevance.
Testimonials give a vendor credibility, while encouraging potential buyers and industry analysts to pay attention. For this reason, enterprise vendors spend substantial time and effort cultivating their customers to provide references. Large companies such as SAP, Microsoft, and Oracle, for example, have teams of people dedicated to this task.
These so-called reference teams pay special attention to finding legitimate customers who will tell their story. It is hard to imagine a vendor completely fabricating a story: aside from being dishonest and breaking the bonds of trust, it's just too easy to be caught, a fact that Twitter has discovered.
Of course, fabricating a tweet is not the same as offering a detailed customer reference, but Twitter was founded on principles of transparency and honesty, which Wired calls an "unwritten rule of authenticity."
Given the importance of customer references, I asked prominent members of the enterprise community for their views.
Lora Kratchounova, Principal at public relations firm Scratch Marketing + Media, notes the importance of trust in any relationship with customers:
Marketing today is about trust. Customers trust that you will deliver today and tomorrow. Fabrications break the bond of trust; when you have to fake it, something is wrong. This was probably someone's dumb mistake, but it changes our perception of Twitter as a trustworthy company.
Steve Mann, Chief Marketing Officer at legal information supplier LexisNexis, echoes the notion of authenticity and trust between brands and consumers:
I find extremely ironic that Twitter, one of the engines behind the social media revolution, violated a principle they helped establish, that of authenticity and trust between brands and its consumers. When consumers fail to have authentic interactions with brands, they lose trust in those brands. Once trust is broken, consumers tend to go elsewhere.
Brian sommer, President of analyst firm TechVentive, explains the importance of genuine customer references to industry analysts:
User references are second only to an analyst’s own channel checks for understanding what a tech product actually does, doesn’t do, or do well. Moreover, these references put a customer’s face to the interaction they personally had with the vendor. References that have been bought, fabricated, or manipulated to offer less than the full truth of the customer’s experience aren’t worth the paper they’re written on.
Christian Gheorghe, founder and CEO of enterprise analytics and performance management vendor, Tidemark, explains that the companies must earn customers' trust:
Trust is no long vendor-driven; today, it is grassroots and customer-driven. The vendor must earn that trust through transparency, creating value, and allowing the customer's voice to drive the vendor's activities and product. The customer's voice goes through everything our company does.
Jarret Pazahanick, SAP Mentor and Managing Partner of HR technology consulting firm EIC Experts, offers advice to enterprise buyers seeking references:
Every customer asks for references — they want to know that other customers use the product and are happy with it. If a vendor has no references, that's a red flag. Potential buyers should get vendor references and then ask to speak off the record with those users.
Eric Kimberling, Managing Partner at independent ERP consulting firm Panorama Consulting Solutions, agrees that honest references are critical to buyers of enterprise software:
There is no substitute for hearing about the real-life experiences from actual companies that have implemented the enterprise software you may be considering. Underneath all the vendor sales and marketing flash is the reality of what past enterprise software buyers have experienced, so it is important to take the time to conduct due diligence with real-life customers.
The value of references to enterprise buyers is clear. Imagine the fallout if a large enterprise vendor fabricated fake tweets in a blog post; the situation would quickly rise to the level of crisis. For some reason, Twitter has gotten off lightly and I'm not sure why.
To those vendors who work daily to cultivate honest customer references, I applaud your tenacity and encourage your continued good work.
On a lighter note, the Fake Tweeter Builder lets you fabricate tweets with an authentic look. Here's an example: