Generally speaking, it used to be quite transparent when a secretary or another company representative communicated with a relation on behalf of someone else. Nowadays, that is absolutely not the case, especially when this is done via LinkedIn. There are companies that communicate via someone else’s account with existing and new connections for business traffic purposes. Meanwhile, the relations do not realize that these companies work as intermediaries.
The relations think that the messages are sent directly by that specific person. The same goes for the automatic messages they receive, which do not clearly state that those were sent by a bot. Or the thumb ups and reactions that we see under the posts of others, but which are arranged by the intermediaries as well.
In times of eidentity
Meanwhile, the intermediaries have access to masses of information, including data from competing customers. How do they deal with that? As far as I’m concerned, this is extremely problematic, especially in times of eidentity when the question is raised whether even parties such as DocuSign operate securely enough.
The services raise the question of whether digital identities, including via LinkedIn, may be exchanged and used by others, for example for business purposes. In other words, whether these practices have integrity or not. Whether we should be seriously concerned or not. Not to mention common sense, namely that the relations are being fooled. By the way, I am focusing on LinkedIn for this argument. It goes without saying that this story can be the same for every other social media network.
Now, I can’t blame the companies that specialize in (fake) thumb ups, followers, reactions, engagement, community built up and business development for doing what they do. After all, they are entrepreneurs. They have identified opportunities and they are aware that people want to get more out of passive or new connections. They respond to the fact that there are only so many hours in the work week to be active. That generally speaking, LinkedIn and business development have become a real jungle and survival of the fittest in any industry.
In other words, who is the first to present the services to the relations? Who knows best how to feed the relations, preferably structurally over a longer period of time, according to what the relations should be presented within the different stages of this process (the well-known funnel structures and content for the marketers among us)? Who spends the most time, effort and budget on influencing the perceptions of the relations? Who is likable enough to get what? And so on.
Technological limitlessness and skewed algorithms
You can blame the intermediaries for how they handle these kinds of activities, more about that in a moment. First, it is crucial that the market knows that this exists, that there is a risk of detriment and that people are allowed to demand something as common standards. The market can then determine whether these services are a good idea or not. Perhaps the majority of the market will come to the conclusion that these services are bad the way they are now and that these activities are not in line with the morality, ethics and integrity that the market wants to stand for.
Hopefully, the majority of the market will at least come to better regulation and terms and conditions. A bit similar, perhaps, to how things have evolved in the world of influencer marketing in the past years, namely that transparency and other requirements for endorsements have been established more and more.
Selling subscriptions for relationship management and so-called monetization of people’s LinkedIn networks is not just something that intermediaries should be able to do without laws and regulations. Because let’s be honest: that is happening now. Legally and ethically speaking, it has a theory full of holes. One of the reasons for this is that it is a fairly new concept in the wondrous era of ever-expanding technological limitlessness and skewed algorithms.
Asking more questions
I’m not a lawyer, so I’ll leave that part for what it is. I am a storyteller and consultant who connects reputation and stakeholder management to integrity and well-being. So let me come back to how the intermediaries are doing storytelling now. I have seen it up close via a relation of mine. I also approached a few intermediaries to ask questions.
My relation used the intermediary to sell tickets for an event and to gain more followers for the company page. However, the related account manager also used the LinkedIn account to like posts from his customers. Posts that detract from the professionalism of my relation because they were completely off-topic. In one day, my relation had unknowingly placed forty thumb ups.
When asked about it, the answer was that it had probably been discussed with my relation, but there was so much information given during the onboarding that it might not have landed properly – shifting responsibility? Next: customers like each other’s posts. If a customer doesn’t want to give thumb ups to others, they won’t get thumb ups back.
The questions I asked: how do you deal with confidentiality and sensitive information, especially with competitors? How can customers know that you are not sharing sensitive information? How do you deal with the power structures of the small versus large players in the market? Do you use a concept that works well for one customer for another? How do I know that my connections – treated with sincerity, a personal touch and professionalism for 17+ years – won’t be shared with competitors who, for example, use methodologies and a database approach that I don’t support?
Suppose customers sign a contract with the intermediary, in which data and secrecy is somewhat recorded. How can they check that you actually comply with what has been agreed on? What do you cover in the general terms and conditions and why? Above all, why don’t you openly state that you are behind the communication? Why not implement that as a standard way of working? I could have asked even more questions.
Business growth as a proposition? I understand. Nor am I the type that sends the advertising code commission to fellow entrepreneurs. I am certainly not the type to measure up fellow entrepreneurs through legal means. And I’m not the type to get involved with disgraced or political motives. Those are others who do so. I stay on my path and just want to ask questions and share concerns.
The intermediaries and their services are part of a greater tendency. A world of deep fakes. A world with the metaverse. In other words, virtual, augmented and mixed reality. In short, a world in which communication and storytelling through technology can raise ethical issues.
I hope to inspire a large group of people to think about how they want to handle those intermediaries. The group in between the extremely dark types (including dark triad) and the extremely strong types. Because that group will have to show whether contradiction, standing for something and communicating with integrity and humanity in business, will be embraced on a large scale. I’m curious to see the outcome.
The Dutch version of this article was published by Boom Management.