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Are All Passionate Fans Worth Listening To?

A few days ago, I managed to wade into a bit of a crapstorm that we’ll just call the Ikea Verdana Incident of 2009 (AKA Verdanagate). I heard last week about Ikea’s decision to stop using their customized version of Futura and switch to more universally available Verdana for their catalog. Now if that last sentence sounded a bit like ancient Greek to you, don’t be alarmed. Futura and Verdana are fonts and apparently Ikea’s decision has been construed by certain circles as one more sign that the apocalypse is upon us.

Here in the States, this news has been covered by Time, NPR (via Associated Press), and BusinessWeek. Meanwhile, other than this article from The Swedish Wire, there is very little hubbub about this in Sweden, where Ikea is based. And even more interesting is this article from the Norwegian Afterposten (translate) where some groups actually are welcoming the font change decision.

So, what’s going on here? And what is the connection between Ikea, their customers and their passionately loyal fans? Further, what how does this relate to other businesses that engaging in the work of creating strong relationships with their customers?

Passionate fans or passionate customers?
One of my core issues with this whole imbroglio is that the most enraged folks – graphic designers and typographers – are being labeled as Ikea’s most passionate fans. I’m certainly not going to devalue their feelings over the use of Verdana font (because it really isn’t as attractive as Futura) or dispute their disappointment with the company (their ideals concerning design have merit). They have every right to have their opinion and share it with others. But I think it’s incredibly lazy and disingenuous to call these very same designers and typographers Ikea’s most passionate fans. That ignores Ikea’s passionate customers who not only provide strong word-of-mouth, but actually purchase the company’s products. Sometimes passionate fans don’t sit in the same circle as passionate customers.

Which passionate fans are worth listening to?
Each of the news items above – along with several blogposts from folks I respect like Jackie Huba – make the mistake of assuming that all voiced outcries on the web are equal. In this case, a relatively small number of designers are treated as being the definitive source for whether Ikea’s decision was sound. But what about those individuals who shop the stores and purchase from the catalog and online? What do they think about all of this? Well, what’s interesting is that none of the bloggers or mainstream media sources bothered to ask that question and talk to actual customers. The assumption seems to be that any outrage, regardless of where it originates, constitutes the end-all, be-all of the discussion.

What this suggests about journalism…and our own media consumption
Somewhere along the way, journalists decided to gather one angle of a story and just stop there. Nothing new there – this point has been lamented for the past decade or so. Literally, none of the stories about “Verdanagate” bothered to include perspectives from customers. And it would have been so easy to gather this information. Hell, if journalists wanted to stay lazy, they could have just asked the average “person on the street” to take a look at the catalog and ask if they noted any problems. Or they could have went to the local Ikea store and gathered opinions.

Why the hell wasn’t the Ikea customer community involved?
IKEAFANS is an online community of 112,000 members. It’s unaffiliated with the Ikea corporation, but still a fantastic example of truly passionate customers coming together to share their love for all things Ikea. If this whole font issue is going to be a problem for passionate customers, this would be the first place to look for trending, right? I spoke with Susan Martin, one of the community managers for founder and owner of IKEAFANS and there has been zero chatter on their forums and blogs. Meaning that the people Ikea should be most concerned about don’t give a hoot about Verdana or Futura…they simply want the same quality of furniture they’ve come to expect from the company. It’s truly a damn shame that no one bothered to ask Susan or her community members for their thoughts.

The tyranny of the instantaneous (and the minority)
What’s somewhat more troubling is that far too many respected bloggers covering word-of-mouth and online marketing just blithely accepted the mainstream media’s portrayal of the issue. There was little critical thinking along the lines of “Wait! Does this actually constitute a problem for Ikea’s business?”

All of which leads to something that is causing me some concern. Is social media and our demands for instantaneous opinion undercutting our ability to think deeply about issues? It’s taken me a couple of days to put together this post because I needed to research the issue and think through different perspectives. Will I miss out on the buzz of the Ikea font debate? Maybe, but this post is really not so much about Ikea as it is about the issues it surfaces.

Are we suffering from thought erosion?
And another problem I see arising with social media is how easily a minority of individuals can grab public attention and convince us that their way of seeing things constitutes the majority. When our own attention is so scattered and thin, it’s not hard to see why this is. In nature, when plants are unable to take root in the soil it’s called erosion. Similarly, when critical thinking doesn’t have time to take root in our minds, we might call it thought erosion.

What are your thoughts? Should a company listen to every passionate fan? Maybe so, but should it alter its course of action when core customers are not among the vocal critics? Hope we can have a passionate and deep dialogue about this here.

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Micro Center And The Art Of A Good Apology

The ever-wonderful Jackie Huba pointed me to this example of a company who understands the value of monitoring their brand on the web. Turns out Jacque Jo at girlofwords loves Micro Center but had a world-class crappy experience and blogged about it. She presented the good folks at Micro Center a gift and they graciously accepted. How? Ed Lukens, the company’s Marketing Communications Manager, within a day simply apologized to her via the comments on her blog. And then Jacque Jo responded with a terrific followup post. And there was Ed again thanking her for her kind words.

Business leaders…care to know what I did after reading this? I went to see where my nearest Micro Center is located (sadly, none in Austin). But I now know I can buy online from them and I’m inclined to make Micro Center my first stop when shopping for electronics.

All it took was a conscientious employee monitoring the discussions for their brand and rectifying any complaints with a swift apology. Easy, right? Then why don’t more businesses do this? Look at how something so simple as an apology can create passionate customers.

Kudos to you, Ed. I hope your management appreciates the work you’re doing.

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