Anonymous gossip apps a headache for brands? Not yet

The pack of scuttlebutt-sharing apps such as Whisper and Secret are not keeping communicators up at night - but that could change.

Corporate and digital communications professionals say the rise of anonymous messaging apps such as Whisper and Secret pose minimal risk to company reputations – at least in their current nascent stages.

Yet some contend they do complicate social media monitoring and are indicative of an underlying shift in how consumers are using social media.

Various entrepreneurs and startups have introduced apps that allow people to communicate while cloaking their identities. Secret, created by two former Google engineers, enables users to post confessions to people listed on their phone’s contact list – so the service is not quite as anonymous as some of its rivals. Recipients who "like" a particular secret can then spread the message to everyone on their contact list.

Another app, Whisper, allows anyone to post an anonymous message as well as to respond publicly or privately to messages. Yik Yak is yet another such app, but it uses the GPS in a phone to set up geographical parameters.

Earlier this week, actress Gwyneth Paltrow and her husband, Coldplay singer Chris Martin, split up. She had denied rumors of an affair with an entertainment lawyer that first surfaced on Whisper.

Jeff Beringer, global practice leader for digital at GolinHarris, says at this point "the amount of brand-related chatter – especially chatter that is damaging – is fairly small in these kinds of venues."

"More often, you will find folks talking about their work, relationships, and other sensitive topics that may be too personal to share on Facebook, Twitter, or other identifiable networks," he says.

Beringer adds that these apps have rigidly walled gardens.

"With a few exceptions of posts, there is little sharing or syndication of content to other properties," he explains. "These posts don’t yet have a dramatic impact on search visibility. Google and other search engines are still a primary tool for starting research on companies and specific products, and for now, posts such as tweets, blog articles, Tumblr ramblings, and Wikipedia entries generally index highly."

"If and when the content in these networks becomes user-searchable and accessible outside, brands will need to pay much closer attention," Beringer adds. 

Indeed, these apps are looking at ways to extend the reach of some of their content.

Whisper, which in January recruited Neetzan Zimmerman from Gawker to be its editor-in-chief, will reportedly announce a deal with BuzzFeed on April 1 that would allow the media site to scroll Whisper for ideas that could be fodder for news articles.

Allison Knaupe, SVP of digital and creative at Hill+Knowlton Strategies, says because the apps are so new, it is hard to predict how clients may have to respond to them.

"Their general philosophies go against what, for many years, we as communications professionals have been telling our clients: be transparent because you'll eventually get found out online," she says. "Unsourced complaints are to consumer service departments what unsourced articles are to researchers: useless."

Yet Knaupe says these apps could be a bigger factor for companies’ internal communications plans. While Whisper is used largely by college and high-school students, Secret has become popular in Silicon Valley for sharing gossip.

"We could see employees using these apps in reference to brands on the reputational side, such as for whistle-blowing or discrimination complaints," she says.

Lewis PR VP Katie Pierini argues that these apps "will present the same issues brands experience across more established social channels such as dealing with the frustrations of disgruntled employees or customers."

The challenge for companies? "Anonymous apps don’t yet allow brands to enter and influence the conversation exactly where and when it is taking place," she adds. "Since their use is possible by groups within confined geographic areas [such as with Secret], it will complicate social media monitoring as we know it."

Pierini explains that in terms of brand opportunity, "it comes down to the hyper-local concentration of users, which will create a powerful advertising opportunity."

"The communication-building made possible by these tools will also be great for grassroots causes and events," she adds.

Thomas Gensemer, US chief strategy officer at Burson-Marsteller, agrees that on the surface, these apps may seem like an issue for internal and external communications. Yet he adds that "when a message lacks a person behind it that can be verified by a journalist, client, or HR recruiter, then they don’t come across as big threats."

He suspects few people will use them for chatter about brands, or the latest piece of gossip about a leading company. But he does think clients need to note that the ways consumers use social media are changing. 

"I think clients need to recognize that the era of Facebook ubiquity is coming to an end," Gensemer adds. "I am not sure if it is a generational thing or not, but people are segmenting their behaviors into specific apps around certain behaviours."

In addition to these anonymous messaging sites, he cites Snapchat, the popular platform that allows users to send photos that disappear seconds after being viewed, as another example.

"I can see people checking up to six or eight applications per day," Gensemer notes. "From a monitoring perspective, it creates a new wrinkle for sure. But I don’t think it is anything new in terms of people wanting certain behaviours to now be anonymous online."

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