Don’t forget the silent majority


A while ago I rented a cottage for the weekend in the New Forest with my family to celebrate my husband’s birthday. It was a lovely, comfortable place and we had a great time.

On our return there was already an email in my inbox from the owner asking if I would write a review for TripAdvisor. I thought I might – after all everything had been just as we hoped. But everyday life took over and I forgot all about it. The next week I got another email asking me again and then another. I began to feel irritated.

My lack of review didn’t mean I wouldn’t recommend the cottage; we were more than satisfied. In an ideal world I would have helped them out, but I had other pressing priorities.

This set me thinking about the silent majority – and the traps that businesses could fall into if they only listen to tweets and online comments when shaping their policies or even their products. In a bestselling book of last year, Quiet, Susan Cain argues that whole sectors of the population aren’t being heard because today’s society favours extroverts. While it wasn’t my introvert tendencies preventing me from reviewing the cottage, the result was the same; silence, no comment.

Apparently 90 per cent of us are ‘lurkers’ online, reading, searching, navigating and observing but not contributing. Nine per cent contribute occasionally, but only one per cent contributes significantly.

And anyone who has read the comments section after a contentious article in the online Guardian or Telegraph, for example, will recognise that these one per cent are not always a typical cross section of the community. Mr and Mrs Angry tend to drown out most reasonable views.

So when it comes to business and shaping brands – is it a good idea to crowdsource for ideas this way or can it be misleading? Responding to customer need is a sound and robust policy – but we also need businesses that are one step ahead. After all, as Henry Ford said about the first motor car: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said ‘faster horses’.”

And while I think the emergence of online peer to peer businesses, services and review sites is an exciting and far-reaching development – they do need to be handled with care. TripAdvisor has its problems – one woman’s ‘shabby chic’ is another’s ‘tired and scruffy’ after all.

Also, as the public grow wise, there will always be some who try to exploit their power; threatening to write a bad review if they don’t get a hefty discount, for example. Wisely, the peer to peer room-finder service, Airbnb gets round this by inviting property owners letting their space to review their guests too, for balance.

In the same vein, YouTube has begun to “audit” the number of views a video has received to prevent users from artificially inflating view counts. In other words, online concepts are continuously evolving to address these drawbacks; but there is still some way to go.

There’s no doubt that the world as a whole needs people to stand up, speak out, blow the whistle and make waves when it comes to the important issues such as violence and injustice. But when it comes to business and the products and services we consume, are noisy people getting their own way too much?

What do you think? …Oh don’t worry, you probably just don’t have the time to comment.