The Untapped Power of Vulnerability & Transparency in Content Strategy

In marketing, transparency and vulnerability are unjustly stigmatized. The words conjure illusions of being frightened, imperfect, and powerless. And for companies that shove carefully curated personas in front of users, little is more terrifying than losing control of how people perceive the brand.

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Let’s shatter this illusioned stigma. Authentic vulnerability and transparency are strengths masquerading as weaknesses. And companies too scared to embrace both traits in their content forfeit bona fide user-brand connections for often shallow, misleading engagement tactics that create fleeting relationships.

Transparency and vulnerability are closely entwined concepts, but each one engages users in a unique way. Transparency is how much information you share, while vulnerability is the truth and meaning behind your actions and words. Combining these ideas is the trick to creating empowering and meaningful content. You can’t tell true stories of vulnerability without transparency, and to be authentically transparent you must be vulnerable.

To be vulnerable, your brand and its content must be brave, genuine, humble, and open, all of which are traits that promote long-term customer loyalty. And if you’re transparent with users about who you are and about your business practices, you’re courting 94 percent of consumers who say they’re more loyal to brands that offer complete openness and 89 percent of people who say they give transparent companies a second chance after a bad experience.

For many companies, being completely honest and open with their customers—or employees, in some cases—only happens in a crisis. Unfortunately for those businesses, using vulnerability and transparency only as a crisis management strategy diminishes how sincere they appear and can reduce customer satisfaction.

Unlocking the potential of being transparent and vulnerable with users isn’t a one-off tactic or quick-fix emergency response tool—it’s a commitment to intimate storytelling that embraces a user’s emotional and psychological needs, which builds a meaningful connection between the storyteller and the audience.

The three storytelling pillars of vulnerable and transparent content#section2

In her book, Braving the Wilderness, sociologist Brené Brown explains that vulnerability connects us at an emotional level. She says that when we recognize someone is being vulnerable, we invest in their story and begin to develop an emotional bond. This interwoven connection encourages us to experience the storyteller’s joy and pain, and then creates a sense of community and common purpose among the person being vulnerable and the people who acknowledge that vulnerability.

Three pillars in a company’s lifecycle embrace this bond and provide an outline for telling stories worthy of a user’s emotional investment. The pillars are:

  • the origins of a company, product, idea, or situation;
  • intimate narratives about customers’ life experiences;
  • and insights about product success and failure.

Origin stories#section3

An origin story spins a transparent tale about how a company, product, service, or idea is created. It is often told by a founder, CEO, or industry innovator. This pillar is usually used as an authentic way to provide crisis management or as a method to change how users feel about a topic, product, or your brand.

Customers’ life experiences#section4

While vulnerable origin stories do an excellent job of making users trust your brand, telling a customer’s personal life story is arguably the most effective way to use vulnerability to entwine a brand with someone’s personal identity.

Unlike an origin story, the customer experiences pillar is focused on being transparent about who your customers are, what they’ve experienced, and how those journeys align with values that matter to your brand. Through this lens, you’ll empower your customers to tell emotional, meaningful stories that make users feel vulnerable in a positive way. In this situation, your brand is often a storytelling platform where users share their story with the brand and fellow customers.

Product and service insights#section5

Origin stories make your brand trustworthy in a crisis, and customers’ personal stories help users feel an intimate connection with your brand’s persona and mission. The last pillar, product and service insights, combines the psychological principles that make origin and customer stories successful. The outcome is a vulnerable narrative that rallies users’ excitement about, and emotional investment in, what a company sells or the goals it hopes to achieve.

Vulnerability, transparency, and the customer journey#section6

The three storytelling pillars are crucial to embracing transparency and vulnerability in your content strategy because they let you target users at specific points in their journey. By embedding the pillars in each stage of the customer’s journey, you teach users about who you are, what matters to you, and why they should care.

For our purposes, let’s define the user journey as:

  • awareness;
  • interest;
  • consideration;
  • conversion;
  • and retention.

Awareness#section7

People give each other seven seconds to make a good first impression. We’re not so generous with brands and websites. After discovering your content, users determine if it’s trustworthy within one-tenth of a second.

Page design and aesthetics are often the determining factors in these split-second choices, but the information users discover after that decision shapes their long-term opinions about your brand. This snap judgement is why transparency and vulnerability are crucial within awareness content.

When you only get one chance to make a positive first impression with your audience, what content is going to be more memorable?

Typical marketing “fluff” about how your brand was built on a shared vision and commitment to unyielding customer satisfaction and quality products? Or an upfront, authentic, and honest story about the trials and tribulations you went through to get where you are now?

Buffer, a social media management company that helped pioneer the radical transparency movement, chose the latter option. The outcome created awareness content that leaves a positive lasting impression of the brand.

In 2016, Joel Gascoigne, cofounder and CEO of Buffer, used an origin story to discuss the mistakes he and his company made that resulted in laying off 10 employees.

In the blog post “Tough News: We’ve Made 10 Layoffs. How We Got Here, the Financial Details and How We’re Moving Forward,” Gascoigne wrote about Buffer’s over-aggressive growth choices, lack of accountability, misplaced trust in its financial model, explicit risk appetite, and overenthusiastic hiring. He also discussed what he learned from the experience, the changes Buffer made based on these lessons, the consequences of those changes, and next steps for the brand.

Gascoigne writes about each subject with radical honesty and authenticity. Throughout the article, he’s personable and relatable; his tone and voice make it obvious he’s more concerned about the lives he’s irrevocably affected than the public image of his company floundering. Because Gascoigne is so transparent and vulnerable in the blog post, it’s easy to become invested in the narrative he’s telling. The result is an article that feels more like a deep, meaningful conversation over coffee instead of a carefully curated, PR-approved response.

Yes, Buffer used this origin story to confront a PR crisis, but they did so in a way that encouraged users to trust the brand. Buffer chose to show up and be seen when they had no control over the outcome. And because Gascoigne used vulnerability and transparency to share the company’s collective pain, the company reaped positive press coverage and support on social media—further improving brand awareness, user engagement, and customer loyalty.

However, awareness content isn’t always brand focused. Sometimes, smart awareness content uses storytelling to teach users and shape their worldviews. The 2019 State of Science Index is an excellent example.

The annual State of Science Index evaluates how the global public perceives science. The 2019 report shows that 87 percent of people acknowledge that science is necessary to solve the world’s problems, but 33 percent are skeptical of science and believe that scientists cause as many problems as they solve. Furthermore, 57 percent of respondents are skeptical of science because of scientists’ conflicting opinions about topics they don’t understand.

3M, the multinational science conglomerate that publishes the report, says the solution for this anti-science mindset is to promote intimate storytelling among scientists and layfolk.

3M creates an origin story with its awareness content by focusing on the ins and outs of scientific research. The company is open and straightforward with its data and intentions, eliminating any second guesses users might have about the content they’re digesting.

The company kicked off this strategy on three fronts, and each storytelling medium interweaves the benefits of vulnerability and transparency by encouraging researchers to tell stories that lead with how their findings benefit humanity. Every story 3M tells focuses on breaking through barriers the average person faces when they encounter science and encouraging scientists to be vulnerable and authentic with how they share their research.

First, 3M began a podcast series known as Science Champions. In the podcast, 3M Chief Science Advocate Jayshree Seth interviews scientists and educators about the global perception of science and how science and scientists affect our lives. The show is currently in its second season and discusses a range of topics in science, technology, engineering, and math.

Second, the company worked with science educators, journalist Katie Couric, actor Alan Alda, and former NASA astronaut Scott Kelly to develop the free Scientists as Storytellers Guide. The ebook helps STEM researchers improve how and why they communicate their work with other people—with a special emphasis on being empathetic with non-scientists. The guide breaks down how to develop communications skills, overcome common storytelling challenges, and learn to make science more accessible, understandable, and engaging for others.

Last, 3M created a film series called Beyond the Beaker that explores the day-to-day lives of 3M scientists. In the short videos, scientists give the viewer a glimpse into their hobbies and home life. The series showcases how scientists have diverse backgrounds, hobbies, goals, and dreams.

Unlike Buffer, which benefits directly from its awareness content, 3M’s three content mediums are designed to create a long-term strategy that changes how people understand and perceive science, by spreading awareness through third parties. It’s too early to conclude that the strategy will be successful, but it’s off to a good start. Science Champions often tops “best of” podcast lists for science lovers, and the Scientists as Storytellers Guide is a popular resource among public universities.

Interest#section8

How do you court new users when word-of-mouth and organic search dominate how people discover new brands? Target their interests.

Now, you can be like the hundreds of other brands that create a “10 best things” list and hope people stumble onto your content organically and like what they see. Or, you can use content to engage with people who are passionate about your industry and have genuine, open discussions about the topics that matter to you both.

The latter option is a perfect fit for the product and service insights pillar, and the customers’ life experiences pillar.

To succeed in these pillars you must balance discussing the users’ passions and how your brand plays into that topic against appearing disingenuous or becoming too self-promotional.

Nonprofits have an easier time walking this taut line because people are less judgemental when engaging with NGOs, but it’s rare for a for-profit company to achieve this balance. SpaceX and Thinx are among the few brands that are able to walk this tightrope.

Thinx, a women’s clothing brand that sells period-proof underwear, uses its blog to generate awareness, interest, and consideration content via the customers’ life experiences pillar. The blog, aptly named Periodical, relies on transparency and vulnerability as a cornerstone to engage users about reproductive and mental health.

Toni Brannagan, Thinx’s content editor, says the brand embraces transparency and vulnerability by sharing diverse ideas and personal experiences from customers and experts alike, not shying away from sensitive subjects and never misleading users about Thinx or the subjects Periodical discusses.

As a company focused on women’s healthcare, the product Thinx sells is political by nature and entangles the brand with themes of shame, cultural differences, and personal empowerment. Thinx’s strategy is to tackle these subjects head-on by having vulnerable conversations in its branding, social media ads, and Periodical content.

“Vulnerability and transparency play a role because you can’t share authentic diverse ideas and experiences about those things—shame, cultural differences, and empowerment—without it,” Brannagan says.

A significant portion of Thinx’s website traffic is organic, which means Periodical’s interest-driven content may be a user’s first touchpoint with the brand.

“We’ve seen that our most successful organic content is educational, well-researched articles, and also product-focused blogs that answer the questions about our underwear, in a way that’s a little more casual than what’s on our product pages,” Brannagan says. “In contrast, our personal essays and ‘more opinionated’ content performs better on social media and email.”

Thanks in part to the blog’s authenticity and open discussions about hard-hitting topics, readers who find the brand through organic search drive the most direct conversions.

Conversations with users interested in the industry or topic your company is involved in don’t always have to come from the company itself. Sometimes a single person can drive authentic, open conversations and create endearing user loyalty and engagement.

For a company that relies on venture capital investments, NASA funding, and public opinion for its financial future, crossing the line between being too self-promotional and isolating users could spell doom. But SpaceX has never shied away from difficult or vulnerable conversations. Instead, the company’s founder, Elon Musk, embraces engaging with users interests in public forums like Twitter and press conferences.

Twitter thread showing an exchange between Elon Musk and a user

Musk’s tweets about SpaceX are unwaveringly authentic and transparent. He often tweets about his thoughts, concerns, and the challenges his companies face. Plus, Musk frequently engages with his Twitter followers and provides candid answers to questions many CEOs avoid discussing. This authenticity has earned him a cult-like following.

Elon Musk gives an honest, if not flattering, response on Twitter to a user

Musk and SpaceX create conversations that target people’s interests and use vulnerability to equally embrace failure and success. Both the company and its founder give the public and investors an unflinching story of space exploration.

And despite laying off 10 percent of its workforce in January of 2019, SpaceX is flourishing. In May 2019, its valuation had risen to $33.3 billion and reported annual revenue exceeded $2 billion. It also earned global media coverage from launching Musk’s Tesla Roadster into space, recently completed a test flight of its Crew Dragon space vehicle, and cemented multiple new payload contracts.

By engaging with users on social media and through standard storytelling mediums, Thinx and SpaceX bolster customer loyalty and brand engagement.

Consideration#section9

Modern consumers argue that ignorance is not bliss. When users are considering converting with a brand, 86 percent of consumers say transparency is a deciding factor. Transparency remains crucial even after they convert, with 85 percent of users saying they’ll support a transparent brand during a PR crisis.

Your brand must be open, clear, and honest with users; there is no longer another viable option.

So how do you remain transparent while trying to sell someone a product? One solution employed by REI and Everlane is to be openly accountable to your brand and your users via the origin stories and product insights pillars.

REI, a national outdoor equipment retailer, created a stewardship program that behaves as a multifaceted origin story. The program’s content highlights the company’s history and manufacturing policies, and it lets users dive into the nitty-gritty details about its factories, partnerships, product production methods, manufacturing ethics, and carbon footprint.

Screenshot of the Collaborating for Good website

REI also employs a classic content hub strategy to let customers find the program and explore its relevant information. From a single landing page, users can easily find the program through the website’s global navigation and then navigate to every tangential topic the program encompasses.

REI also publishes an annual stewardship report, where users can learn intimate details about how the company makes and spends its money.

Screenshot of REI's stewardship report

Everlane, a clothing company, is equally transparent about its supply chain. The company promotes an insider’s look into its global factories via product insights stories. These glimpses tell the personal narratives of factory employees and owners, and provide insights into the products manufactured and the materials used. Everlane also published details of how they comply with the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act to guarantee ethical working conditions throughout its supply chain, including refusing to partner with human traffickers.

Screenshot of Everlane's page about the factory in Lima

The crucial quality that Everlane and REI share is they publicize their transparency and encourage users to explore the shared information. On each website, users can easily find information about the company’s transparency endeavors via the global navigation, social media campaigns, and product pages.

The consumer response to transparent brands like REI and Everlane is overwhelmingly positive. Customers are willing to pay price premiums for the additional transparency, which gives them comfort by knowing they’re purchasing ethical products.

REI’s ownership model has further propelled the success of its transparency by using it to create unwavering customer engagement and loyalty. As a co-op where customers can “own” part of the company for a one-time $20 membership fee, REI is beholden to its members, many of which pay close attention to its supply chain and the brands REI partners with.

After a deadly school shooting in Parkland, Florida, REI members urged the company to refuse to carry CamelBak products because the brand’s parent company manufactures assault-style weapons. Members argued the partnership violated REI’s supply chain ethics. REI listened and halted orders with CamelBak. Members rejoiced and REI earned a significant amount of positive press coverage.

Conversion#section10

Imagine you’ve started incorporating transparency throughout your company, and promote the results to users. Your brand also begins engaging users by telling vulnerable, meaningful stories via the three pillars. You’re seeing great engagement metrics and customer feedback from these efforts, but not much else. So, how do you get your newly invested users to convert?

Provide users with a full-circle experience.

If you combine the three storytelling pillars with blatant transparency and actively promote your efforts, users often transition from the consideration stage into the conversion state. Best of all, when users convert with a company that already earned their trust on an emotional level, they’re more likely to remain loyal to the brand and emotionally invested in its future.

The crucial step in combining the three pillars is consistency. Your brand’s stories must always be authentic and your content must always be transparent. The outdoor clothing brand Patagonia is among the most popular and successful companies to maintain this consistency and excel with this strategy.

Patagonia is arguably the most vocal and aggressive clothing retailer when it comes to environmental stewardship and ethical manufacturing.

In some cases, the company tells users not to buy its clothing because rampant consumerism harms the environment too much, which they care about more than profits. This level of radical transparency and vulnerability skyrocketed the company’s popularity among environmentally-conscious consumers.

In 2011, Patagonia took out a full-page Black Friday ad in the New York Times with the headline “Don’t Buy This Jacket.” In the ad, Patagonia talks about the environmental toll manufacturing clothes requires.

“Consider the R2 Jacket shown, one of our best sellers. To make it required 135 liters of water, enough to meet the daily needs (three glasses a day) of 45 people. Its journey from its origin as 60 percent recycled polyester to our Reno warehouse generated nearly 20 pounds of carbon dioxide, 24 times the weight of the finished product. This jacket left behind, on its way to Reno, two-thirds [of] its weight in waste.”

The ad encourages users to not buy any new Patagonia clothing if their old, ratty clothes can be repaired. To help, Patagonia launched a supplementary subdomain to its e-commerce website to support its Common Thread Initiative, which eventually got rebranded as the Worn Wear program.

Patatgonia’s Worn Wear subdomain gets users to engage with the company about causes each party cares about. Through Worn Wear, Patagonia will repair your old gear for free. If you’d rather have new gear, you can instead sell the worn out clothing to Patagonia, and they’ll repair it and then resell the product at a discount. This interaction encourages loyalty and repeat brand-user engagement.

In addition, the navigation on Patagonia’s main website practically begs users to learn about the brand’s non-profit initiatives and its commitment to ethical manufacturing.

Screenshot of Patagonia's page on environmental responsibility

Today, Patagonia is among the most respected, profitable, and trusted consumer brands in the United States.

Retention#section11

Content strategy expands through nearly every aspect of the marketing stack, including ad campaigns, which take a more controlled approach to vulnerability and transparency. To target users in the retention stage and keep them invested in your brand, your goal is to create content using the customers’ life experiences pillar to amplify the emotional bond and brand loyalty that vulnerability creates.

Always took this approach and ended up with one of its most successful social media campaigns.

An Always ad portraying a determined girl holding a baseball

In June 2014, Always launched its #LikeAGirl campaign to empower adolescent and teenage girls by transforming the phrase “like a girl” from a slur into a meaningful and positive statement.

The campaign is centered on a video in which Always tasked children, teenagers, and adults to behave “like a girl” by running, punching, and throwing while mimicking their perception of how a girl performs the activity. Young girls performed the tasks wholeheartedly and with gusto, while boys and adults performed overly feminine and vain characterizations. The director then challenged the person on their portrayal, breaking down what doing things “like a girl” truly means. The video ends with a powerful, heart-swelling statement:

“If somebody else says that running like a girl, or kicking like a girl, or shooting like a girl is something you shouldn’t be doing, that’s their problem. Because if you’re still scoring, and you’re still getting to the ball in time, and you’re still being first…you’re doing it right. It doesn’t matter what they say.”

This customer story campaign put the vulnerability girls feel during puberty front and center so the topic would resonate with users and give the brand a powerful, relevant, and purposeful role in this connection, according to an Institute for Public Relations campaign analysis.

Consequently, the #LikeAGirl campaign was a rousing success and blew past the KPIs Always established. Initially, Always determined an “impactful launch” for the video meant 2 million video views and 250 million media impressions, the analysis states.

Five years later, the campaign video has more than 66.9 million views and 42,700 comments on YouTube, with more than 85 percent of users reacting positively. Here are a few additional highlights the analysis document points out:

  • Eighty-one percent of women ages 16–24 support Always in creating a movement to reclaim “like a girl” as a positive and inspiring statement.
  • More than 1 million people shared the video.
  • Thirteen percent of users created user-generated content about the campaign.
  • The #LikeAGirl program achieved 4.5 billion global impressions.
  • The campaign received 290 million social impressions, with 133,000 social mentions, and it caused a 195.3 percent increase in the brand’s Twitter followers.

Among the reasons the #LikeAGirl content was so successful is that it aligned with Brené Brown’s concept that experiencing vulnerability creates a connection centered on powerful, shared emotions. Always then amplified the campaign’s effectiveness by using those emotions to encourage specific user behavior on social media.

How do you know if you’re making vulnerable content?#section12

Designing a vulnerability-focused content strategy campaign begins by determining what kind of story you want to tell, why you want to tell it, why that story matters, and how that story helps you or your users achieve a goal.

When you’re brainstorming topics, the most important factor is that you need to care about the stories you’re telling. These tales need to be meaningful because if you’re weaving a narrative that isn’t important to you, it shows. And ultimately, why do you expect your users to care about a subject if you don’t?

Let’s say you’re developing a content campaign for a nonprofit, and you want to use your brand’s emotional identity to connect with users. You have a handful of possible narratives but you’re not sure which one will best unlock the benefits of vulnerability. In a Medium post about telling vulnerable stories, Cayla Vidmar presents a list of seven self-reflective questions that can reveal what narrative to choose and why.

If you can answer each of Vidmar’s questions, you’re on your way to creating a great story that can connect with users on a level unrivaled by other methods. Here’s what you should ask yourself:

  • What meaning is there in my story?
  • Can my story help others?
  • How can it help others?
  • Am I willing to struggle and be vulnerable in that struggle (even with strangers)?
  • How has my story shaped my worldview (what has it made me believe)?
  • What good have I learned from my story?
  • If other people discovered this good from their story, would it change their lives?

While you’re creating narratives within the three pillars, refer back to Vidmar’s list to maintain the proper balance between vulnerability and transparency.

What’s next?#section13

You now know that vulnerability and transparency are an endless fountain of strength, not a weakness. Vulnerable content won’t make you or your brand look weak. Your customers won’t flee at the sight of imperfection. Being human and treating your users like humans isn’t a liability.

It’s time for your brand to embrace its untapped potential. Choose to be vulnerable, have the courage to tell meaningful stories about what matters most to your company and your customers, and overcome the fear of controlling how users will react to your content.

Origin story

Every origin story has six chapters:

  • the discovery of a problem or opportunity;
  • what caused this problem or opportunity;
  • the consequences of this discovery;
  • the solution to these consequences;
  • lessons learned during the process;
  • and next steps.

Customers’ life experiences

Every customer journey narrative has six chapters:

  • plot background to frame the customer’s experiences;
  • the customer’s journey;
  • how the brand plays into that journey (if applicable);
  • how the customer’s experiences changed them;
  • what the customer learned from this journey;
  • and how other people can use this information to improve their lives.

Product and service insights

Narratives about product and service insights have seven chapters:

  • an overview of the product/service;
  • how that product/service affects users;
  • why the product/service is important to the brand’s mission or to users;
  • what about this product/service failed or succeeded;
  • why did that success or failure happen;
  • what lessons did this scenario create;
  • and how are the brand and its users moving forward.

You have the tools and knowledge necessary to be transparent, create vulnerable content, and succeed. And we need to tell vulnerable stories because sharing our experiences and embracing our common connections matters. So go ahead, put yourself out into the open, and see how your customers respond.

About the Author

photo of Travis McKnight

Travis McKnight

Travis McKnight is a content strategist at Portent who strives to combine exceptional UX with intimate storytelling. He spends most of his time clinging to the side of cliffs, reading the news, and stirring up trouble in Dungeons & Dragons campaigns. You can follow his Twitter ramblings @Khellendos.

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