Villing & Company

Dueling Audiences: How to Cope When Your Stakeholders Have Conflicting Demands

The problem of conflicting priorities is commonplace in business and marketing. For ad-based publications and services, it's weighing the desires of your advertisers versus the tolerance of your audience. For online data services, it's weighing privacy concerns against cooperation with legal investigations. For social services, it's weighing free speech and censorship issues against overall quality concerns as well as dangers such as bullying and harassment.

These issues are frequently debated and discussed within companies and by the culture at large. So how do you handle these sorts of conflicts?

Here are a couple ideas that can be helpful when you find your company in this position:

  1. Determine the Priorities of Your Company
    There are many values that conflict from time-to-time. It's usually a good idea to prioritize these conflicting values to help determine the best way forward. For instance, consider the two competing values of providing good security, while also being easy to use. It's unlikely that we'll soon find an easy-to-use solution that's perfectly secure, so companies must generally prioritize one over the other. That's why you have to jump through so many more hoops to login to your bank than to login to Facebook.
  2. Compromise Isn't Always the Best Policy
    While it's normal to look for a way to compromise, sometimes trying to find middle ground between two opposing values ends up pleasing nobody. It's important to at least consider doubling-down on one side. This can often be an effective marketing technique as well, since it's a clear point of differentiation. This strategy can often be seen in different online communities, where some emphasize free speech (Reddit, 4chan, etc), while others emphasize accountability and civility (Facebook, Twitter, etc).
  3. Clearly Communicate To Each Audience
    This is especially true when you've made a decision that's likely to upset a group of your customers. Google does this really well. As a company, they experiment with a lot of new products. Some work; some don't. Starting in 2011, Google has performed several “spring cleanings,” announcing to customers the products and features that will be discontinued and why. While this always leads to a lot of negative publicity and customer frustration, it's also an effective way of setting expectations and explaining alternatives. It's a good way to satisfy their internal need to focus on what works, while minimizing the confusion of their customers.

There's almost never a perfect solution for handling these sorts of conflicts, so hard decisions usually must be made. Like in many areas of life, great communication has a tendency to minimize the fallout and help all your audiences better understand your company's decision.

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