29 April 2010

Activists' New Secret Weapon: Databases

A while back I wrote about the "scariest mobile application EVAH," Good Guide.  It's a leader in a new and growing field of mobile applications that use barcode-scanning technology, GPS, and a variety of databases to tell consumers about the product they just scanned. These applications give consumers unprecedented information about products, brands, manufacturers, retailers, and pretty much anything else at the point of purchase.  They include the popular Red Laser, which lets you compare prices among stores in your area and online, and Label Lookup, a production of the Natural Resources Defense Council that helps you "find labels you can trust."

Tech-savvy and issue-conscious consumers will be getting information not only about how a given product is a buck cheaper down the road or online, but also anything a database of that consumer's choosing says about the product, brand, or company.  And remember, this information comes just moments before the point of purchase, giving the company almost no time to share its side of the story.  So when I tried Good Guide I learned that the makers of my breakfast cereal "violated the Clean Water Act."   I never got a link to the company's explanation.

So think about the databases out there. Think about current events and politics. It's not just review sites/apps like Yelp (dealing with a somewhat iffy reputation lately). It's not hard to imagine a mobile app that tells you:
  • If the CEO of the company that made a product contributed to Proposition 8 (Human Rights Campaign could probably tell you)
  • If the manufacturer is headquartered in Arizona, where you can now be pulled over for looking Hispanic (I'm thinking National Council of La Raza might be interested)
  • If a company is a "union buster" (just a matter of time before SEIU launches this bad boy)
  • Class action lawsuits filed against a company (ATLA, anyone?)
Building a comprehensive, accurate, and huge database for mobile apps to access takes time, talent, and resources.  Even the Red Laser database isn't all-encompassing. However, it's not nearly as hard as it used to be. Some database developers may sacrifice a bit of accuracy to get more volume or speed.  Some will probably be built by crowdsourcing - my favorite crowdsourced database comes from the brainiacs at Cornell who helped put the Great Backyard Bird Count online.   In the not-too-distant future, government databases will be accessible from your phone - a company's EDGAR filings with the SEC, actions brought by the EPA, and so on. 

So there are a few things companies should be doing YESTERDAY to protect their reputations and their brands:
  • Upgrade your social media monitoring efforts to see what's written about you in all these mobile-accessed databases.  Good Guide is a start.  Make sure the info is accurate. Contact them if it's not.
  • Build relationships with the folks who make these databases and these apps.  Understand their motivation, work with them to make sure you're presented in the best possible light.
  • Partner with credible organizations to build your own databases and applications.  Support some of these groups by underwriting some of the cost, providing technical support, and letting them know they can work with you. 
  • Promote responsible efforts to give consumers all the information they want and need to make smart decisions.  Consumers reward the companies that advocate for them.

Or, sit back and wonder why people stopped buying your stuff.


Rathskeller said...

Activist's needs for information are fluid, not static. They should be filled with multi-purpose sources like Good Guide (with more details available). An SEIU app would absolutely be used, to take your example; but it would only be used by a few SEIU members. The larger progressive community wouldn't hear about it, wouldn't install it, and wouldn't remember to run it even if the first two weren't true.

David said...

very good point; I'm wondering if some of these apps will interface with larger social networks like FB or Twitter.