‘The purpose of business is to create a customer. Any business enterprise has only two functions: marketing and innovation’ Drucker, 1973.
Marketing can be considered to be a tool for social purposes, and this is something that we see in the technical community at events. If you’ve ever been a technical event, you’ll know the setup; attendees attend at a low cost or even free, and event sponsors/partners showcase their services at the event. They may even have sessions throughout the day, and they usually obtain attendee details via opt-in. The event usually ends with a raffle of some sort, with thanks being ascribed to the sponsor for their support and participation.
If the sponsor’s service is intangible, such as a support service or license renewals, then the right marketing can help the service to appear more tangible. In this way, the service become manifested more clearly since it is associated with something tangible. Since the attendees are usually in the flight path of the sponsor, events can be a good way of articulating the right message to the right people.
In terms of marketing, this can be framed in the Six Markets model of Relationship Marketing (Payne, 1997). Sponsors aim to pick up the referral and influencer markets as well as ensuring that their customer market stays healthy. Sponsors may even be attending the events in order to make new hires.
The marketing concept philosophy is based on customer service and mutual benefit. More than ever before, marketers are dealing with sophisticated consumers who are more demanding and expectant of premium service and products. Moreover, consumers are demanding an ethical and socially responsible marketing ethos.
What does this mean for harassment in the tech community? In the tech community, it’s clear that there have been well-known issues with harassment. Here is a gentleman, Jayson Street, talking about harassment in the tech community here on YouTube. Despite these issues, organizations are still being offered the opportunity to sponsor events. Further, it’s clear that many organizations do take up the offer of supporting events through sponsorship, in the hope that they create customers as well as maintain relationships with existing customers. With all of the temperature around the #MeToo debate, it’s clear that we are now going into a debate of business ethics and how sponsors can help navigate this terrain.
What is business ethics? Ethics is a notoriously difficult entity to define, and the best definition that we can can find here is as follows:
Business ethics is the promotion of ethical business practices, moral and decent behaviour, and responsible management in corporations and institutions.
Ethics touches on a wide range of issues on technical sponsorship events. It involves aspects such as protecting attendee privacy for marketing or advertising gain, and it touches on the trust between sponsors, event co-ordinators and other attendees.
Yes, trust. Trust underpints so much of what happens in our lives that we don’t realize it, until it is taken away from us. When people turn up to a tech community event, they trust that they will be treated like everyone else. When someone harms you, it takes away that trust. So let’s define trust:
Trust is the reliance by one person, group or firm upon a voluntarily accepted duty on the part of another person, group or firm to recognize and protect the rights and interests of all others engaged in a joint endeavour or economic exchange (Hosmer 1995 p.392)
When people turn up to events, they trust that they will have a good time, learn a lot, and be safe. But we know that does not always happen; and when someone complains, it impacts them individually but also the people around them, too. As an aside, one reason that rape reporting is so low is because it’s a crime which affects the people around you, in a way that other crimes (such as burglary or assault) does not do. If someone punches you, then yes, you report it. But something sexual is much harder to report; what happens to your child, for example, if someone says something to them at school? That hurts in a way that a straightforward assault does not. These crimes are the crimes of weak ties, so what can do about it?
The Strength of Weak Ties
In mathematical sociology, ties are defined as information-carrying connections between people. Interpersonal ties, generally, come in three varieties: strong, weak or absent.
Weak ties are held responsible for the majority of the information flow and structure of social networks in society. We have our strong ties, who are our close friends. We also have a large network of weak ties, where novel information flows to individuals through weak rather than strong ties. Granovetter (1991) wrote an study about finding a job through weak ties, since this is ‘novel’ information which our strong ties don’t have access to. Because our close friends tend to move in the same circles that we do, the information they receive overlaps considerably with what we already know.
When you’re at a technical event, the strength of weak ties means that it can be a powerful network connector. Granovetter (1985) addresses an issue in all post-Enlightenment thinking – the atomization of the individual “actors from their immediate context”.
Being at a tech event helps attendees, organizers and sponsors to extend their weak ties, growing their network and becoming more than an atomic actor in the environment. When someone complains about sexual harassment at an event, the news spreads quickly through the weak ties and this can actually be used to discredit the victim. People use their weak ties for good or for bad purposes, and I hope that we can repoint people towards using their weak ties as a tool to help, not to discredit or shame.
Businesses should be able to incorporate their response to harassment at tech events as a business response to socially responsible marketing. In other words, they should be able to have an enlightened marketing philosophy which puts the customer at front-and-centre of their consumer oriented marketing. When a company thinks about these issues, it can help them to become innovative and really think about how they express their values in their value marketing. This can also be referred to as a sense of mission marketing.
Sponsors can also help to lead the tech community since they have a lot of weak ties. They can, for example, request that events have a code of conduct, and perhaps ask that this code of conduct – or a Decency Charter – should be in place at after-event parties, too.
This can be conceptualized as a Virtuous Circle in sponsoring tech events. It does offer a unique way of interacting with customers and influencers.
It is argued here that sponsors can be part of the anti-harassment story by getting behind the Diversity Charter and Decency Charter that I’m trying to put into place. Please don’t hesitate to get in touch if you would like more details. My LinkedIn profile is here, and it’s a great way to connect with me.