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Snapchat: The NSA’s worst enemy?

June 10, 2014, 1:39 PM UTC

It’s clear anonymous social networks are growing quickly: Whisper has drawn 2.5 billion page views a month, while Secret has 3.5 billion page views; Snapchat has attracted 26 million users. Some call them online confessionals, others believe they’re merely a millennial fad, and most just see them as vehicles for inappropriate commentary. While that may be the case now, the noise will eventually die down. And more importantly, there is a larger lesson to be learned for companies looking to soon capitalize on this new and active audience. Like traditional social networks once were, anonymous ones are in their infancy, and the potential for services like Whisper is huge because there is legitimacy behind what people are saying.

There’s a strong need for enterprises to be able to capture public input in a place where customers feel safe in order to turn that feedback into action. But, before that can be done, let’s look at why anonymous social networks are taking off.

This month marks the one-year anniversary when documents leaked by Edward Snowden began popping up in the Guardian and the Washington Post. Following the scandal and stories surrounding the National Security Agency and other government surveillance programs, customers are more reluctant than before to share private information. While the debate rages on, anonymous social networks make it easy for online users to feel safer about sharing their opinion. Not only will their information be private, but the information shared will never link back to them. There is no one to hold a user accountable for what comes out of their keyboard, creating the perfect platform for a safe sharing environment.

Before Snapchat came along, sharing photos and videos was limited to sites, services, and applications that encouraged ongoing information sharing. People created a trail, and that trail was linkable to other networks for an easy registration option. More often than not, that information was then sold to businesses for target advertising. For users that don’t want to risk leaving a trail for fear of creating an online legacy, or allowing strangers into their personal information, anonymous social networks are the ultimate social media solution. Furthermore, staying anonymous online is the perfect recipe for sites like 7 Cups of Tea that offer anonymous therapy.

If not for anonymous social networks, where else can users be truly honest and yet heard without being somehow profiled? There is some truth to the online confessional claim, but from a business perspective, it’s an asset not yet capitalized on. A perfect example of honesty, as Secret co-founder and CEO David Byttow put it, is “People go on Facebook and say they just got engaged. But what you don’t see is ‘I am going to propose today.’” As humans, we’re social animals and we want to share (hence the rise of Facebook, Instagram and so on), but sometimes we just can’t.

When Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram first launched, few understood the purpose behind the social sharing sites and hardly anyone believed that they were more than a place for self-expression and narcissism. But it’s much clearer today that Facebook is valuable—it’s a leader in display advertising, raking in $2.75 billion in 2013. Instagram ads, just six months old and limited to a select group of 15 brands, are already showing promising results, according to data given to Adweek by the social photo-sharing site.

People and companies alike aren’t sure just what to do yet with anonymous social networks, but as Facebook (FB), Twitter (TWTR) and the like history shows, their usage will soon explode and companies will have to be in the wings, quick to leverage for marketing efforts.

Over the last decade, the convergence of social, mobile, and cloud technologies has resulted in extremely informed customers. Before ever engaging with a company, customers know almost everything they need to, leading to massive changes in the way they buy. Customers are no longer passive observers–they’ve become active participants, educating themselves about products prior to making a purchase via social media and online review sites.

Still, there are many customers who fear where their information is going and how it’s being used. Anonymous social networks provide protection–a shelter for unsolicited information that won’t be used for advertising or surveillance; businesses have to start taking anonymous social networks seriously by listening and acting on the feedback.

There’s also an opportunity to capitalize on these networks from a marketing perspective—just think of all the conversations a business can start and information it can capture. On the one hand, businesses can create accounts and tune into what people are saying. Are they complaining about a brand, or are they happy with it? Do parts of a product need changing? Does customer service need improvement?

Sometimes it doesn’t matter just who is saying these things, it only matters if it’s honest. On the other hand, businesses can also create discussion. Perhaps a retailer wants to know what customers think about a hot new color this season. All they have to do is begin conversation and see people react. While there is big potential in this type of approach, ambiguity remains.

That’s why at the same time, businesses should begin working with their customers directly, enabling them to share amongst themselves and with a company via an insight community, a secure online environment where customers feel comfortable that their information isn’t misused, sold elsewhere, or exploited.

Andrew Reid is the founder, president, and chief product officer of Vision Critical, a cloud-based customer-intelligence platform provider that is based in Vancouver. Follow him @reidandrew