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The Best Time For Transparency Is When It’s The Hardest

When people learn about our devotion to transparency at Buffer, there tends to be one big question that looms large.

Here’s the gist of it: “Transparency seems like a great policy when things are going great. But what about when they’re not?”

Ed Fry summed up this often-asked¬†question¬†quite perfectly during an “Ask Me Anything” session some of us Bufferers did over at a while back:

transparent when it's hard

There’s one element of my answer to Ed that I’d like to revise. Back then, I said that “transparency almost becomes more important when things aren’t going well.” Today, I’d remove the word “almost.”

Time and time again at Buffer, we’ve learned the unique lesson that sharing openly when it’s the very hardest thing to do—when every cell in your body fights back, when you linger over the “send” or “publish” button nearly paralyzed, when you might be physically shaking when you complete the mission (yup, this has happened to me before!)—creates the biggest benefits of all.

Recently, we learned it once again when we hit publish on this post during one of the scariest moments the Crafters team has ever had at Buffer.

buffer failing at social

In exchange for overcoming that moment of fear, we’ve been rewarded so richly.

  • We’ve gotten¬†tough, candid feedback that wasn’t easy to hear—but was crucial to know.
  • We’ve been in touch with¬†a variety of incredible industry thought leaders, who wanted to share their insights and puzzle through our situations with us.


  • We’ve gotten entirely re-energized internally thanks to all the amazing support, advice and epiphanies that have been coming our way.

Now I have no doubt that transparency¬†can not only survive during times of hardship—it can help you thrive.

We’ve shared many of the benefits of transparency¬†already, and now I’d like to add to the list. If you’re contemplating transparency at your organization but wondering how it’ll work during the tough times, here are 3 big benefits I’d love to share.

transparency when it's hard

1. Transparency humanizes

It wasn’t easy to admit we’re a social media company that doesn’t have social media figured out. But we faced our worst fear in public—and it turned out¬†pretty OK!

That’s a powerful revelation, and it’s been true¬†across the board.

I wasn’t on the team yet when¬†Buffer got hacked,¬†but¬†it seems like if ever there was a moment to doubt the whole transparency thing, that might have been it. At every point, my¬†instincts would likely have told¬†me¬†to lock it down, clam up and only communicate when everything is back to normal.

And yet, being transparent throughout a terrible situation was exactly how Buffer thrived even through its darkest days. In fact, we saw almost record numbers of signups following the breach as amazing old and new friends alike showed some truly incredible support.

We even got love notes like this in the blog comments:

hacked comments love

Wow. The deep kindness and forgiveness we received from our community is a whole story in itself.

But I think the moral might be: When you show your mistakes, you make yourself vulnerable. And—somehow, counterintuitively—that makes others want to cheer for you.

2. Transparency frees us all from perfectionism

Sharing your mistakes also immediately frees you from the trap of perfectionism. Your track record is already blemished publicly, so you can stop trying to be the best at everything all the time. Now: anything goes!

What an incredibly liberating feeling.

And this awesome side effect isn’t just for the sharer—it’s for anyone who’d like to come right along with them.

One of the most rewarding responses to our recent “social media failure” article is how many people shared¬†things like “I thought it was just me,” or “I assumed I was the only one.”

i was the only one

Transparency does something really beautiful here by bringing openness into a space where there once was shame.

shame brene brown

Sharing¬†stories of mistakes and failures¬†lets us know we’re not alone, and that gives us the strength to move forward.

3. Transparency makes people want to help you

It’s amazing how many tips, insights and pieces of advice we’ve gotten over the past two weeks. It’s all great, and we’re going to synthesize and learn from every bit.

We could have¬†sent out 100 emails to important marketers asking for advice, or asked 100 readers to fill out an in-depth survey, or even paid a firm to get to the bottom of this challenge. Even if we had done all those things,¬†I’m not sure that we would have learned as much as we did, as quickly, simply by sharing our story—then sitting back and listening.

Without really realizing we were doing it, we gave our audience permission to tell us what they really thought of our work. And they did us a true kindness with each word.

A similar wonderful flood took place for me a while back when I got up the nerve to share some of the ways I was creatively failing and holding back because of fear. The useful tips, book suggestions and amazing encouragement I got could fill a book (and probably should).

Over to you

I¬†want to hear you thoughts on every post I write, but I’m REALLY curious about your thoughts on this one. My experience with transparency is limited to Buffer, and I’m sure there are lots of situations that I’m not thinking of.

Have you ever shared something transparently that was really tough to share? How did you feel, and how did your community (or audience, or friends) accept it? Can you think of a time when transparency would make a rough time even rougher? Share it all in the comments!

  • I love the fact Buffer owned up to your stats about the drop in traffic. Other companies wouldn’t dare do this! I’m certain you will craft new ways to get clicks and then share that with us all!

    I’m wondering if my wife should start publishing more transparent data about her own business. Customers can see inside her business, how much effort the team puts in and share how much she values her customers.

    Also sharing the tough times like trying to gain new customers, stay connected with loyal customers, compete with supplies etc It’s a scary business world and transparency might just produce a positive return like it did for Buffer.

    • Thanks for these thoughts, David! I generally enjoy reading the “inside workings” around companies; it might be a cool thing to see in your wife’s case!

  • I’ve struggled with this so much! I often try to convince my friends and family that I’m doing better than I really am, sales wise. Sometimes I crack my shell and let people in on my stats like it’s a big secret, and I hope to move towards this kind of transparency in the future!

    • Wow, Melissa; what a brave thing to share! I’m super inspired by you and wishing you so much strength working towards this goal!

  • Carolina Rosabal

    I wish all the companies -including the organization I currently work for- would read this article, print it, frame it and hang it in their lobbies as a constant reminder of what they should do all the time. Transparency is what everybody demands but just a few commit to. It’s like mission impossible for some people and companies to talk about what’s actually happening, whether is good or bad. I’ve seen so many managers and executives suffer when trying to come up with an excuse or a somewhat credible story instead of just saying what’s going on. In an ideal world, all businesses would take transparency as seriously as you do. It’s a value that has to be lived, not just preached. To me, you’re a great example of best practices.

    I’ve been reading all your posts recently and I like them a lot, but this one in particular is extremely valuable. Transparency is one of my personal top values and the one I always try to spread among family, friends and coworkers. It’s a big part of doing the right thing, which happens to be one of my strongest values too (and oh, yours as well!) It all makes sense. I really like Buffer. You make me happy and make me realize there are good and caring companies out there :)

    • Carolina, thanks so much for taking the time to share such a kind note; I really appreciate it! It’s awesome to hear how important transparency is to you, too; I feel like the movement is growing!

  • Jae Sung

    Hey Courtney, I love that you included a Brene Brown quote in this post. I just finished her “Rising Strong” book and it really helped me to understand how vulnerability and transparency go hand in hand. I recently had a very transparent experience with my previous company and I found out the hard way that it takes a company completely committed to transparency to be receptive to it and respond back equally. In that instance, transparency actually came off as a threat to the other party, since that wasn’t a “normal” part of the company culture. Honestly, it felt like a punch to the gut when a hug was expected.

    • Oh gosh, Jae, so sorry to hear about this terrible experience! Yup, I think consistency across the board might be what creates an atmosphere where transparency can work and not feel like this bad moment you describe. :(

  • hdc77494

    If you have any doubts about the value of internal transparency, try this experiment. Take a walk around your business today and ask random people what they think the company’s profit margin is. Ask them how the department they work in adds value. Ask them about payroll percent, or any other number on your executive dashboard and try not to cringe at their answers. Granted some startups are staffed with savvy and highly educated people, but most are not. Heck, ask the simplest question. How much of every dollar of revenue makes it back to the owners or shareholders? The point is, if all your people don’t see or know the critical numbers, they can’t help you improve them. All that said, I don’t share your enthusiasm for sharing with outsiders. Your competitors follow what you’re doing more closely than your customers. Some of them can and will use your transparency to destroy you.

    • Wow, that’s an interesting exercise! I’m sure it would turn up some great insights! Thanks for your thoughts here.

  • Luz Iglesias

    Another great post, Courtney. We find the same thing @Fitzii. Transparancy means saying the hard stuff, seeking support, giving support, fixing things together. Way to go @Buffer for being such a great role model on this and other practices.

    • How cool that your goals are the same, Luz! I’d love to hear how the “hard stuff” has gone for you and your team, if you’d be up for sharing!

  • Stephen’Bern’ Banham

    For me transparency is freeing … In my current role I work with 3 different countries, and whilst I don’t have any say over information sharing outside the company, I ensure that all the social media data is available to everyone, down to pointing out positive or negative changes on an account by account basis (we have 98).

    Ensuring that everyone in the company could see how their own accounts were doing and compare it to each other or by nation has enabled a very positive reaction from the sales team bringing them one step closer to working with the marketing team in mind as well as their own sales initiatives.

    I honestly believe that without that transparency of the statistics for social media that half of the leaderships in sales would have been so proactive in attempting to understand and digest what the marketing effort was and is.

    So when I look at Buffer I see a company that is developing and owning the model for transparency in a way that I hope all companies will in the coming future, I think we’d see a lot less corruption in business than we do today.

    • 98, wow!! It sounds like you’re doing an amazing job and seeing some really cool results to your own policy of transparency. Very inspiring!

  • I work as a social media consultant, and an idea I’ve had recently is to make my social media strategy and social media content calendar public.

    It means my clients will be able to come and check out what I’m doing, and get some ideas, see how I do it, and it also means I’m more motivated to plan ahead rather than leave it til the last thing after I’ve done all my client work, and it means that anyone who really likes the content I’m putting out can get a sneak peek, which I think is cool.

    But obviously this means my competitors can copy what I’m doing and pre-empt me by sharing first. What are your thoughts on this?

  • Sylvia

    I was so impressed with Kevan’s article and I applaud your whole team for the courageous display of honesty. I’ve pushed for more and more transparency in our company as a customer advocate, and I realize it’s a scary thing for a lot of people, especially when things aren’t going according to plan. I’m happy to say that, although it took a few years to get to a place where our leadership got on-board and understood the value of being completely open with our customers, it’s been such a relief to be able to take ownership of mistakes or just be really candid and admit what’s going on.

    We learned so much from an experience earlier this year. Near the end of 2014, we ambitiously launched 6 product pre-orders while offering email sign-ups for folks who weren’t ready to purchase a product with an undefined ship date. We were very upfront with the fact that we were still in the design/development stage, and wouldn’t be able to give an accurate time frame. However, for the first couple days of the pre-orders, we did give a general “Fall 2014” projected target date and, unfortunately, we faced a lot of backlash from some of our first pre-order customers when we changed that to a more broad range extending into early Spring. We also built a dedicated pre-order information and updates page where we posted every few weeks, and we made sure to give very thorough email updates to all of our pre-order customers and emphasized that if they felt uncomfortable at any point or were not happy with our pre-order process, we would quickly issue a refund and cancel it for them. What we learned was very similar to you…lots of encouragement, understanding, grace, as well as brutal honesty. We were able to identify what really mattered to our customers and how better to communicate with them (in addition to learning the hard way that we shouldn’t launch so many products at once at the same time!), and I feel that we built up more trust with our customers who have gifted us with their loyalty and support.

    • Wow, that’s a really neat story of transparency in action, Sylvia! Sounds like y’all are on a very inspiring track with all these great changes!

      • Sylvia

        Thanks, Courtney! I feel like we’re on a good track, but there’s always room for improvement :) Taking notes from you guys and the lessons you’ve learned as well.

    • Amazing to read this Syliva! Thank you so much for sharing! :)

      • Sylvia

        Kevan, thanks for taking time to reply (on a Friday no less). I’m sure this was a very intense week for you and your team, hope you finish strong!

  • Our pet store recently suffered a horrible fire that could have been less devastating had we been more vigilant with fire prevention. We didn’t cause the fire & we were in safety code compliance, but we didn’t have any fire prevention system above the code minimum.

    Instead of pointing fingers, we publicly accepted responsibility. Animals died. It rocked our community. We felt guilt & shame but we publicly owned the failure. Our customers could have crucified us but, instead, they rallied & gathered in support.
    More on our site .

    • Oh, what a terrible experience, Sherry! I’m so sorry to hear that you and other people and living creatures had to go through this. :( Sounds like those will be some hard-earned lessons. Thank you for sharing so openly.

  • Kevan’s article was so inspiring to read and Buffer’s commitment to transparency not just “even” but especially in the times when things aren’t going well is so inspiring. It’s one of the reasons I continue to come back to the Buffer blog over and over again — because I know what you guys are sharing is real and honest and those kinds of stories always produce better results than the perfectionist picture companies are often tempted to show to the world.

    • This encouragement is so incredible to hear, Sarah Anne! Thanks so much for taking the time to send over such a kind note; I really appreciate it!

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