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Anonymous apps are the latest craze. But what are they, and why are so many of them popping up?

First, of course, nothing online is guaranteed to be truly anonymous. Clever audience tracking, or just knowing which friend of a friend has the job they’ve talked about hating, means you can often trace content back to the original creator. 

But the popularity of apps like Whisper and Secret is precisely because of their surface anonymity (Whisper is reported to have 3.5 bn views a month).  

Whisper lets you post short, anonymous, messages, which anyone else using the service can see and reply to, while Secret lets you post anonymous messages to anyone on your mobile’s contact list.

One app, Cloaq, plays so strongly on its anonymity feature that it refuses to name the people working on it, and doesn’t require an email address or phone number to use it. 

All these apps are incredibly popular with kids and teenagers, who can post what they really want to say, without having to worry about what their family will say, or what their friends will think of them. 

Children and teens will always be drawn to anonymity. They are exploring their identities, trying new things, and working out how they feel about a range of things.

Sometimes that’s easier to do when you’re hidden. Safety is a huge issue here, and the developers of these apps have a real responsibility to ensure children are kept safe from bullying, and that there is adequate intervention when a child is at risk of self-harm. (That’s a post for another day.)

There’s nothing new about the ability to post content anonymously. People have been using pseudonyms online for years (even on sites that supposedly don’t allow it), and sites like ask.fm have long let members post anonymously if they wish. 

How brands are getting involved

It’s early days, but some brands are using anonymous apps to promote their products. Hulu launched its new series Deadbeat with a Whisper campaign:

This prompted other users to make their own version of the Whisper posts:

Universal Studios used Whisper to market the Valentine’s Day release of the film Endless Love. But by encouraging people to post to Whisper about the film, and using #EndlessLove, the studio risked flooding users’ screens with endless spam:

 

So, while you can use apps like Whisper to promote products, you have to find the right balance. Anonymity also means people won’t hold back in their criticism, so be prepared.

The very secrecy that the app promises its users means this is intrinsically personal space. Most won’t want in-your-face ads in such a private environment. 

Social listening

This is the big area of interest for me right now. Like any other network, anonymous apps can offer a great insight into what people really want to say about your brand, and what they really think of you – and often things they wouldn’t say to you on Twitter, or on your Facebook page.

Grouped together, they could add up to an overall picture that’s useful in your marketing. Individually, they could give you insight that might inspire a campaign, or let you respond to a specific request. 

As ever, it’s what you do with that information that’s important. Maybe the local Domino’s wants to respond and offer the person that uploaded that post a free Chocolate Lava Cake with their next order.

What next? 

Some commentators, like Bill Gurley, argue that these apps represent a new phase in online communications. Facebook was one phase, and now we have anonymity.

We’re at a point where people are starting to think more about the privacy of their data (as Google has discovered) and it will be interesting to see whether people believe their data is more closely protected because their posts are anonymous.  

Investors are putting millions into anonymous apps because they look sexy right now. 

The real decider for brands is whether these apps are going to be a good association for your company’s reputation. If you’re going to put your money behind the latest app, it must be well-managed and trusted, and not associated with the darker side of anonymity, such as bullying, or self-harm.  

I always advise brands to really get to know an app before jumping in with a marketing campaign. Make sure someone on your team really understands how it works, and how people use it before you back it as  the Next Big Thing.  

Right now, the best thing you can do with anonymous apps is listen, watch, and learn. 

Tamara Littleton

Published 13 June, 2014 by Tamara Littleton

 Tamara Littleton is CEO at social media management agency Emoderation and a contributor on Econsultancy.

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