Spiral Marketing: The More You Know, The More You Can Know

February 10, 2010

Google Buzz or Google Fizzle?

Ah, Google – you evil bastard! You slipped in another Facebook / Twitter / (insert social network of your choosing) Killer into our gmail accounts while we slept, blissfully unaware of your latest misguided attempt at social network domination. At least the Wave and the Buzz make me think that, hey, I need a vacation; Google Docs? Not so much. But at the end of the day, as much as you’d like to, you will be hard-pressed to transplant the Facebooks and Twitters of the world. You have more money than most to spend on technology – but technology has little to do with the problem you are trying to solve.

Here’s the thing: Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks are marginally interesting technology, but I venture to guess that I could pay some very clever college students all the pizza and Meisterbrau they can consume, and they’ll come up with a pretty good approximation of the Facebook, Twitter or ______________ technology in a matter of weeks. Facebook technology has as much value as Twitter or Google Buzz technology: next to nothing.

Yeah, I said it. All this social media technology by itself is worth about as much as, well, Google Wave. Because the value of Facebook is that some enormous number of people use it every day, and they use it a lot. Same with Twitter. It isn’t the technology of the network that matters: it is the network itself that counts. Facebook could easily go away – it happened to MySpace, and it could also happen to Twitter. But MySpace wasn’t killed by technology or Rupert Murdoch’s continued misunderstanding of all thing interwebz (although it hastened its decline).  MySpace is dying because people aren’t using it the way they used to.

The value of a network is generally (and very loosely) based on the number of people that use it (Metcalfe’s Law). The value of a network is more precisely based on the number of possible subgroups within the network (Reed’s Law). On this count alone, your chances of transplanting a Facebook or Twitter go from “No way in Hell” to “Geez, if I drink enough, I could see it happening.”  Why?  Because you brilliantly gave away a veritable plethora of free email accounts (I think I have, like, 87 of them). This gives you a network with an enormous number of users – a necessary precondition to taking over the social networking world.

But this isn’t a network problem alone – it is a value problem. And while having a huge network (through registered gmail users) is a necessary factor in your dastardly global dominance scheme, it is not sufficient.  And this is where you will fall short again.  Because email is more ubiquitous than the largest social network – everyone’s got an account – but the economic value of a network is based upon the aggregate value of the interactions on the network. And people don’t value email interactions. If they did, email would be synonymous with “printing money.”  Which I suspect is what you are trying to do, at the end of the day. But I don’t want to interact socially through my email – I would rather not do ANYTHING through my email, just as I never write letters anymore. There is already enough garbage in email to negate any value it ever might have had – and hey, don’t get me wrong, I use email; I just use it when I have no other possible means of communicating what I need to communicate. But until you can tell me what in the hell “fwd:fwd:fwd:re:fwd:fwd:re:fwd:re:puppies” means without me having to open the damn email, I’ll pass.

The two necessary and sufficient preconditions for achieving social media world dominance and the economic and intellectual imprisonment of the world are 1) a very large and active community; that 2) delivers high perceived value  in the interactions of the community (and “noise” does not equal “value”).   With Google Wave you took a fair (although off target) shot at delivering more valuable interactions, but you couldn’t drive the numbers. With Google Buzz, you are using your huge gmail user base to capture numbers, but without improving the quality of the interactions in that network.

The good news? You’ve got the problem surrounded. The bad news? I think the Buzz you’re hearing is really the sound of a fizzle.

February 2, 2010

Social Media and HR: A Lawsuit Waiting To Happen

Filed under: Corporate Policy,Personal Brand — kboulas @ 6:53 pm

Once again the topic of “personal branding” and managing your personal reputation online comes up, as it does frequently these days.  I make no bones that I am no fan of this idea of personal branding – it is contrived, and silly, and only serves as a buzz topic in the social media encyclopedia.   But it continues to be talked about, and now goes even further: apparently, HR people are now actively searching your social media presence as part of the recruitment process, amidst all sorts of talk about social media as that mythical “Permanent Record.”

For those of you who have yet to hear about this brilliantly conceived plan by our HR brethren, it goes something like this: attend to your personal brand, and don’t portray anything within your various social media activities that might impugn that brand, because, apparently, HR people have decided that they are going to search your Facebook page, Twitter account, blogs, etc. etc. ad nauseum when screening you as a potential candidate for a job.

Oh, yes – remember that picture of you doing keg stands in college?  Or flashing your magnificent breasts at Mardi Gras?  Almost two-thirds of HR professionals – based upon a Microsoft study – intend to use these to judge you as a candidate!  Zounds!  Let us start a new industry; we can call it the “reputational white-wash” business – a Facebook page going into a washing machine can be our logo!  Excellent – we are on to something there!

Upon further thought, however, perhaps we should instead go into employment law.  And here’s why:

Let’s just, for the sake of argument, say that you partied in college, and posted pictures of that on your profile.  Those wily HR professionals search for your Facebook page and find the incriminating pictures.  Egads – you partied in college?!

Oh, and on the same page, perhaps they saw your birthday.  Didn’t get the job? Let’s talk about age discrimination.

Perhaps they saw in your picture that you were black? Hmmm – racial discrimination.

Kissing another man?  Discrimination based upon sexual preference.

And then perhaps they search your Twitter stream and find out about that three-way you had with those two Swedish stewardesses!  Good find, HR!  Oh, yes, and in the same stream they found a reference to the Jewish services you attend on a regular basis.  I think that would be religious discrimination.

“Oh,” say those diligent and conscientious HR professionals, “we didn’t refuse to consider you for a job because of those things!  They just happened to be there when we were searching for proof that you partied in college!”

Really?  Prove it.  Because the crux of the matter is not whether you can or cannot prove that those protected categories of a candidate’s life were not considered – and I would suggest you would be VERY hard-pressed to prove it; only until you as an HR professional actively search for that incriminating “permanent record” will you find the evidence you want, and potentially a large body of evidence you are not, as a potential employer, entitled to consider in your hiring process.  Sure, you may argue that the burden of proof is actually on the candidate to take you to court, and to prove that you discriminated against them. And if you are an HR professional, slap yourself upside the head.  Because I as an executive responsible for the financial health, operations and reputation of the company know that it is not prevailing at trial that counts; it is avoiding a trial, and the potential financial consequences, operational distractions and inevitable bad press and reputational damage of the company in which such a practice will result.

Let me gaze into my crystal ball for a moment.  Hmmm – a high profile company engages in this practice, a spate of lawsuits arise, the company settles those lawsuits out of court and quietly kills this practice, with the broader industry following suit.

So I’ll make this easy on those HR types out there, and stipulate that I did, indeed, party in college.  A lot, in fact.

And if you bring me a candidate you find had a threesome with two Swedish stewardesses by searching their social media presence? Fire yourself, right after you hire that guy.

Because I could use some pointers.

October 19, 2009

Re-branding: your brand is only measured by what people say about it

Filed under: branding,marketing,rebranding — kboulas @ 9:05 pm

I’ve noticed that a couple of companies have re-branded themselves recently. A brand is an interesting thing, because when it starts – and I know PR and marketing types will cringe here – it’s very superfluous; it is ornamentation and storytelling – when a brand begins, it is window dressing. A brand only achieves greater meaning through people’s interactions with the brand, and the assocations they make with it (positive or negative). Coca Cola is obviously a very potent brand – without the associations of billions of consumers, Coke is really just a decent font, an interesting bottle shape, and a few tag lines; because of those associations, it has become the dominant consumer goods brand it is today. Coca Cola is the brand that it is not because of what it says about itself, but because of what people think and say about it.

I was therefore a bit astonished to see that Brink’s home security is re-branding itself Broadview. Really? Brink’s has been a dominant name in the security business for 150 years: when the famous robbery occurred it wasn’t called the “armored car robbery” – it was called “the Brink’s robbery,” and I’d warrant that more often than not, armored cars in movies and TV shows are Brink’s armored cars. Brink’s is iconic of security. With such an association in the consumer’s eye of Brink’s and security, it seems staggering that they would turn their backs on 150 years of hard-earned history to adopt a new identity in 2009. I have no idea what’s behind this effort – a divestiture, perhaps? And Brink’s certainly seems to have the wherewithal to flood the airwaves with advertisements announcing the change. But this is hardly the point – the point is that it doesn’t matter what Brink’s calls itself next; it only matters that it is turning its back on 150 years of the public associating “Brink’s” with “security.”

At the same time I noticed the Brink’s switch to Broadview, I also noticed that the Christian Children’s Fund had re-branded themselves as the Child Fund (www.childfund.org). While I was disappointed in Brink’s re-branding, I was glad to see this one. Unless your product or service requires a specific affiliation – religious, political, national – it doesn’t belong in your brand. The reason for this is that your brand should resonate with some common denominator in people – and no, I didn’t say lowest common denominator (with its unjustly attributed negative connotations). There has to be a common denominator to create the shared associations that become the brand’s identity. Religion, politics, nationality are never common denominators. While I was sure Christian Children’s Fund was trying to do some good in the world, I felt that their only interest, right or wrong, was helping children that happened to be christian, or that they would convert to christianity – even when the majority of children in need did not fit this categorization. I like the Child Fund – it sums it up rather nicely. It can now be about children for me, and nothing else. That’s a message I can get behind.

Your brand is as valuable as what people are saying about it. Re-branding can be a good thing, or bad. It is a good thing if people aren’t talking about you, or what they say isn’t what you want your brand to stand for. But if you have spent time establishing your brand, take great care that you don’t turn your back on people’s shared history with you – it is easy to change the letterhead and packaging; it is difficult to change people’s minds, and that’s what really counts here.

October 9, 2009

Sticky Note: Can a company “manufacture” a viral campaign?

I saw this question on LinkedIn posed by Dennis Crosby, CEO of PlayDates Foundation and a marketing consultant:

“Lately I have seen a lot of media companies advertise the ability to create viral videos. Now a viral video can be defined as “A viral video is a video clip that gains widespread popularity through the process of Internet sharing, typically through email or Instant messaging, blogs and other media sharing websites.”

You see a lot of popular videos on youtube, facebook, college humor, etc, that would be defined as a viral video. I can’t say that I have seen a single one that was promoting a company or product. It seems wrong that people are saying that they can create a video that people will spread across the internet to be viewed by the masses. Is it just me? What do you think? “

This is my response:

“No – I don’t think it is possible to ‘manufacture’ a viral video (or guarantee one will go viral). By definition, something goes viral when it is presented to people who then share it with others (who may then share it further, and so on). If a company is behind a video, they can control who they present it to, but they can’t control how it is shared.

A good firm will be able to help identify what MIGHT go viral, and recognize potential viral opportunities that emerge, but to start with an intent and a guarantee that something will go viral is over-estimating the marketing organization’s capabilities and under-estimating the power of consumer choice in making something ‘viral’ (or not).”

Be wary of anyone who guarantees “viral” results – the beauty of anything viral is the very fact that it goes beyond the company’s control. You can either have the benefits of control, or the benefits of viral – you can’t have both.

What do you think?

K

September 7, 2009

Sticky Note: Optimize, Optimize, Optimize

What’s a sticky note – it’s a brief reminder. That’s what my Sticky Notes will be – a tidbit, a concept, a brief reminder to think about something. This is the first.

I just saw an Allstate commercial, that pointed out that they “understand” how it can be difficult to change insurance companies, so they would “help you” work with your current insurance company to change to Allstate. Come on – you’ve made the decision to change to Allstate, and you know you’re going to have to call your current insurance provider to cancel your coverage to switch to Allstate. The difficulty exists whether Allstate helps you or not.

I don’t have the facts to know this, but I know for a fact that what Allstate has done is to look at “abandon rates” – people who have decided to switch to Allstate, call their current providers, and are talked into staying through a combination of buyer’s remorse, counter offers and the FUD factor (Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt). This conversation happens outside of Allstate’s hearing or control. So how does Allstate decrease the “abandon rate” for new policy sales? They insert themselves into the conversation with your existing insurance company, under the guise of “helping you” (reinforcing their brand message – “You’re in good hands with Allstate”). By inserting themselves into the conversation, they to a great extent nullify the advantage your current provider has in a one to one conversation with you.

I saw another concrete example of this when I switched my brokerage accounts from one company to another. I had grown dissatisfied with the “nickel and diming” of my online brokerage, and could get a similar service from a company with which I had significant other dealings; the culminating event was the imposition of a $40 account service fee because I had not made the minimum required trades in a given period of time. So I told the person I was talking to at my previous online brokerage that I would switch rather than pay that fee again; he politely said “tough luck.”

So I called the new company, told them what I was trying to do in order to get bank routing numbers to do a wire transfer; the woman I spoke to volunteered to get my then current online brokerage on the line to facilitate the transfer – she inserted herself into the conversation. And while I spoke to my then current brokerage, they became very apologetic, explained their policy yet again, and tried to suss out why I was leaving. The woman at the new brokerage interrupted this call center employee, informed him I had made my decision, and asked for the bank routing information – she shut the customer retention conversation down cold. And this increased my confidence in my decision, and the woman ensured that the funds were moved as appropriate and the trades I required were made as soon as the funds were available. I have not regretted my decision in the slightest. It also bears noting that since I left, my previous online brokerage has made hundreds of dollars worth of offers to try and reclaim me as a customer. They should have just waived the original $40 tax they put on me for using their service – it is easier and more profitable to keep an existing customer than to gain a new one; it is far easier and more profitable to keep an existing customer than to lose, then try to reclaim one.

This “Sticky Note” is titled “Optimize, Optimize, Optimize” for a reason. What I am making is a very educated guess about what Allstate has done – contradict me with facts if you have them – they looked at their sales cycle, and analyzed customer drop-outs. They looked not just at existing customers that leave, but also at sold prospects that, in the 11th hour, decide to stay put with their current insurance providers. And they built a strategy to minimize those drop-outs – by inserting themselves into the transition conversation.

It’s really quite insightful and outstanding strategy on Allstate’s part, and serves as a good lesson for any business: understand to the greatest extent possible every aspect of your business, and determine where improvements can be made to maximize your revenues or minimize your costs. Then think outside of the box and develop strategies for how you can improve those areas. And once you have addressed one area of potential optimization, move to the next, and the next, and the next.

As a related aside: if you want to get an easy to follow introduction to continuous process improvement, and how improvements can interrelate so that it is theoretically possible to optimize sub-processes while sub-optimizing overall processes (the Theory of Constraints), I recommend The Goal by Goldratt and Cox. And no, I don’t make anything for recommending their book.

Kev

August 18, 2009

Four Questions A CEO Must Ask About Social Media

I’ve read several lists of reasons CEOs are not adopting, and in some cases are “afraid” of social media over the last couple of days – 13 reasons, 11 reasons, 28 reasons the CEO is afraid of social media; I think the purpose of these lists are to help inform and create discussions by describing questions and objections they have encountered.  I am going to add my thoughts to that discussion.

I’ll preface my comments, however, with the observation that I don’t believe that CEOs are “afraid” of social media.  I do believe that some might think social media is just a “flash in the pan” (I think these CEOs underestimate the sea change that is occurring – disregarding social media, the effectiveness of virtually all other forms of marketing have been in steady decline for years).  I also believe others see social media for what it is – a potential game-changing “disruptive” model for integrating one’s customers into the business.  If the latter is true, as I believe it is, then there is tremendous organizational complexity in adopting this game-changing model – complexity not just in fitting social media into the marketing mix, but integrating it across customer touchpoints, all the while addressing the uncertainty, ego issues and performance management questions that will inevitably arise.

First Principles

In thinking about the core “first principles” for adopting social media, I believe there are four key questions the CEO is concerned about, and these, as in any highly functioning and complex business, are all interrelated.  These questions aren’t in any particular order – in fact, they relate to each other, and a key goal when discussing social media with a CEO is to first figure out which question is most important to him / her as an entry point into the conversation.

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How does Social Media fit within our company?

One question a CEO must answer is “How does social media and social marketing fit within my company?” If one seeks to implement an overarching social media strategy for a company of any size and complexity, this is no small question: in large companies, this might extend across multiple departments in marketing alone – marketing communications, PR, investor relations, and any number of product marketing groups.  Forgetting about social media, most companies have a difficult time getting their sales and marketing functions to get along, and then, expanding this to all customer-facing functions?  There is tremendous coordination and effort in getting key stakeholders all in the same tent at the same time.

Adding to this complexity is that in the vast majority of companies there is not a single officer dedicated to “owning the customer relationship.” That’s right – the customer, the fundamental source of value in all companies, has no single champion, and instead is usually passed from one functional silo to another.  It is possible to trace the path that led corporations toward managing activities, such as sales, marcomm and support, and away from managing relationships, but the implication is that, while social media and social marketing is and should be about engaging customers, most companies are not yet very well organized to support that conversation.  To embrace the potential of social media to its fullest, a company must rethink its way back to relationship-based management.

How do we control the message?

Another question a CEO is concerned with is “How do we control the message?”  There is an internal aspect to this question – “how do I control internal communications and proprietary information?”; and an external aspect – “how do I manage my brand if I don’t control the message?”  Breaking this down a bit further, the potential for unauthorized disclosures of proprietary and confidential information exists with or without social media.  Social media does not create the motives to share this information, or the carelessness that leads to leaking it.  Whether a company embraces social media as a key component of its strategy, it does at least need to update its HR policies regarding treatment of confidential information to incorporate appropriate uses of social media.

The external component of this question is perhaps the more difficult for CEOs to come to terms with.  After spending considerable time and effort crafting a finely honed, targeted message, on the face of it social media would appear to be a threat to that effort.  Of course, there has always been information from customers that has contradicted the marketing message of a given company, but never before has one voice had the power to amplify and repeat a message to so many than with social media.  But to effectively use social media and marketing is to engage with and embrace the customer’s voice within a company, and by doing so, a company opens itself to the bad with the good.  Although perhaps obvious, a company must remember that negative comments will be put forth, whether the company likes it or not.  It is therefore in the best interests of the company to be engaged in a conversation, rather than letting a monologue propagate without the company’s voice.  And the company must be prepared to respond quickly to any negative or off-point commentary in this environment where damage accrues in minutes and hours, rather than the days and weeks of the past.

How do we measure results?

A third question is “how do we measure results?”  This is a weakness in the social media landscape – being a relatively immature discipline, metrics that have evolved over decades of direct mail marketing, print and broadcast advertising, etc. and many years of online advertising have not yet evolved for social marketing.  There does exist, however, various techniques for linking social media efforts with strategic social marketing goals.

The more interesting point regarding metrics for marketing spend is that, across the board, the effectiveness of traditional marketing techniques is rapidly declining.  It is also true that early adopters of successful strategies benefit disproportionately from those strategies than do “me-too” adopters.  So the conundrum is whether a company stick with easily measurable media with appreciable and consistent long term declines in effectiveness; or it takes an early adopter position, build in the appropriate goals, benchmarks and controls, and trust that the anecdotal evidence of social media success, combined with tangential but highly relevant metrics of word of mouth marketing effectiveness, audience growth, adoption, mindshare, etc. lead to early adopter success?

How do we overcome “Cultural Inertia” in adopting Social Media?

Finally, the CEO has to ask “how do we overcome ‘cultural inertia’ in adopting social media?”  This is perhaps one of the most problematic questions because it is where social media touches employees: one has to understand that companies have ingrained processes, defined roles and responsibilities, established budgets and resources, and performance plans / incentives for existing functions.  By introducing social media into the marketing / sales / support mix – bridging all customer-facing functions – a company must deal with tough questions of where social media fits within the organization, who is responsible for it, how it impacts other functions, and how it will be funded through the budget.  These are important questions that relate directly to established departments’ and executives’ sense of security and of delivering value to the organization. These topics are very sensitive on many levels, and must be addressed carefully to ensure the entire organization adopts and is aligned with the success of social media and marketing, and the new customer intimacy that results.

There are clearly many tactical questions a company must ask and answer in developing and implementing a social media / social marketing presence.  The questions above are, however, “first principle” questions from which I believe all others will derive.  CEOs, and those that seek to promote a social media strategy, must address these questions, and address them carefully; if properly implemented, I believe it inevitable that social media will be a valuable and increasingly important component of a company’s marketing mix and customer support capability.

August 9, 2009

If you say bad things about me on social networks, I’ll pack up my coffee shop and go home!

I was reading an article in the online Wall Street Journal entitled “No More Perks: Coffee Shops Pull The Plug On Laptop Users” (see http://online.wsj.com/article/SB124950421033208823.html – it was brought to my attention by @enthused).  The meat of the article is that coffee shops, particularly independent coffee shops, are beginning to limit and even ban laptop users.

I am a fan of the the indie coffee shops – I think they can be gathering places for vibrant neighborhoods, and I’d like to see more of them survive.  To survive, though, is to embrace your customer, and I’d be very interested to see the financial analysis of allowing versus limiting or banning outright laptop users.  My intuition and experience tells me that this is in general a very bad idea for these indie coffee shops, but I am open to a financial analysis that proves me wrong.  I believe that there are a tremendous number of patrons who go to their favorite coffee shop to work, and are paying customers; unless you are standing room only, a customer in your shop is a whole lot more valuable than a customer who finds an alternative place to work (and caffeinate).

But that’s not what this particular blog post is about.  Buried in the story is what I consider a little gem of a cautionary tale about how not to handle social media.

As a preface, I believe one of the key “transformations” companies need to make in adopting social media is

Broadcasting (Controlling) Your Message >> Influencing The Conversation About You

I don’t think Masoud Soltani, one of the owners of Cocoa Bar in New York, shares my opinion.

So here’s the background: Hannah Moots and her boyfriend stopped in to Cocoa Bar in Brooklyn (of which Soltani is an owner) on a Friday night to do grad school apps.  It seems there was only one other couple in the place at the time – according to Ms. Moots, she and her boyfriend were going to do the apps, then have a glass of wine or two afterward.  They were turned away because they would ruin the ambiance of the place by bringing out the laptops (although apparently their table wasn’t in view of the only other occupied table in the house).  So Hannah and her boyfriend went elsewhere.  That’s where the social media story starts.

Hannah posted a review of Cocoa Bar Brooklyn on Yelp.com – it currently has a 3.5 star rating (http://www.yelp.com/biz/cocoa-bar-brooklyn) discussing her experience.  She gave it a less than stellar review – as, might I add, did quite a few others.  This is where it gets good.  According to the Wall Street Journal “Masoud Soltani, a Cocoa Bar owner, confirms that he sent her a Yelp message: ‘I remember you very well…I would not think you would write such bad stuff about us.’”

This is one of the great worries every owner or CEO has about social media, right?  The fear that someone will say something negative about the company, or off-message, or inconsistent with their brand.  And guess what?  This story proves they are right to be afraid – there are actually people out there saying bad things about the Cocoa Bar!  This is no phobia – this is a rational fear.

But at the end of the day, Hannah Smoots didn’t need Soltani’s permission to post her opinion in an open forum – Soltani couldn’t stop that message any more than Horizon Realty or Alliance Property Management can try to quash negative opinions about their properties.  The negative review of Cocoa Bar was out there, and at this point the company only had three options: ignore the message; engage the customer (presumably in hopes of turning a negative into a positive; try it sometimes, it works!); or nullify the message (by proving the information false or biased in a level-headed manner).

Soltani apparently thought “self-righteous indignation” was a fourth option . . . it really isn’t.

The customer may not always be right, but the customer is always the customer.  The customer has a voice, as she always has had, but social media provides the means to amplify her message, and deliver it to a potentially large audience.  Whether you, as a company, choose to participate in that conversation is up to you, but to ignore social media for fear of these situations is a lot like hiding under the blanket when you hear a scary noise in the dark.  Turn on the lights! Face your fears, embrace the voices of your customers, and you might be surprised at how much better your business can be for the effort.

There is, though, one other option that the ever entrepreneurial Masoud Soltani has discovered as well: according to the WSJ, “Mr. Soltani says [Hannah Smoots] is no longer welcome in his store.”

So if you find yourself in front of the Cocoa Bar in Brooklyn at 228 7th Ave (3.5 stars on Yelp.com), you might consider whether you would prefer a coffee shop that believes you have a voice worth listening to.  Might I suggest

Southside Coffee, 652 6th Ave (4.5 stars on Yelp.com)

Root Hill Cafe, 262 4th Ave (4.5 stars)

Cafe Grumpy, 383 7th Ave (4.5 stars)

Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera . . .

(http://www.yelp.com/search?find_desc=coffee+shops&find_loc=228+7th+Ave+Brooklyn+NY&ns=1&rpp=10)

You’re welcome.

Kev

July 27, 2009

I’m Trying To Sleep Here!

I knew a guy at the University of Colorado who had done a lot of things in his life – been all over the world, fought in Vietnam, done all sorts of things.  I was talking to him one day and he told me a story about working for a rescue mission in the roughest areas of Chicago.

Well, we all know it can get pretty cold in Chicago in winter, particularly when the wind is howling off the lake.  On these cold nights, my friend and his compatriots at the rescue mission would go out in a van, and look for homeless people sleeping on the streets – freezing to death was an all too real and frequent occurrence on nights like those.  So my friend and a partner would prowl the mean streets of Chicago, well off the Miracle Mile, Michigan Ave and the Loop, and look for people in alleys and in doorways.  When they saw someone, they would get out of the van, and my friend would shake the person and say “Hey, are you alright?”  This is the sort of thing we should all take the time to do, right? Look out for our fellow travelers, extend a hand to those who don’t have it as well as we do?

Well, 99 out of 100 times my friend asked if someone was alright (I’ll leave it to you to guess what happened the 100th time), they would yell with a slur “I was until you woke me up, M****r F****r!” and proceed to curse my friend up one side and down the other, and then get to work on his immediate and extended family.  Once my buddy’s family tree had been roundly cursed, most times that person would promptly turn over and go back to sleeping off the effects of their drink or drug of choice or convenience.  My friend was taken aback – he was trying to help these people, and was in many cases literally being spat upon by those he sought to aid.  He was freezing his ass off, rolling through the night down streets you or I wouldn’t walk in daylight, trying to bring some comfort to folks, and his thanks was one serving of abuse after another. After a few days or weeks of this treatment, most people quit; my friend, a most resilient sort and a student of human nature, decided to change his approach.

So when the temperature dropped, the sun set and the cold winds howled through the cold and dark Chicago night, my friend would jump into the van as always, and prowl the back alleys and no-man’s land.  He would search for the huddled forms in corners, behind dumpsters, in doorways.  He’d pull the van up, get out, walk over and shake the person.

And then he’d ask “Hey, are you dead?”

The level of abuse my friend had to take dropped rather remarkably with this subtle shift in his approach.  He probably saved more lives than we will ever know in the time he spent at that rescue mission.

What’s the lesson here for businesses?  I think it is that even when we are trying to help our customers, we often do so in a very self-referential way – I want to converse with my customers, but on my terms.  Do we really want to have the conversation our customers want to have, or do we want a conversation that serves only our needs.  That may seem a bit of a stretch given this scenario, but ask yourselves this (he says optimistically, knowing no one is going to read this): if my buddy is asking folks “Hey, are you alright?” there is only one answer that will make anyone happy, and that person is my buddy.  If the guy wakes up, my buddy is happy, but the guy trying to sleep it off is pissed: “I was until you woke me up – leave me alone!”  The only other answer is no answer – and that’s not a very happy thing for anyone concerned.

My buddy was forcing these people he was trying to help to reinforce his sense of well-being: he wanted them to be alright; they in fact either were or were not, and so therefore had not personal stake in answering this stranger’s question.  But my buddy was out there in the Chicago cold trying to help people, so he changed the question to one in which those he sought to help had a personal stake – “Hey, are you dead?”

If you choose to have a conversation with your customers, ask them the questions they care about – and be ready for the answers.  You might be surprised how clearly their answers will tell you what you really need to know.

Kev

July 3, 2009

Blogging as “Self Portraiture” – Business Takeaways

I went to an interesting panel discussion on Blogging as Self Portraiture, sponsored by the Mizel Museum.  I’d explain this question of blogging as portraiture, spoken of quite eloquently by the curator of the Mizel Museum, but since on the best of days I am lucky I remember to wear pants, and I have no fact checker handy, I’ll leave that to others.  Suffice it to say, however, that this panel was about the blog, and how a blog can be used to “paint a portrait” of the author.  Those who know me know I would love to wax philosophical on such an artsy and ideological topic, but that doesn’t put the Venti Mochas on the table.  I am in the business of businesses . . .

But even in my roll as crass businessman, I think there were several very important take-aways from this discussion – this wasn’t simply about art for art’s sake.  I think the key takeaways were

  • What you choose to portray is how you are perceived;
  • The velocity of the propagation of good or bad information about your company is incredibly rapid;
  • Dialogue, any dialogue, between you and your customers is a good thing;
  • Rules truly are meant to be broken;
  • Authenticity is everything.

Let’s break it down: firstly, what you choose to portray about yourself reflects how you are perceived.  That in fact was the underlying assumption for this panel discussion.  Whether you write deeply from the heart, adopt a calculated persona conforming to the way you wish to be perceived, share others’ content – which by its nature describes something about you – whether you share in bits and pieces or cut whole from broadcloth the image you wish to portray, a vision of you emerges.  Implicit in this point (and the discussion almost got there) is that there are two very different roles in this communication: the one who seeks to portray something about themselves, and those viewing that portrait who run the information through their own set of filters.  Without these two distinct roles, you are left with the age old question that if you paint a self portrait that no one sees, do you still exist? (OK, I lied – that was something about trees, woods, falling, some other such nonsense).

But there is a critical business point in this observation, something I’ve described somewhat cumbersomely as “I know what I think I just said, and you know what you think you heard, but I wonder if you heard what I said?”  We’ve all heard the stories of branding that didn’t translate very well culturally – Coca Cola originally translated into the Chinese market as “Bite the wax tadpole; “Electrolux introducing its product into the U.S. with the catchy slogan “Nothing sucks like an Electrolux;” and one of my favorites – Ford trying to understand why the Pinto didn’t sell in Brazil until they discovered that “Pinto” was Brazilian slang for “tiny penis.”  A very recent example of this idea – that regardless of what you say, people hear something - was this week: @mattsingley was having trouble with his Time Warner account, so he found the @timewarnercares account on Twitter, which had posted exactly zero times.  What does Time Warner have to say about how much it cares? Demonstrably, nothing at all.

Whatever you do, say, don’t do or don’t say, your customers are building a picture of you; “if you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice” comes to mind.  Whether you actively participate in your side of this “grand conversation,” inferences are being made about your company, so you might as well “choose to decide” and take control of how you portray your company – be proactive, because if you are not you will have to be reactive – sooner or later.

The second takeaway is that, in the good old days, even if there was bad news or feedback about your company, things moved at a reasonable enough pace that you had time to properly plan and react to the fallout – crisis management was a much simpler challenge.  Putting a positive spin on the same point, at no other time has it been possible to spread good news as quickly and effectively, or gather as much information.  As John Common, one of the panelists, put it, it is not so much the case that with social media new things are happening, but rather the same old things are happening much more rapidly.  To a great extent this is true, and thus positive and negative messages propagate more rapidly.  You have to, as a business, dedicate yourself to staying on this pulse – benefit or damage accumulates in minute or hour increments, rather than the day, week or month increments of the past.  Prepare your company for this: exploit the upside advantage, and minimize the downside risk.

The third takeaway is that dialogue, positive or negative, can only work to your company’s advantage.  I’ve talked to a lot of executives who would like to ignore negative dialogue – the only affect of this position is that you turn it into a negative monologue, one in which you have no voice; as John Henry Cardinal Newman said, “We cannot make facts. All our wishing cannot change them. We must use them.” The customer will voice their opinion regardless of whether you want to engage in that conversation, and their ability now to spread that opinion is unparalleled.  Social media provides a forum, but also an unprecedented opportunity to gather information on people’s perception of your company’s brand and that of your competitors’.  I tell every customer I talk to the same thing: if you do nothing else, make sure someone is regularly searching for any references to your brand, and your competitors, in the various streams of social media.  Whatever  you do (or do not do) with that information, what argument is there for ignoring such a rich and readily accessible source of information?

Take a look at some examples of Twitter tweets concerning Dish Network and DirecTV – fierce competitors:

“Which is better, DIRECTV or Dish Network?”

“I am mad that Dish Network does not get TV one….ugh”

“Note to dish network: your customer service line is making me unhappy. and your hold music sucks.”

“Dish Network has the worst customer service of all the television providers.”

“@wesbiffar DirecTV, hands down (w/ DVR) here’s why: http://bit.ly/VkVTm”

“I am canceling my Directv.”

“Bout to wage a Jihad on @directv unless they start taking these charges off my credit card”

“@DIRECTV Looking to cut ties with my cable company. Why should I choose DirectTV over Dish?”

Why would I, as a company, ignore this sort of information, all less than 3 hours old at the time of the search (and a small handful of the available information, in a single stream of information), even if I, for whatever reasons, did not choose to integrate this sort of intelligence into my pre- and post-sales customer relationship management  processes?

Number four on my list of take-aways is this idea of  “Rules” for blogging, or social media in general.  I hate to tell those of you that would like the comfort of a hard-and-fast list of rules, but there aren’t any.  There are conventions, emerging best practices, and “terms of service” – it helps to conform to these only to the extent that you aren’t thrown off the playground.  Beyond that, stop looking for rules, and starting making some.  This is a wide open category, that no one has figured out.  It is the convergence of shifts in communications, technology and generational preferences that have no precedent in our lifetimes – all the old rules have been thrown out the window, and a vacuum exists that you can choose to either avoid or exploit.

The wild west nature of social media will not persist forever – @naomimimi’s mavens, experts and gurus will be run out of town for the charlatans that they are, and a more structured environment of best practices will arise, and mainstream companies will conform (to an alarming degree) to these best practices.  And my advice to you? Once there are rules, and you know them, figure out how to break them – that’s what will keep this interesting and relevant for your target audience.  There is only one rule that will always be relevant in social media, and in this case, I guess I went to a school called “Heartbreak Ridge:”  “You can rob me, you can starve me…and you can beat me and you can kill me. Just don’t bore me.

Finally comes the question of authenticity.  Those who know me and my opinions on social media know that I believe that this question of authenticity is absolutely critical.  Some may go so far as to say that it seems I have an axe to grind with someone that I believe to be, in a very calculated way, cultivating a particular image that does not represent them accurately.  The secret is that there is someone I would call out as an inauthentic phoney – it’s me.  If you look for “Kevin Boulas” on Twitter you’ll find two accounts – @kboulas and @irant.  I defy you to engage with, be interested in or even care about what @kboulas says – he’s just another Social Media wonk, regurgitating through retweets the same tired stuff that every other social media “maven” is spouting.  Did I get followers? Sure.  Could I stand the sheer tedium of projecting that persona? Hell, no.  There was so little of me, and what I and my company stand for, reflected in that account, that it would be impossible to view @kboulas as anything but a list of references and platitudes.  If you want to find out who Kevin Boulas is, warts and all, go to @irant – a personality will emerge (that you may or may not like), a sense of humor, a core set of values, a sense of likes and dislikes, and a definite set of opinions on a wide variety of topics.  @irant stands for something, and represents something, and that attracts people and keeps them engaged.  Right or wrong, good or bad, @irant is who he is, and he stands for what he stands for, and that is the key to authenticity.

And if you don’t believe in the value of authenticity, then try following @timewarnercares . . .

Kev

June 24, 2009

Sbarro Isn’t Listening To Its Customers (A Cautionary Tale)

There is really no specific reason this blog post HAS to be about Sbarro Italian restaurant – there are plenty of other brands out there that are ignoring a great deal of interesting and even actionable information about brand perception, consumer experience, quality, etc.  It’s just that, coincidentally, several factors converged today to bring Sbarro to mind: 1) I used to like Sbarro’s quite a lot; 2) I have noticed that the quality of Sbarro’s has declined considerably – undoubtedly a result of the “franchise” effect – and so I almost never go there anymore; and 3) I noticed the following post on Twitter:

“Sbarro’s – never, ever, ever, EVER again. Never, not ever. EVER! #cardboard.”

So I searched Twitter to see if Sbarro has a Twitter account – apparently not.  I then searched Twitter for “Sbarro” and found comments that ranged from good, to OK, to bad – some examples:

mulebennett: @williamfleitch [Michael] Send ‘em to Sbarro‘s for an authentic NY slice [/Scott]“

mohalen: @Arrens i thought i heard sbarro‘s was going out of business; i dont believe I have seen any in Ca.”

tastynsweet: sigh im at the mall right now eating sbarro they got good pizza but exspensive lol”

lynnsmithtx: Sbarro‘s pepperoni stromboli has 44g of fat & 2,470mg of sodium – a day’s worth of each.”

tiffany_dorrin: Ate at Sbarro for the first time in a very long time. I felt like I was in high or middle school again.”

BabyFresh360: Just ate some pizza from Sbarro Ewwwwww it was Sofa-King Disgusting…I Feel Sick my Fellow Twits : (“

GoodStuff4Free: Free pizza at Sbarro‘s for students with good grades June 23 http://linkbee.com/70IT

gadbearr: @joshuaharrell Sbarro…. yummmm!!”

So since Sbarro doesn’t have a Twitter account, I went to their corporate website, finally found the “contact us” link in the bottom navigation bar, and clicked on it to get a contact form.  There were 3 choices for my stakeholder role – Consumer, Franchiser and Real Estate Developer.  So I selected “Consumer,” added contact information, and in my message said that I noticed they were missing out on a lot of very useful information, including the original post: “Sbarro’s – never, ever, ever, EVER again. Never, not ever. EVER! #cardboard.”

This is where the story gets very interesting: I posted this comment, and got a rejection message back from the Sbarro’s website saying something to the effect that the “Contact Us” page should not be used to send messages it perceives as negative.  Are you KIDDING me?  Just tell me before I spend the time writing a comment that “We are very interested in anything you have to say, as long as it conforms to our vision of ourselves.  Any observations that do NOT conform to this viewpoint are out of line, and we will reject them out of hand.”

Good to know . . . now.

I am, as I would guess are the majority of you, of the school of thought that believes 1) ANY information or feedback is useful; and 2) I would rather hear negative comments that will help me improve my product or service, rather than flowery platitudes.  I JUMP on any hint of negative commentary, and try to get to the bottom of it.  In fact, some of the strongest client relationships I have ever developed have had a critical juncture, where the client perceived us in a negative way, and by rapidly addressing their concerns in a proactive, forthright and honest manner, I’ve ended up with a much better client relationship and a much stronger advocate of our services as a reward.

Now, it is clear Sbarro doesn’t belong to this school of thought, and while ultimately I believe that to be a fatal arrogance, I am not going to try to fight through the layers of bureaucracy they’ve built to ensure they don’t hear the voice of their most important asset: their customers.  I think, though, that there is a clear lesson for companies a little less vested in viewing the world through their own pre-determined lens.  While the dynamics are different for various sectors and industries, customers keep you in business; in the consumer world, you have an incredibly diverse, mobile and judgmental group of stakeholders that you ignore at your own peril.  And through emerging social media, the ability for those consumers to share good or bad information or experiences is incredibly rapid and remarkably efficient – the tweet that started this whole situation was sent by someone with 750 followers; through that one tweet, she told 750 people to never eat at Sbarro’s.  And that is just one of the 200 Million+ Facebook users and the 35 Million+ Twitter users (to name only two of the social networks out there).

The lesson of this cautionary tale?  There is more information about your brand than you could possibly imagine being shared on these social platforms.  You have two choices as a consumer retailer (or any business, for that matter): you can adopt and adapt your customer-facing processes to gather, assess, and act upon this vast reservoir of information, and through that process refine your view of your strengths and weaknesses, your opportunities and threats, the perceptions and misperceptions about your brand that you need to identify and act upon.

Or you can adopt the second option – the Sbarro option: only listen to what you want to hear, and filter and tune out the rest.  I would not recommend this option, but if you take this course, understand that you do so at your own risk.

Kev

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