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

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

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