Friday, August 29, 2008

Social Media, the Law, and the Court of Public Opinion

Which is more important? The law or public opinion?

In criminal matters, the answer is the former; but for civil matters--particularly for those of us who live in the world of brand perception and loyalty--the answer may be the latter.

Recently, Hasbro forced a game that was suspiciously similar to Scrabble off of Facebook. Scrabulous, developed by two Calcutta-based brothers, had become a bonafide hit, drawing 500,000 players a day and generating $25,000 per month of ad revenue. There was no question that Scrabulous ripped off Hasbro's Scrabble; the game was "a blatant copy of Scrabble--down to the rules, game pieces and board colors," said Adweek. So it would seem that Hasbro acted appropriately in this clear-cut case, right? Maybe yes, maybe no.

Over on Facebook the reaction has been severe, with 53,000 people joining a "Save Scrabulous" group and nearly 11,000 signing an online petition. The Scrabulous developers have offered a similar but (hopefully) non-infringing game called Wordscraper, which has about the same number of fans as (and substantially better ratings than) the official version of Scrabble now available on Facebook.

Hasbro had a perfect right to protect its copyright, but one has to wonder if there wasn't a better way. As noted by MediaPost, "it seems obvious that Scrabulous is the best thing to happen to Scrabble in decades," since many of the folks who played the online version "became so enamored of the game that they purchased the physical version."

Peter Fader, co-director of the Wharton Interactive Media Initiative, believes Hasbro's action is an "incredibly bad business decision." He notes that many companies sue "just because they think they have the right to, instead of pursuing what's in their shareholders' best interests." Fader suggests the gaming giant might have formed a partnership with the brothers or bought them out, which would have saved legal fees and yielded a flood of positive publicity. He adds, "Hasbro may have won the battle but it has surely lost the war."

Another risk in Hasbro's approach is that the company could actually lose the case. According to the Washington Post, while many lawyers think the look and feel of Scrabulous was sufficiently alike Scrabble's to justify the infringement suit, others point out that, "The idea of Scrabble -- the idea that you would get points for spelling words -- can't be copyrighted."

Even if you believe (as I do) that the bad publicity and hurt feelings of the 500,000 Scrabulous fans will blow over, this situation makes it apparent that both legal and brand reputation considerations must be weighed before unleashing the lawyers. Another more obvious example of the impact of Social Media on legal matters is the Wal-mart/Debbie Shank case.

Debbie was an employee of Wal-Mart when she suffered a horrible auto accident that left her brain damaged. According to CNN, "Shank and her husband, Jim, were awarded about $1 million in a lawsuit against the trucking company involved in the crash. After legal fees were paid, $417,000 was placed in a trust to pay for Debbie Shank's long-term care."

That's when Wal-Mart exercised the right contained in the health coverage fine print to recoup medical expenses if an employee collects damages in a lawsuit. The $230 billion organization sued the couple for $470,000. One can't help but cringe at Wal-Mart's actions when you read in the CNN article that Debbie Shank is unable to remember that her son was killed in Iraq; she often asks about him and when told her son is dead, Debbie weeps as if hearing the news for the first time.

It will come as no surprise that the reaction across blogs and forums was swift and unforgiving. The fact the company was legally correct was no match against the perceived callousness of the retailer's conduct. I'll leave the moral questions to others, but it is hard to imagine how Wal-Mart failed to foresee the risks; the company is so large, the Shanks so needy, and the sum so small that there was little upside and gargantuan risk in this approach.

Wal-Mart's deeds harmed its relations with many employees. Their Web site positions the company as a great place to work, promoting the "competitive pay and health benefits for you and your family." The company's desire to collect money from the Shanks rankled many employees, and one online petition protesting the Shank lawsuit was signed by 750 associates.

The blogosphere was, of course, brutal in its assessment of the situation. Thousands of blog posts appeared with titles such as Waiting on Wal-Mart to Do The Right Thing, Still Shop At Evil-mart Do You?, As if you needed another reason NOT to shop at WalMart, and Wal-Mart hits new low in hardheartedness.

In April, Wal-Mart caved into the pressure. In a letter to the Shanks, Executive Vice President Pat Curran said, "Occasionally, others help us step back and look at a situation in a different way. This is one of those times. We have all been moved by Ms. Shank's extraordinary situation."

It is reassuring to know Wal-Mart monitored and responded to the almost unanimous opinions of consumers. Of course, the organization might have saved considerable embarrassment, costs, and lost trust had they considered the Social Media ramifications of their actions in the first place. Brands must become cognizant that the law provides no refuge from public opinion when graceless legal actions are taken. In situations where anger and disappointment go viral, being legally right will not save brands from shame, damaged brand perception, costly PR crisis response, and reduced sales.

The growth of Social Media will increasingly require organizations to consider legal alternatives not just on their merits in law but also based on the potential reaction of millions of interconnected consumers.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Consumers in Charge: Shaming Brands with Social Media

We've already seen it many times, and it will happen many, many more times in the future. The sweep of the Internet combined with the power of Social Media is amplifying brand missteps and furnishing mass media-like reach to consumers. Situations that a couple years ago would have been small and contained today are making an impression upon thousands and even millions of customers, prospects, and investors.

Here's a recent example: A wine critic perpetrated a hoax upon Wine Spectator magazine. He created a Web site for a fake restaurant, then submitted the restaurant for the magazine's award of excellence. Despite the fact the wine list was "well-stocked with dogs" likened to "paint thinner and nail varnish," the imaginary restaurant won the award. The critic, Robin Goldstein, believes his prank proves that Wine Spectator is more interested in the award entrance fee than with maintaining minimum standards.

Goldstein posted his story to his Wine Economics blog and to the fake restaurant's blog. From there it was picked up by the Chicago Tribune and LA Times. The story has been carried further on beverage-related blogs such as Daily Blender and Scotch Talk. A Google search on the faux restaurant's name results in more than 70 news article hits from around the globe and almost 3,000 Web hits. In the last several days, dozens of Twitter users have Tweeted the news and links to thousands of followers. Wine Spectator's Wikipedia entry has already been updated with the incident, ensuring the magazine will be associated with the award embarrassment for years to come. The publicity has put Wine Spectator on the defensive; they posted a response, including accusations Goldstein isn't telling the entire story, within their online forum.

The interesting aspect of this is that Goldstein presented details of his hoax at a meeting of the American Association of Wine Economists, a group that I'm guessing doesn't even number in the thousands. Not so many years ago, Goldstein's story would've been an amusing tale passed among a small group of elite wine professionals, but today the story is being heard by hundreds of thousands. In less than two weeks and with a budget that I suspect is $0, Goldstein has reached an audience that is much greater than Wine Spectator's circulation of 350,000.

Remember the good old days when we used to be concerned that a consumer who experienced a bad customer service situation would tell 10 or 20 people? How does 1.3 million sound? The reach, power, and economy of Social Media can perhaps best be demonstrated by one of the most often repeated stories of Social Media embarrassment: the sleeping Comcast service tech. To date, the famous video shot by a disgruntled customer has been viewed almost 1.3 million times.

Just a decade ago, getting DVDs into the hands of 1.3M people would've required an investment of millions of dollars for replication, packaging, and postage (even assuming you already had a list of 1.3M addresses). But in 2007 , a "regular Joe" with no special marketing contacts or media acumen was able to get his video in front of that many people for a budget of absolutely nothing.

There was a time not long ago that brands and media partners controlled every means of mass communication; today, a guy who bathes in a Burger King sink has practically the same reach as the $3.5 billion fast food chain. Sure, Burger King has the power to blast messages across network television and reach every person who watches "Dancing With the Stars," but the advertising message doesn't hold interest, create buzz, or stick in the mind like one gross kid in a sink.

We can't be sure, but it seems likely that Wine Spectator, Burger King, and Comcast have collectively suffered financial losses that total in the hundreds of thousands of dollars in reduced sales, damaged reputation, and PR crisis management. And all it took was three people clicking "Submit" buttons.

In the future, you will hear a lot about how Social Media shifts power away from brands and towards consumers. The Wine Spectator, Burger King, and Comcast examples plainly demonstrate what this means.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Social Media Meets House Hunting

Today I stumbled across real estate site and found it to be an excellent example of how Social Media tactics combined with a focus on consumer needs can create a strong user experience. It applies many of the essential concepts of Social Media, including:
  • Aggregating diverse content and data to create new value.
  • Providing a means for sharing and collaboration.
  • Providing functionality where and in the way the consumer wishes.
  • Create the means for a longer-term value-based relationship.
Trulia of course offers the basics you would expect of a real estate site: You can search for available homes and condos, view maps, define search criteria based on property type and value, and peruse lists of properties. This is fine functionality, but what makes it a great site is that they answered the question, "How can I improve this by making it social?"

Examples of great Internet and Social Media functionality on Trulia include:
  • Local News Feeds: Once you search for a property, the site automatically offers a localized RSS feed to which you can subscribe. Data includes the number of new listings in the past seven days, average listing price, median sales price, number of properties sold in the past 60 days, and the recent changes in price per square foot. This sort of data is extremely valuable for house hunters and creates ongoing engagement with the site. Click here for an example of the Local News Feed for Celebration, FL.

  • Property Alerts: Site visitors can stay abreast of properties on the market in a number of ways. They can subscribe to an RSS feed of properties based on city or neighborhood (here is the RSS feed for properties available in Milwaukee's Historic Third Ward), searches can be saved for later Web recovery, and email alerts can be created so that consumers can be informed when new properties enter the market. You can even subscribe to a daily email alert on individual properties, keeping you informed when the property sells or changes price.

  • Personal Notes: As you search the site, you can add personal notes to properties that only you can view. (While this isn't very Social, it is helpful for home shoppers overwhelmed by the variety of property options.)

  • Trulia Voices: Visitors may ask real estate questions for others to answer. Questions may be identified by topic and location. These questions and answers are made available to site visitors as they view data about a city or neighborhood. Here is a question asked by a visitor who wants to know whether to escrow for her property taxes; two fine answers have been received thus far. Site visitors may save any question, register to be alerted when new answers are received, and easily add any question to social bookmarking sites such as A cloud of common keywords provides insight as to the topics that are hottest right now.

  • Create a Blog: For visitors so inclined, Trulia permits users to create their own blogs. You can write about your neighborhood or city, or you may focus on real estate topics such as Home Buying, Foreclosures, and Celebrity Homes. Here is a blog post written by a San Diego real estate professional that has received five comments to date.

  • School Info and Ratings: Properties are associated with local schools and school systems; data includes parent ratings and comments aggregated from GreatSchools, plus test scores, enrollment information, and the number of students per teacher. Click here to see the data compiled about Celebration High School.

  • Stats and Trends: The data available about cities and neighborhoods is really quite impressive. Visitors can compare neighborhoods based on average sales price, average listing price, price per square feet, and number of sales. You can also review statistics about income, crime, age of homes, and average travel time to work. Here is a slew of data on Milwaukee and the Historic Third Ward neighborhood.

  • Heat Maps: All of the data noted above can be viewed as a heat map, with colorful data overlays based on neighborhood or zip code.

  • Mobile Tools: Trulia offers a very functional application for the iPhone, Java phones, and Dash Express GPS. Enter a location on the Web site and they'll text you a link to a downloadable app that comes preconfigured for your desired search. (You can always change the search once it is on your phone.) The application pulls maps and data, providing an easy way to get helpful information while on house hunting excursions. Value-added features includes quick access to Yahoo Local and Yelp data, so finding nearby businesses and accessing consumer ratings is quick and easy.
There are ways Trulia might have made their experience even more social, but the site is notable for the Q&A, blog, data aggregation, RSS, email, and mobile tools they offer. If you're searching for a house (or just interested in a great user-focused Web site), visit Trulia.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Becoming a Social Organization: Social Media Discovery and Adoption

In the past two days, I've tried to draw parallels between the business changes caused by the Internet in the mid 90s and the upcoming changes that will be precipitated by Social Media. We began to explore the ways in which organizations adopt change and what this means to Social Media in the coming years.

In the Security Phase, companies are shaken out of complacency and denial by a loss of control. In the 90s, it was cybersquatters and the success of startups that forced larger organizations to recognize the need for rapid change. Today it is brandjackers, viral criticisms and PR crises, and extensive customer participation in third-party sites that are making companies consider greater Social Media engagement.

Next is the Anxiety Phase, when those within organizations react with anger, stress, and confusion as the system mobilizes for change. It was in the Anxiety Phase during the dot-com era that organizations learned the Internet was more than just a tactic or marketing channel; the breadth of change that was coming throughout the organization was soon apparent.

I believe we'll see a similar recognition of Social Media's impact in the next year or two. Currently, many perceive Social Media as a tool for marketing and PR, but it will soon be evident that Social Media will effect other business processes (Human Resources, Customer Service, etc) and even long-held practices and standards (ethics, privacy, communication standards, etc.)

The last two phases of organizational change are Discovery and Adoption. Predicting the future of marketing and technology is a dicey proposition, but using dot-com-era experiences as a guide, here is what we might expect in the next several years:

Discovery Phase

Discovery is a period of chaos and exploration that can often be stressful as different ideas and strategies compete for attention and resources. This stage is more about the "how" than the "what;" less about what will be accomplished than about how objectives will be established, who will be responsible, how the organization will collaborate, where funding will be derived, and how success will be measured.

Once companies came to understand that every department and business unit would be affected by the Internet, a wide portion of the organization was drawn into the Discovery Phase. Whereas the first versions of most organizations' Web sites typically fell within a single department's purview, subsequent versions were cooperative efforts with professionals from throughout the organization contributing and managing their portion of sites and Internet strategies.

This company-wide collaboration was not without its pain. A common point of contention was the enterprise's Internet strategy--what were the objectives and who would be targeted. Within many organizations, cross-functional committees struggled and battled to gain consensus because every party came to the table with a different goal: Marketing wanted to increase awareness and consideration throughout the market; Sales wanted to move prospects closer to transactions; Customer Service wanted to decrease costs and increase the satisfaction of existing customers; Human Resources wanted to promote the company as a desirable employer to candidates; the list went on and on.

It quickly became evident that everyone was right, and this meant that a single, encompassing strategy was not attainable or appropriate. The cross-functional team shifted attention away from debating strategy and into setting standards, rules, and responsibilities. Strategies for how to best exploit the Internet for service, recruiting, sales, and marketing were left to the business units (where, it might be pointed out, that responsibility had always rested for business in the real world).

Another understanding gained in the Discovery Phase was that the organization was not equipped to plan and execute every aspect of Internet programs. No organization had the same set of skills, so each organization developed its own distinct plan for what they could do best (content development, maintenance, etc.) and what tasks were best left to specialists outside the organization (commonly things like hosting, media planning, design, etc.)

What this means for the future: I anticipate that Social Media will proceed through a very similar Discovery Phase, but the process can be shortened and an advantage gained by learning from the past. A great deal of stress, political infighting, and wasted time can be avoided by using the dot-com Discovery experience as a model.

Before your enterprise can enter the Discovery Phase, it must first reach an understanding that Social Media is not just for PR or Marketing. Just as the Internet did a decade ago, the Discovery Phase requires the participation of a wide variety of departments.

A valuable lesson for organizations grappling with the impact of Social Media is to avoid the temptation to attempt to define a single Social Media Strategy. As was learned during the Internet's Discovery Phase, the needs of the organization are too diverse to fashion a single sensible and achievable plan. Instead, focus on defining the standards, rules and procedures for independence and collaboration.

While many business units will deploy their own Social Media tactics to achieve their unique objectives, it is likely Social Media will blur the lines between business functions and demand a great degree of collaboration. For example, a community of customers may be created with a marketing objective, but it also would be a natural place for those customers to turn when they have problems or questions, creating opportunities for Customer Service to respond; those problems might then become valuable information for the product development group, which could tap the same community for feedback and ideation.

The Social Media Discovery Phase can be kept short and productive by avoiding squabbles over ownership and focusing instead on collaboration, guidelines, processes, responsibilities, and a consensus on what can be accomplished with existing resources and when an external partner's expertise is required.

Adoption Phase

The Adoption Phase is a consistent and ongoing effort that results in implementation, monitoring, and constant improvement. It is in this phase that actions are taken, failures are experienced, and successes are enjoyed.

During the dot-com Adoption Phase, Internet activity occurred throughout the organization. Human Resources tested different sites and methods for promoting openings and collecting applicant data; Customer Service tested a variety of available support tools and concepts such as live chat, wikis, knowledge bases, and email management applications; Public Relations created new forms of digital press kits with multimedia content; and Marketing's sandbox became exponentially larger with a dizzying array of options including ad networks, rich media ads, search engine optimization, search engine marketing, affiliate marketing, microsites, content partnerships, behavioral targeting, email marketing, CRM, viral campaigns, and site personalization.

Tactics were considered, tested, tweaked, improved, or rejected. Organizations came to realize that no single set of Internet strategies was right for every audience, every brand, or every need. A slew of best practices emerged, but every site, strategy, and campaign was as unique as the brands, objectives and audiences.

Of course, the most notable worldwide event of the Internet Adoption Phase was the dot-com crash. A speculative bubble had been created with large amounts of capital chasing a huge number of unproven and competitive strategies and businesses. In March 2000, the tech-heavy NASDAQ average briefly broke the 5,000 mark, but then the bottom fell out. Companies disappeared, venture capitalists lost huge sums of money, and many folks employed in the Internet lost their jobs. The NASDAQ fell to below 2,000 and in the eight years since has never crept above 3,000.

Of course, the crash was hardly the end of the Internet. Spending on online advertising dipped for two years before soaring to new heights; in 2007 the total revenue for online advertisers was 150% more than in 2000. Spurred by even greater consumer online participation and armed with new strategies and tools, the Internet has become indispensable to virtually every organization of any size in every industry. The Internet Adoption Phase is entering its second decade and shows no sign of weakening.

What this means for the future: The primary lesson we can draw from the dot-com Adoption experience is that Social Media won't come with an easy set of instructions, nor will it be "one size fits all." Every brand and every business unit will need to test, adjust, measure and explore to find which Social Media strategies deliver and which do not.

Will there be a Social Media bubble followed by a crash? My guess is that in the coming years enthusiasm for Social Media will grow, investments will be made in startups in search of business models, and competing tools and sites will proliferate. At some point, there is likely to be a pull back because the market won't sustain dozens (hundreds?) of different microblogs, blogging platforms, social document sites, and the like. I do not expect the investments to be as large or the decline to be as sharp, but we will eventually see a convergence with some tools merging or failing.

Social Media presents some of the most exciting business opportunities seen since the Internet went public in the mid 90s. It also presents some of the greatest challenges to brand management, public relations, and customer service in that same period.

In the early 90s, no organization was an online organization; ten years later, every organization was. Today, few companies are truly social organizations; within a decade every organization will be.

By learning from the past and concentrating on change management, companies can navigate the evolution efficiently. All it takes is creativity, leadership, collaboration, an appetite for iterative learning, and--more than anything--a healthy recognition that Social Media is giving consumers more power, influence, options, and visibility into your enterprise.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Preparing the Enterprise for Social Media Disruption

Yesterday on Experience: The Blog, we revisited the mid- to late-90s--a period remembered for the introduction and adoption of the Internet--to forecast how consumers and new tools may evolve over the next several years.

As the Internet did in the late 90s, Social Media is about to change the world in ways we can anticipate but not predict with clarity. We are entering a period of significant change when creativity, new technologies, and investment will cause a burst of innovative tools and concepts; some of these will succeed but many will evolve, merge, or simply fail. These new Social Media concepts will change consumers' relationships with and expectations of products and brands.

So, what does this mean to you and your organization? How will Social Media change your enterprise? Organizational change models combined with knowledge of how business adapted to the Internet can furnish us a sort of crystal ball in which to foresee the future:

Security Phase

The Security Phase is where organizations start prior to recognizing and accepting change. Patterns are well established; employees understand their roles; and the organization has confidence of its place in the world.

Prior to 1995, businesses were comfortable with the status quo. Larger businesses and market leaders were the most comfortable, but even smaller competitors seeking to shake up their markets were snug in their knowledge of the ways, relationships, and strategies of business.

Into this environment the Internet was introduced. The business world did not immediately gravitate toward the Internet nor did it recognize the profound change the Internet represented. Instead, those in business reacted the way people secure with their worlds do: they ignored it, denied it, and were wary of (or downright hostile to) those who were vocal about the shifts that were coming.

The Internet was derided as a "flash in the pan." Senior business execs expounded on how their consumers weren't online and never would be. Detractors took refuge in the seemingly logical argument that people were unlikely to rush out to purchase a pricey computer and pay for expensive monthly access just to "surf the Web."

The Security Phase was when nimble speculators began to grab trademarked domain names. Slow moving corporations were forced to file complaints or negotiate with so-called cybersquatters in order to regain control of their brand and corporate names. This was but one of many factors that forced organizations out of their Security phase.

Another factor that scared many enterprises out of their comfort zone was when competitors began to succeed, if not in terms of actual online sales, at least in terms of PR, stock performance, and reputation. A point was reached when even the most stubborn of executives and systems had to face the fact their company needed to embrace the Internet.

What this means for the future: With respect to Social Media, business is coming to the end of the Security Phase. The avoidance and denial of Web 2.0 has not been as severe as the reaction to the Internet in the mid 90s, but that doesn't mean companies have been quick to embrace Social Media. A visit to brand and corporate sites shows that the majority of organizations continue to live in a Web 1.0 world. For every My Starbucks Idea or Scott Common Sense Community you'll find dozens of sites where "contact us" is the most collaborative feature on the site.

As happened with the cybersquatters 12 years ago, the thing that may shake many companies out of their complacency is when their brands begin to get co-opted within third-party Social Media sites. For example, while still very small, a site that is worth watching is GetSatisfaction, where consumers are gathering to complain, share information, and collaborate on product and service issues, with or without the participation of the brands. Another example is the recent brandjacking of Exxon Mobil by a Twitter user (and possible Exxon Mobile employee).

Occurrences like these will pressure organizations to recognize that Social Media is more than product ratings, blogger relationships, and other tactics they control. Its greater implication is in the way Social Media gives a voice to consumers and thus shifts a degree of power and control away from brands.

Every organization must eventually leave the Security phase. Those that delay their engagement in social networks and other Social Media sites run the risk their absence will harm brand perception, create opportunities for competitors, and leave a vacuum into which employees or others may step to speak on your behalf.

Anxiety Phase

Once people become aware that their assumptions are incorrect and that change is necessary, they become anxious. Organizations responded to Internet anxiety in different ways back in the late 90s.

One reaction to the Internet Anxiety phase was to treat the Internet as a tactic. For example, organizations posted their customer service phone numbers on their sites and ignored that the Internet was profoundly changing consumer expectations with respect to communication channels, speed of response, access to information, and most importantly the ability to immediately manage one's own needs . Many organizations believed that established customer service processes would continue to be sufficient in the age of the Internet, but they quickly came to realize that more profound changes would be required--ones that demanded new tools, new skills, new investments, new processes, and new structures to meet consumers' increased expectations.

Another way organizations dealt with Internet Anxiety was to assume that new online tools and concepts would be controlled by brand owners and implemented in whatever timeframe was preferred by the business. It didn't take long for these organizations to learn they did not have the luxury of either control or time; swift actions were required to deal with the seemingly instantaneous changes in the competitive landscape, consumers' shifting expectations and loyalty, investors' new views about business valuation, and the actions of distribution partners.

Not all organizations reacted to the Anxiety phase with denial and arrogance; some people and organizations were energized, embracing the changes in profound ways. Jeff Bezos saw the future (or at least enough of the future) to launch a new kind of book company that exploited the rapid changes in business and technology. It wasn't long before Amazon, started in a garage in 1994, was grabbing huge chunks of business from larger, older companies that were still struggling to get past their Anxiety phase. Today, Bezos' wealth is estimated at $8.2 billion; the combined market caps of Borders Group and Barnes & Noble is less than $2 billion.

What this means for the future: The coming years will create winners and losers out of established companies as Social Media changes the business landscape. How your organization embraces these changes will either move it into a better competitive position with greater brand loyalty and profitability or will allow competitors to chip away at your organization's market share, reputation, and margins.

There will be a natural inclination to assume that Social Media is merely a set of tactics that can be used to whatever extent and speed the organization wishes. This a dangerous trap because Social Media is, in fact, full of tactics: Offering service through Twitter is a tactic; creating a branded Facebook profile is a tactic; launching a blog is a tactic.

But while it is necessary for organizations to survey and choose their tactics, reducing Social Media to a menu of tactics is missing the forest for the trees. Just like the Internet did a decade ago, Social Media isn't just a series of new technologies and tools but is a disruptive change in the model that will require deep and broad changes within organization.

Another way organizations will deal with Social Media Anxiety in the next few years will be to assume that the organization controls the Social Media relationship between the brand and the consumer. This mentality will lead to a great deal of focus about what brands should do within their own Web sites, and much time and energy will go into considering product ratings, forums, comments, moderation, registration, functionality, the permissibility of criticisms, and response responsibilities.

While organizations debate and plan, Social Media will be growing by leaps and bounds away from brands' walled gardens, and soon enterprises will be struggling to keep up. Already, YouTube videos are forcing reactive crisis management; consumers are engaging in their own forums to seek assistance, offer tips, and share gripes; employees are trading ratings of their CEOs and information about salary levels; companies are losing control over brand management to fans and detractors using Social Media megaphones; and some employees are taking PR and customer service into their own hands. The Social Media train is leaving the station with or without your organization on board.

Organizations that will best succeed over the next several years will
get past their anxiety and quickly come to understand that Social Media will change everything--procedures, processes, ethics, structure, employment, internal and external relationships, control, collaboration, service, product, consumer choices, the media landscape, marketing, and brand management.

Tomorrow on Experience: The Blog we'll finish our three-part series on how Social Media will change the enterprise in the coming years. Having considered the first two phases of organizational change management--Security and Anxiety--we'll explore the last two phases--Discovery and Adoption. Businesses that can navigate the tricky journey out of Security and through Anxiety are halfway to recreating themselves as social organizations that build trust, consideration, usage, and loyalty with the newly empowered consumer.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Social Media: 2008 to 2011

Think back to 1995. Many people were just hearing about this thing called the "Information Superhighway," and companies were trying to figure out if and why they needed a Web site. Back then, the biggest question being asked was "How can my organization use the Internet?", but very quickly organizations discovered the Internet wasn't just a new marketing tactic or communications channel but instead was a game-changing revolution that would alter every aspect of business.

What followed in the late 90s was the dot-com era, a period filled with confusion, fear, and opportunity. Organizations tested many different Web tactics, both outside the organization (Web sites, email service, banner ads, microsites, etc.) and inside (intranets, partner extranets, Internet-enabled applications), but the impact of the Internet was far greater than the sum of those tactics; the Internet changed everything, and organizations struggled to adapt to those changes.

Social Media will bring the same sorts of changes to the business environment, and those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it. In the coming years, Social Media will follow a similar path and see the same type of rapid expansion and eventual convergence as in the dot-com era of '95 to '00. Here's what that earlier period tells us about what we can expect and how we can prepare for the changes to come:

How Social Media will change Consumers and their Expectations

In 1995, the Internet was dismissed by serious business people as a playground for kids and geeks. (Hear any echoes in Social Media discussions today?) This assessment wasn't necessarily wrong; it was just short sighted. In the years that followed, it became evident that Internet usage was rapidly cutting across age, gender, race and (almost) every other demographic category. (Today, the digital divide between rich and poor has narrowed but persists.)

More important than recognizing that virtually everyone was going to be online was the realization Internet users were not homogeneous. While everyone used search engines and email, other online habits--such as listening to podcasts, buying online, and reading news--varied considerably. This meant organizations couldn't rely on a single online strategy to reach a uniform audience but needed to bring just as much segmentation, consumer understanding, and strategic thinking to servicing and marketing online as offline.

Finally, a last realization that has driven successful Internet strategies is that consumers' use of the Internet is constantly in flux. For decades, business had come to rely on a fairly static environment--TV, radio, newspaper, and phone penetration, usage, and habits changed very slowly. But on the Internet, consumer habits have continued to evolve year by year. For example, the percentage of seniors online almost tripled between 2000 and 2006 and the number of people who watched video on their mobile devices increased 34% in just eight months last year. Today we understand that staying abreast of consumer habits and preferences on the Internet is a constant requirement for business success.

What this means for the future: Consumers will not all adopt Social Media in the same way, nor will their Social Media habits stay consistent. The onus will be on each business to understand the expectations and interactions of their particular audiences with respect to Social Media.

As a starting point, Forrester has identified six different types of Social Media profiles: Creators, Critics, Collectors, Joiners, Spectators, and Inactives. The percentage of people who fall into each of these categories is quite varied today and will evolve rapidly. Every brand will have its own unique mix of Social Media profiles, and this mix will shift considerably before settling into any sort of consistent pattern years from now.

While these categories help to give some structure to our understanding of consumers' interactions with social media, they are still too broad to help drive the strategic insights that separate success from disappointment. There will be no substitute for companies constantly monitoring and assessing their unique audiences' expectations, needs, and participation in Social Media.

How our understanding of the Social Media environment will evolve

In 1995, some foresaw the impact the Internet would have, but no one could predict precisely what would work, under what conditions, in what timeframe, for which consumers, and for which brands. What resulted was a period of trial and error, spurred in part by the explosion of new tools and models that competed for attention and dollars.

For a while, it was impossible to separate the winners from the losers; high-profile Web businesses like and struck fear into the hearts of established retailers, but these e-tailers quickly failed. Meanwhile, new businesses like eBay, AOL, Google, and Amazon came out of nowhere to amass amazing market capitalizations that dwarfed long-established Fortune 500 companies. And online tools, concepts, and languages came and went even more quickly: VRML, CueCat, ColdFusion, Applets, VBScript, link farms, adware, free ad-supported Internet access, PointCast, SVG, Beanz Internet currency, push channels, and RealNames all threatened to change the Internet or alter the way brands market online but are now in the dustbin of Internet failures.

In the end, the tools mattered, but strategy mattered more. Our understanding of just how complex and specific strategy needed to be changed during the dot-com era: In the early years, some treated the Internet as if it had a single checklist ("Web site: Check; Banners: Check; Search Engine Submission: Check..."), but as the Internet matured, we realized that while there were some best practices, every brand's and enterprise's use of the Internet would need to be more different than alike. In short, online strategies are no less nuanced, varied, and unique as those in the real world.

What this means: Buckle up. We can expect to see the rapid development (and disappearance) of new tools and concepts over the next few years. Today Twitter is on top of the microcontent heap, but tomorrow it may be or Plurk--or perhaps standalone microblogging won't end up being sustainable to a large audience. In the Social Network world, consumers have already shifted from Friendster to MySpace to Facebook, and all three sites continue to seek new tools (and business models) to draw and keep users.

The explosion of social concepts will continue with multiple tools and sites competing to solve a wide array of overlapping needs--social documents, crowdsourcing, video sharing and editing, geolocation, customer service networks, wikis, social bookmarks, product ratings, lifestreams, and social concepts we can't even yet imagine. It will be a dizzying and confusing time as organizations track, assess, test, implement and reject different Social Media sites, tools and approaches.

We'll come to appreciate (as we did with the Internet) that Social Media is not monolithic; it is not a single set of tools or strategies that every organization can simply plug and play. Best practices are still evolving, but soon it will be understood there are no simple checklists. Brands and organizations will share some similarities in the way Social Media is adopted, but there will be important and strategic differences that reflect and help to create points of differentiation.

Much like in the era before the Internet matured and tools converged, companies that stay abreast of the rapid changes and embrace small risks will gain competitive advantage, evolving their tactics and programs as Social Media evolves. Those that sit on the sideline and wait for it to get sorted out will quickly find themselves at a competitive disadvantage.

Every relationship consists of three components: The two parties and the environment in which the relationship develops and is maintained. We've thus far explored two of these three components--your customers and the Social Media environment--but what about you? With rapid changes coming to consumers and the Social Media world, how will your enterprise change?

How your organization will adapt and react to Social Media is the most important question of all. Tomorrow on Experience: The Blog, we'll explore how you can prepare for the uncertainty to come and how your enterprise can manage the changes rather than allowing them to manage you.

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Social Product - How Social Media Can Enhance the Product Experience

Yesterday we discussed how Web 2.0 concepts can be conceived by taking an immediate need or opportunity and asking, "How can I improve this by making it social?" I know it sounds deceptively simple, but answering this question forces you to consider Social Media from a limited and helpful perspective:
  • Instead of trying to understand the wide and ever-changing breadth of Social Media tactics and tools, you focus on how a particular need or opportunity can be enhanced by engaging people;
  • Rather than consider technology or tools, you start with ideas based on sharing and community; and
  • Instead of imagining how or if a Social Media program fits your brand or need, you instead start with a need and consider how Social Media can furnish benefits to both you and your audience.
This question isn't only pertinent to marketing and communication efforts but also to the product itself. Of course, there are the obvious benefits to involving your customers in the product development process--doing so is an excellent way to gain insight into their needs and wants--but I want to explore how Social Media can become an inseparable and important part of the product experience.

For example, watching video online didn't start social; consumers visited a site that offered clips, watched them, and perhaps sent a link to friends. That was the online video-viewing experience until Google and others asked, "How can I improve my online video site by making it social?" Now, it's hard to imagine enjoying online video without the social aspects--the comments, video responses, ratings, view counts, and ability to embed movie files have become inseparable from the very idea of online video.

Maybe Web video seems like too easy a target for socializing a product, so here's an offline example: Check out Facecard, a new debit card that merges the financial aspects of a debit card with the social tactics of Facebook. Facecard allows cardholders to create a profile that identifies their favorite retailers, and those brands can provide "prewards"--cash available to spend only at the particular retailer--to acknowledge, thank, and encourage visits. Also, the card and web interface are designed to make it easy for consumers to transfer cash to each other.

The lines between service, support, marketing and product get grayer when Social Media is merged with the product, and this is a positive thing for the consumer's product experience. Here are some ideas for how other sorts products may be made more social:

Launching a new car? "How can I improve this by making it social?"

If the vehicle is focused on the youth modder market, promote meet-up events where people can share their modifications or create a place online where consumers upload photos of their customizations. Offer an online design tool where consumers can plan their modifications and share their virtual creations in order to receive feedback. Give enthusiasts an online place to share tips or brag about their modifications.

Or, if the auto is a hybrid, create a community where people can upload their mileage and gallons per fill, thus creating a history of their fuel efficiency and a means to compare their gas mileage to others. Want to make this easy? Give consumers a small cell phone application to upload their data, or better yet furnish consumers the ability to allow their cars to upload the data using EV-DO access. Then encourage these green-minded consumers to post widgets to their sites that brag to others about their efficiency, cost savings, and mileage.

Launching new B2B software? "How can I improve this by making it social?"

Allow consumers to support each other with an online Q&A forum. Perhaps users could give permission to allow the software to anonymously report information the community can use for benchmarking, such as the amount of time spent, money saved, or transactions completed. Maybe the software's boot-up screen could pull and display data or helpful posts from other users of the software. Perhaps every screen within the application could contain a field for entering questions or tips that are automatically posted and shared with others in the community. Or maybe users could participate in IM-like functionality that allows them to instantaneously connect with other users for tips, assistance, and ideas.

Launching a line of pens or pencils for artists? "How can I improve this by making it social?"

Allow consumers to post their artwork to a community site. Permit visitors to vote on the artwork, and prize the winner with the top-rated artwork each month. Encourage purchasers to share videos that reveal techniques and tips. Create a widget so that the best artwork can be displayed on sites throughout the Internet, and if an artist wishes to sell their artwork, people can purchase or express an interest right from the widget.

The goal of making products more social isn't just to sell more but to increase engagement, add value for both consumer and brand, improve loyalty, spark Word of Mouth, and encourage reuse and repurchase. These benefits--and the social product features that create them--aren't short term in nature. In many cases, consumers may come to rely on and expect the Social Media plus-ups as much as any physical product feature, so care must be taken to plan and manage expectations.

The idea of making products more social is certainly new and untested, but as Social Media changes consumer expectations, brands will be tested to use Social Media for more than just marketing. If we can avoid focusing on Social Media just as a marketing strategy and instead think of it as an experience strategy, possibilities are endless.

EA SPORTS Uses Social Media to Turn a Complaint Into a Marketing Opportunity

We've seen this a dozen times already: A consumer uses a YouTube video to complain about a service or product, and soon thousands or even millions of people are watching it. Comcast had its sleeping tech, Taco Bell its rats, and Burger King its sink-bathing employee. While this approach obviously isn't available in every situation (nor is responding to every complaint a smart or even possible approach), EA SPORTS has shown how Social Media can turn a consumer's concern into a terrific marketing opportunity.

A consumer posted a YouTube video demonstrating a "glitch" in the game "Tiger Woods PGA TOUR 08." It seems a setting in the game permits the virtual Tiger to make a "Jesus shot"--he walks on water, chips the ball off the surface, and puts it in the cup. The consumer is less complaining (since he clearly loves the game) than he is using YouTube to point out a game issue.

Certainly no one was going to avoid purchasing the game because of this one video, but EA SPORTS posted a response. Their motivation had nothing to do with proving the consumer incorrect or defending the game but instead promoted the game with an excellent, entertaining viral video.

Who knows--maybe EA SPORTS was behind the initial "consumer" video and this entire YouTube dialog is nothing but a carefully orchestrated viral campaign. While this sort of manipulation can often backfire on a brand, in this case I don't think their consumer base would care; the tone is lighthearted and the response video so funny and so perfectly suited to both Tiger's and the game's brands that it wouldn't matter whether or not Levinator25 is a real consumer.

Both videos are below. Enjoy this terrific example of how a brand can leverage Social Media for an unexpected brand-driving engagement with consumers. (Thanks to Patrick for sharing this.)

Thursday, August 21, 2008

One Question that Sparks Social Media Ideation

I've suggested that organizations need to avoid the quest for a single broad "Social Media Strategy." What most enterprises need isn't one cohesive "Big S" Strategy for Social Media but instead dozens of tiny "Little S" social media strategies. Social Media is too diverse and the needs of different departments and business units are too distinct to make a single, overarching Strategy meaningful.

The key for large enterprises to effectively use Social Media isn't to control or unify it but to create the means for structure, independence, collaboration, and shared learnings. If your organization has laid the groundwork to prevent problems and avoid duplicate efforts, then the best way for enterprises to leverage Social Media is to give those within the organization the freedom and permission to use it, test it, and learn from it. Where do the ideas come from? Simply look at your upcoming campaigns or communication plans and ask, "How can I improve this by making it social?"

Here's a recent example: is a site where you can design your own room from scratch or upload a photo of an existing room in order to change its style. If the site had done nothing else but furnish the tools that permit users to express and explore their own sense of interior design, the site would've been a great resource for consumers. Only they didn't stop there; they asked, "How can I improve this by making it social?" Voila, permits consumers to save and share their virtual rooms, vote on existing designs, ask for and provide tips, and participate in a community with designers. (For a mere £19,559.66, the top-rated Natural Spiritual Bedroom can be yours!)

Taking an existing need, idea, or effort and developing ideas that make it social doesn't have to be rocket science. (The rocket science comes later when you consider measurement, functionality, promotion, and the like.) For example, let's say that you're about to launch an online sweepstakes. Online sweeps have become maddeningly routine: A form, a rules page, a thank you page, and a database from which a name is selected at the end of a predetermined period.

So, how can you improve a stale online sweepstakes by making it social? How about giving additional entries to people who succeed in inviting others to register? Or, how about a group prize that is won by a set of people rather than an individual? Or, let registrants vote on what the prize should be, then give them the code to add a widget to their blogs or social media profiles where the updated voting results can be displayed.

We're just getting started--let's raise the bar of our creativity. "Send to a Friend" functions which give consumers the chance to email one person at a time are fine, but let's put "Send to a Friend" on steroids with Twitter. Allow consumers to enter their Twitter username and password to broadcast the sweepstakes to their dozens or hundreds of Twitter followers. Reward them for doing so--additional entries or perhaps an entry into an alternate sweeps--and turn your visitors into traffic-driving marketers.

Here's another Social Sweepstakes idea: Give registrants an option to create their own prize pack from a list of possible prizes, then provide the means to post this dream package as a graphic widget on their sites. Others who see this prize pack could register to win that package with a single click or could create their own package. And when someone clicks through from a widget and registers, the person who posted the widget could earn another entry.

Here's yet another idea: Create an instant-win sweepstakes offered through a widget that consumers place on their own sites. Web surfers could enter their email addresses into the widget and click to see if they've won. When someone wins as a result of a widget posted by an individual, both parties could be prized.

I'll bet there are dozens of other ways we can use Social Media to breathe life into a boring sweepstakes. How about allowing consumers to photograph what they want to win (up to a given value) and post their desired prize to a particular Flickr account? Or, challenge them to earn a prize by posting a video on YouTube demonstrating why they deserve to win? Or allow consumers to upload a photo of themselves so they can see their face in the car or on the boat they could win, and then encourage them to share the image via email or on their site?

Not all of these ideas would be right for every brand, but this goes to show how any problem might be solved or opportunity enhanced by asking, "How can I improve this by making it social?" Let's explore others...

Creating a new casual game for your online visitors? "How can I improve this by making it social?"

Don't leave them playing by themselves--that's so Web 1.0! Game makers have long known people will engage more in their games if they allow players to save scores, but we can improve upon this with social media. Several years ago Fullhouse produced a very simple online bowling game for Miller Brewing, now MillerCoors. It could have been a pleasant but forgettable time waster, but at the end of the game, consumers could challenge friends to beat their scores via email. Better yet--since the client produces that golden elixir, beer--the game tracked the two players' scores in the beer frame and sent a message letting one player know they owed the other a Miller beer the next time they socialized. The simple game was quite a hit!

That shows a simple way to make a game social, even if people aren't playing each other in real time. shows how to make gaming more immediately social; you can play a version of Tetris that is competitive, requiring you to drop pieces in place while messing up the other players. (It's pretty darn addictive.) Better yet, since ImInLikeWithYou must be played head-to-head live, they've found a way to invite others to join in real time: By entering your Twitter username you can blast a message to your followers letting them know you're ready to play, and the Tweet contains a link to take people directly into your particular game.

Redesigning your ecommerce site? "How can I improve this by making it social?"

Turn it social by permitting consumer ratings. Of course, this is old hat in 2008, so why not give consumers the means to ask for ratings rather than see what's been posted? Many consumers suspect ecommerce sites filter or order ratings based on whether they are favorable or not, so give the power to consumers to reach out to their network. Let them post a widget that requests feedback on their sites, or create a means where a request for input can be sent to followers in Twitter,, or other microblogs. And if after purchase they give you a positive rating, ask them to share it with their friends or add it to their blog, perhaps with a reward when a referral results in an additional sale.

Launching a new product? "How can I improve this by making it social?"

Rather than relying on traditional PR sources, reach out to bloggers who specialize in your industry. Offer them a free trial and ask them to post their observations and feelings; bloggers hate press releases, but they love to be included! Or invite the early adopters to post their own video reviews of the new product. Or ask purchasers to share their feelings about what is great and what needs to be improved in the new product within an online forum. Or engage the community to create your advertising as Dell recently did with its Regeneration campaign.

The key to finding immediate social ideas is in what you ask. Don't ask, "How can my entire organization make effective use of social media?" Focus on your immediate opportunities and challenges.

And don't ask, "What do I want to tell consumers about my product or brand?" (or at least don't only ask that.) Consider how you can involve your audience by engaging them with two-way dialog rather than one-way advertising.

Simply examine what you want to accomplish and ask, "How can I improve this by making it social?" I believe you'll find so many ideas that the challenge won't be for you to figure out how to use Social Media but instead to determine which Social Media ideas are most sensible, measurable, and best suited for the brand.

Virtually any idea can be made social. If you're stumped, post it here or email me using the form at right, and we'll take a crack at socializing your idea together.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Eight Considerations to Help Branded Communities Succeed

You'll find a brief and informative article on about communities and why they succeed or fail. Deloitte completed a study of more than 100 businesses with online communities. "Not surprisingly, these sites failed to gain traction with customers. Thirty-five percent of the online communities studied have less than 100 members; less than 25% have more than 1,000 members". Said Ed Moran, who conducted the study, "A disturbingly high number of these sites fail."

The article goes into slightly more depth on the reasons communities fail, here are three simple conclusions:
  1. Communities are about people and not technology: Spend more resources identifying and reaching out to potential community members than investing in software.

  2. Communities require experienced management: Put someone who has experience running an online community in charge of the project.

  3. You have to select the appropriate metrics that measure to your goals: If your primary objectives are generating word of mouth and increasing customer loyalty, measuring the number of visits to the site won't prove you achieved your goals.
Over at MyTechBoxOnline, an interview with Ed Moran sheds more light on his study. Here are two more simple lessons for community success:
  1. Moderate lightly; trust the community: "Permit the community to vet, categorize, critique, and challenge the inputs, ultimately ascribing a value to it through ranking, adoption, or use."

  2. Assign the resources necessary to nurture the community: Community members value quality moderation and facilitation so "management must allocate sufficient resources (read: probably not one part-time person) to community moderation in order to optimize results." Forty-five percent of respondents recognize that finding enough time to manage the community is one of the biggest obstacles to making communities work.
While you wouldn't know it from the WSJ article, the Deloitte report does have positive things to say about the impact of communities, according to a PRNewsire release on Forbes. While many communities may be struggling, the survey revealed some positive results: "Of the companies surveyed, 35 percent have seen an increase in word-of-mouth for their brands, and 28 percent have seen their overall brand awareness increase. Online communities are also helping companies increase customer loyalty and bring outside ideas into the organization faster, according to 24 percent of survey respondents."

More details of the Deloitte report, conducted in conjunction with Beeline Labs and the Society for New Communications Research, can be found in the embedded presentation below. Here are some additional conclusions culled from the deck:
  1. Think broadly about the benefits of communities; don't just consider marketing benefits: Less than 30% of companies with branded communities stated their purpose or business objectives included reducing market research costs, reducing customer support costs, or new product development. Ignoring these benefits may be one of the reasons so many companies feel their community efforts fall short--they're either getting benefits they are failing to recognize, or they are neglecting some important uses and values of their communities.

  2. Give communities time to succeed: One thing I found disappointing considering all the buzz around this report about the "failure" of communities is that none of the interviews or PR mention the considerable portion of the communities surveyed that were quite young. Over a third of the communities studied were less than six months old. Given the modest membership figures, it seems evident many of these organizations neglected to consider traffic-driving and member-attracting strategies, but it still is premature to call a community a failure after just six months.

  3. Invest more to get more: There seems to be a linkage between staffing, spending and results. This may seem obvious, but the correlation isn't specifically called out in the report or in the news reports about the study.

    While quite a few of the bloggers who covered this story sarcastically noted that 34% of the communities analyzed had fewer than 100 members, it's interesting to note some very similar numbers from the report: 32% of the communities are private (which limits membership), 34% don't even have a single full-time person dedicated to the community, 58% have an annual operating budget of less than $50,000, and 29% of the companies have less than $1 million in annual revenues. Given the size of these organizations' customer base, the level of staffing and investment, and the fact 37% of the communities are less than six months old, are the modest membership numbers really that surprising?

    On the other hand, 17% have more than 5,001 members, and again the report has some strikingly comparable figures: 16% have more than six full-time people dedicated to the community, and 19% have an annual operating budget of $200,001 or more. I don't have access to the raw data and cannot confirm a high degree of correlation between investment, staffing, and community size, but I'd bet there is a statistical linkage. This only further reinforces my belief that the bottom line of this study shouldn't be the "failure" of communities but that communities take time, attention, and financial support to flourish.
One last observation I'd share based on my exploration into the Deloitte report is that it is disappointing how many journalists and bloggers seemed predisposed to seeing the negative and neglecting the lessons and recommendations. While the Deloitte report indicates many communities are not living up to expectations, the report's intent is to provide guidance to help branded communities succeed. Is this impression you get from these headlines? Deloitte says Branded Social Networks are a Bomb, Corporate Social Networks Are A Waste of Money, Study Finds, and Corporate Online communities Fail. Sometimes you need to do a bit of legwork and scratch below the surface to get past the hype of the headline and find the nuggets if wisdom!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

How CNN Might Have Used Social Media to Improve Olympics Coverage

Is it possible to garner consumer complaints for doing precisely what you say you're going to do? It turns out you can, particularly in our interconnected, real-time world. This is a lesson CNN learned during the Olympics, and there is a moral we can all take from their experience.

TechCrunch reports on the strong reaction a CNN Twitter account received for broadcasting the results of the Olympics as they occurred. It seems hard to blame a news network for reporting breaking news, but people who wanted to feel the excitement of the competition as they watched the delayed coverage were left annoyed at CNN's "spoilers". (It turns out the Twitter account that sparked the most complaints isn't even an official CNN feed, but CNN itself was doing the same thing on their own account, cnn.)

We could focus on how the people who complained can't possibly want their breaking news filtered based on how some (but not all) consumers may feel about the immediacy of the news alerts. Instead, let's consider how CNN might have avoided the issue and earned more attention and loyalty for it.

CNN is in the business of getting all breaking and important news out to consumers as quickly as possible. This is why it blasted news of gold medal performances as soon as they happened, thus spoiling the fun for people who wanted to get home to watch NBC's delayed coverage. But what if CNN had focused just a bit more on the needs and wants of their Twitter subscribers? What if they had treated Twitter not like a one-way channel for broadcasting news but engaged their consumers in a dialog?

Looking ahead at its Olympic coverage, CNN might have anticipated some (and perhaps many) consumers wanted to avoid immediate news out of Beijing. Perhaps CNN did foresee this situation but unilaterally decided their mission trumped the Olympic enjoyment of a few, but in the age of social media, CNN had a different course: to engage consumers, involve them, and make them feel like valued participants and not just recipients.

There are several ways CNN might have leveraged the tools and philosophy of Social Media, not just to avoid a problem but to create greater brand value:
  • At the very least, CNN might have announced its intention to immediately share all Olympic results via Twitter. This would have given subscribers the power to decide in advance whether to unsubscribe for a short period. Of course, no one in the social media business wants to encourage disengagement, so there are better ways CNN might have proceeded.

  • CNN might have used this potentially sensitive issue as a means to create engagement with and between consumers. Two months in advance of the opening ceremony, the news organization might have asked consumers to participate in a survey or engage in a discussion forum about whether or not results should be broadcast in real time. This would have positioned CNN as a consumer-focused brand and given a voice to its subscribers.

  • Hindsight is 20-20, but maybe the best idea of all is that CNN might have announced it was creating a second Twitter account for people who wanted to avoid Olympics coverage. The first CNN account could thus continue with its mission of broadcasting all news in real time, while allowing consumers to opt into a second CNN Twitter channel where they could avoid the Olympic news. (Since sports is prone to this sort of desire to avoid news until one can get in front of a television, perhaps CNN might consider a "CNNMinusSports" channel, allowing sports fans to get their football, baseball, and Olympics highlights in the timeframe and way they most desire.)
It used to be enough to know one's brand and to stick to it, but Social Media is changing consumer expectations. They want and expect to have a voice, particularly in those brands to which they are most loyal. Gone are the days when big brands could believe they had an obligation and right to decide what is right for their consumers; instead, the brands that will garner the greatest loyalty are the ones that give power to consumers and make them feel part of the brand.

CNN did nothing wrong by sticking to its mission and broadcasting Olympics results in real-time, but it might be argued the news organization also did nothing right by ignoring the opinions and wants of its consumers.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Clean Trucks, Authenticity, and Navistar's $5 Million Brandertainment Play

Hollywood meets flyover country with a Navistar International-funded documentary about trucking and drivers. The company invested $2 million in the 45-minute documentary and will spend another $3 million promoting the movie, called "Drive and Deliver." The movie will get a red carpet premiere at the Great American Trucking Show in Dallas this week. You can see the trailer and learn about the "stars" of the documentary on the International Trucks site.

According to the New York Times, the documentary includes both candid discussions with truckers as well as beauty shots of the LoneStar. The soundtrack includes music by Merle Haggard, Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Marshall Tucker Band and Hank Williams. The movie was directed by Brett Morgen, whose credits include “The Kid Stays in the Picture,” a documentary about Hollywood producer Robert Evans.

Is Navistar International Corporation getting into the film business? No, but they are looking to raise awareness of their $120,000+ LoneStar truck and to make a statement to their target audience of hard-working, long-hauling truckers.

Why finance an expensive documentary--an effort that will require a third of Navistar International's annual marketing budget? “This is about generating word of mouth, positive word of mouth” says a company exec. Added an exec from Fathom Communications, the agency that produced "Drive and Deliver," "The film is a platform to create indelible interactions between the long-haul trucking community and the brand and elevate the conversation beyond products and product specs."

Is this a smart strategy? Time will tell, but already Navistar International and LoneStar are getting more media attention than a truck company and its new model typically receive. And their plan to roll out the documentary to their core audience is right on target: Following the premiere at the truck show, the movie will be screened at more than 50 truck stops around the country and will then be released on DVD.

The biggest challenge may be to prevent this marketing program from seeming like a marketing program. Like all branded entertainment programs, the key is make sure the content and execution is focused on the needs of the audience and not on the needs of the brand.

Already, it seems "Drive and Deliver" may be falling on the wrong side of this gray line: The trailer features many glorious shots of a sparkling clean LoneStar. While one can't blame the brand for wanting some beauty shots of the product, even the hint of spin or hype will destroy the authenticity of the documentary and thus ruin the intended connection with the grounded audience. Spending $5 million to connect with your trucker audience and then leaving them shaking their heads and laughing over the unrealistically antiseptic trucks could reduce the brand's return on their marketing investment.

Navistar International seems to recognize this. The Times notes that a rough cut of “Drive and Deliver” contained "perhaps a few too many shots of the behemoth LoneStars, their chrome and oversize grilles gleaming brightly." Fathom reports that "some of those shots will probably be edited out before next week."

That "probably" worries me--if the brand is looking at the movie and questions if there's too many beauty shots of immaculate trucks, then I'm sure the intended audience will feel there's far too many of those shots. With brandertainment, an ounce of restraint is worth a pound of embarrassment, ridicule, and diminished results.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Who Owns This Brand, Anyway? Olive Garden and Burger King Find Out

Several years ago, I had an argument with a principal at a design agency about who "owns" the brand. He asserted brands are owned by the corporations that develop and manage them. He was legally correct of course--brands are intellectual property in the possession of a legal "owner."

I disagreed with my peer. Brands aren't hard assets with intrinsic values, but instead derive all of their value from the perceptions contained within the minds of consumers. A brand owner can decide to change the brand message, but unless consumers validate the change, it does not happen. A brand perceived by consumers as a value brand can advertise it is a premium brand until the cows come home, but if consumers don't internalize the new message, then the brand hasn't initiated any change at all; it's just wasted its marketing budget.

Legal ownership provides certain benefits but imparts little control. Managing a brand is like the proverbial herding of cats--it's about influence and not command. Particularly in the era of social media, brands must strive to exert more influence with less control as the voice of the consumer becomes a greater part of the marketing environment.

Two restaurant brands are struggling with different but similar challenges. Both are being brandjacked by individuals who--through celebrity or social media notoriety--are altering consumer opinion of the brand against the wishes of the legal brand owners.

The first brand is Olive Garden, which faces a challenge from a person who may be its most famous, vocal, and voluptuous fan. As noted in the Wall Street Journal, Kendra Wilkinson, famed Playboy cover model and star of the "Girls Next Door," frequently professes deep love for the Olive Garden.

The brand, which spends molto dollars polishing its family image, finds it can do little to combat the activities of a single soft porn star who once launched a nude modeling competition for attractive Olive Garden waitresses. Trying to clamp down on brand champions can have an extremely detrimental effect if the passionate praise turns to passionate anger. Much like former smokers who become the most ardent anti-smoking advocates, a disappointed and rejected brand ambassador can become an even worse nightmare for brand managers.

So, Olive Garden is doing little to alter Kendra's activities, and this is a wise decision. The restaurant chain won't comment on the unwelcome attention, and an exec at their ad agency says, "I don't feel comfortable talking about this...because it is a complicated issue for the brand." For her part, Kendra doesn't recognize a problem: "I understand they're a family restaurant, but I think it can't hurt them to have a little spice."

The second restaurant chain facing the loss of brand control to a single individual is Burger King. This past week, a video appeared online that shows an employee bathing in a kitchen sink at a Xenia, Ohio Burger King. The video shows a store manager and several employees looking on.

The impact of this one little video? All the employees lost their jobs; the restaurant got a visit from the Greene County Health Commissioner; over 350,000 people viewed the videos on YouTube in the first four days; the story has been broadcast by all major news outlets including Associated Press, the LA Times, FOXNews, and USA Today; and over half the mentions of Burger King on Twitter in the past two days referenced the sink incident.

This single incident won't bring the Burger King brand to its knees, but one employee's four-minute bath will likely cost the brand six figures in lost sales, wasted executive time, agency fees to fashion a PR response, communication to appease irate franchisees, energy to rehire staff and correct the problems in Xenia, and efforts to retrain employees throughout the system. Owning the Burger King brand doesn't protect the company from the costs and damages inflicted by this incident; it obligates the company to take the necessary actions to protect its most valuable asset.

With Social Media increasing the voice of the consumer, the lack of brand control will only become more evident in the coming years. Understanding what can be controlled (such as your hiring and training of employees and response to PR incidents) and what can only be influenced (consumer opinion) will help brands navigate the sometimes choppy waters of Social Media.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Is there an "Experience" in Transactional Emails?

Since starting this blog, I have occasionally shared a minor disagreement with other bloggers, but I've never had quite the adverse reaction that I had while reading Aaron Smith's Email Insider column. In Email As Experience: Punch Up Your Transactional Messages, Aaron writes about how consumers seek a "memorable experience" from companies, and he proceeds to offer advice on how transactional email messages are a "chance to give them something special at every turn."

Let me first start by saying that I do not believe transactional email messages offer the opportunity for a "memorable experience." Certainly every communication and interaction between brand and consumer provides some level of an experience, but I think we need to differentiate--in language Aaron uses in his article--"Big E" experiences from routine experiences. Transactional email messages are functional communications that can enhance relationships by being especially helpful and informative, but there's a big difference between function ("Small E") and Experience ("Big E").

Function is the theme park map you use to navigate to the rides--done right, it enhances the visitor experience, but no one would call the map memorable--while Experience is the incredibly frightening, exciting, or overwhelming theme park attraction that has you sharing your memories months later. Function is table stakes and merely reinforces existing brand relationships while Experience creates the emotional bonds that increase awareness, consideration, and loyalty.

If you disagree and believe that transactional email messages can create a memorable "Big E" experience, I'd welcome you to share examples that you found unforgettable--ones that aren't merely well designed or full of best practices but truly memorable. This isn't to say that I haven't received some memorable email messages. Many have been funny, heartbreaking, or thought provoking, but few of these memorable messages have come from a brand and certainly none have been transactional in nature.

But this isn't really where I disagree with Aaron; instead, I took exception to Aaron's advice on how to create a "Big E" experience in a transactional email. His first piece of advice: "Include your company logo and colors to make transactional communication feel consistent with your other marketing materials." His second: "Use text treatments, color and graphics to maximize usability and legibility." The rest of his tips--such as upselling relevant products and showing product photography--were equally absurd in the context of an "Experience" discussion.

The reason I found this article so grating is that too often marketers seem to believe that an experience can be created merely by executing well. It can't--executing well is expected, and experiences are created by violating expectations. You can't do what you've done in the past and create an experience.

(There are exceptions to this rule, but they are rare; 99.99% of TV advertising is forgettable and thus creates no experience, but every now and then the right creative idea and execution can result in something that violates expectations and creates an emotional experience. Examples include VW Cabrio Pink Moon, Apple's 1984, and Telecom New Zealand's Father and Son ads.)

More importantly, experiences aren't created by focusing on yourself but by focusing on the customer. In other words, you cannot create an experience with your logo, font, or how you upsell. Brand consistency is important--the lack of it can harm a brand--but consumers aren't going to find your consistent visual identity noteworthy.

Lastly, experiences are created by engaging consumer's emotional or physical senses. I do not believe email is particularly well suited for engaging emotions, and transactional messages have less emotional opportunity than other types of messages.

I don't dislike marketing email. It serves several important purposes: It keeps brands top of mind, generates traffic, offers consumers news and information, and provides a vehicle for promotion and direct response marketing. But theorizing that a logo and some nice product photography in a transactional email message can create an emotional bond with the brand is like suggesting a very attractive theme park map is what brings park guests back year after year.

By all means, execute your transactional email messages with care and brand consistency, but look elsewhere for the unexpected, customer-centric, and engaging experiences that really create memories for the consumer and value for the brand.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

Social Media the Cure for OBD: Obsessive Branding Disorder

There's a fascinating article over at the Arizona State University School of Business Site. It's called, "'OBD: Obsessive Branding Disorder': Has Branding Jumped the Tracks?," and it reviews and summarizes the book, "OBD: Obsessive Branding Disorder," by Lucas Conley. While I agree with many of the symptoms Conley has identified, I am not sure I agree with his diagnosis and I believe a cure is at hand: Social Media.

Conley makes a compelling case for OBD. The article notes, "while Ford was operating under the banner of 'Driving American Innovation,' the company's 2007 fleet got worse gas mileage than its 1908 Model T." And AT&T launched the "Your World. Delivered" at a cost of almost $1 billion, but the company had tried twenty-three other branding campaigns in 25 years. "Shareholders must question the utility of such constant and costly reinvention."

The article quotes Conley offering a defense of brands among his many criticisms, and this as concise a description of branding's benefits to consumers as you're likely to find:
"Brands offer us mental shortcuts, helping us cut through the clutter of everything we buy and enabling us to communicate certain concepts quickly and easily. No one wants to sift through tens of thousands of packaged foods on every trip to the supermarket. Instead, we rely on the brands we know. And branding, when it's consistent, provides us with clarity and simplicity in a progressively hectic world."

Conley complains that "Branding promotes the sizzle over the steak," and the time and money spent on branding could be spent on other pursuits, such as R&D and innovation. I disagree with him here--branding has always been about creating a place in people's brains that are related to but separate from the features or functions. Coca-Cola is about spreading joy, not about bubbly black fluid; Apple is about making life better by making the complex simple, not about microprocessors and circuitry.

But I do agree branding can and often does go off the tracks. It does so when branding isn't about both the sizzle and the steak. Here are the two ways I believe OBD can occur:
  • When the experience doesn't live up to the brand promise: This has as much to do with the way the company and its employees behave as with the product. Coca-Cola couldn't be about spreading joy if the organization exploited employees or dumped dangerous products in third world countries. Nor could it live up to the brand with dirty trucks and non-functioning vending machines. And of course, Coke can't spread joy if, when the consumer opens a can or bottle, the pop is flat or tasteless.

    The brand Coca-Cola has fashioned furnishes benefits for the company by creating a strong emotional bond with consumers, but like any strong brand it also raises expectations that the company must strive to meet. If every aspect of the company fails to do so at every touchpoint, the brand can contract OBD and both company and consumers will suffer.

  • When the marketing doesn't live up to the brand promise: You may argue this is the same thing as the first point, but I believe OBD is also achieved when those responsible for the brand platform become completely disconnected from the rest of the organization. The first bullet is about a company failing to execute upon a clearly communicated and achievable brand; this bullet is about marketing forgetting to bring the company along or believing the brand is only communicated through marketing communications.

    Conley derides when a brand becomes more focused on convincing people it is something that it is not rather than on being something it is. This is a huge problem for marketing professionals, who can get tunnel vision when focused only on advertising. When this occurs, consumers are inundated with unwelcome and annoying marketing that interrupts their lives--brands become convinced they can achieve their goals if only they can hammer their message into consumers' brains enough times. This is where distracting product placement, online takeover ads, fake blogs, and abusive WOM marketing comes from. (For more on this, see my thoughts on value-added marketing and the Experiential Marketing Continuum.)

    The other thing that happens when marketers focus only on the message and not on making the brand a reality throughout the organization is that the organization doesn't know what it needs to do to live up to the brand. Some years ago, Cingular blasted a "Cingular Everywhere" message across media channels, but consumers found there were many places where Cingular service was not available. McDonald's once launched a "We love to see you smile" campaign, but employees apparently never got the memo and crabby and disinterested counter staff undermined the brand.

Brands that fail to live their brands or that annoy consumers with excessive advertising have always been skating on thin ice, but the ice is getting thinner. For most of the 20th Century, media was controlled by few large companies that were very cozy with large brands; this allowed little room for smaller brands to compete on a large scale and permitted no voice for disgruntled consumers aside from the occasional letter-writing campaign and their own personal buying decisions. The result was that brands got fat and sassy telling consumers whatever they wanted, knowing the danger was slight, the communications channels were secured, and there was no or little risk of rapid loss of consumer preference.

But Social Media alters all this, and these changes have just begun. If you think the last year or two have been wild with the growth of Twitter, Facebook, branded communities, Digg, social games, and the explosion of other social sites and tools, just wait for the next two years. Power has only begun to shift from brands to consumers, and the marketing environment promises to get even more unpredictable and dangerous in the future.

Brands will no longer be able to say one thing and be another. Consumers won't stand for it, and they'll share their frustration, anger, or disappointment far and wide. Trying to combat this through traditional means will be like trying to bail out a sinking boat with a spoon--brands can run as many ads as they want, but the voice the consumer won't be overpowered with TV, radio, print, and online media.

The good news is that Social Media can and will cure OBD. Brands that fail to understand the new marketing environment will fail. Brands that understand they must be what they say they are will exceed even more so than today.

In the book, Conley tells us that we "must acknowledge that there will always be brands" and that we "must look in the mirror and address our disorder head on." I'm not sure we need to talk to ourselves in the mirror; we only need to engage with each other in social media and let the rest take its course. In a world where one voice can reach hundreds or thousands and a small group of consumers can impact brand perception on a national scale, brands will either find authenticity and respect for the consumer, or once vibrant brands will stumble, fail, and become zombies that are either forgotten or hope for a second chance to get it right.