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Archive for February, 2012

Let’s jump right in: With all this push for brands to “engage” in the social media space these past few years, the endless brouhaha of so-called Engagement strategies, bizarre measurement schemes like Return On Engagement and even the creation of new roles like Chief Engagement Officers and Engagement Strategists, you would think that engagement would be pretty high on every brand’s priority list by now.

More to the point, you would think that after 3 (and in many cases 4) years of building social media programs and managing online communities on Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, etc., most companies would have this stuff kind of figured out.

We aren’t talking about really complicated stuff here. Being on Facebook isn’t exactly as demanding as conceptualizing then producing a great superbowl ad. There isn’t really a whole lot of complicated R&D involved. All you have to do is keep people interested and… engage them, whatever the hell that means. How hard is it to just listen to people and talk with them? That is what we’re talking about, right? Engagement? Listening, replying, being helpful and interesting? Being relevant? But mostly, it’s about having conversations with people? Helping them find stuff, do stuff, share stuff that matters to them and ultimately benefits both them and the brand? Isn’t engagement about fueling both interest and that precious exchange of attention that is the substance of social interactions?

“Monitor, engage, and be transparent; these have always been the keys to success in the digital space.” – Dallas Lawrence

“Build it, and they will come” only works in the movies.  Social Media is a “build it, nurture it, engage them, and they may come and stay.” – Seth Godin

 Right? We know this, don’t we? Or is there some confusion still about what engagement actually is, how it works, what it looks like?

AdAge this week published this follow-up piece by Matthew Creamer in which data from a study released last month by the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute identifies a gap between engagement theory and engagement execution, primarily on Facebook. Evidently, it is easier to strategize about engaging with customers than it is to actually… do it.

Here is the punchline: According to the study, less than 1% of fans of the biggest brands on Facebook actually engage with these brands online.

How can this be? Don’t these brands have qualified social media directors and SVPs? Don’t the world’s biggest brands have brilliant social media strategies, content strategies and engagement strategies? Don’t they work with digital agencies that specialize in this sort of thing?

You can’t throw a cat on Facebook without hitting some kind of webinar or certification program promising to teach you how to engage with customers via social media. There is a social media #conference somewhere in the world almost every day. Have you looked at how many presentations about engagement and Facebook have been uploaded to Slideshare recently? Have you seen the change in people’s resumes in the last year? Everyone has 5-10 years of social media management experience now. (Yeah… time sure flies when you’re having fun. Magic!)

Again, I have to ask: How hard is it to just listen to people and talk with them? The content piece should be pretty easy: Copy, creative, slap a little photo or video, edit, publish, done. Everything else that isn’t back-of-house (monitoring, measuring, analyzing, correlating activity to outcomes) essentially amounts to the most basic social skills available to human beings: Saying hello. Asking questions. Answering questions. Talking about what people might be interested in. Paying attention. Making people feel like they matter, because in the end, they do.

Only 1% fan engagement. That’s it. Actually… maybe less than that:

To get to these findings, the researchers used one of Facebook’s own metrics, People Talking About This, the awkwardly-named running count of likes, posts, comments, tags, shares and other ways a user of the social network can interact with branded pages. It was unveiled last fall as a way of giving advertisers a sharper look at at the level of activity on their pages.

Researchers for the institute looked at this metric as a proportion of overall fan growth of the top 200 brands on Facebook over a six-week period back in October and they found the percentage of People Talking About This to overall fans to be 1.3%. If you subtract new likes, which only requires a click and in the minds of the researchers are akin to TV ratings, and isolate for more engaged forms of interaction, you’re left within an even smaller number: 0.45%. That means less than half a percent of people who identify themselves as like a brand actually bother to create any content around it.

 Once the “click like for a chance to win a free iPad” campaign is over (or the agency you hired has just out and out purchased your fans from Chinese or Russian fan/follower mills) it’s more like 0.45%.

This begs the question: With Facebook inching towards a billion users worldwide and people spending an obscene amount of time there, billions of dollars of marketing spent to engage them on Facebook is only yielding 0.45% engagement? What the hell is going on?

My first reflex was to look for flaws in the study, and there may be ways of picking apart its findings. Fine. But then it occurred to me that I myself have very little engagement with my favorite brands on Facebook. Let’s go through the list: Apple, Sony, Starbucks, RayBan, G-Shock, Panerai, H&M, VW, BMW, Hyundai (don’t laugh), Nike, Delta Airlines, HBO, Ikea, Moleskine, Smalto, Brooks Brothers, Nestle, Menthos, Trader Joe’s, Pilot, Rudy Project, Specialized, Cervelo, Mizuno, Nutella… Okay, I’ll stop. You get the idea. When was the last time I interacted with any of them on Facebook? I can’t remember. How often am I completely blown off by that “brand” when I do bother to comment on their posts or share their content? Almost 100% of the time.

That sucks.

So I started asking around. Everyone I talked to responded in the same way. In fact, one of the human beings I regularly engage with on Facebook (when I am naturally not engaging with a brand) put it to me in as clear a manner as I could have hoped for. His name is Vincent Ammirato, and this is what he said:

I simply don’t interact with brands through social media. I interact with people. Not one of those top 10 passion brands does anything for me. So sure I’ll buy from them when, for example, I want to surprise the wife with a little blue box. But they aren’t my idols or friends. Their “news feeds” aren’t about issues that I care about. I could easily stop purchasing from any of them and be just fine.

The solution to brands struggling to establish a meaningful, valuable connection through social media channels (Facebook or otherwise) is contained entirely in this reply. Any SVP, Global Digital Engagement Strategery can reverse-engineer this short reply into a model for success in the space. It won’t take five minutes. You won’t even need to waste your time working with $20,000/hr social media experts. It’s all right there.

Simple problem, simple fix:

 1. Own your relationships.

I have said it a hundred hundred zillion times: You cannot effectively outsource relationships. Of all the things brands can outsource to digital agencies and analytics firms, the one thing that cannot be effectively outsourced is the relationship they have with their customers. Social media are not the same as other forms of media. You can send a spokesperson or PR professional to hang out with journalists in your place and no one will find that weird or disingenuous. You cannot ask an agency AE to pretend to be you at a pig roast that you were invited to by your customers. Two different contexts entirely. Expectations of engagement in Social Media fall into the pig roast category. Your agency can hold your hand and stand with you, but you’re going to have to show up to the party yourself or people simply will stop inviting you.

Outsource everything else if you must, but own your relationships. No one can do this for you.

2. Engagement and Marketing aren’t the same thing.

Engagement on social media channels is not just a marketing communications function. Every single brand who has treated it as if it were is now finding out that treating engagement like marketing is yielding – yes, you guessed it: 0.45% actual engagement. Why? Because there is no natural impulse in human beings to interact with marketing day after day after day. As Vincent aptly puts it: I interact with people.

Do you see people hanging out at Starbucks with their favorite coupons? Do you think that changes because you repackaged your marketing to be “social” and pushed it out to Facebook?

Here’s something I need you to think about, uninterrupted, for maybe 90 seconds: Marketing on Facebook is fine. It’s great. But don’t confuse marketing with engagement. The two can go hand in hand when managed properly, but they are not the same thing. We all know that you have a marketing strategy in place for Facebook, but do you actually have an engagement strategy? 0.45% actual engagement means you thought you did but really didn’t. Back to the drawing board.

3. Stop thinking that content is the heart and soul of the attention economy.

In spite of what has been drilled into our collective brains by people who make a living creating content, content is not king.

“By creating compelling content, you can become a celebrity.” Paul Gillin

“Think like a publisher, not a marketer.” David Meerman Scott

No. First, the objective is not to become a celebrity. If becoming a celebrity is your objective, maybe managing a business or a Social Media/Business program for a brand isn’t for you. So cut the personal branding shit. It was already old 4 years ago.

Second, don’t think like a publisher. Or a Marketer, even. Think like a human being. Brands have been focusing on filling their Facebook properties with content and marketing for the last 4 years. What’s the result? 0.45% actual engagement. Think about it for a minute: Do you really think that the answer to the problem is more content or marketing? More publishing, even?

Reminder:

I simply don’t interact with brands through social media. I interact with people.

You aren’t going to out-content your competitors. You aren’t going to create “viral campaigns” every other week. And let’s be honest: You can’t compete against the endless flood of funny memes that drive most of the shares on Facebook unless you fire your entire marketing department and hire weird, slightly insane, socially irreverent interns whose jet fuel is a blend of pop-culure infused sarcasm and… Oh wait… their CVs would never make it past your HR department. They don’t have the requisite social media management experience. Never mind.

An easier way to fix the problem is simply to focus on the missing piece: How human is your brand, really?

4. Stop hiding your humans.

If I don’t know the name and face of the person managing your Facebook page, I am not going to interact with that page on a daily basis. Or maybe ever.

This may be the most important bit of insight I am sharing here today.

Let me illustrate my point: I know that Ford’s Social Media guy is Scott Monty. I know what Scott Monty looks like. Whenever I see his smiling, blue-eyed, bow-tie wearing profile picture in my stream, I look at what he is sharing. A picture of his sandwich? That looks delicious. I’m going to click on that. A picture of him at the Detroit auto show? Cool. I’m going to click on that too. An article about the Ford Mustang winning an award somewhere? Clicked. Read. Commented. Engaged.

The same content published/posted by a faceless account with the Ford logo as its avatar/identity? Ignored.

I have no idea who handles Nutella’s Facebook page. VW? Levi’s? Sony? BMW? Trader Joe’s? H&M? Not a  clue. The result: Zero interaction. Why? Because people come to Facebook to interact with people, not brands or marketing or content or logos. It’s FACEbook. Give people some face, already. You actually need humans to humanize your brand. You can’t engage from behind a digital billboard with faceless account managers who never see the light of day.

You want to know who else is doing it right on Facebook? Mashable. How do I interact with Mashable’s content? Through Pete Cashmore. Same feed. The difference: Peter Cashmore is a human being. With a face and a name I know. With a pretty unique voice too, which I appreciate for its human quality.When Mashable’s content comes to me through him, I pay attention and interact with it. It’s that simple. Who else does this pretty well? Edelman Digital (Armano, Brito, Rubel). Dell (Binhammer). CNN. MSNBC. (Probably Fox News too.) At one time, Comcast (Eliason). Seesmic (Lemeur, for starters). Learn from them.

It bears repeating: If your customers don’t know who your social media “person” (the person they are interacting with) is, if they don’t know his or her name, if they don’t know what they look like, if they can’t see a face on that profile photo, they simply are not going to interact with that account, no matter how many iPads you promise to give away.

Going back to item number 1 on this list: if you outsource your account management, you have no chance of accomplishing this. None. Zero. 0.45% actual engagement is what you can continue to expect moving forward. No amount of marketing spend will change that. 0.45% Engagement is right on par with the level of engagement people have with a wall. If that’s all your Facebook account is – a wall – then don’t be surprised that nobody gives a shit. Invest in a human.

5. Either give a shit or don’t, but you need to decide.

Nobody minds that you are there to sell stuff. It’s understood. Hell, we want to be sold to. Have you seen what people willingly pay for an iPhone or a latte at Starbucks? Our cash is yours if you give us a good reason to part with it. We wouldn’t be clicking that like button if we didn’t acknowledge that we accept that you have something to sell. It’s what that initial handshake is for.

But if all you do is push PR content and marketing offers down our throats all day and don’t actually give a shit about who we are, what we do, what matters to us outside of the next transaction, you’re wasting your time measuring engagement. Just turn your Facebook presence into a store and stop wasting your time pretending to be “social.” You might actually increase conversions going that route. In fact, if that’s what you really want to do, stop wasting time creating boring content nobody cares about and just give us 20% off coupons. If all you are going to do is use Facebook as a marketing channel, you might as well save yourself the trouble and just cut to the chase.

Just remember that being “social” (meaning being genuinely interested in the engagement piece as a relationship-building process) can’t be faked. Don’t even try. It’s insulting and ultimately works against you in the social space. Either commit to it 100% or don’t even try. Nobody just half-cares about their customers or friends. Either be in or out. Either give a shit or don’t.

I can pretty-much guarantee though that if you show that you do truly care every single day, it will pay off in spades: Positive recommendations, customer retention, customer loyalty, more frequent engagement, deeper engagement, increased mindshare, increased wallet share… If you want these things, you can have them. It’s up to you to make it happen.

6. Be helpful.

Do something helpful for someone every day and you’ll have engagement. Publish boring marketing content to fill empty spaces because you probably ought to and you will be hanging out with crickets. Who does your content strategy serve again? Your marketing department or your fans? Real question. What’s the most helpful thing you’ve done on Facebook today? This week? This month? In the last year?

Yeah… That’s what I thought. You can do better than that.

7. Have a purpose.

A strategy without a purpose is kind of like an essay without a topic. Why are you on Facebook again? What’s the value of that to you? What’s the value of that to people you want to engage with there? Give that some thought. The clearer your purpose, the higher the degree of engagement. It’s that simple. 0.45% actual engagement screams “pointless” to me. Like content for the sake of content. Like marketing spend for the sake of not losing your budget next year. Like being on Facebook because… “everyone else is, so we thought we should be there too. We’re still figuring out what we want to do though.”

8. Don’t buy fans, followers, likes and subscribers. Ever.

And don’t encourage your CMO, Social Media Directors and agencies to do so by rewarding them for meeting fan acquisition quotas. We have talked about this. The profit margins on fake fans aren’t rocket science for providers of said “fans”. The horrible mess it causes for brands who end up with tens of thousands of fake followers and fans is terribly costly and in most cases irreversible from a measurement standpoint. These people will never buy from you. They will never recommend you to their friends. They will never contribute in any way to the success of your brand. The only two things they will actually do is guarantee zero engagement and screw up your conversion metrics for the next ten years. Don’t do it. Don’t allow yourself to step into that giant pile of digital marketing poop.

9. If nobody cares about your product, your digital content won’t magically fix that.

This one is kind of self-explanatory. Talk is cheap. Focus on creating real value. If people love your products, they will share that with each other. The SEO magic behind your content is irrelevant if nobody cares about your product. You can publish stuff all day long on Facebook and no one will care.

10. Don’t just think about vertical engagement. Think about lateral engagement.

If your engagement strategy involves responding to every query and mention yourself, you’re missing the point. (Though if only ten people say hi to you every day, you ought to be able to manage that.) A vibrant, healthy community doesn’t depend on the brand’s community manager to drive conversations. The fans should be handling 80% of the comments. They should be talking to each other more than they talk to your brand’s representative. That’s what supports scale in the social space. Think about how you can make that happen. You can’t have significant engagement or drive long-term momentum in the social space without a mechanism in place to support that conversation engine. The platform + content equation alone won’t do it.

This stuff really isn’t that hard. It’s as simple as walking into a crowded room and making friends, then coming back the next day and meeting their friends, and doing it again the next day. If you just listen to them today, you’ll know what to talk to them about tomorrow. Once they start sharing stuff with you, you’ll know what they want you to share with them. Relationship-building 101.  Pretty much everything else you need to know is right here.

It has been all along.

Realistically, you are never going to see 100% engagement. Not even 50%. Shoot for 20% though. The 80/20 rule: 80% of your fans won’t comment. They’ll just watch and listen quietly. But 20% of them should naturally comment, share and participate. That’s what you want.

1% is embarrassing. Find a way to fix that.

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If the Brandbuilder blog isn’t enough, Social Media ROI provides a simple, carry-everywhere real-world framework with which businesses of all sizes can develop, build and manage social media programs in partnership with digital agencies or all on their own. Do yourself a favor and check it out at www.smroi.net. Now available at fine bookstores everywhere. Also available in German, Japanese and Korean.

Click here to read a free chapter.

CEO-Read  –  Amazon.com  –  www.smroi.net  –  Barnes & Noble  –  Que

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I told you I would bring back this post regularly. Here it is again, until the day when everyone understands how simple this is. Okay, here we go:

If you are still having trouble explaining or understanding social media R.O.I., chances are that…

1. You are asking the wrong question.

Do you want to know what one of the worst questions dealing with the digital world is right now? This:

What is the ROI of Social Media?

It isn’t that the idea behind the question is wrong. It comes from the right place. It aims to answer 2 basic business questions: Why should I invest in this, (or rather, why should I invest in this rather than the other thing?), and what kind of financial benefit can I expect from it?

The problem is that the question can’t be answered as asked: Social media in and of itself has no cookie-cutter ROI. The social space is an amalgam of channels, platforms and activities that can produce a broad range of returns (and often none at all). When you ask “what is the social media or ROI,” do you mean to have Facebook’s profit margins figure in the answer? Twitter’s? Youtube’s? Every affiliate marketing blog’s ROI thrown in as well?

The question is too broad. Too general. It is like asking what the ROI of email is. Or the ROI of digital marketing. What is the ROI of social media? I don’t know… what is the ROI of television?

If you are still stuck on this, you have probably been asking the wrong question.

2. So what is the right question?

The question, then, is not what is the ROI of social media, but rather what is the ROI of [insert activity here] in social media?

To ask the question properly, you have to also define the timeframe. Here’s an example:

What was the ROI of [insert activity here] in social media for Q3 2011?

That is a legitimate ROI question that relates to social media. Here are a few more:

What was the ROI of shifting 20% of our customer service resources from a traditional call center to twitter this past year?

What was the ROI of shifting 40% of our digital budget from traditional web to social media in 2011?

What was the ROI of our social media-driven raspberry gum awareness campaign in Q1?

These are proper ROI questions.

3. The unfortunate effect of asking the question incorrectly.

What is the ROI of social media? asks nothing and everything at once. It begs a response in the interrogative: Just how do you mean? In instances where either educational gaps or a lack of discipline prevail, the vagueness of the question leads to an interpretation of the term R.O.I., which has already led many a social media “expert” down a shady path of improvisation.

This is how ROI went from being a simple financial calculation of investment vs. gain from investment to becoming any number of made-up equations mixing unrelated metrics into a mess of nonsense like this:

Social media ROI = [(tweets – followers) ÷ (comments x average monthly posts)] ÷ (Facebook shares x facebook likes) ÷ (mentions x channels used) x engagement

Huh?!

Equations like this are everywhere. Companies large and small have paid good money for the privilege of glimpsing them. Unfortunately, they are complete and utter bullshit. They measure nothing. Their aim is to confuse and extract legal tender from unsuspecting clients, nothing more. Don’t fall for it.

4. Pay attention and all the social media R.O.I. BS you have heard until now will evaporate in the next 90 seconds.

In case you missed it earlier, don’t think of ROI as being medium-specific. Think of it as activity-specific.

Are you using social media to increase sales of your latest product? Then measure the ROI of that. How much are you spending on that activity? What KPIs apply to the outcomes being driven by that activity? What is the ratio of cost to gain for that activity? This, you can measure. Stop here. Take it all in. Grab a pencil and a sheet of paper and work it out.

Once you grasp this, try something bigger. If you want to measure the ROI of specific activities across all media, do that. If you would rather focus only on your social media activity, go for it. It doesn’t really matter where you measure your cost to gain equation. Email, TV, print, mobile, social… it’s all the same. ROI is media-agnostic. Once you realize that your measurement should focus on the relationship between the activity and the outcome(s), the medium becomes a detail. ROI is ROI, regardless of the channel or the technology or the platform.

That’s the basic principle. To scale that model and determine the ROI of the sum of an organization’s social media activities, take your ROI calculations for each desired outcome, each campaign driving these outcomes, and each particular type of activity within their scope, then add them all up. Can measuring all of that be complex? You bet. Does it require a lot of work? Yes. It’s up to you to figure out if it is worth the time and resources.

If you have limited resources, you may decide to calculate the ROI of certain activities and not others. You’re the boss. But if you want to get a glimpse of what the process looks like, that’s it in its most basic form.

5. R.O.I. isn’t an afterthought.

Guess what: Acquiring Twitter followers and Facebook likes won’t drive a whole lot of anything unless you have a plan. In other words, if your social media activity doesn’t deliberately drive ROI, it probably won’t accidentally result in any.

This is pretty key. Don’t just measure a bunch of crap after the fact to see if any metrics jumped during the last measurement period. Think about what you will want to measure ahead of time, what metrics you will be looking to influence. Think more along the lines of business-relevant metrics than social media metrics like “likes” and “follows,” which don’t really tell you a whole lot.

6. R.O.I. doesn’t magically lose its relevance because social media “is about engagement.” 

If your business is for-profit and you are looking to use social media in any way, shape or form to help your business grow, then all of your questions regarding the R.O.I. of investing in social media activity are relevant. Any social media consultant who tells you otherwise is an idiot.

Concepts like Return on Engagement, Return on Influence, Return on Conversation are all bullshit. Nice exercises in light semantic theory, but utterly devoid of substance. First, they can’t be calculated. Second, they bring absolutely zero insight or value to your business. In fact, they pull your attention away from legitimate outcomes. Third, they are not in any way shape or form substitutes for Return on Investment.

Fact: If a social media “expert” tells you that ROI isn’t important, he (or she) is a hack. Remove them from your organization immediately.

Fact: A social media “expert” who doesn’t know how to calculate ROI properly (or teach you how to do it) might just be an expert at blogging, and not social media program management or social business integration.

Note: Integrating social media and business requires more experience than just making it look like 100,000+ “people” follow you on Twitter. Anyone can become a speaker nowadays. Anyone can publish a book and make themselves look like an expert. Unfortunately, at least 9 out of 10 social media speakers/experts/gurus/authors couldn’t effectively manage a Fortune 500 social media/business practice if you infused their brains with an extra 100 points of IQ and enrolled them in an executive MBA course. Be very careful who you hire, whose blogs you read, and whom you elect to influence your business decisions.

“Digital Influence” does not necessarily reflect competence. Always remember that. Some of the dumbest and most dishonest people in this business have enormous followings on Twitter, blogs and G+, and very high Klout scores to boot. (They spend an enormous amount of time making sure they do.) Conversely, some of the most brilliant, competent, ethical people in this business aren’t all that visible. Why? Because they are too busy doing real work to focus all of their efforts building personal brands and better mouse traps.

There are other litmus tests, but the ROI bit is a pretty solid one: A so-called expert who skirts the issue or fails a simple ROI problem/test from your CFO probably isn’t as qualified to advise you as his or her Klout score might have suggested. ;)

7. … But R.O.I. isn’t relevant to every type of activity.

Having said that, not all social media activity needs to drive ROI. As important as it may be to understand how to calculate it and why, it is equally important to know when ROI isn’t really relevant to a particular activity or objective.

Technical support, accounts receivable, digital reputation management, digital crisis management, R&D, customer service… These types of functions are not always tied directly to financial KPIs. Don’t force them into that box.

This is an important point because it reveals something about the nature of the operational integration of social media within organizations: Social media isn’t simply a “community management” function or a “content” play. Its value to an organization isn’t measured primarily in the obvious and overplayed likesfollowers, retweets and clickthroughs, or even in impressions or estimated media value. Social media’s value to an organization, whether translated into financial terms (ROI) or not, is determined by its ability to influence specific outcomes. This could be anything from the acquisition of new transacting customers to an increase in positive recommendations, from an increase in buy rate for product x to a positive shift in sentiment for product y, or from a boost in customer satisfaction after a contact with a CSR to the attenuation of a PR crisis.

In other words, for an organization, the value of social media depends on two factors:

1. The manner in which social media can be used to pursue a specific business objective.

2. The degree to which specific social media activity helped drive that objective.

In instances where financial investment and financial gain are relevant KPIs, this can turn into ROI. In instances where financial gain is not a relevant outcome, ROI might not matter one bit.

Knowing when and how ROI matters (or not) will a) help you avoid costly mistakes and will b) hopefully help you make smart decisions when it comes to assigning precious resources and budgets to specific social media/business programs.

*          *          *

By the way, Social Media ROI – the book – doesn’t just talk about measurement and KPIs. It provides a simple framework with which businesses of all sizes can develop, build and manage social media programs in partnership with digital agencies or all on their own. Check it out at www.smroi.net, or look for it at fine bookstores everywhere.

Click here to read a free chapter.

CEO-Read  –  Amazon.com  –  www.smroi.net  –  Barnes & Noble  –  Que

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When my parents found out that I was writing a series of books that take place during the first world war (side project), my father started digging around through the family “vault.” The vault, real or figurative, contains oodles of documents, archives, family trees, heirlooms, photographs and other artifacts that touch on the family’s history over the last five centuries or so. Fascinating stuff. Mysterious stuff. At any rate, he went digging and found a canvas wallet filled with letters which he knew dated back from World War I, which his father (the first Olivier Blanchard) fought in. He believed that the letters had been written by grandpa Olivier during his campaign in the Orient as a cavalry officer, and hoped they would provide me with terrific every-day life material for the books. As you can well imagine, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this stuff.

Earlier this month, taking advantage of a quick trip to Amsterdam, I took a quick detour through France to spend a few days with my parents. I hadn’t been there but ten minutes before my father handed me this treasure-trove of insights which no one had so much as read or touched since 1918.

So here I am, holding in my hands this thick wad of impeccably folded letters and postcards, tucked away in a canvas wallet that – although obviously of a different era, looked as new as if I had just purchased it last week at  H&M. The paper was thin and a little yellow, but not from age. Every word looked as crisp and rich as if the ink had just finished drying. I roughly counted the letters: Somewhere between 60 and 80 letters in all, spanning from a period between February to August of 1918. Every letter was dated, numbered, and organized in chronological order. I glimpsed the handwriting, which was decidedly French and very old school, but decipherable all the same. I knew immediately that I had struck gold, not just in terms of raw research for the project, but also in terms of getting a glimpse at the lives of family members I had not ever gotten to know.

It should be said that by the time I was old enough to know about World War I, my grandfather was already very old. Like many survivors of The Great War, he wasn’t much into talking about it – or talking about much of anything – and especially not with an 8-year old. He and his cousins died when I was in my teens, without ever having told me or anyone outside of their own generation the simple stories of their youth. They passed away, one by one, much of their furniture and private things finding their way to various descendants and godchildren scattered all across Europe. Much of it probably ended up in estate sales and antique swaps. What vague historical significance might have still lingered behind them died outright when they became the property of strangers.

This is how family histories die, by the way: Stories don’t get passed down, and so one day the priceless portrait of an ancestor goes from being a family’s oldest historical artifact to being that weird ugly painting of some random person that Uncle Jack always had up on his wall. Estate sales are full of them: Paintings of strangers. Every single one of these strangers hanging on a wall in a gallery or study or just sitting under a sheet in an old garde-meuble is someone’s ancestor, orphaned either by chance or neglect, and destined never to find its way home. Pocket watches, jewelry, hats, books, pens, tea sets, old papers… sold, thrown away, donated. Before you know it, nothing remains but gravestones and dates. Before long, these too are forgotten.

It didn’t occur to me how much of a tragedy this erosion of every family’s history was until years after my grandfather’s generation passed away, when I became a father. Some part of me started to look for a link to the past, to some sense of continuity and legacy I could pass down to my children. It isn’t about just understanding your blood line’s connection with historical events. I think that knowing where you come from, who your ancestors were, helps shape who you will become in your life. We all look for heroes in our ancestors, people with courage and character, people we hope to find a little of ourselves in. Knowing where you come from matters. If it didn’t, sites like ancestry.com wouldn’t be as popular as they are.

But I digress. The letters: I started reading them. A few minutes into the process, I realized that they were not at all what I thought they were. They were not my grandfather’s letters to his family. They were the letters his father Edmond and mother Elise sent to him. They were letters from home. I have to admit that I was a little disappointed at first. I wanted to find out what it was like for a soldier, being shipped to the front, rotating between the relative safety of billets and the terror and carnage of the front lines. It was him I wanted to understand. It was through his eyes that I wanted to see the war. How could letters from his parents, safely tucked away in Paris, ever compete against that? Two letters into it, I realized how wrong I had been. As interesting as it would have been to read his side of the correspondence, discovering theirs was equally fascinating, if not more. Through their letters, I discovered a world that books and movies about the time period rarely shed a light on: How did the French live in 1918? How did parents deal with having a son fighting a war that was clearly the most devastating corpse factory in history? How did Parisians deal with the threat of defeat and occupation, with the privations of war, with the stress of having the Germans close enough to bomb them almost daily? What were their daily lives like?

I now had 6 months worth of letters promising to answer precisely these questions and more. Bonus: As I sifted through them, I soon realized that my great grandmother and great grandfather had entertained separate correspondences with my grandfather. There were two sets of letters bearing the same dates. I would get to experience the same events from two distinct points of view: A man’s and a woman’s. A father’s and a mother’s.

What did I discover? More than I could have hoped for. The price of things, for starters, as my grandfather never failed to bring up the price he paid for every item he sent to my grandfather in his monthly care-packages. The fact that Paris was experiencing terrifying artillery bombardments by day and air raids by night. I know where the bombs and shells fell, on what dates, at what time, what damage they caused and who was killed or injured. I know what the weather was like. I know what the press was telling and not telling the populace. I know who was ill, who was spending a few days in Versailles or Lion sur mer, who was forced out of Amiens because of the mandatory evacuations. I know whose son was killed or injured in such and such battle and on what date. I know who had a cold and who passed a kidney stone. I know the frequency with which people received and wrote letters, or just called them on the telephone. I discovered a million things that paint the clearest portrait of these young, dynamic, fascinating people I only knew as old, tired, white-haired seniors who played bridge with one another and talked of things I didn’t understand. But more to the point of this blog – which is most certainly not about my side projects or my family history – I learned something about the way people communicated with one another in 1918, and my reaction was essentially one of surprise, even shock: Facebook be damned. Even without what we know today as social media, without the benefit of the web and mobile devices, people seemed infinitely more connected to one another in 1918 – and with a war just a horizon away – than we are today with all of our real-time global communications tools. How could this be?

I could go on my parents’ Facebook wall on any given day and not know a fraction of the things people knew about each other’s days back then. I am not talking about people living down the street from one another either. The family was scattered all around France. The Blanchards, the Bassets, the Clogensons, the Guyons and other families which formed the complex web of cousins by blood and marriage were everywhere: Paris, Brest, Lille, Versailles, Amiens, Lyon and dozens of other cities and towns. Not only that but they were often in flux, spending a few days here, a few weeks there, visiting relatives, airing out houses, locking up apartments, taking the baths, getting away. The telephone was still a new invention. What we now know as “snail mail” was the only mature communications technology of the time. Judging by the fading ink every few lines, dipping your pen into an ink well to commit words to paper was still the norm. Letters had to be painstakingly hand-written, in legible handwriting, then taken to the post office. From there, they reached their destinations by foot, car, train, steam ship, bicycle and horseback. Steam ship schedules were widely known so people sending mail overseas were sure not to miss the narrow windows of opportunities during which their mail could be sent abroad. Miss the ship and your letter would take six rather than three weeks to reach the next continent.

Mail, the telegraph and the telephone: Those were your choices. And yet the connectivity between these people, separated by significant distances without the benefit of social and mobile communications, is to me nothing short of amazing. It puts today’s connectivity between us to shame. I’m not kidding. We’re amateurs compared to these folks who could have never even imagined a thing like Twitter, let alone the internet. They knew everything about one another: where they were, who they were with, what they talked about, what the weather was like there, what they ate and drank, what they were wearing… every last detail. Not with just five or six people in their immediate circles but dozens.

As entertaining as it is to read about gothas blowing up Captain Machin-chose’s pied-à-terre on the Rue de Rivoli and my great-uncle Maurice’s daily dance with whooping cough in March of 1918, seeing how efficient the information network between relatives and social circles was, in spite of the obvious absence of technology, is one of the most fascinating aspects of this discovery process.

My conclusion: We have forgotten more about the nature of social connectivity in the last 96 years than we have learned from every blog post written about Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin, Youtube, blogs, Tumblr, Quora and Pinterest combined (yes, including Mashable). Those of you who still think that all of this is about followers and fans, about platforms, about messaging and content, good luck with that. You’re fishing in the wrong pond with the wrong lure. There is something infinitely more human, simple and honest about what makes this connectivity work, about what feeds it (and how to ultimately tap it properly) than the channels, the technologies, the tools and even the vaunted strategies everyone and their brother is trying to sell you.

Don’t look to engagement and conversations to give meaning to any of it. Don’t look to content either. These things matter, sure, but they are not the core, the pivot, the heart of what makes this all work. There is something else, and until you have figured out what it is, your social media and social business “strategies,” no matter how much money and science you throw at them, will never work the way you want them to.

So take a giant step back. Stop listening to the incessant social media echo chamber for a few days. You owe it to yourself (and perhaps your clients) to get your eye back on the ball when it comes to this. You have been led astray a million times, one millionth of a degree at a time. While you thought you were still on the right track, you were already off course. “Content is king,” engagement strategy, Return on Influence, they are little more than gloss on broken compasses, buzzwords whose meaning, if they ever held any, have now eroded into parodies of legitimate insight. As for the self-important messengers of this so-called social media “thought leadership” movement, these hot air selling imbeciles peddling their pathetic blend of make-believe authenticity and “engagement strategy” day after day after day, blog post after tweet after webinar, all I see there now is the final act in a opera of uninspired parroting whose every note brings them closer to its inexorable denouement. We know where this is headed. We all know it. And not even their Klout scores will save them when the house lights come back on.

Something became painfully clear to me while I was reading these letters and saw the timeless nature of human connectivity so clearly manifested in them. I won’t tell you what it is. It wouldn’t do any good. You have to go look for it yourselves, in your own way, or you will never completely get it. But what I can tell you is this: Until then, learn to tell the difference between self-serving nitwits who have merely memorized the choreography and lyrics of the daily social media sales pitch, and people who understand how all the pieces actually fit. Stop spending time with the former and start filling your ranks with the latter. It will start to pay off right away.

None of this is trivial.

Cheers,

Olivier

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Source: Guardian UK / Corbis

It’s weird that fortune-tellers tend to work for carnivals rather than Fortune 500 companies. If I were a CEO, I would want to hire people who can see the future. It would save me a lot of heartache and worry. I could focus on the product R&D programs that I know would work and wouldn’t waste resources on projects that won’t. Deciding upon a course for a marketing campaign wouldn’t be such a dilemma: Do we go with the talking monkeys or do we tie our product to the Star Wars franchise?

Okay. Fortune-telling has its creepy disadvantages: Most people don’t want to know when or how they will die. Many of us want to discover what is around the next corner without spoiler-alerts. If you take all the mystery out of life, what’s the point? But there are advantages to having someone around who can see a little further down the line than others: Maybe you re-book your flight. Maybe you buy that lottery ticket. Maybe you start wearing sunscreen at a young age. Maybe you invest early in cool little start-ups like Apple and Nike (just like Forrest Gump did). Maybe you sign an author with promise before she has penned her first draft of her boy-wizard story.

Maybe you get the jump on your competitors every single time you make a move. Think products, services, channels, processes, even hires. Imagine if you could get a 12-18 month head start on everyone else in your industry. Wouldn’t that be nice? Wouldn’t that make a huge difference in how your business runs?

Well, like I said earlier, fortune-tellers don’t work for Fortune 500 companies. But trend-spotters often do, and when it comes down to it, that’s almost as good.

Source: Getty Images

Gentlemen, place your bets!

By trend-spotter, I don’t just mean hipsters who hang out with the cool kids until 4:00am and can tell you what the next hot street fashion is going to be, though for apparel makers and retail buyers, that’s pretty important. These folks prepare their seasons months in advance. If they get the trends wrong, three things will happen: 1. Their sales revenues will tank. 2. They will end up with a ton of inventory they won’t be able to get rid of, even at 70% off. 3. Their brand’s relevance will be put in question. They will lose market share. Ergo: Complete disaster.

Every year, companies place bets on a million things: Products, campaigns, services, technology, programs, media buying, hires, trade shows, agency selection, you name it. When you take a step back, it looks a lot like a giant game of pin the tail on the donkey. Nobody really knows if anything is going to work. For every reason why something might, there are three reason why it might not. Any decision-maker anywhere will tell you the same thing: They are in the business of taking risks. Calculated risks, but risks nonetheless. The philosophy then is this: Big risk have the potential for big rewards, but also costly blunders. Small risks have far less potential for rewards, but don’t sting quite as bad when things don’t work out.

This would be a great time for me to segue into the vital connection that exists between vision, courage and leadership, but that isn’t what this post is about. What we are talking about today is trend-spotting: The function within an organization that helps decision-makers minimize the potential for poor strategic decisions and maximize the potential for good strategic decisions. Every day, the big strategic croupier calls for business leaders’ bets, and every day, that call must be answered. Wouldn’t it be nice for these folks to have a roulette or card-counting savant at their side, whispering in their ear what plays will yield the highest probability of success?

Source: Google.fr

In the apparel industry, that savant’s job might be to attend fashion shows all over the world, hang out at popular night clubs, watch teenagers hang out at the mall or at skate parks, or just take regular trips to Tokyo, Paris, Milan, London or New York.

In the tech industry, that savant’s job might be to attend tech shows, hang out with venture capitalists, talk with a lot of start-ups, read key blogs, take regular visits to Silicon Valley, San Francisco, Boston, New York, Antwerp, and wherever else innovation is taking place.

These folks don’t have a crystal ball, they can’t actually predict the future, but they see what’s happening. They know what people are working on. They can spot innovation and place it on a timeline. They can see trends emerging and can gauge their momentum. They see how all the pieces fit. They don’t just have their eyes open, they also have a nose for it.

How do you think some mutual funds beat the S&P year after year? What do you think makes the difference between a great quarter and a lousy one for most businesses? Luck? Well… okay, there is always an element of luck. But luck strikes where and when it pleases. Industry giants aren’t betting the farm on a rabbit’s foot. Luck has nothing to do with engineering patterns of success. Having the right people onboard whose job it is to not only keep their eyes open but also understand where things are going, does.

 

Bubble Blindness Syndrome

Having worked with a lot of companies over the years, I have come to observe that most organizations tend to fall into one of two categories: Organizations that are connected with the world around them (not just their market), and organizations that operate in a bubble.

Save yourself the trouble of arguing that bubbles come in all sizes. I know. Some bubbles are thinner than others. We are talking about varying degrees of disconnect here. Having said that, bubbles are bubbles. No matter how thick or thin, no matter how permeable or impermeable, bubbles effectively shield companies from the outside world. They aren’t just cultural cocoons; they also create a wall of opacity that makes any kind of trend-spotting impossible. As you can surmise, bubbles are bad.

Would you like to know a few symptoms of bubble-wrapped organizations. Here are a few:

  • They have to hire people from outside the organization to go find out what their customers are saying.
  • They have to hire people from outside the organization to go find out where their customers are playing.
  • They have to hire people from outside the organization to tell them what new technologies they should use.
  • They like to “wait and see” what the market will do and what their competitors will do.
  • They have to hire people from outside the organization to tell them what the market and their competitors are doing.
  • They often operate under the delusion that by virtue of the fact that they have been in business for 50 years, they will still be in business 5 years from now.
  • They believe that having been relevant in the 20th century automatically makes them relevant in the 21st.
  • They rarely hire from outside the industry. Most of their managers and executives have either worked there all of their careers or used to work for their competitors before coming to work for them. In these organizations, seniority and tenure in the industry are prized far above ingenuity and strategic insight.

It is virtually impossible to see what is coming next if you lock yourself up into a windowless room all day long, day after day after day. It is also VERY difficult to score big wins, much less engineer a string of them, if you have disconnected yourself from the field.

One of the first people I always ask to meet with when I begin working with a client is their director of innovation. This all too often draws blank stares. The people in the room with me look at each other and flex their eyebrows at each other, trying to figure out who that might be. Invariably, the question is asked: “How do you mean?”

“I mean who manages innovation for the company?”

Crickets. Then begins the discussion. “Maybe he should talk to Pete in I.T.” “Yeah, or Mike, our COO.” “Maybe Louise in Digital?”

“Okay,” I ask. “Who’s in charge of consumer insights?”

Crickets. “Um… maybe Paula in marketing?” “I think our agencies handle that.” “We work with research firms.”

And you wonder why so many companies adapt to change slowly, why so many CEOs tread lightly when it comes to integrating social media channels into their communications mix, why the ship turns so painfully slowly when it comes to incorporating social business principles across an organization.

Everyone is so task-oriented that companies forget the importance of using qualified spotters and scouts to help with navigation.

It isn’t about Pinterest. But in a way, it is.

I can’t go ten seconds without seeing an article about Pinterest all of a sudden. The company’s name is on everyone’s lips. And naturally, every strategic meeting I go into, Pinterest comes up: “What is this Pinterest thing I keep hearing about? What does it do? is it the new Facebook? Should we be on it? Bob, call Pete in I.T. See if he can join us. He probably needs to hear this.”

Pulling up Pinterest on the big screen and giving them a demo isn’t enough. You also have to give them context, and aside from numbers and demos, here is all the context they need:

“It’s interesting to see how conservative marketers are being with Pinterest. There seems to be a lot of wait-and-see happening and many pokes at how people are planning for action they’ll never take. I’m all over Pinterest and would recommend it as a strategy to many of my clients. I’ve been on Pinterest for about 6 weeks, or so. Just this morning I received the 7th thing I’ve purchased after seeing it on Pinterest and following the link to the main site.” - Sheila Germain

There. Get it? People share stuff because it’s fun. People discover that stuff as a result. Then they buy it. Your socks, your car, your leather gloves, your #2 pencil: The more people post about it, the more mindshare you earn and the more you increase your chances that people will buy it. Why this works doesn’t matter. That it does is what matters.

It’s like advertising without the advertising. It’s word-of-mouth publishing. Compared with the relatively low cost of being there, a platform like Pinterest can yield enormous dividends.

Now here’s the choice: As a company, you can sit around and talk about strategies year after year after year. You can hire consultants and research firms and agencies to tell you what’s hot – or rather what was hot last year. You can scratch your heads at all that newfangled stuff and end up “sticking to Facebook” because you’ve already committed to it this year and it is a known quantity. You can operate under the premise that if Pinterest is still around in three years, it will have probably grown into a legitimate channel that you will want to invest in. Until then… Meh.

Or, you could wrap your mind around the potential that this and other new platforms or products have to offer and see what you can do with them. I don’t mean just task your agency with proposing a campaign that includes Pinterest or whatever next thing comes along (although… knock yourself out). I mean start thinking about ways that new platform and product capabilities fit into what you are trying to do: Sell something. It doesn’t matter of your company makes toothpaste, aluminum foil or ball bearings. It doesn’t even matter if you’re a non-profit or a government agency tasked with promoting good hygiene in the workplace. Use your brain: How could you use this?

But this isn’t about Pinterest. Pinterest is just one platform. There will be others. New ones pop up at regular intervals. So the question bears asking: Who in your organization was the first to bring up and recommend Pinterest? Who was the first to see the angles? For that matter, who first started talking to you about using Facebook and Twitter a few years back?

If no one in your organization saw this coming (or thought to bring it up), you have a serious problem. Your bubble has reached maximum density. You may not see it, you may not even believe it, but aside from a few narrow channels whose relevance is at best limited, you have become completely disconnected from your market and the world at large. Denial won’t help. Accept it and do something about it. Today.

On the flip side, if you are fortunate enough to have someone on staff who noticed Pinterest a few months back, if some of your managers or staffers even suggested that perhaps you should look into it, my question is this: Why didn’t you listen to them? The question is worth a few minutes of your time because at its heart is a key reason why your company is not doing as well as it should be.

The business sense of funding the trend-spotting function

Catching the right wave, not just once but set after set, requires both focus and insight. It also requires a certain instinct, honed over time through trial, error, habit and acclimation. Understanding emerging trends is about far more than crunching numbers and poring over data. The process of becoming good at this sort of thing, with or without the benefit of having a natural talent for it, requires deliberate investigation, long periods of observation, layer upon layer of context and interpretation. Perhaps most important of all, it requires exposure to the environment where the events leading to the trend will take place.

Understanding what comes next by putting all the pieces together isn’t something that can be done via a thirty minute conference call with an industry analyst who also spends most of his or her day sitting in an office, compiling reports.

If you seek to understand a thing, go observe it. Go touch it. Go live as close to it as you can for as long as you can. You aren’t going to ever understand lions by reading statistics and reports about lions. You’re going to have to go out to where the lions are and study them yourself, in their natural habitat. The same is true of consumers, of markets, of people. You can’t anticipate their needs and wants, their shifts in preference and taste from inside a corporate cocoon. You have to go out there. You have to talk to them, listen to them, hang out with them. In other words, you need people inside your organization whose focus is not a computer monitor and a set of spreadsheets, who don’t spend every minute of their day being pulled into pointless meetings or replying to email threads or entering data into a system.

In the best of worlds, you would create a business ecosystem that would allow most employees to become trend-spotters too – managers and staffers alike. Ideas and insights can come from anywhere, and so it makes sense to increase your potential for good ideas in this way. That is one of the promises of social business, by the way.

But the reality of most organizations is that people are simply too busy with a mountain of daily tasks to be able to effectively serve this function. (At least for now. Today.) They can participate in it, they can occasionally make game-changing contributions to it, but they just can’t be counted on to manage that function on a daily basis.

And yet, someone has to.

Let me say it again: Someone has to. Without this function, your organization is pretty-much flying blind. For all the bravado of many a self-important manager who “just knows” he is right about something he will gladly admit he knows very little about, for all the wishful thinking in the world, rare is the company that hits all the right notes quarter after quarter that doesn’t have a function like this in place, staffed by the right kind of people. Whether you are Gucci, Ford, the Obama campaign, Edelman Digital or Apple, this function is deliberately fed, fostered, and put to obvious good use. Most organizations, unfortunately, are not so forward-thinking in the way they operate.

The alternative is this: To be strategically, tactically, operationally disconnected from a changing world – an ever-evolving world – that doesn’t give a damn that you have been in business for 20 years, or 50, or 100, a world that only cares about two things: Do you provide the most value for my money or attention today? Will you provide the most value for my money or attention tomorrow? You can go with wishful thinking and the hope that “things will turn around” all on their own and see where that takes you.

Some quick and simple advice:

Don’t focus too much on Pinterest. Like every digital/social platform, it will have its rise and its fall. Right now, Pinterest is hot. Chances are that it will remain so for some time (long enough to be worth making a few plays with). But as we have seen time and time again, whether Pinterest sticks or fades into fad country, new platforms will come to compete against it for our collective attention the same way new technologies will disrupt the way we shop and do business, and new fashions will disrupt the way we dress. The question is this: What are you doing about it?

Before I go back to my croissants, I want to leave you with three simple points:

1. Assess your ability to spot trends: If you didn’t see Pinterest coming, your organization doesn’t have an adequate trend-spotting function in place. Either you don’t have one at all, or you thought you did but it failed pretty miserably. Whichever one it is doesn’t matter; the result is the same. Let that be your litmus test for this quarter. Unless you are growing at a double-digit rate and whooping your competitors, I would make that an item of immediate concern. Fix it. Learn from the winners. They get there first for a reason.

2. Think short-term and long-term: Some technologies and trends are slow to mature. I remember being shown technologies and devices 6 years ago that are only now entering the mainstream and will take another half decade to really change the way businesses operate. That’s okay as long as you understand the timetable. It’s as important to know what is coming 5, 10, 15 years from now as it is to know what will be hot in 6 months. Why? So you can start thinking about your company’s path beyond next quarter or next year. Being able to see the changes on the distant horizon is probably the most important factor in any organization’s ability to effectively adapt to BIG change, if not lead that change outright.

Short term focus is also pretty important. Some products just come out of nowhere and take markets by storm. Their development might be stealthy, or just completely out of the way until a journalist at Gizmodo, Mashable or Elle discovers it and turns it into a massive success. Look for those short tickets too. If a horse you have never heard of looks really good two weeks going into a race, pay attention. You don’t always have to score massive wins to roll on ahead. A series of well paced small wins can have the same effect and create excellent growth momentum.

Keep an eye out for anything that will help your long game and your short game.

And remember: The sooner you spot an opportunity, the more time you have to leverage the hell out of it.

3. Be operationally nimble: When a platform like Pinterest pops up on your radar, be ready to seize upon the opportunities it has to offer. If you are a chocolate maker, a flower shop or a jeweler and you only just found out about something like Pinterest a month before Valentine’s Day, don’t put yourself in a position where your company can’t bridge the gap between potential and experiment in that month-long window. You can’t afford to wait until next year to give it a shot. Everyone else will be using Pinterest next year and your first-mover advantage will be gone. Make sure your organization is nimble enough to change course (or test a new channel, product or technology) quickly. If you suddenly realize that the hot new fashion accessory in Tokyo is fingerless gloves but you just received an order for 10,000 pairs of full-fingered gloves, be ready to invest in a bunch of Kai scissors and retool a bit as needed. Today. Not two months from now when you have to sell your entire stock at 70% off.

The faster you can move on an opportunity, the more likely it is that you will score a win (or avoid a catastrophe). Works every time. Spot. Scout. Keep your eyes open.

Cheers,

Olivier

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Yesterday, Michael Wagner pointed me to this piece from Cindy Au (@Shinee_au on the twitternets) on the Matter Anti-Matter blog. It focuses on an interesting little incident that happened between Pinterest, a user, and the Mitt Romney campaign. You should go read it in all its glory here. Below are several of the good parts. Here’s how Cindy sets up the initial problem:

Recently, Pinterest was asked by officials from Mitt Romney’s campaign to change the name on the account of a user who had created a satirical board poking fun at Romney’s, how shall we say, epicurean tastes. 

While it’s clear the Pinterest team appreciated the commentary and creativity that Eric’s board brought to their site, when it comes to setting a precedent for the rest of Pinterest’s community, things like fake accounts and impersonation swing both ways. It’s not long before you have more fake accounts pinning items and proliferating ideologies that may not be so easy to stomach. 

In fact, Pinterest’s terms of service clearly prohibit impersonations. Here is the exact section. If the link doesn’t work for you, here it is:

General Prohibitions (Things you agree not to do): 

(…)

- Impersonate or misrepresent your affiliation with any person or entity

There it is in clear black and white Anglo.

So… it would have been easy for Pinterest to deactivate the account outright. It wouldn’t be the first time that a social network shut someone down for the slightest infraction, no matter how benign or accidental. (Facebook, I am talking to you.) Pinterest would have been well within its rights to drop the hammer on the evil little user who dared spit in the eye of their TOS. But they didn’t. Instead, Enid Hwang, Pinterest’s community manager, sent Eric this message:

From: Enid Hwang
Date: Fri, Feb 10, 2012 at 9:51 AM PST
Subject: Pinterest: “MittRomneyGOP” username
To: Eric Spiegelman

Hi Eric,

I’m Enid, the Community Manager at Pinterest. As you might have guessed, I’m writing regarding your username “MittRomneyGOP.” We were recently contacted by officials from Mitt Romney’s campaign because they feel it’s very misleading and they’re requesting that it be changed to “fakemittromney.”

We actually really appreciate political commentary on Pinterest – and I know your account is clearly satirical – but we’re a young company so we don’t have a feature/process in place for “verified accounts” (such as Twitter) which would make the purpose of your account immediately obvious to any user on the site.

If you don’t mind changing your username, let me know. Or, you can just go ahead and make the switch yourself at: https://pinterest.com/settings. We’ve been brainstorming alternatives and unfortunately we feel changing your profile picture or adding a byline on your “bio” section on Pinterest may not be sufficient because that information isn’t included with all pins that propagate through the site.

We’re also really open to discussing the issue more with you, so you can reach me directly at [REDACTED] if you have any questions.

I’m sorry for the trouble and again, don’t hesitate to call if you’re concerned about this!

- Enid

One word: Human.

Here are several others: Mature. Respectful. Professional. Kind, even.

So what happened? Eric Spiegelman responded (somewhat nervously) with a plea to Pinterest. Here:

Hi Enid,

Obviously I understand your concern. And I can imagine as a new company (one that’s really doing a great job), you’d prefer not to have hassles like this. But at the same time, you’re a publishing entity that’s more or less open to the public, and I can’t in good conscience change my parody at the request of the subject of that parody. It should be obvious to the Romney campaign that nobody sees this as official, and that I am exercising my Free Speech rights in making fun of Gov. Romney’s utter tone-deafness when it comes to matters of privilege and class inequality.

That being said, I understand that you are well within your rights to delete my account. But I really hope you choose not to.

You have a wonderful service in Pinterest, and I wish your team all the best, however you proceed with this.

Best,
Eric

No expletives. No anger. No “you suck” and “how dare you” indignation.

Lesson 1: Enid’s tone in the initial message set the tone for Eric’s response.

Lesson 2: Initiative matters.

Now check out how Enid responded to Eric’s plea.

Hi Eric,

Thanks for getting back to me so quickly: We have no intention of deleting your account. It’s satire and it should stay! We’ll change the username (this doesn’t affect your boards, pins, or anything else about your profile settings) and we feel that’s sufficient. Once we institute verified accounts this, and any future issues, will be taken care of universally. That’s our responsibility so sorry again for having you caught in the middle of it.

I really appreciate your note (and compliments!) and thanks so much for your understanding,

Enid

Note that Enid struck right to the heart of Enid’s central concern: “We have no intention of deleting your account.” Perfect.

He then offers a compromise, which… may not have been ideal for Eric, but solves the problem for everyone (Mitt Romney’s epicurean tastes notwithstanding).

The first remark I want to make is this: The way Pinterest handled this violation of its TOS shines in sharp contrast against the way Facebook handles its TOS business. This is the proper way to handle TOS infractions of this sort. This is the proper way for a company to treat its customers, users and fans: With kindness and respect rather than with a stick, a whip, or a hammer.

The second remark is more of an outline, really. How to handle customer care & community management responses in instances like this:

1. Identify the problem.

2. Understand the problem.

3. Understand the ramifications of the problem for all parties involved.

4. Outline several solutions/compromises.

5. Reach out to the individual responsible for the problem in a non-confrontational, non-threatening way. Stiff corporate tones here probably won’t have the desired effect. Be human. Be relaxed. Be professional but somewhat informal.

6. Politely and kindly explain what the problem is and why it is a problem.

7. Appeal to the individual’s sense of community and fair play. This is important.

8. Offer one or several compromise(s) so the individual feels empowered to make a choice. This steers him/her in the right direction without any strong-arming.

9. Address whatever fears or apprehensions the individual has. Recognize that this is stressful. Make him/her feel at ease.

10. Apologize for the inconvenience. Empathize.

11. Thank the individual for his/her understanding, patience and sense of fair play. Be appreciative of his/her support. Bond.

12. Throughout the entire process, remember that just because you have the power to be an asshole doesn’t mean you should. Treat people well. Treat people well. Treat people well. Repeat this as many times as it takes. Human beings deserve kindness and respect, whether your product is free or not. You want to know the secret to loyalty and positive word of mouth? The first half: Great products at a fair price. The second half: This. It’s that simple.

Or… you could just hide behind the usual excuse (“we don’t have the manpower to deal with every case in this way”), suspend account after account without explanation, make a point of being as impersonal as possible, and build an army of haters.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Excuses have an effective range of about zero meters. We all build the companies we want to build.

At least for now, it looks like Pinterest is on the right track. Everyone should take note.

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CEO-Read  –  Amazon.com  –  www.smroi.net  –  Barnes & Noble  –  Que

- #smROI is now available in English, German, Korean and Japanese.

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Since I am bouncing around Europe this week, (come say hi at #tsc12 if you can), now is a good time to republish this list from a few months ago. It is still as relevant today as it was then:

1. “Social” is something you are, not something you doIf your company culture doesn’t focus on building relationships with your customers, then chances are that you won’t use social media to do it either. The “media” doesn’t dictate how social a company is or isn’t. It simply enhances its ability to be a social business – if in fact it is – or illustrates the extent to which it isn’t.

2. You cannot effectively outsource customer relationships to an agency. Research and intelligence, sure: that can be outsourced. Creative? That too. Implementing technologies and helping you with strategy? You bet. Marketing, PR and advertising? Of course. But the relationship part: Shaking hands, being there when customers ask your for help, participating in conversations, making them feel at home when they do business with you, none of these can be effectively outsourced. Not unless your agency partner embeds a team with you for a few months and you are both committed to a long term program, anyway.

3. A blog is just a blog. It isn’t a magical trust and influence publishing converter for the web. Publishing propaganda or marketing content is just that, regardless of the publishing platform. Just because you publish marketing content on a blog doesn’t mean it magically morphs into something “authentic” that “engaged customers” will spread through “word of mouth.”

4. Marketing on social media channels isn’t “social.” It is just marketing on social media channels. Just as publishing marketing content on a blog doesn’t make marketing content any less manufactured and biased, publishing content on social media channels isn’t “social.” Every time I hear a company proudly state that they have a social media program when in fact, all they have is a marketing program that uses social media channels, I feel sorry for its stakeholders and customers. This is one of two things: Delusion or spin. And by “spin,” I mean a lie. If you are a professional in this space, either build a real social media/business program – one that is actually social – or get out of the way because those of us on a mission to do it right are coming in hot.

5. Transparency isn’t just a word. If you don’t intend to practice it, don’t preach it. Transparency isn’t a flag you get to wave around only when it is convenient. Disclosure also shouldn’t be something your legal department needs to brief you about. You already know what’s right. And by “right,” I don’t just mean “ethical” or what you can get away with. I mean “right.” Do that. Treat your customers with respect and treat your program on foundations of integrity and professional pride.

6. Change management, not social media tools and platforms, is at the crux of social media program development. Because social is something you are, not something you do, most organizations cannot succeed in the social space by changing what they do and not who they are. A Director of Social Media can only do so much. “Social” speaks at least as much to your company’s DNA as it does to its business practices. If you don’t really care about your customers, social media won’t magically transform you into someone who does. You have to wantto become this type of individual, and for your organization as a whole to follow suit, in order for the socialization of your business to be successful.

7. People are more important than technology. Hire people who care about other people. If you hire and promote assholes, your company will be full of assholes. It doesn’t matter how much Twitter and Facebook you add to your company’s communications or how many awesome monitoring dashboards you buy if you are a company of assholes.  Guess what: An asshole on social media is still an asshole. Start with your people, not your tools. They are what makes social either work or fail.

8. Social media should not be managed by Marketing anymore than your phones should be managed by Sales41% of social media directors are marketing professionals while only 1% are customer service professionals. Would you care to guess as to why it is that only 1% of social media programs seem to be yielding actual results (and I mean business measurables, not just web measurables)  while the rest are just making noise and turning anecdotal BS into “case studies?” (See item 9 for further insights into this.)

9. Shut up and listen. Everywhere I look, I see companies spending a good deal of their time (and budgets) focusing on producing content, blog posts, social media press releases, tweets, updates, events, and looking to “content strategy” to make sure it all fits smoothly together. That’s nice. Too bad they don’t spend at least as much time thinking about their listening strategy. Maybe they would actually get somewhere if they did. Listen to your customers. Listen to your competitors’ customers. Everything companies need to know is passing them by because they are too busy talking. Shut up, already. Use social technologies to learn how to better serve your customers and become a better company, and you’ll be good to go. Pertinent data can be turned into valuable insights. Valuable insights can be used to make better business decisions (strategic and tactical, short term and long term). That’s the real value. Pushing content all day long and measuring likes and impressions won’t get you very far. Remember: If your communications serve your marketing department more than they serve your customers or your business on the whole, you are probably doing it wrong.

10. Any consultant, “thought leader,” agency or partner who doesn’t tell you these things isn’t fit to be consulted on the subject. Do big promises, miracle cures and fairy tales sound like reality to you? “If you buy X, your business will suddenly grow and improve?” Really? Does “we have the best secret formula” sound legitimate to you? It doesn’t matter where your new “advisors” have worked, who they have worked with or how many people follow them on Twitter.  Of course they are all going to have great stories to tell. It’s called “marketing.” Ever heard of it?

Or maybe I would call that blog “The Emperor’s New Clothes: Alive and well in 2011 2012.”

*        *        *

CEO-Read  –  Amazon.com  –  www.smroi.net  –  Barnes & Noble  –  Que

- #smROI is now available in English, German, Korean and Japanese.

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We’re going to talk about a few things today: The relationship between ad spend and sales, the importance of focusing on the right metrics in order to make smart budget decisions, the problem with using impressions as a unit of campaign success, and how easily die-hard habits can trip us up.

Hat tip to Chris Young for pointing me to this story in Business Insider. Pay attention to how the story begins:

Reality appears to have finally arrived at Procter & Gamble, the world’s largest marketer, whose $10 billion annual ad budget has hurt the company’s margins.

P&G said it would lay off 1,600 staffers, including marketers, as part of a cost-cutting exercise. More interestingly, CEO Robert McDonald finally seems to have woken up to the fact that he cannot keep increasing P&G’s ad budget forever, regardless of what happens to its sales.

Read it again.

The piece de resistance in that little insight dinner you just treated yourself to isn’t the part about P&G’s $10B ad budget or that P&G is the world’s largest marketer. It isn’t even that it shrank its workforce by 1,600 (which is really unfortunate) and it isn’t even that Jim Edwards chose to characterize P&G CEO Robert McDonald’s fork in the road moment as an awakening. No, the really interesting thing in this story is this:

CEO Robert McDonald finally seems to have woken up to the fact that he cannot keep increasing P&G’s ad budget forever, regardless of what happens to its sales.

That’s right: Ad budgets vs. sales. The company’s $10B investment in advertising & marketing vs. return on investment measured in… wait for it: sales.

Finally. Not likes, not followers, not retweets or follows or shares.

Sales.

But hang on… we aren’t out of the woods yet.

1. Advertising vs. Sales: In search of symbiotic balance.

On a call with Wall Street analysts, Mr. McDonald illustrated the relationship between spend and revenue by explaining how P&G’s  advertising budgets are determined in relation to sales numbers:

As we’ve said historically, the 9% to 11% range [for advertising as a percentage of sales] has been what we have spent. Actually, I believe that over time, we will see the increase in the cost of advertising moderate. There are just so many different media available today and we’re quickly moving more and more of our businesses into digital. And in that space, there are lots of different avenues available.

So far so good, right? Here we find that advertising spend roughly amounts to 10% of sales revenue. This is an important point as it illustrates three important insights:

1. Advertising and sales are not independent of each other. They are in fact intimately connected. (If not, your company has a problem.)

2. The former (advertising) is meant to influence the latter (sales). We know this. That is generally advertising’s purpose.

3. There exists for every company a sweet spot in regards to the ratio of ad/marketing spend vs. the sales revenue it helps generate. Companies that measure the impact of advertising on their sales have a 100% better chance of finding it than companies that don’t.

If there’s a concrete lesson here, it is this: Not tying your advertising and marketing dollars to sales is a lot like landing a 747 with a blindfold on. Actually… it’s harder. A 747 has elaborate navigation systems and can pretty much fly and land by itself. Your business can’t really do that. So… if you think that landing a 747 blindfolded is a bad idea, not measuring the impact that your ad spend has on sales is an even worse one.

The difficulty is that with a $10B ad budget like P&G’s – that encompasses thousands of campaigns in a broad range of markets – identifying what works and what doesn’t requires some measure of diligence, accountability (and competence) from every campaign and product manager across the organization. 1,600 staffers on P&G’s payroll lost their jobs over this simple point.

Here’s the warning shot fired by Mr. McDonald across the bow of every single professional in a marketing management role today: It doesn’t take a whole lot of skill or savvy to spend a company’s money. Anyone can gamble a budget on a campaign or an ad buy and cruise by, quarter after quarter, by virtue of the fact that they generated impressions or dialed up brand mentions. It used to be that the guy with the biggest chunk of money to spend was the most powerful guy in the room. Well… that simply isn’t good enough anymore. Accountability might just have been called back to the table.

As every CEO on the planet watches and learns from P&G’s course direction this year, expect this sort of organizational adjustment to become far more commonplace. Not the laying off, mind you: The focus on real results and accountability.

One can hope.

2. Ad spend and the new media landscape.

Under Mr. McDonald’s stewardship, P&G’s ad budgets are reported to have grown by 24% in the last two years. The theory behind the increase was probably pretty simple: Spend more, sell more. And to be fair, it isn’t entirely without merit.

The same theory was put into practice this month in Florida by the Mitt Romney Campaign and its allies. In an effort to decimate his principal opponent (Newt Gingrich) in the GOP’s Florida primary, the Romney camp took no chances: According to a study by Politico, the Romney campaign and its super PAC allies outspent Gingrich by a ratio of almost 5 to 1. (Ad spend breakdown: $15.3 million for Romney and Restore Our Future vs. about $3.4 million for Gingrich and Winning Our Future.)

The result: 12,768 ads supporting Mitt Romney. Only 210 ads supporting Newt Gingrich. (Sources: USA Today; Wesleyan Media Project)

The outcome: A 14-point lead for Romney going into the Florida primary. (The 14-point lead held to the end of the contest: Romney ended up with 46% of the vote vs. Gingrich’s 32%.)

The first lesson here is this: In a world of traditional media, ad spend does matter. If you are willing to erode your margins or if you have money to burn, spend more, sell more can still work pretty well, at least in short intense bursts.

The second lesson, however is this: The world has evolved. More importantly, the media landscape has evolved. That kind of wholesale ad spend is quickly losing its appeal for the folks footing the bill. Reach can be achieved at much lower costs now. Compare traditional media buys vs. the cost of engagement via social networks, for instance and you will see a radically different set of numbers.

Another aspect of the old vs. new media discussion is that we are learning that the stickiness of a message varies from channel to channel. There is mounting evidence that content shared by trusted and like-minded peers holds more power than the exact same content simply blasted over traditional media outlets. This raises a question about the validity of “impressions” as a relevant (see neutral) unit of measure (or KPI) for campaign success, at least moving forward. Not only do impressions only measure reach (rather than consumer behavior – like actually buying stuff rather than just watching an ad), it is now clear that impressions are not created equal. The notion that an impression via a television spot bears the same weight as an impression resulting from a trusted peer sharing the same spot on Facebook, for instance finds itself on increasingly shaky ground.

Is this another nail in the coffin of traditional media measurement? Maybe. (Hopefully.) Why am I even bringing this up? You will find out in a few minutes.

Back to the main vein of our discussion: Political campaigns and the business world would do well to catch up to the times unless they want to continue to spend hundreds of millions of dollars (if not billions) on bandwidths which may no longer provide the most bang for their buck. P&G’s Robert McDonald appears to have come to this realization.

Here he is again in the same call to Wall Street analysts:

I believe that over time, we will see the increase in the cost of advertising moderate. There are just so many different media available today and we’re quickly moving more and more of our businesses into digital. And in that space, there are lots of different avenues available.

In the digital space, with things like Facebook and Google and others, we find that the return on investment of the advertising, when properly designed, when the big idea is there, can be much more efficient.

There.

This is a radical change of perspective from a CEO who increased ad spend by 24% in just two years. Why the sudden change of heart? What happened? Three things:

1. A 24% increase in ad spend resulted in just 6% growth in sales for the same period. The numbers don’t lie: Spend more, sell more no longer works the way it used to twenty years ago. Not with the advent of the social web. Not in the new media landscape. The two year experiment was worth a shot but it failed. No sense continuing on the wrong path. As any good CEO would, Mr. McDonald looked at the facts, assessed the damage, and made a course correction. That’s how it’s supposed to work.

2. Communications channels have changed. The technologies have changed. Consumers and their expectations have changed. Search, mobile, location, social networks, community management and advertainment have pushed the old ad spend models a few feet closer to the edge of the big pit of irrelevance. Marketing has been fundamentally altered in the last few years. With a richer media mix today than ever before, and with a brand new palette of far more cost-effective (and stickier) options than traditional media, P&G finds itself in a position to adapt and explore new possibilities and models. That has to be exciting for Mr. McDonald and his team.

3. One of P&G’s experiments with new media was pretty successful already. Remember Old Spice? That was them. Mr. McDonald surely took a closer look at the little phenom and saw in it a template for a smarter, more effective hybrid model of traditional advertising, consumer engagement and potentially viral, WOM-driven advertainment. Case in point:

One example is our Old Spice campaign, where we had 1.8 billion free impressions and there are many other examples I can cite from all over the world. So while there may be pressure on advertising, particularly in the United States, for example, during the year of a presidential election, there are mitigating factors like the plethora of media available.

And here we come to another fork in the road. Remember that thing about impressions I brought up earlier? We’re getting to it.

3. Relevant success metrics vs. everything else.

We know that advertising’s purpose – at least for consumer products companies – is ultimately to drive sales.

We also know that one of the principal reasons why P&G CEO Robert McDonald is now shifting his attention (and budgets) away from traditional advertising models to a more diverse model of traditional and interactive/social types of media was brought about by the realization that more ad spend did not have the desired impact on sales.

It  stands to reason then that the principal success metric for P&G’s investment in advertising should be sales: The campaigns which most effectively drive sales win. Following the same logic, the campaigns which manage to most effectively drive sales while minimizing costs will be even bigger wins. Right?

Imagine you’re a CEO. Looking back on two key campaigns in the last year, you are asked to choose which one was most effective at selling one of your top products. Here they are:

Campaign A (Traditional advertising) – Cost: $2,000,000. Revenue: $20,000,000.

Campaign B (Social Media program) – Cost: $50,000. Revenue: $20,000,000.

Both campaigns resulted in the same volume of sales for the product but one cost 40 times less than the other. Which one was the most effective? That one. Campaign B. Same result at a fraction of the cost.

So the ultimate yard stick of success for a campaign is twofold: 1. The campaign drove (and grew) sales. 2. The campaign also minimized costs.

Now read Mr. McDonald’s words again:

One example is our Old Spice campaign, where we had 1.8 billion free impressions and there are many other examples I can cite from all over the world. So while there may be pressure on advertising, particularly in the United States, for example, during the year of a presidential election, there are mitigating factors like the plethora of media available.

Alas, when pressed to illustrate a key success metric for P&G’s Old Spice campaign, Mr. McDonald didn’t refer to increases in product sales or the relative cost of shifting a portion of his media spend to social channels. Instead, he introduced a completely different metric: Impressions.

Doh! How did this happen? How did we go from Mr. McDonald “waking up” to the connection between ad spend and sales back to “impressions?” Where did that even come from? *sigh* We were doing so well.

Let’s go over this again:

1. Impressions are an intermediate metric. They measure reach. Eyeballs, if you will. They don’t take into account kind of important things like conversions to sales, for instance.

If a campaign is clever and entertaining but ineffective at prompting consumers to buy a product, it will still be shared via social networks. It might even “go viral” and enjoy 1.8 billion impressions, likes and shares. But free or not, those 1.8 billion impressions could result in exactly $0 in net new sales.

Impressions are not transactions. Sharing content isn’t buying. It’s just sharing. Be very careful not to stop there, even on a call to Wall Street analysts. Stick to numbers that matter: Spend and sales. Close the loop. No matter how good the intermediate numbers look, remember to track the impact of your campaigns all the way to their ultimate goal: Driving sales of a product.

2. Those 1.8 billion impressions were not free. Not by a long shot. The amplification effect of social networks and viral sharing may have been free, but the campaign itself wasn’t. The strategists and creatives who designed, built and managed the campaign didn’t work for free. The actors, production staff and editors who put the spots together didn’t work for free. There were production costs involved. Digital folks wrote code and built apps and websites to make the content not only work online but spread properly to gain its initial momentum. A small army of talented and very well trained professionals made those 1.8 billion impressions possible, then nurtured that process.

Not to mention that the Old Spice campaign had major traditional media components. The campaign included ad spend for TV, print and web. The social components (YouTube, Facebook, etc.) were just one part of a greater whole. The two reinforced one another very well, but… we are a far cry from 1.8 billion “free” impressions.

Now you see how easily focusing on the wrong success metrics can lead companies astray. In three seconds flat, we were right back where we started: Instead of focusing on driving sales we shifted to driving impressions.

Note that as soon as the conversation shifted back to the old media notion that “impressions” also serve as a success metric for marketing activity, bad assumptions immediately entered the picture:

1. The assumption that 1.8 billion impressions necessarily impact sales.

2. The assumption that impressions are free because they take place on social networks.

That is how fragile business focus is these days: The introduction of just one bad metric can shift your perspective enough to send you and your media spend into the ditch in a matter of seconds. With hundreds of potential success metrics and digital statistics being thrown at decision makers all day long, it is easy to lose sight of what matters, of what works and what doesn’t.

In case you’ve lost track as well, here’s a reminder:

CEO Robert McDonald finally seems to have woken up to the fact that he cannot keep increasing P&G’s ad budget forever, regardless of what happens to its sales.

The article does not say CEO Robert McDonald finally seems to have woken up to the fact that he cannot keep increasing P&G’s ad budget forever, regardless of what happens to its likes. … or followers. … or shares. … or retweets. … or impressions.

It says sales and there’s a good reason for that.

One last illustration to bring it home: Remember our two examples from earlier?

Campaign A (Traditional advertising) – Cost: $2,000,000. Revenue: $20,000,000.

Campaign B (Social Media program 1) – Cost: $50,000. Revenue: $20,000,000.

Now let’s add a third campaign:

Campaign C (Social Media program 2) – Cost: $50,000. Impressions: 100,000,000 (estimated) Revenue: unknown.

Let me ask you something: Given the choice, which of these three campaigns would you rather be responsible for come reporting time? Which one would you feel most comfortable presenting to Mr. McDonald? Which one would you want to stake your career on?

Here’s to keeping your eye on the ball.

Cheers,

Olivier

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CEO-Read  –  Amazon.com  –  www.smroi.net  –  Barnes & Noble  –  Que

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