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Archive for the ‘society’ Category

The world before social media

Back in the day, most people were disconnected from the world. They lived in small family groups, peer groups, villages and neighborhoods, seldom connecting with the outside world. Aside from merchants, soldiers and sailors, few ever really scaled their reach beyond a few miles from home. Yet people were social in ways that we aren’t today. Life was by its very nature social. We didn’t watch TV or surf the web or read magazines. Laundry was washed at the local laundry fountain, where all the women washed their clothes together. Without adequate refrigeration, food had to be purchased daily from crowded markets. We lived and worked in close quarters. Neighbors lived much closer to us than they do today. Our homes were less spacious, the streets narrower, and the world was something that existed well beyond a horizon we hardly ever had a chance to discover. Annual festivals, celebrations, catastrophes and cultural events pulled us together at regular intervals and cemented our bonds with each other. Some might say that we were more social then than we are now: Pressed together in an analog world where little distracted us from human interactions and bound by strong social ties, we lived and breathed together as full-fledged members of our respective communities.

Then came the industrial revolution, and mass transportation, the telephone, television and the internet… and it all changed. We grew apart. Our homes became more spacious, our yards broader, and suddenly our neighbors were little more than strangers. We turned away from each other, preferring other modes of entertainment to basic human contact. Books, magazines, television, the internet, video games, portable music, cars, sports… We essentially became anti-social. We erected walls. We separated ourselves from the community and reconnected with it only on our own terms. We stopped writing letters and began writing emails. Our daily interactions became more and more impersonal. We isolated ourselves in comfort.

Then Social Media emerged from the antisocial communications machine and changed everything.

Yesterday, Edelman Digital’s Maria Prysock and David Armano asked “would a world without social media be more social?” It immediately made me think of this clear separation between the analog world of old and the new digitalized world. Having spent the last few weeks in Europe – much of it with my parents, both born in the 1930s’ – I was reminded of how much things have changed even in the last 50 years. People of my parents’ generation seem to both marvel at the way Xers and millennials adopted communications technologies but in the same breath bemoan the fact that digital connectivity is eroding our basic social bonds. Our ability to be comfortably content in each other’s company without having to push a button or interface with a device. Imagine how 13th century Europeans might have felt had they witnessed modern day people spend half their day fiddling with objects rather than talking with other human beings.

While it might be tempting to think of the answer to Maria and Dave’s question in terms of quality vs. quantity of social connections, it really comes down to a far less philosophical point: simple reach.  The world before Social Media may have seemed more social, but it was also clustered. Social had very little reach. It didn’t scale. It was limited to rigid, often closed social groups with their own power structures, rules, and limitations. The web may only be a proxy medium compared to say, the village well, the tribal long house or the local market – each a face-to-face medium – but it has served to significantly extend Social‘s reach (globalizing and liberating it, even) without stripping away its basic nature. Social Media’s ability to connect people globally, in real time and on their own terms redefines the very nature of the term “social.” It shifts it from a localized, tightly controlled phenomenon to a global and highly adaptive one. And in that, it is a cultural revolution unto itself.

Think about it this way: 200 years ago, what was the size of a typical person’s social circle? (The very term “social circle” is pretty telling.) 30? 50? Maybe 100 people? Your family, your neighbors, the butcher, baker, blacksmith and other tradesmen? The local clergymen? Your shipmates? Your troop? Your fellow students? More to the point, what was the size of that social circle’s geographic footprint?

See where I am going with this?

Compare it to today: Users of Social networking platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare, Linkedin and YouTube (to mention only a few) haven’t just broadened their social circles and turned them into complex webs of connections and interactions, but extended their reach geographically to a quasi global network as well. Social hasn’t just scaled. It has been redefined.

So I suppose at the very center of the “would a world without social media be more social?” question lies another question: How do you define social? Or rather, how do you separate old-world social – that focuses mostly on depth of connections – from the new, digitalized social – that focuses on breadth as well?

The thing about it is… digitalized social (social networks and socialized media) doesn’t and cannot replace the age-old social interactions generations of humans grew up with. Nothing can replace the nuances and impact of face-to-face communications, of one-on-one interactions, of handshakes, of hugs, of sharing drinks and stories and the warmth of a fire. Not video conferencing, not foursquare, not even augmented reality. Just as a newborn baby needs to map out her mother’s face with her own eyes, we need to press flesh and eat together and experience a bit of road together in order to form the bonds that our communities, businesses, organizations and social ties need to keep from coming apart. You still need to visit grandma and hug her. You still need to pet your dog. You still need to visit your parents and your friends every time you get a chance.

This is why Social Media fans rush to conferences where they can meet in person – the ultimate irony of the Social Space being that most of the money being made under its auspices still happens offline: #sxsw. #Blogworld. #LeWeb. #140Conf. #Social Fresh. #Blogwell. (Should I go on?) The same social dynamics are why remote meetings don’t work as well as on-location meetings. It’s why working groups who can’t be in the same room are typically far less efficient than working groups who can share the same space. Contracts are signed in person. Important meetings are worth traveling to. People still like to look a client or partner in the eye before pressing on with a relationship. Here in Cannes this week are the Cannes Lions, one of thousands of events that would never happen if we didn’t have a need to come together at regular intervals to celebrate what makes us tick.

More than 80% of human communications are non-verbal, still. The web hasn’t changed that. Ask an emoticon.

What the industrial age tore apart in our once simple and finite social habits is now being patched up by the socialized web and social technologies. Our need to be social isn’t affected by twitter, blogs or facebook. It isn’t affected by mobile technologies or the web either. How social we are as individuals isn’t dependent on our access to technology or lack thereof, but our ability to choose between being locally social or globally social is. And that’s the crux of this whole discussion: technology is just a tool. It provides a medium. Enablement. Socialized media are channels, nothing more.

Social technology is simply a proxy medium: The town square, the tribal long house, the hunting party’s fire multiplied by millions and touching every part of the planet equipped with an internet node. “Social” is a behavior first and foremost. The technology, the apps, merely pipes and real-estate.

Would a world without social media be more social? Yes. No. In a way. Social would simply take on a different form. A different meaning. Without the web itself, without cell phones, without Twitter and Foursquare and email, without TVs and earphones and shopping malls, perhaps we would turn away from the outer edges of our world and once again turn inward to our own local peer groups, to our neighbors, to our local social networks. Maybe. But those of us with social wanderlust would still find ways to reach out over the wall and the next forest and the next hill, by telegraph or carrier pigeon or corked bottle, knowing that half a world away, someone was dying to reach out to us as well.

Before Social Media, we built walls... and sand castles.

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keepmum

First, let me open this post by telling you that I am not going to bash the Marine Corps (USMC) or ESPN for their unfortunate and ill-advised decisions regarding social networks this week. But I will say this: Their respective decisions to temporarily (or permanently) impose restrictions and/or bans on their personnel with respect to social network access do not address the problems they hoped to correct.

We’ll get to that in a bit, but first, let’s flashback to what actually happened this week:

Exhibit A: On August 3, 2009, the United States Marine Corps released a document entitled IMMEDIATE BAN OF INTERNET SOCIAL NETWORKING SITES (SNS) ON MARINE CORPS ENTERPRISE NETWORK (MCEN) NIPRNE. The fully capitalized document essentially banned Marines from accessing social networks like Facebook, Myspace and Twitter from their network. (An issue for potentially tens of thousands of USMC families who currently use these platforms to stay in touch with their loved ones – deployed in active theaters or not.)

A few key elements of this ban:

1. PURPOSE. THIS MESSAGE ANNOUNCES AN IMMEDIATE BAN ON INTERNET SNS WITHIN THE MCEN UNCLASSIFIED NETWORK (NIPRNET).
2.  BACKGROUND. INTERNET SNS ARE DEFINED AS WEB-BASED SERVICES THAT ALLOW COMMUNITIES OF PEOPLE TO SHARE COMMON INTERESTS AND/OR EXPERIENCES (EXISTING OUTSIDE OF DOD NETWORKS) OR FOR THOSE WHO WANT TO EXPLORE INTERESTS AND BACKGROUND DIFFERENT FROM THEIR OWN.  THESE INTERNET SITES IN GENERAL ARE A PROVEN HAVEN FOR MALICIOUS ACTORS AND CONTENT AND ARE PARTICULARLY HIGH RISK DUE TO INFORMATION EXPOSURE, USER GENERATED CONTENT AND TARGETING BY ADVERSARIES.  THE VERY NATURE OF SNS CREATES A LARGER ATTACK AND EXPLOITATION WINDOW, EXPOSES UNNECESSARY INFORMATION TO ADVERSARIES AND PROVIDES AN EASY CONDUIT FOR INFORMATION LEAKAGE THAT PUTS OPSEC, COMSEC, PERSONNEL AND THE MCEN AT AN ELEVATED RISK OF COMPROMISE.  EXAMPLES OF INTERNET SNS SITES INCLUDE FACEBOOK, MYSPACE, AND TWITTER.

View the full document here.

Exhibit B: On August 4, 2009, US sports broadcaster ESPN also announced new Social Media guidelines regarding employee/talent usage of Twitter.

Some key elements of ESPN’s new guidelines (bold text for editorial purposes only):

“We expect to hold all talent who participate in social networking to the same standards we hold for interaction with our audiences across TV, radio and our digital platforms. This applies to all ESPN Talent, anchors, play by play, hosts, analysts, commentators, reporters and writers who participate in any form of personal social networking that contain sports related content.”

Specific Guidelines:

* Personal websites and blogs that contain sports content are not permitted

* Prior to engaging in any form of social networking dealing with sports, you must receive permission from the supervisor as appointed by your department head

* ESPN.COM may choose to post sports related social media content

* If ESPN.com opts not to post sports related social media content created by ESPN talent, you are not permitted to report, speculate, discuss or give any opinions on sports related topics or personalities on your personal platforms

* The first and only priority is to serve ESPN sanctioned efforts, including sports news, information and content

* Assume at all times you are representing ESPN

* If you wouldn’t say it on the air or write it in your column, don’t tweet it

* Exercise discretion, thoughtfulness and respect for your colleagues, business associates and our fans

* Avoid discussing internal policies or detailing how a story or feature was reported, written, edited or produced and discussing stories or features in progress, those that haven’t been posted or produced, interviews you’ve conducted, or any future coverage plans.

* Steer clear of engaging in dialogue that defends your work against those who challenge it and do not engage in media criticism or disparage colleagues or competitors

* Be mindful that all posted content is subject to review in accordance with ESPN’s employee policies and editorial guidelines

* Confidential or proprietary company information or similar information of third parties who have shared such information with ESPN, should not be shared

Any violation of these guidelines could result in a range of consequences, including but not limited to suspension or dismissal.

View the guidelines here (via Mashable).

Not everyone will agree with me on what I have to say about this and that’s okay. Just hear me out and feel free to tell me why I am right and/or why I am wrong.

First things first: The USMC’s ban.

wanted

Remember these posters from WWII? Seaborne convoys to Europe were under constant attack from German U-boats and it was believed (rightly so) that Nazi spies were listening in on conversations to help plan attacks on ships. The US government created an awareness campaign to remind people (military and not) to keep sensitive information (schedules, troop movements, ship departures, etc.) to themselves.

Smart move: Creating that awareness saved lives. People were introduced to a threat they had not considered, understood the stakes, and were asked to take responsibility for their actions. This was essentially a combination of awareness and training.

award

What the government didn’t do was ban military personnel and their families from using telephones, the US postal service or classified ads (the technologies of the time) out of fear that sensitive information might be leaked out via these mass communication devices.

Do you see where I am going with this?

Awareness, education and responsibility vs. outright bans. That’s the discussion we are really having today. What best practices can be put in place within an organization when it comes to social media usage?

In the case of the USMC, is an outright ban of SNS access on the NIPRNET truly the solution? Or is it possible that perhaps clear guidelines about what content is and isn’t acceptable (along with adequate monitoring) for Marines might yield better results without interrupting benign types of communications? Perhaps even create further layers of guidelines based on the role and location of these Marines. (Recon Marines in Iraq vs. a drill instructor on Parris Island, for example: Different threat. Different access to mission-sensitive info, etc.) This might sound complicated, but it isn’t.

closed

Look at it in a different way. Is it possible that Marines chatting about a mission within hearing range of an Iraqi vendor or contractor might be as damaging (if not more) as a Facebook update? An overheard phone call? An intercepted postcard while on leave? Isn’t it more likely that sensitive information would find its way into the hands of the enemy through conventional means than through a tweet or Facebook update?

The risk here is not the medium, it is the behavior. Ban access to the medium and you solve nothing: The behavior is still there, only now, you are blind to it. Double-fail.

Identify the threat, then address the specific threat. That’s how it works. If you identify the wrong threat and engage it instead of the real threat, you’re screwed. I fear that this is what has happened with the Marine Corps. In other words, not only will the move not save lives, but it will instead help further isolate soldiers from their families at a time when technology makes deployments a lot more manageable than they have ever been.

I kidded on Twitter earlier this week was that to avoid being outdone by the Marine Corps, the Army was planning to ban the use of telephones and the Air Force would look into banning the use of snail mail. Don’t take it too literally (I understand the different threat posed by the openness of social networks), but don’t dismiss the notion too quickly either. Twitter… telephones… not a huge difference when you step back and look at the full picture.

There is a reason why telephones and mail were not banned in WWII: Training and awareness worked. A ban of technology usage would not have worked at all. The lesson: Give people some credit. Give them the opportunity to do the right thing. Don’t treat them like stupid little children. Chances are, they’ll make you proud. (That’s what IBM did… but hang on. We’re not quite there yet.)

enemyears

In regards to ESPN’s Twitter guidelines:

Many of these guidelines are solid. Especially “Confidential or proprietary company information or similar information of third parties who have shared such information with ESPN, should not be shared”, “Assume at all times you are representing ESPN” and “Exercise discretion, thoughtfulness and respect for your colleagues, business associates and our fans.” No problem there. These should actually be #1 #2 and #3 on that list.

When it comes to being professional, representing your employer 24/7 and not sharing confidential information, thumbs-up. Good stuff. I’m right there with you, ESPN.

But wait… then things get a little out of hand.

Case in point: “Personal websites and blogs that contain sports content are not permitted.” Seriously? So let me get this straight… if I am a triathlete working for ESPN and want to write a post on my own personal blog about the half Ironman I just competed in last weekend, I am not allowed to do so? Am I also prohibited from posting pictures of my son playing basketball on my Facebook page? Openly supporting a charity like Livestrong or Susan G. Komen is out of the question then? Let alone sharing with anyone that I am a fan of a particular team or athlete?

Another problematic policy here is this one: “The first and only priority is to serve ESPN sanctioned efforts, including sports news, information and content.” Not to get Clintonesque here, but can ESPN define “the”? Whose priority are we talking about, and in what context? Is ESPN implying that their employees use of social media platforms (FaceBook, Twitter, blogs, Skype, Friendfeed, IM) is exclusively limited to ESPN-sanctioned communications? So… Any use of social media outside of a ESPN-sanctioned context is in violation of company policy? Outside of work, ESPN employees are no longer allowed to connect with old high school friends on Facebook? They shouldn’t engage with friends, neighbors, golf buddies and family members on Twitter? They should immediately end their involvement with the dozens of hobby-related communities they belong to online, from sports clubs and antique car collector communities to foodie and health-minded forums?

Help me out here. I don’t see how this makes any sense from an HR or PR perspective (let alone a legal one). Though some elements of this policy are sound, others fall completely outside the realm of realistic, enforceable and effective guidelines for company-wide social media usage. Perhaps ESPN might want to consider other options (and probably better sources of advice) when it comes to framing policies for its social media program? Perhaps (again) incorporating training for employees as well might be a better solution?

Counterpoint: IBM’s fantastic internal social media policy – A template for all companies? (Maybe.)

Rosie_the_RiveterSm_4864

You might not expect a corporate juggernaut like IBM to lead the way when it comes to creating effective social media guidelines for its employees, yet here we are: IBM was one of the first enterprise-size companies to not only recognize the need for such a document, but also to deliver an adequate set of guidelines within it that made sense and allowed its culture to spread. IBM recognized that treating its employees like responsible adults rather than dangerous little children might yield pretty good results.

And they were right.

Check out IBM’s Social Computing Guidelines here.

I want to highlight a few specific elements of the document here so you can enjoy the radical contrast between ESPN’s less than savvy approach vs. IBM’s:

As outlined in the Business Conduct Guidelines, IBM fully respects the legal rights of our employees in all countries in which we operate. In general, what you do on your own time is your affair. However, activities in or outside of work that affect your IBM job performance, the performance of others, or IBM’s business interests are a proper focus for company policy.

IBM supports open dialogue and the exchange of ideas.
IBM regards blogs and other forms of online discourse as primarily a form of communication and relationship among individuals. When the company wishes to communicate publicly as a company—whether to the marketplace or to the general public—it has well established means to do so. Only those officially designated by IBM have the authorization to speak on behalf of the company.

However, IBM believes in dialogue among IBMers and with our partners, clients, members of the many communities in which we participate and the general public. Such dialogue is inherent in our business model of innovation, and in our commitment to the development of open standards. We believe that IBMers can both derive and provide important benefits from exchanges of perspective.

One of IBMers’ core values is “trust and personal responsibility in all relationships.” As a company, IBM trusts—and expects—IBMers to exercise personal responsibility whenever they participate in social media. This includes not violating the trust of those with whom they are engaging. IBMers should not use these media for covert marketing or public relations. If and when members of IBM’s Communications, Marketing, Sales or other functions engaged in advocacy for the company have the authorization to participate in social media, they should identify themselves as such.

Read the rest here.

Beautiful, isn’t it? IBM actually treats its employees like responsible adults. How about that.

By the way, check out when IBM started working on this: 2005!  Most companies today still don’t have adequate (or even specific guidelines when it comes to social media usage) and we’re just a few months away from 2010. Anyone feeling a little unprepared right now? Yeah. Some of you probably should be.

That is how it’s done, boys and girls: With calm, insightful knowledge and understanding. With respect for the medium, the process, your employees and your customers.

Okay, now come close. I have a secret to tell you: The best antidote to fear is knowledge.

That’s right: Companies whose staffers understand social media, community dynamics, organic brand management and new technologies will figure out how to do this right. (Like IBM.)

Conversely, companies with a lack of knowledge, understanding and practical experience in these areas are bound to let fear overcome logic and common sense. Fear, ignorance and paranoia aren’t exactly good foundations upon which to base a social media program – or anything else, for that matter. This is how companies can suddenly invalidate the entire potential of their social media efforts AND turn a knee-jerk reaction into a PR disaster all in one fell swoop. (And man, is it painful to watch.)

Incidentally, if you are a corporate executive who actually fears his own people… why are they your people? (Either hire better or train better. What are you doing? Hiring mean-spirited unprofessional idiots with no common sense? In this economy? When you could have your pick of the best talent out there?) If you have to impose bans and draconian restrictions on your staff to keep them in line, if the stick needs to be bigger than the carrot, your problem isn’t Twitter or Facebook. Your problem is you. (Something to think about.)

keepcalmred

One last bit of wisdom from IBM’s Social Web Guidelines to send you off on a good note:

Be who you are. Some bloggers work anonymously, using pseudonyms or false screen names. IBM discourages that in blogs, wikis or other forms of online participation that relate to IBM, our business or issues with which the company is engaged. We believe in transparency and honesty. If you are blogging about your work for IBM, we encourage you to use your real name, be clear who you are, and identify that you work for IBM. Nothing gains you more notice in the online social media environment than honesty—or dishonesty. If you have a vested interest in something you are discussing, be the first to point it out. But also be smart about protecting yourself and your privacy. What you publish will be around for a long time, so consider the content carefully and also be judicious in disclosing personal details.

This is so evolved that it almost brings a tear of joy to my eye.

No need to panic. If IBM can pull it off, our company can too. (Yes, even you, ESPN.) To start with, all you really have to do is take this social media program building process seriously and maybe ask for a little bit of expert help to help you avoid these types of snafus.

Incidentally, if your company doesn’t currently have either a solid set of social media guidelines or employee awareness training in place, give me a call (or have your HR manager give me a call). I can help you with that. 😉

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iPig icon

This post is a follow-up to Part 1

Is anyone talking about the killer plague anymore? What was it called again? Ah yes: Swine Flu. H1N1… or N1H1 or whatever. Hamthrax for short.

Funny, it seemed just a little over a week ago that this was a serious threat to humanity. Remember all the terrifying pandemic terror headlines? All the photos of people wearing surgical masks and hazmat suits? Deserted subways and empty streets? Entire school systems shutting down every time a kid came in with a cough? Cruise ships bypassing Mexico and worthless travel advisories? My in-laws canceling their fall cruise to Hawaii in case the aporkalypse managed to reach the main island in spite of the inevitable global quarantine? Egypt slaughtering hundreds of thousands of hogs, China detaining visitors with Mexican passports and banning Mexican pork imports?

Remember the 24-hour real-time coverage of suspected cases and confirmed cases and confirmed suspected cases and confirmed suspected confirmed cases?

Remember the panic?

What happened to all that?

I think I hear swarms of Africanized killer bees flying down my street to hunt down West Nile mosquitoes feeding on Avian Flu-afflicted songbirds belonging to folks still carrying the SARS virus.

(Crickets chirping.)

Thanks, CNN, MSNBC, Fox News and all the rest of you ninnies for crying wolf AGAIN and boosting your ratings by unapologetically scaring the crap out of people. Well played. You should be very proud of the service you provide.

*sigh*

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Via the SwampFox Insights blog:

“The majority of the world’s designers focus all their efforts on developing products and services exclusively for the richest 10% of the world’s customers. Nothing less than a revolution in design is needed to reach the other 90%.”

—Dr. Paul Polak, International Development Enterprises

The man has a point.

Check out this brilliant website.

A lot of people don’t think of “design” as being all that important, because our daily interactions with “design” are limited to gadgets like the iPod or the latest pair of Oakley sunglasses, or maybe a faucet or something. Maybe we think of design when it comes to cars and clothes and furniture. But smart design can also save thousands of lives every day. Yes, something as seemingly superfluous as “design” can change the world. (Starting with the first tool, taking a detour via the wheel, and fast-forwarding to the millions of things we now take for granted, like the plasma TV, the hybrid automobile, the artificial heart, and even the ubiquitous bottle of Coca Cola.

If you aren’t the humanitarian type and couldn’t care less about saving lives, bear in mind that design can also create entirely new markets. (We just talked about getting there before the herd, so your ears should be perking up just about now.)

How can smart design can create new markets? According to this article in the New York Times entitled “Design That Solves Problems for the World’s Poor” (annoying subscription required):

“A billion customers in the world, are waiting for a $2 pair of eyeglasses, a $10 solar lantern and a $100 house.”

For starters.

That’s something to think about. Not in terms of exploitation, but in terms of wealth and opportunity creation. (The development of the easy-to-use, virtually crunch-proof windup $100 laptop – specifically designed to introduce computers and the internet to 3rd world children – is probably among the most ambitious of these types of endeavors, but also a great example of how we can start to create opportunity in regions of the world in which mere survival is still the order of the day.)

While everyone else is trying to appeal to the richest 10%, maybe, just maybe, the real opportunities are elsewhere. Maybe the time to get into these markets is before they even exist. The seeds are being planted now. The herd is starting to gather. Maybe by the time the market exists and the pastures are green and lush, you’ll find yourself in the back again. Maybe you’ll kick yourself in the butt for not having made a move sooner. (History repeats itself.)

What if you could create one of the most lucrative companies of the 21st century AND save tens of thousands of lives at the same time? What if you really could be enormously successful AND help save the world all in one fell swoop? What if you could have your cake and eat it too?

In this economy, perhaps these are questions worth asking yourself – especially if you are a US or Western European manufacturing company looking for a reason to go on.

Don’t even approach the problem from a humanitarian standpoint if you don’t want to. Approach it from a business standpoint. Here’s the problem you need to solve: 90% of the planet’s population wants something that they probably can’t get very easily. All you have to do is figure out what that is, how much they’re willing to pay for it, and how to get it to them. It could be a mode of transportation. It could be a light source. It could be a sanitary product. It could be food. It could be a garment. It could be knowledge. It could be something as simple as a tougher bicycle wheel. It could be anything.

There is no single answer. There are probably thousands upon thousands. And that’s exciting.

Whatever it is, it could also have applications right here, where the richest 10% of the world population lives and eats and shops 24/7/365.

It might even be a better option than trying to become the next Google.

Food for thought.

So… what are you working on right now?

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Grand Central terminal, NYC - photo by Olivier Blanchard

Forget Twitter. Twitter is completely irrelevant. What we are really talking about here is a community.

Fact: It would appear that I am completely addicted to Twitter.

Also a fact: I couldn’t care less about Twitter. Twitter is a means to an end. A tool. A platform. Nothing more.

Fact #3: What may appear to be a Twitter addiction is in fact a community addiction. Or rather a love affair with conversations, sprinkled with a penchant for establishing appropriately meaningful connections with people (many of whom I might not otherwise have the pleasure to meet or share ideas with).

So before I go any further, the distinction between the box called Twitter and the magic that goes on inside it needs to be super clear.

Right about now, you are probably asking yourself… why are we talking about Twitter? What is it with this addiction? Can we pleeeeease move on to a topic we care about? And I hear ya. I really do. But I feel compelled to clear this up once and for all if I can, with this little post. (Yeah. As if. You know me: ever the optimist.)

In truth, this post – or rather the idea behind it – came from Spike Jones’ rant this week about Twitter. Normally, Spike’s piece would have prompted a 30,000 character comment, but it occurred to me that the topic deserved its very own post. (That, and I figured that Brains On Fire’s servers would probably appreciate my not taking up 3 gig of space for nothing.)

So anyway… To understand where I am coming from with this post, go read Spike’s piece first, then come back here for further consideration on the topic. Here’s the link. Hurry back.

..

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Welcome back! I’m glad you took the time to read Spike’s opinions – and if you haven’t done so already, be sure to add BoF’s blog to your RSS reader or blogroll. It’s always a good read.

Now… Spike and I have grown to be good friends throughout the years, and we see eye to eye on most things. I have a lot of respect for him and the folks at BoF – who also  happen to be in the 864, by the way. So a) I don’t intend to bash anyone or trash any of his opinions here, and b) you may be surprised to hear that I actually agree with most of the things Spike brings up in his post. That being said, I have a slightly different opinion of Twitter and feel the need to come to its rescue if just a little.

Let’s go over some of what Spike brings up in his post so everyone is on the same page:

Your Twitter is not my Twitter: Ask 25 people what they use Twitter for and you’ll get 25 different answers. Some use it to keep up with friends. Some use it to find inspiration. Some to find knowledge. Some for mindless thoughts. Some just for fun. And some for none of the above.

Absolutely.

Twitter is not a popularity contest: It’s SO EASY to get caught up in the “number of followers” game. Addictive, even. But who really cares? It’s not about how many people you can get to follow you. Any monkey (or bot) for that matter, can go out and follow 10,000 people and mindlessly they’ll get 4,000 followers back. It’s quality – not quantity.

Again. Right on.

If you’re on Twitter all day long, I really start to wonder how you get your job done. Seriously. If you’re updating 45 times an hour, I’m thinking to myself, “Doesn’t this guy have a job?” Or if you’re constantly Tweeting after hours I’m thinking, “Doesn’t this guy have a family?”

That’s fair. As a Twitter power user, I get those kinds of questions often. Truly being on Twitter all day long is pretty-much impossible unless you are a) jobless, b) hopelessly addicted, c) wealthy enough to hire folks to tweet for you, and/or d) paid to tweet.

The next best thing to being plugged in to the Twitter stream 24/7 is to use a service like TweetDeck (or even Radian6) that notifies you when someone addresses a tweet to you directly or talks about something you are interested in. Kind of like IM or an email. Same thing. Also, categorizing key tweeps in specific groups helps you filter content in a snap. It doesn’t take long to figure out how to integrate Twitter into your multitasking routine. Everyone has a method. It may not seem like it, but I sometimes go a day or two without tweeting if I am busy. Lately, I have settled into a schedule that severely limits my access to Twitter until mid-afternoon. Being self-employed helps. Having a plan and knowing how to manage a schedule/workload well helps even more. Being able to filter Twitter conversations quickly (with the help of TweetDeck) can also mean the difference between a day wasted on Twitter and a healthy balance of work and insightful conversations.

The key is finding a balance that works for you. That balance is different from person to person. Some people watch TV. Others read. Others do crossword puzzles or play World of Warcraft. And some do it all with twitter streaming in the background. As a guy with a crazy schedule, a job that doesn’t stop at 5pm or on Friday, a triathlon training regimen AND a family, I still manage to blend Twitter into the mix without it getting in the way, so it can be done. 😉

Twitter isn’t for everyone or every comany. There are people running around literally badgering companies, politicians and whomever will listen that they should be on Twitter. First of all, companies need a strategy before they are on Twitter and secondly, it just doesn’t make sense for some companies to be on there – because their customers aren’t on there. So whenever someone tells you that they are a Twitter expert you have two options: 1) Laugh your ass off or 2) smile politely, turn and walk away.

True: Twitter isn’t for everyone or every company. But rememberwhat I startedthis post with? The whole twitter is just a box and the real value is in the community thing? Yeah. That. Forget Twitter for a second. Forget the very name, and look at it as a community. Heck, look at it as overlapping microcommunities, even. When I look at Twitter, I see mothers, fathers, bakers, auto mechanics, CEOs, CMO’s, recruiters, teachers, military folks, graphic designers, dog lovers, athletes, foodies, musicians, restaurateurs, web developers, students, doctors, etc. Ergo: I see people.

No wait… I see people talking to other people. I see people making friends. Sharing ideas. Recommending products. Asking questions. Answering them. I see people helping each other. I see people creating value for themselves and for others.

In my very humble but professional opinion, there is TREMENDOUS value in that.  And as Twitter continues to grow in popularity and usage (let’s not forget that Twitter is also a mobile phone app, not just a computer app), that value will grow exponentially.

Now… if you look at Twitter purely as a channel – like YouTube, NBC, a blog or a specific NING community, you’re right. At little more than a million active users, Twitter is a pretty low ROI channel. Most people aren’t on it yet, so Twitter’s reach is still way too small to matter. True.

If you look at it that way, then yes: Anyone preaching Twitter to companies may seem like a lunatic or a fraud.

But remember: Quality over quantity. Meaningful over transitory. Personal connections over automated customer service processes. For a great example, look at what Jet Blue is doing with Twitter (sample tweets from the @jetblue stream):

@foodmomiac head to the North concourse at T5 – it tends to be a bit quieter over there for phone calls.

Travel Tip Tuesday: Slip on shoes make the trip through TSA faster – and it’s good to stretch your feet on a long flight.

Winter weather in the Northeast may cause delays or cancellations. For your flight’s status, go to http://www.jetblue.com/flig…

@shaxxon Sorry but you may still need to set your DVR – We’ve got 36 channels of @DIRECTV but ABC isn’t one of them.

Yes @danwebbage. Daily flights between JFK and Montego Bay, Jamaica begin May 21st. I may need to do a “work trip” for onsite coverage!

@Jonnelle Have no fear, we’ll continue complimentary snacks and beverages. These options are for those who want something more substantial

@gregverdino When were your flights? – we are waiving change fees for customers traveling through NY Metro area tomorrow: http://is.gd/Pjg

Travel Tip Tuesday: Beware of viral WiFi SSIDs. If you see “Jet Blue hot spot” not “JetBlue Hotspot” check further http://is.gd/hocL

@alexsteed what flight number? – follow us and I can get back to you with info.

@sarahbuhr Travel destination packages you ask? Take a gander at our Getaways: http://jetblue.com/getaways

Any Pittsburgh folks thinking about a trip to Tampa? Just for you we’ve got a direct PIT-TPA on Jan 29th and 30th and two back on Feb 2nd

@schvin Unless acting as a documented service animal, pets must be fit in a carrier with combined weight less than 20lbs http://is.gd/fI3x

How cool is that: Jet Blue essentially uses Twitter as a free concierge service. And a friendly one at that. This is an airline, for crying outloud. An airline!!! 😀 If even an airline can figure out how to enhance their customers’ experience with twitter, surely a retailer can. Or a restaurant. Or a car rental company. Or a realtor. Or a politician. Or a hospital system.

We’re only scratching the surface here.

The beauty of Twitter is that it is a) 100% opt-in and opt-out, and b) an all-purpose destination: a) We use it on our terms if and when we want to, from any device – portable or not. b) Twitter is Twitter. I don’t have to look for a website or a blog. I don’t have to hunt down the right url or rss. I dont have to search or click through a menu to find the right page. It’s simple. It does all the work for me. It’s a single destination for every topic or type of connection. Just follow whomever you want, let it do all the work, and engage at will.

And unlike most websites and toll-free numbers, a) the person on the other end responds pretty quickly, and b) they usually aren’t outsourced. There’s something to be said for that on both counts.

Twitter and Politics

Now… to address Spike’s question about whether or not politicians should use Twitter, again, let’s erase Twitter from the thought process: The real question is should politicians engage in live conversations with the people they represent? (Regardless of the medium, platform or tool.) In my opinion, yes. Absolutely. Is Twitter the most appropriate tool for the job? Maybe not. But used in concert with other tools, yes, Twitter can be extremely effective – not only around election time, but every day – or every week – as time permits and the situation demands. Ultimately, the level of involvement a politician has with their constituents is their choice. I can only voice a personal opinion on the matter. I won’t make a judgment call on that one. I certainly won’t fault anyone who supports the creation of new (and direct) avenues of communications between public officials and voters who expect to have their representative’s ear.

Influence, reach and rankings

And last but not least:

The other tangent on this is TwitterGrader and the rest of those “graders” – they’re gimmicks people. If you’re goal is to be in the top 10 in the city, state, nation or world on TwitterGrader, you have my sympathies.

Awwww. Come on Spike. 😀

There are graders for everything. AdAge has its Power 150. Mack Collier’s Viral Garden has its Top 25 list. Technorati ranks blogs by category also. Everywhere you turn is some kind of ranking system. A Top 10 list. A Top 25 or 50 or 100 list. It’s human nature to a) be competitive, and also to gauge everything’s relevance through popularity contests.

Is Britney Spears more relevant than you or I because she has over 13,000 followers on Twitter? I don’t know. I guess to those 13,000+ people, she is. You and I may not like it, but it’s a fact that popularity and relevance are subjective.

In the eye of the beholder, as one might say.

Regardless of the quality of your content, reach does equal influence. If I can reach 3,000 people daily with my advice, then 5,000 is better. Not because of latent ego trips, but because I reallywant to try and help (influence, if you will) as many people in the business world as I can.

Likewise, if growing my crowdsourcing pool to 2,000 people helps me find twenty great sources of information or insight daily, then perhaps increasing that pool to 3,000 people will speed up the process. There is value in that for me, and I have adequate filters in place that allow me to sift through that much info without getting a headache over it.

Whether we like it or not, being ranked in the Top 10, 25, 50 or 100 in any category can be a powerful thing. False humility aside, it does feel good to discover that you are ranked somehow, somewhere. It generally means that a number of people find value in what you are doing, and that always feels good. Beyond the pat on the back thing, it’s also a peer-based validation of your contribution, performance or value. Nothing wrong with that either. From a more pragmatic standpoint, being #1 or in the Top 100 in your city, state, country – or in the world can help validate your position in an industry or authority on a topic. (I said help validate. Popularity or rankings are not an indication of anything on their own.) Still, for businesses and consultants, that sort of thing can make a huge difference.

Just like I don’t see anything wrong with folks training hard to make their way into the top 10 in their age group at a local triathlon, I don’t see anything wrong with people working hard to boost their Twitter rankings. If that’s their trip, why not? I see no harm in it. In a way – depending on why they use Twitter – learning how to increase their relevance and influence there could be a good thing, right? Kind of like boosting website rankings with search engines, driving traffic to a blog or driving attendance to a conference? When you take a step back, it’s really all the same thing. If someone just wants to use Twitter to chat with people, great. If part of their goal is to increase their relevance with a certain portion of the Twittersphere, that’s great too. To each their own.

What’s to ‘get’ of not to ‘get’?

If folks don’t “get” Twitter, that’s okay. Months ago, I tried to get my brother to start using Twitter so I could feel closer to him. I figured that if he tweeted about going to the market or watching a soccer game on TV or working on a website, I wouldn’t feel like he was so far away. (He lives on Reunion island, so we don’t see each other very often.) His response after he took a look at Twitter was “Why would I want the world to know every time I take a crap?”

Clearly, he wasn’t in a frame of mind conducive to a rewarding Twitter experience. (It’s okay, we still have Skype.) The point being that he doesn’t “get” Twitter, and that’s okay. My parents aren’t on Twitter either. Neither are most people I know. No big deal. To me, it’s like people who don’t see the point of ever watching a Star Wars or James Bond movie. They just don’t see the value of it, and I guess I just have to shrug and let them live their lives the way they want to live their lives. Are they missing much? Maybe. Maybe not. Who am I to say?

With some of these folks, it’s a non-issue. With others, it becomes part of who they are: A sort of badge of honor. Not having ever seen a Bond flick is something that becomes more than just… not having seen a Bond flick. It’s a line in the sand. I know people who absolutely refuse to walk into a Starbucks or get behind the wheel of a Ford or leave the United States. My mother refuses to learn how to use email. One of my neighbors thinks that computers and the internet are a complete waste of time. I know a guy who swears that he will never own a cell phone. Okay. Who cares. Your life, your rules, right?

Over time, some of these people’s attitudes eventually shift from being neutral about their opt-out strategy to being negative and critical about the cultural object they refuse to participate in – probably in an attempt to defend or validate their decision. I don’t get it, but it’s okay. The beauty of it is, I don’t have to get it. It’s just the way it is and I am 100% okay with that. Not everyone gets Twitter. Not everyone wants to see a Bond flick. Not everyone wants to own a computer or eat grilled fish or travel to Europe. I shrug and move on. It doesn’t make people any less intelligent, relevant or worth hanging out with. Our differences shouldn’t divide us after all.

Just like some people scratch their heads when they see runners or cyclists glide by on a Saturday morning, some people look at Twitter with an equal measure of curious amusement and annoyance: What’s the point. Where’s the value. Why would you waste time chatting to strangers on Twitter. Don’t you have better things to do. How in the world can something like this help a business. Why would I want the world to know everything I do. I guess if you have to ask, don’t worry about it. If you don’t see the value in it, don’t force it. Nothing says that you have to use Twitter or be on Facebook or LinkedIn. Who cares? If you don’t feel that it’s for you, it’s okay. Really. We won’t hold it against you. It won’t make you uncool or anything. Different strokes for different folks.

Those of us who do get it however, those of us who see the potential, who have been creating conversations and engaging with (and in some cases building) communities will continue to use Twitter to connect people with one another – and to establish these connections for ourselves in the process. We will continue to expand each other’s networks, brain trusts and talent banks. You can frown at us, scoff at us, even shake your fingers at what may seem like bizarre behavior sometimes, but the simple fact is that we of the Twitter world are simply connectors: We create connections between people, businesses, ideas, skills and value sets. It’s part of the way we operate. We were doing it before Twitter (BT) and we will still be doing it (hopefully better) long after Twitter is but a faint memory (AT).

I’ve already rambled way too much, but if you will allow me one last bit of wisdom/advice/commentary/wrap-up, here it is: Don’t get sucked into conversations about tools and platforms and apps. What we are really talking about here is people talking and connecting with people. Twitter in comparison is absolutely, completely, utterly irrelevant to the conversation. Don’t get sucked into Twitter sucks vs. Twitter rocks argument. We might as well be arguing over the color of the microphones used by the United Nations. Totally worthless. Let’s try and move beyond that.

For another take on the subject, check out Doug Cone’s piece on this very topic – also prompted by Spike’s post. Check it out here.

Have a great Thursday, everyone.

PS: Spike, nothing but love, brother. I’m buying the next round. ;D

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social-media-stats-and-demos-2008

The questions came up again and again last week on Twitter: Does anyone know how many people use Twitter? Which cities have the highest Twitter usage? Who exactly uses Social Media and where? What do we know about the demographics of Twitter users? (Etc.)

I spent all of five minutes researching the internets to find the answers to all of these questions and bring you what is probably THE most comprehensive aggregation of Social Media stats, demos and other factoids in existence today. (Yes, my right index finger even broke a sweat.)

If anyone ever asks you anything about Social Media statistics for 2008, you can just point them to this post. (You’re very welcome.)

Okay, so to start us off, here is the breakdown of the leading social media platform usage by country as of Nov. 2008. It’s a great snapshot of where social media is today: Not at all the one-size-fits-all model many of us might think. This map doesn’t show why platforms are growing the fastest – just which ones have the most users for each country. If you want to see the map in its full glory or see how it’s changed over time, go straight to its source: oxyweb.co.uk. The site gives you a great month-by month snapshot. (As you can see, Twitter still has a looong way to go – which may not be a bad thing. Quality over quantity and all…)

socialnetworks-global-nov081

Now that we’ve had a glimpse of each country’s SocMed platform prference, let’s have a look at specific demographics for each of these platforms, from Badoo to the inevitable YouTube. Courtesy of the brilliant and enterprising folks at Ignite Social Media, here is the definitive 2008 report on all things Social Media, from geographic and search traffic data to basic demographic info (age, gender, education and household income). This is a KILLER quick reference guide for all you marketing/agency folks out there trying to get under the hood of certain SocMed platforms. Below, the Twitter data. If the font is too small to read, download the report. The skinny: The most common Twitter user is male, aged somewhere between 35 and 45, is college educated and makes a decent living. (Mid-career professionals.) Specific demos aside, Twitter seems to have a pretty even appeal across gender lines and income brackets, which is a good sign.

twitter-visual-stats-2008twitter-numbers-2008

You can download the full report here. I’ve already printed my copies and covered my office walls with the pretty graphics. Thanks again to Ignite for having taken the time to put this document together. Impressive work.

Another report you might want to look at is TechCrunch/Hubspot’s State of the Twittersphere, which also provides us with some interesting factoids about everyone’s favorite social media platform:

twitter_user_growth_q4-2008_hubspot

For example, did you know that 70% of Twitter users joined in 2008? That 20% of Twitter users have joined in the past 60 days? That the average user has only been on Twitter 275 days?

Or how about this: The most popular days of the week to Tweet are Wednesday and Thursday. An estimated 5,000 to 10,000 new accounts are registered each day. Only 5 percent of all Twitter users have more than 250 followers.

Great stuff. Check it all out for yourselves here.

If you are looking for microstatistics like fluctuations in Twitter usage in the last seven days – or peak Twitter usage times, look no further than TweetRush‘s little dashboard:

twitter-rush-hourEvidently, people are busier at work in the morning than they are in the afternoon. Hmmm…

Now for bragging rights: Since Twitter seems to be exploding all of a sudden, many cities around the world are vying for the #1 Twitcity spot. Well, don’t just wonder where your homestead ranks, find out! Twitterlocal serves you the Top 30 Twitting cities (arranged by sheer volume of tweets) and also allows you to search for tweets in specific areas. As I write this post, the top Twitter cities around the world are Tokyo (JP), NYC, San Francisco, Los Angeles and London (UK). Here’s the list:

twitter-cities-top-15

Bear in mind that this list is generated by twitter update volume during a 24 hour period and NOT by net Twitter user per city. The two are quite different. (Don’t go thinking that Tokyo has 37,212 Twitter users.)

If you do want to see a Twitter user count by city or state (and actually find Tweeps there) look no further than Twellowhood. Great map-based tool, so you can zoom in and out, pan in every direction, etc. The tool is still in beta and only includes North America (US and Canada) but look for it to extend to every country very soon. Great way to visualize/search Twitter usage geographically, and even dig deeper into who the users are. (If only phone books could be this well designed.)

Twellowhood - Zoomed-in on South Carolina

Twellowhood - Zoomed-in on South Carolina

For a metrics-obsessed guy like me, this is far from enough, but it will at least help you guys get started next time a friend or client asks you to give them some idea of who does what where in the Social Media space.

As always, please feel free to add more info, data and sources to this post via the “comments” section of this post. And if this inspires you to dig up even more data and publish your own Social Media reports, that will be a very good thing.

Have a great day!

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guy-kawasaki-package-1

A week ago, Guy Kawasaki issued a quick little challenge on Twitter: The first person who could guess what UFM means (as in “I’ve been UFMed”) would win a free copy of his book, Reality Check. Luckily, I happened to see his tweet come up as it posted and immediately replied. Having just read his latest blog post moments before, I was pretty much in sync with his frame of mind, so the mysterious acronym made perfect sense to me.

There may have been a tie – Guy, after all, has about 25 gazillion followers, most of whom can type faster than my two pecking fingers ever could – but Guy, true to his word, rewarded my speed with a free copy of his book. It finally arrived yesterday and I couldn’t be more psyched about it.

1. It’s already turning out to be a GREAT book.

2. It came from Guy, not Amazon or wherever.

3. Guy took the time to autograph it, which was a very cool gesture.

Old school pundits may scoff at the idea that social media aren’t actually “social,” that webbies are shunning human contact in favor of superficial, sterile behind-the-veil internet connections, that we are in a sense antisocial geeks settling for faceless keyboard-and-screen dialog, but the reality couldn’t be further from the truth: We are among the most social people on the planet Social media connects us in a way that no other tool ever has. For those of us who are natural connectors, social media eliminates geographic and other barriers that once prevented us from meeting like-minded people outside of our typical reach. Social networks allow us to take our social nature and very simply scale it. Many of my friends and clients today first connected with me via social media – this blog, flickr, Buzznet, Flickr, etc. This medium is a catalyst for true engagement between people. For real world connections. (Not that Guy sending me a book qualifies, but it does in its own way.)

Today’s social media users are curious about the world and everything in it. We want to spread our enthusiasm for all of the things that make us passionate about life, work and play. Products we love, ideas that flipped a switch, news we want to share, etc. The mere fact that Guy, business A-lister that he is, would a) bother to spend as much time on Twitter chatting people up, and b) take the time to send someone he has never met an autographed copy of his book just to be nice are testaments to the open and wonderfully inviting nature of social media’s core adopters.

We are social. The image of the recalcitrant, vitriolic blogger hiding behind a dimly-lit screen in some dark home office somewhere needs to go the way of Enron-style accounting, and for the very same reasons: Those standing on the outside peering in need to understand that the few unfortunate bad apples in the cart don’t represent the rest of our community. Guy’s Twitter conversations may be in cyberspace, but the autographed book came in the real world mail. He signed it with a real world pen held by real world hands. The real world ink from his pen dried on real world paper that I can touch with my real world fingertips. The veil is vanishing before our very eyes.

When I meet Twitter friends in the real world, as I seem to be doing a lot these days, I introduce myself as “Olivier Blanchard. You probably know me as @thebrandbuilder, the guy with the silly chihuahua for an avatar?” They reply in kind. We laugh about it and marvel at how equally silly and beautiful it all is. How fascinating and exciting it is that the internet and the real world are finally really coming together in a productive and almost seamless motion.

We’re coming full circle now, technology and real palm-to-palm handshakes blending into a complete social experience both in business and not. How can we not be excited about that? How can companies looking for ways to connect with their audience not be excited about that as well? The potential here – on both counts – is astounding, and the many ways such unprecedented connective channels can yield returns should be enough to make anyone’s head spin.

Have a great day, everyone.

Incidentally, “UFM” stands for “Un-Follow Me” (as in, “you silly fool, why did you unfollow me on Twitter?”)

guy-kawasaki-package-2

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Before you get all wrapped up in social media strategy talk, stop what you’re doing and take a deep breath. That’s right. Chill. SocMed will still be there when you’re done with our little minute of zen. Go ahead. Close your eyes. Breathe. Breathe deeper. Let the air fillllllll your lungs. Yesssss. Good. Now let it out slowly. Rock on. Do this for as long as you like, then read on.

First, let me just state the obvious: You’re probably over-thinking this whole social media thing. If you’ve hired an “expert” social media consultant, chances are that he or she is making a big deal out of what should otherwise be a very simple thing. (So simple that most American teenagers are at the wheel of personal social media portfolios that would make most Fortune 100 companies grit their teeth with envy. More on that in Monday’s juicy follow-up post.)

Don’t fall for the hype and the weird lingo and the hip factor. You are getting waaaaay ahead of yourself already, and that is completely unnecessary. Relax. Social media is simple. You just need to slow things down a little. Take a step back. Don’t think of it as something new. Don’t think of it in terms of Twitter and Facebook and Plurk. Don’t confuse tools with strategy. Don’t confuse objectives with human connections. Don’t confuse tactics with simple dialogue.

That’s right, breathe.

Before you start posting on Twitter, before you start creating online communities on Ning and building fan pages on Facebook, go back to the basics. Understand who you are as a company. As a brand. As a collection of people united by a common cause. Understand what you stand for, and stand for it. Loudly. THAT is the essence of a brand. YOUR brand. Some might call it “the elevator pitch.” That 30-second explanation of who you are. Nike. Apple. Volkswagen. Whole Foods. You.

“We make the fastest, baddest, loudest motorcycles in the world.”

“We have the best coffee on the East Coast AND we donate 100% of our post-tax profits to charity.”

“We make dictionaries for the blind.”

“We’re the best design firm in history.”

Reconnect with yourself before you even try to reconnect with your audience. Reconnect with your employees. With your staff. Articulate your sense of purpose clearly. Get them onboard. Get them jazzed about what you – what they – stand for. (Hint: Find something more relevant and engaging than your promises to Wall Street or your tired old mission statement.) Make something happen. Create an internal movement. A cause your staff can rally behind.

Then, in everything you do, from website design and press releases to product launches customer service training, take a page from Tom Asacker‘s book of wisdom:

Be passionate about your story.

Be obsessed with the details.

Experience the real world of your audience.

And make a difference in people’s lives.

William James wrote:

I am done with great things and big plans, great institutions and big successes. I am for those tiny, invisible loving human forces that work from individual to individual, creeping through the crannies of the world like so many rootlets, or the capillary oozing water, yet which, if given time, will rend the hardest monuments of human pride.

This is the process that will prepare you for the world of social media. Meetings in board rooms with social media “experts” won’t alone do it. Droning conference calls with consultants won’t either. Hiring the COO’s nephew to create a blog and post stuff to Twitter also won’t get you very far if you aren’t truly ready.

Before you even come knocking on social media’s doorstep, you need to have your house in order and your head on straight. You need to come prepared. Your identity has to be crystal clear to you and everyone around you. Your objectives have to be clear. Your business processes have to be in synch with the vision you have for yourself. Once you’ve reached this point, then and only then are you ready to effectively tackle a social media strategy.

Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton used to say, “Whenever you get confused, go to the store. The customer has all the answers.” Like most guys of his generation, Sam understood that common sense trumped almost everything else in business. All the fancy tools and the technology and the fads. All noise if you aren’t grounded in reality. If you can’t focus on what matters: relationships.

How many CEOs and other business leaders today actually spend time personally listening to their customers? (Isn’t it much easier to pay market research firms instead? They’ll do phone and email surveys and whatnot. They’ll set up elaborate focus groups. They’ll hand you a 40-page report! Yay!)  Fact: The more layers you put between users/customers and a company’s leadership, the more detached decision-makers are from the insights they need to make good business decisions… and the worse their companies perform. Look at Wall Street. Look at Detroit. Look at the businesses across the street.

Another thing to consider: More often than not, market research firms end up asking the same wrong questions to an increasingly jaded audience. Talk about laws of diminishing returns.

The reality of today’s world/marketplace is this: Your questions are irrelevant. Your questionnaire’s format is irrelevant. Your canned dialogue isn’t sticking. As a result, your market research metrics are wrong. You are making decisions based on irrelevant data and erroneous assumptions.

Sam Walton had the right idea: Just go to the store. Watch your customers. Listen to them. Mingle with them. Chat them up. Before you know it, they’ll open up. They’ll tell you everything you want to know. You won’t even have to cook up questions for them. By virtue of being there, inside their own brand experience with them, what needs to be done next will naturally come to you.

If you want to physically do this, bravo. Leave the suit and the ass-kissers at the office, throw on some jeans, and go mingle. It will pay off, I promise.

If you can’t (too many things on your plate) then consider social media as the next best option. (Even if you can, SocMed strategies can help you be in more than one place at once, so use them.) Should you start a blog? Maybe. Maybe not. It depends on who you have onboard who can really drive that project, what you want to accomplish, how open you are willing to be, etc. Over 80% of the public has a negative opinion of corporate blogs, so you may be better off not having one at all than having a bad one. (If you want a blog, you have to commit to being one of the rare companies who does blogging right.)  With or without a blog, should you have someone monitor what is being said about your company on other blogs? Absolutely. This is probably the most important element of social media: Listening.  Before you start talking, before you start responding or having conversations, LISTEN.  (It isn’t spying, don’t worry.) Find out what people are saying an writing about you. Find out what you are doing well, and not so well. SEARCH is your friend, so use it. Start taking notes. Learn how to truly see your company through the public’s eye, without the filter of a firm or agency whose retainer depends on not upsetting you, no matter what they find out.

Once you’re ready to engage the public, your public, then start getting involved with platforms like Ning, Twitter, Facebook, etc. If you find that communities have already formed around your brand, introduce yourself to them and offer to give them support. DO NOT SUE THEM for using your logo without permission (as Ford tried to do this month), and don’t ever interfere with their affairs. Be polite. Be responsive. Be friendly. Be respectful. Be helpful. Always. No exceptions.

Understanding what Social Media tools and platforms to use and how is important, don’t get me wrong, but don’t put all of your focus into the vehicle without first understanding both the road and the destination – if indeed there is a destination, as you may find yourself on a very long and fascinating journey once you get behind the wheel.

Social Media involvement, in a nutshell, can and should be seen simply as an extension of your relationship with your customers and the public at large. Either you want true engagement or you don’t. If you don’t, then ignore this post and go back to doing what you have been doing for the last decade. If it works for you, great.  If you do, however, if you crave that feedback, that flux, that love, that relationship, then welcome to a whole new era of communications, collaboration, public relations and brand relevance.

Do the inner work first though. Read this post again if you need to. And if you have any comments or questions, as usual, you can either drop me a note in the comment section or reach me directly via email, Twitter, facebook or whatever other means of communications are at your disposal. (I still remember some Morse code.)

Have a great weekend, everyone. And seriously… Relax! 😀

Photo by Christopher Wray-McCann

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UK-based cScape has just released the results of their 2008 online customer engagement survey. Fantastic data and insight from people who obviously know what they are talking about.

Per Richard Sedley, director of cScape’s Customer Engagement Unit:

A starting point for any online customer engagement strategy is gathering data. It is crucial to find out what your customers do when they visit your site – and not base it on guesswork. So how do you know what to look for? The first step, before measurement and analysis, is to identify which data you can act on in a way that will actually benefit your customers and yourself.

Many businesses suffer from ‘metric paralysis’; they collect too much data which they just don’t have the time or know-how to learn from. While this mass of data can look impressive, it is hardly ever used effectively to improve the customer’s online experience, or overall business performance.

Metrics should be actionable. They should give you specific insights into your visitors’ behaviour so that you can take appropriate action based on that information. But even metrics that are actionable don’t do anything in and of themselves to improve a site. They simply bring out positive and negative indicators. To change things for the better requires an organisational structure whereby appropriate measures can be taken.

Even if you don’t have the time to read the entire thing, you will at least get some great insight from the many charts used to illustrate some of the study’s findings. Some examples:

Be sure to read and share this thorough, insightful and infinitely valuable report here. (Or click on the top image.)

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“Over 50% of consumers want greener, more natural housing cleaners, but only 5% actually purchase this category of product.”

– Jennifer Van der Meer –Former Wall Street Analyst, green activist and innovation strategist.

Fantastic piece on Core77 by Jennifer Van der Meer on the convergence of design, (customer) movements, product adoption and innovation against the backdrop of “green” product growth.

Here are some tidbits:

Recently, I was invited to participate as a Speaker at the Greener by Design conference in Alexandria, VA, with innovation culture and systems guru, Robert Shelton. Our talk focused on the encouraging shift towards more open models of innovation, where knowledge is shared both inside and outside a company’s walls to solve for the complex and daunting challenges that we face. This praise for the widening of knowledge networks emerged as a theme in many different conversations throughout the rest of the conference. More and more companies have begun to shift sustainability from public relations statements and corporate social responsibility promises to actual product development and marketing activity–a way to create real value. Facing up to climate change will require a major redesign in the way we bring things to market.

The caveat? Over 50% of consumers want greener, more natural housing cleaners, but only 5% actually purchase this category of product: consumers do not want tradeoffs. Clorox’s Green Works is one company that embraced this gap. How did the Green Works team aim to get past the 5%? When choosing household cleaners, green-leaning consumers are looking for proven efficacy, broad availability, comparable price, and a brand they know and trust. They’re not willing to settle for a product that performs less than a more eco-unfriendly alternative. Clorox Green Works accepted these constraints and delivered a natural product that passed blind performance tests–in partnership with the Sierra Club. Despite initial external skepticism that a brand like Clorox could succeed with a natural product offering, the good word got out and sales results have “far exceeded expectations,” according to Kohler.

The “no tradeoffs, no compromise” approach has served as a mantra in many companies and across industries when challenged with comprehensive green innovation. But there’s something missing in this stark consumer win-it-all equation: Consumers are not part of the conversation and they know it.

I have spent a good deal of time sitting down with these emerging green consumers and many themes come into to focus. When asked to take the time to give their real opinion about their lifestyle, they reveal an untapped desire to participate in the process to be more than just a stat about consumption and purchase behavior. When you move the conversation beyond price and performance benefits to engage people in the challenge of designing a green future, they want to do so much more than just vote with their wallet.

Unleashing the Innovator in Everyone
In fact, I found that once on the topic I could not get these consumers to stop thinking about innovation and the role they should play in the design process. One-on-one interviews, blog studies, and focus groups all inevitably turn into green therapy sessions. People wanted to dissect how they chose to eat their food, build their home, rely on transportation, raise their children, and create meaning in their lives. When the conversation shifted to how we could live more sustainably, the real ideas would begin to flow.

While it was personally gratifying to be a part of these discussions, I found that my role as a strategist and researcher had major limitations. It was costly to send someone like me around the world, burning jet fuel, to have deep conversations only to fold these insights into traditional briefs on brand and product development. At the same time, every industry started getting green religion and claiming a green message. But the old compartmentalize structure was still in place, which resulted in confusion all along the chain, the initial pleasure and fascination with the complexity of the problem devolved into fatigue amongst the newly green converts at the consumer and corporate level.

The roles of designers, product development specialists, and marketers should never have been as segmented and will never be again. Participation is the key to innovation…

I realized that the nature of this challenge requires constant, ongoing conversation between all the elements. Even a successful human-centered approach to the fuzzy front end completely drops off when we hit the conveyor belt process for product development. Ideas once sensibly vetted are suddenly forced to move lock step through the phases required for launch, and often get watered down in the process. This is in fact where the activity of greenwashing occurs–good intentions turn into skepticism, compromises, and incidental innovation. How do we create a system that provides more interaction, iteration and a feedback loop?

Read the rest of Jennifer’s piece here. It’s well worth the detour.

Have a great Monday everyone. 😉

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The final Google trends for 2007 were announced on Dec. 4th, and the results are scary… or terrific, depending on how you look at it: As a human being, it’s frightening. As a marketer, this may be the best news ever.

The Top 10 fastest-growing search terms for 2007 were (in order):

1. iPhone
2. webkinz
3. TMZ
4. Transformers
5. YouTube
6. Club Penguin (wtf?!?!?!)
7. myspace
8. Heroes (NBC)
9. Facebook
10. Anna Nicole Smith

(Visibly absent from the list were Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, and the rest of the “make bail by noon” celebutante gang.)

Compare this to the 2001 list (the first from Google):

1. Nostradamus
2. CNN
3. World Trade Center
4. Harry Potter
5. Anthrax
6. Windows XP (woohoo!!!)
7. Osama Bin Laden
8. Audiogalaxy
9. Taliban
10. Loft Story

These are two very different lists.

I expected to see at least one non-“product” item show up in 2007, like maybe something relating to Iraq, Iran, Darfour, presidential candidates or even maybe healthcare. Global Warming. Something of substance. Anything.

But no.

Commentary and table courtesy of Jesus Diaz, over at Gizmodo:

Good bye Nostradamus, harbinger of doom and gloom! Hello iPhone, prophet of the second coming of the Digital Age in My Pocket.™ And oh yes, I’m happy to see you too. So long CNN, harbinger of news tickers and dumbified news! Welcome Webkinz, you stuffed rascal that connects to a social networking site you! World Trade Center? Unless it appears in TMZ next to Nicholas Cage and his wig, I say no! And screw that flying broomstick and get me drag queen transforming truckers on YouTube.

I mean, is this really what tickles the human race? Who can possibly remember stupid TV reality shows like Loft Story, Osama and the Talibans when we can entertain ourselves with MySpace, Facebook and Club Penguin? For shame! I would rather play topless Wii. [Reuters and Google]

Retailers and marketers rejoice: You have our complete and undivided attention. Every single item on the list is a brand name (yes, even ANS). Well played.

Mother Theresa and Al Gore, sorry: War, famine, poverty, terrorism, substance abuse, ethnic cleansing, corruption, pandemics and the slow choking death of our little blue planet aren’t cool enough to grab our attention anymore.

For better or for worse, I think brands can pretty-much claim victory in the bandwidth war – at least this past year.

Note: As always, don’t try to leave a comment on the permalink. To leave a comment, go to the main page and click on the comment tab at the bottom of this post. Thanks. 🙂

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The dehumanization of air travel is finally taking its toll on some of the most fundamental ways in which people interact with each other. The airlines (and this includes their human touch-points) create an atmosphere devoid of compassion, smiles and care for our comfort and experience. Over time, we start emulating this lack of human warmth by becoming removed from one another.

Thus, an industry (in this case the majority of airline companies/brands), through its broad reach into our culture, can in effect change the very mechanics of human interactions.

Cause and effect –

It’s been about a year and a half since I’ve had the joy of flying from coast to coast via the friendly skies, and I wasn’t exactly complaining about it. Still, I kind of dig the left coast, so whenever work or pleasure give me an opportunity to check out the Pacific Ocean from our lovely shores, I usually jump at the chance.

So here I am, in San Jose/Fremont/San Francisco (yes, all at once – or something like that) after a relatively uneventful three-airport hop-along that started at 4:00am Monday morning in Greenville, SC, and ended on time (surpisingly) in in sunny San Jose, CA.

That’s right: On time.

I experienced exactly zero delays. Sure, the planes were ridiculously full, but I guess that’s good so I can’t complain about that.

And we didn’t crash, which is always nice too.

All in all, I have to say that Delta Airlines – which I’ve had a tolerate-hate relationship with for years now – did better than I expected. They even kept me hydrated and snacked (“fed” would be pushing the semantics) throughout my impossibly uncomfortable flight over these beautiful United States.

And that is where I have to hit on a cliche of air travel, but dammit, would it hurt commercial aeroplane designers (yes, I’ve decided to spell it the British way) to develop seats actually DESIGNED FOR HUMAN BEINGS? Let’s go through this again: I am 6′. I weigh 165lbs. Compared to most American men I share a pressurized cabin with, I am nowhere near “big.” Yet, my seats today were so small and caved-in that I couldn’t find a comfortable position for even ten minutes. (My neck is killing me.)

And this comes from a guy who spends upwards of 3 hours on a time-trial bicycle, mind you.

Aside from the lack of comfort (or should I say – complete victory of discomfort-inspired design), there is the issue of space management: It’s bad enough that seats are designed to keep you awake for the entire trip and ensure weeks of headaches and neck pain, but they’re also too narrow and close together. It is physically impossible to do anything with your elbows except a) shove them violently into your neighbors’ skulls in a snarling fit of air rage, of b) hunker down and curl your spine into a crooked little ball so that your elbows may rest peacefully on your thighs.

For five f#$%ing hours. Great.

“Would you like crackers or peanuts, sir?”

Ungh… As soon… as… I… uncurl myself…

But that’s nothing new. The comfortable coach seats of the Super Caravelles are a thing of the past, so there is really no point in dwelling on the instruments of torture designed to keep us “safely” secured during flight while maximizing passenger volume per flight – which, after all, is all that matters: Get as many of us sorry saps on a plane as inhumanly possible.

Trust me, if airlines could find a way to stack us on top of each other to double a plane’s capacity, they would. (Hey, if that meant having a cot instead of a seat, I’m all for it. Strap me in!)

No, what’s new is the apathy I ran into today. It was kind of a numbness to things which, as someone who grew up in a big crowded city, I find a bit odd. Typically, a person reacts in some way to unpleasantness, like getting bumped by someone on the street for example… but I find that human behavior in airports now no longer answers to the same set of rules that we normally live by out here in the real world.

Next time you’re in an airport (or on a plane,) try this little Fight Club-ish experiment: Bump into somebody. Bump into them hard. Hard enough to knock them forward or back or sideways. Bump into them so they have to take a step to keep themselves from falling – and keep going. Don’t make eye contact. Don’t apologize. Just go about your business as if the person you bumped into didn’t exist.

But have someone watch their reaction for you.

Bad mojo, and the tragic fate of manners –

What I found today is that in an airport or on a plane, people will completely ignore one another even if they bump into each other, kind of like the way cows ignore each other while they are grazing. I also never noticed how much people in airports and on aeroplanes (British spelling again) bump into other people. It’s insane. Traveling has officially become a full contact sport.

There’s the guy whose backpack collides with your shoulder as he tries to squeeze by during the boarding process (for whatever reason since his seat is already assigned and we aren’t leaving until everyone is on board – so what’s the rush?). There’s the guy who finds a way to kick you in the toes while walking up the aisle to go take a leak – even though your foot is safely tucked in under the seat in front of you. (How he manages to do this, I have no earthly idea. Retractable evil clown shoes is all I can come up with.) There’s the woman whose out-of-control waddling knocks your arm off your seat’s armrest just as you were finally drifting off to sleep. And then there’s the murderous snack cart of doom, with its blunt edges and 1500 pounds of hammered steel fury cold-heartedly coming down the aisle. Yeah. Getting smacked in the elbow by surprise with this infernal bone-crushing instrument of Hades is always the highlight of any cross-country flight.

But seriously: Put us (Homo-Sapiens) anywhere near an airport, and we start to bump into each other like Vista screensaver bubbles. Either – as a species – our peripheral vision is getting worse (in which case we need to get the human genome project working on that, stat!) or we’re turning into bumbling morons who can’t even stand up anymore without f%&#ing that up too. Who knows. It might be the next logical step in our idiocratic de-evolution.

What I do know is this: When I was but a wee little French boy, I was taught something called “manners.” Don’t ask me to explain what manners are. It’s too complicated… But they have something to do with being polite and considerate of others whenever possible. Manners involve doing things like saying “please” and “thank you.” They involve – at least in the Western world – not burping in the company of others, not being ruthlessly flatulent (especially in a car or an aeroplane), and not saying bad words like f%*k or s&!t around your grandparents unless they say them first. Manners are what keep you from chewing with your mouth open or cutting in line at the movie theater, or treating people like they are cattle.

Manners, as far as I remember (and I am not that old) also involve apologizing when you bump into someone. Here’s an example:

*Bump* *Eye contact.* *Embarrassed expression on your face* “Oh, I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to bump into you.” *compassionate and apologetic smile* *exit*

That’s right: When you bump into someone, the civilized thing to do is to make eye contact, give the offended party a sad facial expression, and verbally apologize. Flatly, even, if need be.

You know that apathy I mentioned earlier? It apparently applies to manners as well: Not only do people seem to no longer try not to bump into each other in the first place, but they also don’t seem to give a flying monkey’s arse about apologizing when they do. They simply go on with their bumbling self-absorbed iPod-adorned biz as if the bump hadn’t happened at all.

At the mall, in the street, at work, people apologize to each other when they accidentally collide. Heck, they do all sorts of crazy things to avoid collisions in the first place. But in airports or at 35,000 feet, their behavior changes. Which brings me to this conclusion: If people’s behavior is impacted by their environment, what is it about our nation’s airports and air travel experience that makes so many of folks act like selfish apathetic oafs?

Cause and effect: Policies of dehumanization and the downward spiral of human interactions –

Earlier, I used bovine imagery to describe certain people. That was not an accident. Treat people like cattle, and sooner or later, they will start acting like cattle. Treat people like a commodity, and sooner or later, they start treating each other like a commodity. That’s just science.

The dehumanization of air travel is finally taking its toll on some of the most fundamental ways in which people interact with each other: The airlines (and this includes their human touch-points) create an atmosphere devoid of compassion, smiles, and care for our comfort and experience. At some point, we started emulating this lack of human warmth by becoming removed from one another to the point of being patently apathetic and rude… And we let it happen.

Thus, through a series of deliberate decisions regarding simple business functions like HR and customer service, an industry (in this case, the majority of airline companies/brands), through its broad reach into our culture, in effect began to change the very mechanics of human interactions.

The Silver Lining and a bit of common sense –

That’s scary and sad… but it’s also a little bit exciting because it means that the opposite can also be true: On the flip side, an industry (or a brand, if influential enough) can create an atmosphere of good will which will be contagious in the very same way.

An airline with friendly staff, comfortable seats, a painless back-to-front boarding process (come on people, is that so hard to figure out?!), in-flight snacks that don’t make us feel like we’re being nickeled-and-dimed, and maybe even flight attendants who don’t look like Wal-Mart greeters, don’t act like we spat in their ham sandwich, and (one can dream) actually treat passengers like valued customers instead of a pain in their arses might balance things out and restore civilized behavior in and around airports. Maybe.

An airline like that might even help rescue the entire industry by setting a shining example for everyone, and setting a new – achievable – set of standards.

Am I dreaming? Am I naive? Don’t even go there. Here’s my take on this: A smile doesn’t cost a thing.

Not

one

red

cent.

The lack of smiles across the majority of an organization, however, can cost you the death of a brand – at the very least.

It isn’t rocket science.

A smile is never a detail.

The value of vision, the role of standards, and what we should really worry about –

Fifteen years ago, I used to fly Sabena, Delta, PanAm, and British Caledonian between the US and Europe. Back then, flight attendants were good looking, friendly, professional, proud of their airlines and their occupation, and always willing to help passengers have a comfortable (if not pleasant) experience. Don’t even try to call me shallow for mentioning good looking as an element of my list. Airlines, just like the military once had standards which make sense in light of what they are trying to accomplish: While the military once had high standards in regards to physical fitness, the airlines had high standards in terms of passenger experience. Both made sense then, and still do now. Yet, here we are.

I guess this is what happens when you allow your standards as a brand, as an organization, as the practical execution of someone’s vision, to go down the drain. Where flight attendants were once attractive, energetic, friendly, pleasant people, they now tend to be aging, bitter-acting, unpleasant air scrooges with a chip on their shoulder and a fading ability to smile.

Where air travel was once a glamorous, exciting, relatively painless experience, it has now become the absolute worst way to travel in the US. Taking the bus is more fun than flying, and that’s saying something because bus systems in this country aren’t exactly great.

But beyond all that, my saddest observation from this dull, uncomfortable, disappointing day of unpleasantness wasn’t the fact that the flight attendants were mildly ill-mannered old ladies with painted-on eyebrows and mismatched uniforms in need of a good pressing. It wasn’t the fact that the seats were three sizes too small. It wasn’t even even the fact that I got scraped, bumped, kicked and shoved without even the hint of an apology or acknowledgment from any of the offending parties. No, it was something infinitely more subtle than that – but much scarier in light of all of this, because it speaks to the depth of apathy that we are now reaching as an airport-dwelling society: As we were flying over some of the most breathtaking deserts and canyons that went on for miles and miles and miles – and I am talking National Geographic cover-worthy landscapes here; absolutely stunning stuff – no one on the plane seemed to care. People just sat there in their uncomfortable seats, eyes glued to their laptop screens or the latest exciting issue of Sky Mall or just staring blankly into space while these gorgeous landscapes glided by. I walked up and down the plane, looking for a better vantage point since I had an aisle seat, and watched as traveler after traveler, curious about what I was looking at through their portholes, glanced down at the gorgeous mosaic of colors and textures carved out by millions of years of planetary evolution… and looked away, bored and unimpressed.

That level of apathy and emotional disconnect surprised me… and made me a little sad.

It’s one thing for people to stop being cordial and compassionate towards each other. But when people start not caring about powerful, genuine beauty when it is right there in front of them, then I think there’s reason to worry.

We’re losing something here. Something we should fight a little harder to hold on to because we can’t afford for it to slip away.

What does any of this have to do with brands? I’ll tell you:

Brands do not reflect cultures; they affect them.

As brand stewards, give some thought to the impact that your brand (from a personal microbrand to a global megabrand) has had on people in the past, what impact it has on people now, and what impact you want it to have on people for decades to come. Is your brand contributing to a broken system and a downward spiral of apathy, or to an improvement in people’s quality of life?

This line of thinking may not seem as black and red as your P&L report, but it is well worth thinking about because it is at the core of everything your brand stands for.

And if your brand stands for nothing, it is nothing more than a complete waste of space.

So at the very least, try to instill in your employees, clients, co-workers, and customers a sense that smiles are contagious. That they are good for business in the same way that they are good for the soul. That without genuine human interactions, without emotional engagement between you, your brand, and your audience, you have failed not only as a brand steward, but also as a human being, which is a whole lot of failure.

In short, make us care – by showing us you do.

Smile. Say thank you. Say please. Say sorry. Chew with your mouth closed. Open the door for ladies. Give up your seat on a crowded bus. And perhaps most important of all, don’t squeeze out a toxic cloud of digested chili cheese taco in a crowded place without at least apologizing for your lack of manners.

It’s the little things, after all.

Have a great Wednesday, everyone. 😉

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