Lurker Comes Out of the Shadows

Posted on March 12, 2010 by 7 Comments

Hello.  My name is Barrett.  And I’m Studio D’s resident lurker.

I hide in the shadowy corners of online communities, observing, listening and trying to separate the signal from the noise. You’ll rarely see me contribute to a conversation, but I’m paying attention, considering your arguments, and likely making value judgments on content.

Le bureau de GregI’m not going to tell you what I think, because I don’t know you.  I doubt you really care if I think you’re wrong. Rare is the time that a denizen of the typical message board or comments section actually swayed by response. It’s about waiting your turn to speak, then trying like hell to make yourself heard. I have no desire to contribute to the echo chamber. But I will take everything from it that I can.

This attitude strongly reflects my real-world temperament. Life of the party I am not. I’m that guy hanging out in the corner chatting with the people he already knows, looking around and listening. It may appear I’m not having a good time — that appearance is misleading. I just like to take it all in.

Conversations with friends take familiar turns, self-moderated friendly debate leads to sometimes-valuable insights. If a friend somehow tries to make the boneheaded claim that The Cure was a better band than The Clash, we have the common ground, respect and rhetorical tools to disabuse him of such a sadly mistaken position — tools other than sheer numbers and volume. But if some crazy Joe Strummer wannabe and a guylinered goth kid start a screaming match about it across the room, well who the hell is going to tell them any different? A considered response will just as likely be met with a punch in the mouth (or maybe a crying jag) as any sort of acknowledgment that you have a valid point. I’ll gladly watch others try (and sometimes succeed), but I’ve rarely found it worth my effort to jump in.

I am, of course, aware that not all the net is a breeding ground for open conflict. There are hundreds, probably thousands, of online communities that provide valuable advice, feedback and discourse for their members. If you’re big into your profession, your hobby, your hometown, your whatever, there’s likely a spot for you with a group of welcoming, knowledgeable folks you can seek out. These, however, are not the circles in which I travel. My knowledge and interests run wide, but not deep (a rarity in Studio D — this is a bunch of kids who dove right into the deep end).

Accordingly, my surfing habits lead me not to the small structured meetings of the chess club but rather the general chaos of an assembly in the gym. Class clowns, instigators, student leadership, jocks and honor students in a big shuffle of anxiety, hormones and flop sweat (If there’s a better metaphor for a Fark politics thread, I don’t know what it is).

I’m not trying to say that no one should participate in high-population, high-volume communities. It’s rare that I go through a thread on a topic of interest and find no comments of value. The folks that write those posts obviously find enough gratification in the act to keep doing so. That gratification is not in the writing for me though, and I have little personal need of broadcasting my unsolicited opinion to the world. I unload that venting on my nearby co-workers, Facebook friends and suffering family members, whom I know will actually be justified in calling me a jackass.

This all raises the question of why I’m writing this entry at all. It’s a lot of not-entirely coherent examples and metaphors for someone who’s not into broadcasting his voice into the great unknown. The easy answer is my boss told me I had to do it. The better answer is that sometimes things need to change, even if you have to drag them kicking and screaming. Studio D is all about engagement, and it’s always easy to find reasons not to do things. It’s probably time to find reasons to do them. Let’s see what happens.

Image by Frederic della Faille

Retirement Planning in Social Media and Web Marketing

Posted on February 22, 2010 by Comments Off

On Wednesday, a client asked what they should do with a current program if their funding ran out.

The first answer is, don’t let your funding run out. Manage the project against agreed-upon metrics, and if it’s not meeting the metrics, pull the plug or redesign the campaign. But what the client really was getting at with the question was that they didn’t have an exit strategy or retirement plan for the program.

Many people start a project by defining success, but few think about what should happen if it’s not successful, or has run its course after a period of time. As you’re engaging in a new project, one of the first things to formulate is an exit strategy. What if the project fails? What if funding runs out; what if the business shifts dramatically and the campaign is irrelvant? In the Web design world this means broken links, but in the social media or applications world, this means abandoned users, lost engagements, terminated conversations and bad SEO.

Go into each project with a defined plan of how you gracefully end the project. The plan should include:

  • Comunications to key stakeholders
  • An audit of referring links, properties that might be consuming your content, and related dependent sites and services
  • Migration details to redirect URLs and RSS feeds
  • A clear path to service existing users and visitors with a viable alternative

In addition to the above, consider the following:

  • Never name anything with a date. For example, if you create a Twitter account for a special event and include 2010 in the account name, you won’t be able to use that feed next year and you’ll have to rebuild your audience.
  • Use a platform that makes it easy to set up redirects to alternative properties.
  • Track your pingbacks and referrals so you can go back to them and let them know you have a new site or community they should link to.

Golden Age of Social CRM?

Posted on February 17, 2010 by 5 Comments

Last week one of the biggest stories related to social media  was the Twitterfeud between Kevin Smith and Southwest Airlines around an unfortunate experience he endured on a Burbank-bound flight. If you haven’t read the tweet stream or one of the dozens of articles over the past days, basically Kevin got pulled off a flight after checking in, boarding and settling in for being, um, “plus-sized.” Now Kevin is a big dude, but not Mr. Creosote big, and had, in turn, flown Southwest incident-free on multiple occasions, so upon being bounced from the flight, took out his anger toward the airline via his very well-read Twitter feed. I won’t go into the details or debate whether this was a publicity stunt for Smith’s new movie, or whether Southwest’s policy is unreasonable. I want to focus for a second on Southwest’s response (it gave him an apology and a $100 voucher) and social CRM as a whole.

Some have questioned whether Smith would have gotten a response back from Southwest if he hadn’t been a famous movie producer with a big influential following. I think the answer here is a resounding “no” (see below), but it also got me thinking about something a little bigger — that this actually might be the golden age of consumer-friendly social CRM. Follow me here for a second. Companies know that they need to be monitoring social media for customer delight issues and occasions where the brand promise has been broken. Brands want to look like they are progressive problem solvers “doing social right” and using it to address customer satisfaction issues. This is great. This is commendable. This really does act as a balm to fix some brand equity issues on a 1:1 level.

Unfortunately it’s not sustainable or scalable. We are at an interesting crossroads — most companies’ appetites for using social CRM to fix brand problems via personalized service is actionable right now — but only right now, so enjoy it while you can! As social media continues to grow in volume and influence I think we’ll see this personalized service — social media as concierge — turn more into social media as the evolution of the call center.  Some companies are already too big to make that 1:1 connection with every issue; they can direct traffic and collect trends, but that individualized attention (unfortunately) can’t be matched every time. At this point in the companies’ social media maturity they rightfully evolve to focus on influence — finding the social influentials that in turn help drive the conversation.

True story: Last week I stayed in the lovely Kimpton-run Hotel Monaco in San Francisco, a city that I lived in for years, know well and look forward to visiting. It’s a special place that has a unique look and vibe, and one thing I love to do when I stay there is throw open my hotel curtains and just take in the view to see how the city changes throughout the day. This trip, unfortunately, I had a view of the dumpster depot where all the garbage cans go to sleep at night awaiting the morning garbage trucks. Kind of gross — and at the risk of sounding like a snobby whiner I tweeted about it. Later that day I got a call from the hotel manager who had seen my tweet and offered to move me to another room. I declined (all they had left were internal rooms with no window), and that seemed a little claustrophobic.  But I thanked him for listening, commended the hotel for its customer relations and hung up the phone feeling really great about Kimpton. Moments later a bellhop showed up at my door with a bottle of wine and a cheese plate, compliments of the hotel. Totally unnecessary but very thoughtful, and I tweeted back out about how delighted I was with how this worked out for everyone: they get a delighted customer willing to tweet about his experience, I get the satisfaction of knowing a brand I respect is listening to me, and — bonus! — I get to drink wine while I do work from the hotel (which is something I usually don’t get to do in my cube (unless it is Terry Neubauer Power Hour-ha!).

Too bad it’s not sustainable or scalable. Next time it just might be extra pillow mints!

Can Companies Fit into the Dunbar 150?

Posted on February 1, 2010 by 7 Comments

Ever since I joined Facebook in 2004 (and MySpace at some forgettable moment likely before then), I’ve been interested to see how social networking impacts an individual’s social structure. When one of my more outgoing friends reached the 1,000-friends mark during Facebook’s first year, my interest in that question intensified. Would this friend truly be able to maintain meaningful relationships with such a large group of people?

Friend Request Accepted (Dentyne)

The short, predictable answer is no, and countless numbers of people have been interested in this very question, including, most famously, Robin Dunbar, professor of Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford University. Though the results of his study will be published later this year,  the Times Online has the early scoop on Dunbar’s latest findings. Some key excerpts below.

Dunbar is now studying social networking websites to see if the “Facebook effect” has stretched the size of social groupings. Preliminary results suggest it has not.

“The interesting thing is that you can have 1,500 friends but when you actually look at traffic on sites, you see people maintain the same inner circle of around 150 people that we observe in the real world,” said Dunbar.

“People obviously like the kudos of having hundreds of friends but the reality is that they’re unlikely to be bigger than anyone else’s.”

Having some scientific proof of this constraint, how will this affect how companies attempt to become a part of their customers’ online life?

Image by acordova

Passive is So Passe: The Case for Active Social Media Engagement

Posted on December 30, 2009 by 8 Comments

Matt Whiting, Senior Account Executive, WE Studio D

Two-way trafficWith the year rapidly winding down, now seems like just as good a time as any to spend more than 140 characters to make some more general observations about a major shift we will see in 2010. I’m not going to promise any sort of brilliance here, but instead, will simply offer some ideas on the present and future of social media and corporate communications. (For a detailed look back at 2009 digital marketing trends, check out Kevin’s post on that subject.)

Since I first began jotting down a few thoughts related to this post, the ubiquity of Facebook has not only surfaced in many conversations with friends and family over the holiday break, the social networking site has been putting up some gigantic numbers. The fact that Facebook now accounts for 5 percent of all time that people spend online is a staggering statistic. (For more on that comScore stat, check out this Mashable post.) Further, according to Hitwise, Facebook snagged the #1 spot for most visited site on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. (For more on that feat, check out this ReadWriteWeb post.) While it’s command of the social real estate has been expanding significantly virtually since its inception, it’s only just now that companies are paying serious attention to social media investments.

Pepsi’s much discussed decision to pull all money from Super Bowl TV spots to focus on other opportunities (notably web) served as a huge wake-up call to many that the era of one-way communications is (nearly) dead. (For more on this announcement, see the WSJ’s piece.) It’s interesting to see Pepsi’s decision especially as Coca-Cola has received much praise for its “new media” or internet presence (notably, the ATL purveyors of sugar water have been rated as the number one company that gets social media according to Big Money’s list of “companies that make social media work”). Innovative experiments on Facebook, such as Coke’s Facial Profiler has generated a lot of buzz as it is a unique concept that genuinely interests people. (For more on the facial recognition experiment, check out Mashable’s post.)

In 2010, we will see much more emphasis on engagement. Numbers and all we’ve been seeing show the audience is definitely now there on Facebook. The ball is in the courts of corporate communicators to figure out how to get people take notice of what they have to say and most importantly, give them a reason to care. With Facebook ads (such as those for Mafia Wars) as well as ever-present notifications (that your friend has just found a pig on Farmville) getting more annoying and thus causing people to further tune out the sidebar and meaningless updates, companies will reorganize their tactics appropriately.

Having a relationship with a brand online needs to be much more than just the process of becoming a “fan” on Facebook and then (in most cases) never hearing from the company again. Companies will need to actually give a reason for their customers to want to interact with them and ultimately advocate on their behalf. Companies will spend many resources trying to be a part of daily routines. Advertising will not be the answer (research shows people ignore ads), traditional PR will not be the answer (research shows people don’t wholly trust companies), instead, creating integrated, expansive experiences (like Coca-Cola’s facial profile, among others) will be key.

Image by InertiaCreeps

Welcome Web Visitors Who Come in Through the Side Door

Posted on August 24, 2009 by Comments Off

David Patton, Editor in Chief, WE Studio D

Buried in Erick Schonfeld’s rant-like TechCrunch post on news aggregators was this gem:

“Each story stands on its own in a world of atomized content where readers can come from anywhere on the Web, not just the front page. Now in addition to the front page, there are a million side doors. … On the Web, every side door can be a front page.”

This is something that my former WSJ colleague Jason Fry calls sideways traffic and was something we were constantly trying to solve for at The Wall Street Journal Online. The redesign of WSJ.com that launched last fall was very focused on doing a better job of drawing readers who came through search or news aggregators deeper into the site.

This is a problem that organizations need to start addressing as they create more content for marketing and PR purposes that will be discovered through search, social media platforms and other aggregators. Too often I see press releases that are at best plain HTML pages with the barest of navigation or at worst PDF files that don’t offer any way for a visitor to be drawn in to the organization’s broader story. The same is true for microsites and other experience-driven marketing content. While a slick design and compelling content will reflect well on a brand, visitors only get part of the experience if the site is isolated from the rest of the organization’s story.

Every piece of content an organization creates for the Web needs to be in a wrapper with links, images and other information that draws the visitor to discover more. This can be done both through design that has the same elements as many news sites and with tagging and meta data like what Sequoia Capital did with the content on its revamped site.

Designs that are side-door optimized become just as important when social media is used for distribution. Succeeding in drawing visitors through a tweet and then dumping them into a content cul-de-sac is a missed opportunity.

Is your organization thinking about sideways traffic? As you design content, where do you expect people to find it?

The Stealth Starbucks Meets the Angry Mob: Lessons Learned in the Twitter Age of Communications

Posted on July 29, 2009 by Comments Off

Matt Whiting, Senior Account Executive, WE Studio D

There are no two ways about it, Starbucks faced a rough public response the last couple of weeks when they tried to roll out a subtly branded coffee shop, 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea, in (what just might be) the coffee capital of the U.S., Capitol Hill, Seattle, Washington. While the new store was carefully designed to attract local customers, who are more likely to support local, independent establishments for their caffeine fix(es) of the day, the communications rollout left a bitter taste in the (vocal) mouths of many.

On many levels, they got a lot right, but in a few critical areas, as I’ll detail below, their miscalculations backfired severely and ended up getting them a copious amount of vitriol. There’s a lot to learn here, so by looking to the core tenets of WE’s new influence manifesto, allow me to highlight the pros and cons of the strategy (we have seen so far) and the public response.

Content is King (or should I say, Coffee is King): There are two ways to look at the content here. Typically, when discussing content on this blog, we are referring to messaging and ensuring communications contain all of the key elements to fully tell the story. From this perspective, Starbucks Corporate Communications has done an admirable job with their pressroom, fact sheets and other communications platforms. While Peter Merholz, writing on HarvardBusiness.org, takes Starbucks Corporate Communications to task over the “corporate marketing speak” the company uses in the Web site it created for the store, overall the language is not anything that is objectionable and does a fine job of communicating the necessary information.

Perhaps even more interesting here, however, is looking at content as the contents of their unbranded coffee cups. From everything I’ve been hearing, 15th Avenue Coffee and Tea hits the nail right on the head in terms of producing a quality product. Sure, there are those who will still complain by saying that anything that the Green Mermaid touches tastes burnt due to a propensity to over-roast, but the excitement around the Clover machines and exotic offerings shifts the buzz significantly to the favorable end of the spectrum. Also, artisan baked goods, cheeses, wines and beers have people excited as well.

Understand the Audience: Here as well, the communications tactics (pressroom, stand-alone Web site, etc.) were solid efforts. Nothing said was overtly offensive or would have been that jarring to the community (see the Nuance section below to see how it actually played out.) Again, we’ll turn to the tangible to round out our analysis.

As it has been reported, Starbucks has put an impressive amount of effort into ensuring they were able to meet the high standards of the Capitol Hill community — reportedly even going to look around neighboring establishments with “observation” notebooks. Even if you aren’t able to visit the store in person, the video below from the Seattle Times will give you a good overview of how far the new store varies from your typical neighborhood variety. SeattlestSeattlePI.com andPuget Sound Business Journal, also have good galleries and analysis of the overall store and the painstaking details. (Note: the “Pooch of the Month” display above the free dog water out front is a personal favorite and in the right context would be a huge hit among the countless dog lovers of Capitol Hill.)

Engagement is Nuance: If you’ve heard anything of this story before, you’ve no doubt heard the controversy. If like me, you’ve been reading through the masses of comments left across the Internet, you’ve seen people aren’t taking too kindly to this stealth move. Sure, there are some words of support here and there, but for the most part the public (through online comments, casual conversations and interviews with the community) doesn’t feel this was a transparent and authentic move. Upfront transparency would have helped to stem the speculation. Of most concern from a communications point of view, the first article from Seattle Times, which notably received 148 comments, published on July 16, and numerous other articles from the likes of AP and CNN came out the following days. Starbucks did not post its public response in the form of a fact sheet until July 23, thereby allowing one week to pass without having the company voice in the debate. As mentioned in my previous blog post on this topic, “those reporting had nothing to go off of from the Starbucks communications camp, [thereby ensuring] there was nothing to counter public perception and journalistic observation.”

Overall, the latest experiment by Starbucks has proved to be an incredibly dynamic one. The shifting landscape that companies are now confronted with requires those who work in the field of communications to proactively operate within these new conditions. No longer can companies rest on the fact that a digital pressroom will be forthcoming, but instead, they must actively engage to ensure their voice is in the conversation from the beginning (or at least before a week elapses).

Appeal to Your Audience’s Canine Sensibilities

Posted on June 12, 2009 by Comments Off

Mark Hanson, Writer

Like most any dog, my chocolate Lab Bryna’s favorite activities are napping and playing fetch. When she’s busy doing one of those activities, it usually takes some serious effort for her to transition to the other. This is a subtle nuance that Cecelia, my 2-and-a-half-year-old daughter, fails to grasp.

Tired dogFor instance, the other night, while Bryna was blissfully lounging on the living room floor, Cecelia placed two of Bryna’s chew toys at the far end of the hall and yelled “Bryna, fetch!” Of course, Bryna remained steadfast and unmoved at my feet, dominated by the lazy side of her canine sensibilities.

Not wanting to miss a valuable teaching moment, I had Cecelia fetch me one of the chew toys, whereupon I began taunting Bryna. Within seconds, her attention was firmly focused on said toy and she was ready to play the game of fetch Cecelia so greatly desired.

So what does this story have to do with PR and marketing? It’s a wonderful example and reminder of how we can’t assume our audience is ready and waiting to read our story, watch our video or listen to our podcast. They have many other things competing for their attention. Getting them to drop what they’re doing requires more than the simple knowledge that if they read your story they’ll learn about something that will benefit them.

Whenever we write a story, script or blog post, our first thought must be grabbing our audience’s attention, not communicating our key message or unique selling proposition. In some cases the two may be identical, but there’s a subtle nuance that we must not fail to grasp. If we fail at the outset then everything that follows will fail as well, and our intended audience will remain steadfast and unmoved from its current position.

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