We Are Not Immune…

Bad news today. Really bad news. We had to lay off a number of our employees. What makes the bad news worse is that not only are these people good friends but they are smart, hard working people. People that would go to battle for you. People that had your back.

An easy question to ask is who is to blame for all of this? Sadly, the answer isn’t who, it’s what. And you already know the answer to that question because you’re hearing the same doom and gloom that we are regarding the massive layoffs and wild swings in stock prices. It’s the economy’s fault and unfortunately it caught up with us as well.

Ironically, last year was the best year the company ever experienced and it was continuing to grow at rapid, double digit rates. When the bottom fell out, it obviously hurt some of our clients. It also hurt our potential clients. When they hurt, they spend less money with us and new prospects take longer to sign contracts. That made it hard to afford the people we hired to staff for new business.

If there is any silver lining to this, and trust me when I tell you that it’s difficult to be positive on a day like this, it’s the fact that we have an equally smart and hard working group of people who are sticking around to be able to meet existing client needs. To that end, I’m confident that things will get better and when they do, we will be stronger than ever. But we have some pain to endure before we get to that place. And until that time, we will quietly mourn the departure of those smart, hard working colleagues that we had to let go of today.


Slides from Today’s “Building a Business Case for Social Marketing” Webcast

In the event that you missed today’s webcast with:

  • Bill Johnston, Chief Community Officer of ForumOne (and former community manager of Autodesk)
  • Rob Harles, SVP of community and customer engagement at Sears Holdings
  • Kate Niederhoffer, Sr. Partner at the Dachis Group (formerly of Nielsen/Buzzmetrics)

Here are the goods. To that end, there will be an archived version of this with audio and Q&A available at http://www.powered.com in the next 24 hours. I’ll link to it from here when it’s up.

The Value of Social Media – ForumOne’s Interview with Aaron

Earlier this week, my friend, Bill Johston at ForumOne Communications was kind enough to interview me for an article on their Online Community Summit Report. The interview is cross-posted below.

At the end of the day, companies will enjoy the greatest success when they are coordinating all of their efforts and driving their customers to their online communities and/or social outposts…

What should the role of social media be in a company’s marketing mix?
I like how you worded your question. It implies that social media SHOULD be in a company’s marketing mix vs. being a standalone solution. At the end of the day, companies will enjoy the greatest success when they are coordinating all of their efforts and driving their customers to their online communities and/or social outposts on places like LinkedIn and Facebook. In those places, customers and prospects alike can interact with a company’s employees, talk to one another, interact with content that company has created to provide a learning experience and ultimately, feel more a part of the company’s brand.

How would you differentiate between social media and online community?
Social media in its truest form is really any content – text, video or audio – that allows people to comment on, discuss or interact with. The most common examples of social media in my mind are blogs, Twitter, podcasts, and video sites like Youtube. Online community requires both content, tools like forums, ratings/reviews, tagging AND social profiles. It’s the latter that creates “community” because members are able to connect to one another moving from a “what you know” to a “who you know” model.

There has been a lot of noise recently about the “death of corporate blogging”. What is your take, are corporate blogs still important? What makes a successful corporate blog?
Corporate blogs are far from dead. In fact, I think they are just getting started. However, you are correct when you mention that corporate blogs are getting a bad rap. There was a recent Forrester report by Josh Bernoff that stated that only 16% of Americans trust corporate blogs. To be honest, I’m surprised that number is as high as it is. Many of the corporate blogs I’ve browsed are not that good. Most are very inward focused and only want to talk about how great the company is or how great it’s employees are. Unfortunately, this isn’t what its readers want. They are looking for value, insights and a way to better connect with the brand. Until companies can better deliver on that promise, corporate blogs will continue to struggle.

I (and others) have commented on your expert use of twitter. What do you feel the core values of twitter are to a business, and what advice would you have for burgeoning twitter users?
Let me start by saying that you are too kind. I’ve been at the “Twitter” thing for a while now and I’ve learned a lot over that time. For one, it’s very important to be authentic. People appreciate other folks that are comfortable in their own skin. Even more important is understanding the value of “give before you get.” This is probably the hardest one for anyone to abide by. That’s mainly because when Twitter asks, “What are you doing,” it feels like you should talk about yourself. WRONG. Talk about other smart people you’re meeting. Point to good articles or blog posts. Comment on how funny someone’s last tweet was. At the end of the day, if you do those things, the benefits will come back to you in spades.

If you would like to hear more from Aaron, as well as Rob Harles of Sears Holdings and Kate Neiderhoffer of the Dachis Group (formerly with Nielsen) and me, join us for Building a Business Case for Social Marketing“, which will be held live on Wednesday, January 28th, at 2:00 PM. We will discuss real-world experiences in managing online communities and provide practical advice on how to build an effective business case and overall strategy for social marketing and community initiatives.

Your Brand: The Bridge to Community

Bridge to CommunityMy colleagues Aaron Strout and Bill Fanning have gotten a great conversation started around the difficulty of connecting community with a brand that seems not quite as “community ready,” starting with a recent post titled “Would you join a Toothpaste Community?

This is a question we get all the time in initial sales calls with savvy brand marketers. They get social marketing, but can’t quite see how people could ever get excited about their product – that is, excited enough to engage at a deeper level within a branded community. Aaron suggested a nice approach where you categorize your offering and look to commonly effective strategies. I’ll add to that by suggesting an additional approach that is a little more zen.

Alright, clear your mind. Let’s imagine that you are in a room with your ad agency and you are trying to brainstorm a new ad campaign. They will likely put you through a series of exercises designed to explore what you want your brand to mean to consumers. What are you really selling? Where is the point at which your product or service connects with something your potential buyer really cares about? Answering these questions allows your agency to produce a 30-second spot or a print campaign that more powerfully engages your target audience.

You might offer auto insurance, but you’re really selling safety and comfort. You might serve coffee, but you’re really selling opportunity and energy. You might be a toothpaste manufacturer, but you’re really selling health and good looks.

Before someone ever considers buying your insurance, coffee, or toothpaste, they have to be in the mode of being safer, being opportunity-driven, feeling healthy. That’s why TV commercials never start with the product that’s being sold, they start with images that evoke those feelings and then end with product. What I would suggest is that while these lifestyle elements are the secret to effective ad campaigns, they are also your bridge to an effective, high-return social marketing strategy.

What about a social marketing program centered on how to make your family safer: in your home, on the road, on the Internet? What about a program about how be more productive, more organized, more energetic? What about a program centered around total health, personal appearance, effective presentation? These are passion points for people, and it’s where you already get them to care about you. So why not deepen and broaden that brand-relevant interaction with online community? Bring in experts, engage celebrities, turn your compelling 30-second spot into a compelling conversation.

As in many things, the secrets to success here aren’t necessarily in some new playbook. They are hidden in what you already know. Why do people care about what you’re selling?

Photo Credit: Originally Uploaded by Carolyn from Lucky Planet Photography

The Loyalty Effect


Man's Best Friend

Man's Best Friend

If the title of this post sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the title of a well-known book by Bain & Company fellow, Fred Reichheld. While I’m not planning on talking about Fred or his book, I do want to dig into the concept of customer loyalty — a topic that is more important to marketers now more than ever for two simple reasons:

  1. The current economy sucks.
  2. We now live in a “search and click” economy

I know I don’t need to say anything more about the first item other than the fact that many companies I’ve talked to are taking a 15-25% haircut on their marketing budgets in 2009. That means that all of a sudden, companies can’t afford to acquire as many customers as they could even six months ago.

With fewer new customers comes lower revenues and more importantly, fewer new customers to replace those older customers that have moved on due to natural attrition.Compounding the “economy” issue is the fact that with the mainstream adoption of Google and price comparison sites such as Shopzilla or Froogle, it’s now easier than ever to find the absolute lowest price for anything online. This “search and click” mentality has created a level of price transparency that has never before existed and thus has pushed price sensitivity to an all time high. Not only can you NOT afford to acquire enough new customers, you’re going to continue to lose your existing customers at an exponential rate moving forward. 

Yes, that news is depressing but in the immortal words of singer, Prince, “I’m here to tell you… there’s something else.” No, not the afterworld but a solution of sorts called “social marketing”otherwise known as the convergence of engaging content, social tools and expert community oversight.

Before I tell you more about social marketing, let’s go back to the title of this post and dig into something as a marketer, you probably understand. That’s right, I’m talking about customer loyalty. Your company may pay lip service to the idea of customer loyalty. Who knows, you may even have a customer loyalty program (good on you if you do) but realistically, there’s a good chance that you’re not doing enough proactively to make your customers feel like they want to be loyal.

To be honest, author, Fred Reichheld, does an infinitely better job than I ever could of providing the formulas and case studies behind why loyalty matters. But for the sake of this post, this quote by fellow “loyalty” zealot, Jill Griffin, from one of her many articles on this topic sums up the power of customer loyalty succintly:

Keeping customers who are highly valued can greatly improve profit, Fred Reichheld says in his ground-breaking book, “The Loyalty Effect.” Presenting extensive data across a wide array of industries, Reichheld shows why as little as a 5 percent increase in retention can improve a company’s bottom-line profitability between 25 percent and 85 percent, depending on the industry.

Wow! Who wouldn’t want to increase their bottom line by 25-85%? All it takes is as little as a 5% increase in retention. The problem is, retaining customers these days just isn’t that easy. I made that point earlier when I mentioned the “search and click” phenomena (which in the spirit of full disclosure is the part of the title of Jill’s latest book).

Enter the concept of “social marketing.” And rather than try and “philosophize” to you on why creating engaging content and wrapping it with social tools can help you dramatically improve your customer loyalty (and thus your retention), I’m going to share some real numbers from a recent MarketingProfs case study based on their interview with director of web services at Sony Electronics, Mildred Center (disclosure: Sony is a client of my employer, Powered). Some of the results are quite eye opening:

  • Increasing consumer loyalty and advocacy: The [social marketing] program has a 90% user satisfaction rating, and 78% of users report that they are more likely to purchase a Sony product as a result of Backstage 101. Sony’s NPS (Net Promoter Score) for 2008 came in at 44%, with 59% of users classified as “promoters” who are likely to recommend Sony electronics to a family member, friend, or coworker. [This score stacks up against most companies whose NPS efficiency is in the 5-10% range.]
  • Providing increased value to the Sony Electronics business: The number of users claiming to have purchased a Sony Electronics product grew to 36% for the first half of 2008 (prior to the launch of Digital Darkroom andFrontline Community), compared with 20% for the first half of 2007, and Center reports that sales on the Sony Web site “continue to increase month over month.” In addition, survey completion is up 12% this year, providing Sony with valuable additional consumer insight. And retail syndication along with the addition of Backstage 101 to the company’s CyberScholar site are allowing Sony to better support its retail relationships.

This isn’t rocket science but it does run counterintuitive to the way most companies do business. While your company may provide “content,” it’s likely to be focused on your company’s products and services. [See recent post on Hubspot for another company doing a great job providing value-add content] That’s not to say that your site shouldn’t include that type of information, but that’s not always what customers care about.

In Sony’s case, they have tutorials on how to take better digital photos, irrespective of whether you use a Sony or a Canon camera. In addition to these tutorial (which you can rank, review and tag) Sony’s online communities allow members to upload their own photos for others to rate, discussion boards and other social features that allow photo enthusiasts to communicate with one another.

So what are you waiting for? As I mentioned in an earlier post, there is no better time than now to be thinking about engaging your customers with a goal of creating deeper loyalty and greater retention. It’s a new way of thinking but one that provides demonstrative results.

Is your company focused on customer loyalty and retention? If not, what’s stopping you?


Cross-posted on http://blog.stroumeister.com

How Important is Authenticity? Just Ask Bear Grylls.

A few weeks ago, my friend, Chris Brogan, who just happens to be a well-known blogger and president of New Marketing Labs, wrote a paid for post for K-Mart. In spite of Chris’ up front disclosures about the relationship, a fire storm erupted in the blogosphere over the ethics of paid for content.

As you can probably imagine, this was a polarizing issue with one camp believing that it was okay for bloggers to get paid to write favorable posts as long as they were up front about their relationship with the company in question and the other insisting that mixing sponsorship and editorial bastardized the process, irrespective of disclosures. From an intellectual standpoint, I certainly can understand and respect the first camp’s position although my heart sits squarely in the second. [At at a minimum, you should read Chris’ follow up post on the topic and decide for yourself.]

With that as a backdrop, I was surprised at how willing I was to overlook “authenticity” as a critical factor when it came to my television entertainment. In particular, I’m refrencing two shows on the Discovery Channel. The first titled, Man vs. Wild, where ex-British special forces macho man, Bear Grylls demonstrates survival in the most extreme locations. The second, Survivorman, featuring much more mundane and less heralded, Les Stroud, doing approximately the same. My wife and I quickly became addicted to first show last season as Bear demonstrated survival techniques in extreme environments such as the Alps, the Amazon and the Sahara Desert.

If you haven’t watched the show before, I’ve included a video clip below to show you just how captivating Bear can be. His fearless nature and “I’ll eat anything” mentality is contagious. I find myself thinking after every show, “I wonder if I could do that?” However, there turned out to be one catch. Not all of Bear’s extreme situations were truly “survival” worthy. In fact, the BBC wrote a fairly scathing piece spelling out a number of instances where Bear had either been assisted by his camera crew or even worse, stayed in a hotel vs. roughing it out in the wild.

After reading about some of the less-than-flattering press Bear received, I thought it might be time to check out rival survival guru, Les Stroud, on aptly named, Survivorman. Unlike Bear Grylls on Man vs. Wild, Les is hardcore about the authenticity of his treks out in the wild (he’s visited many of the same extreme climates as Grylls). In fact, he has chosen to eschew a camera crew and films everything himself. He also is dedicated to actually “surviving” out in the wild at nearly all costs. No hotels. No assistance. Just himself, his cameras and his knife.

That should make for entertaining television right? Unfortunately it doesn’t. Not for me anyway. The reason being that not a whole lot goes on during Survivorman other than a constant stream of self-wallowing by Les. I know this because I did a marathon four hour session over the holiday break with my family. At various points in the show, my 10 year old daughter was openly questioning the fact that Les, once again, was coming up empty handed in his attempts to actually catch something to eat. It turns out that Les is a lot better at enduring 5-6 days of no food (while incessantly complaining about light-headed and hungry he is) than he is at foraging for actual food (clip of Les below).

As you can imagine, this leaves me in an awful dilemma. I led off this post with the fact that while I was intellectually okay with the idea of paid for content, I had a hard time truly embracing this notion in my heart. So how is it that I would gravitate toward a guy that I know isn’t authentic (at least some of the time) while I do little to hide my disdain for a similar personality who is doing things by the book.

To help shed some light on my dilemma, I thought I might ask my Twitter network of nearly 4,000 to chime in. Surely they might feel the same way I did. The question I posed was, “Doing some research for a blog post I’m writing. It’s about authenticity. Any strong feelings either way RE Survivor Man VS Man vs. Wild?”

@Ninenty7: I know it is silly, but I don’t watch Bear’s show because he isn’t really out there in it.

@tallglassofmilk: Don’t watch either but overheard others saying one is for real by himself while the other pretends but has a crew. True?

@MikeLangford: This is the only situation ever where I’d say a guy named Les beats a guy named Bear. Survivor Man rules.

@dbcotton: Mixed feelings. Bear has better all around survivor skills, but Survivor Man is more realistic.

@LisaHoffman: Two of my 12 yo’s fave shows. He likes Bear better (me too) but says Survivorman is more authentic. M v. W more instructional

@tinycg: Survivorman is authentic and provides useful real tips.. Man v Wild is mostly staged and useful if you are ex-spec ops.

@SusanBratton: google “joe pine authenticity dishymix” for ideas for your blog post. Listen to the Podcast and/or read the transcripts. [Link to Susan’s podcast with Joe is here]

@LisaHoffman: Bear is far more interesting because he engages the audience (sound familiar?) Survivorman is actually trying to survive, tho.

@peplau: @MikeLangford @tallglassofmilk Bear is also a bit of a fraud http://snipr.com/9u1dj Afraid it’s more than just having a crew.

@tallglassofmilk: Well, authenticity certainly doesn’t guarantee entertainment, especially in TV. Probably why so much “reality” is faked.

@jamessumerlin: absolutely survivorman, big fan.

@m750: Bear is entertainment, Les Stroud is the real deal.

@chareich: think survivorman seems a little less contrived. Man v wild – probably eats big macs off camera

@davidkspencer: Survivorman is where it’s at. Feels more real, less polished. This clip is what did man v. wild in for me: http://is.gd/25si

@ChrisKeef: missed the earlier tweet. I’m all about Survivorman, not Man vs. Wild. Les is far more genuine, raw and honest.

@ChrisKeef: I will agree that Bear is more ‘entertaining’, however Survivorman seems more organic. Easier to believe, I guess.

Not surprisingly, nearly everyone that responded validated what I suspected that they would i.e. authenticity was more important than entertainment value by a long shot. @m750 hit the nail on the head when he mentioned that “Bear is entertainment [but] Les Stroud is the real deal.”

As a marketer, this tells me that it doesn’t matter how slick, exciting or entertaining the content is that our company creates, at the end of the day our customers will want us to be authentic. For their sake though, I promise not to whine about how sore my fingers are after several hours of typing or how much of a caffeine headache I have as a result of my forgoing my morning coffee.

How about you? Are you being authentic in the way you communicate with your customers? Seems to me that there’s a reason why Josh Bernoff and Forrester’s customer survey shows that only 16% of people trust corporate blogs. Sounds like we all have a lot of work to do. Just ask Bear.

From Flat to Round: The New Brand

The Most Interesting Man in the WorldI draw a lot of parallels between marketing and storytelling, and I’m certainly not the only one. But recently, I’ve been giving some thought (mostly as a result of it being a hot conversation on the web) to the branding dimension of marketing, how it’s changing, and how it relates to the art of telling a good story.

Branding is to me most like characterization in the storytelling paradigm, the ability to develop convincing and compelling personalities with whom the reader (a.k.a. consumer) can identify and form a firm relationship. When you read a book, see a play, or watch a movie where characterization is done well, your emotions (love or hate) for the characters are amplified. The actors are full, their flaws and their strengths are detailed, and you can get to the point where when the story ends you want to see more of them. Good brands are like that – you feel like you know them, you feel like your association with them says something about you, and you want to see more of them.

A little bit of research into characterization rendered this from the Department of English at The University of Victoria that digs a little deeper:

A flat character (also known as a type, or a two-dimensional character) is defined by a single quality without much individualizing detail. A round character is a complex individual incapable of being easily defined. The degree to which characters are given roundness and individual complexity depends upon their function in the plot–some only need to be seen at a distance, like strangers or acquaintances, rather than known intimately.

I would argue that most brands today, and in the old world of marketing, are “flat characters.” A brand’s time with us has been hindered by our inability to choose with which brands we spend that time, as offline marketing channels feature a more-or-less complete lack of consumer control. As a result brand-marketers have had to keep branding simple. Every commercial break has been like a round of speed-dating where you have 30 seconds to get to know each of the brands involved.

That’s changing. With the web now a major force in marketing (and driven by consumer choice, spread primarily by word of mouth) consumers now have the means, and the ability, to choose to spend more time with brands they like. Brand marketers have to be ready for that. They must build “round characters” – the kind with depth, complexity, even flaws. This is why many people define the new branding as more conversational, more social. What they really are describing is the process of brands shedding their archetypical trappings and becoming more like real people.

Two good examples that go part of the way, but perhaps not far enough, are a couple of great efforts by Dos Equis and Palm. Dos Equis’ “The Most Interesting Man in the World” is a crusty old guy who looks like a cross between Chuck Norris and Antonio Banderas. He is surrounded by women, and described by phrases like “his blood smells like cologne” and “his personality is so magnetic that he is unable to carry credit cards.” He’s a great character for beer drinkers, myself included. You can become a fan of him on Facebook, and you can visit a website where he is featured, but you quickly get the sense that, well, he’s not really that interesting. While I give kudos to Dos Equis for some great ad spots and a slick website, opportunities are missed here for a deeper and longer-term engagement. A similar treatment was given to Claus, Palm’s metro-hip version of Santa Claus. Great character, but a bit flat for the web.

So what is a “round brand” on the web? Isn’t it a huge effort to develop all the backstory on your character for the few that are interested? Actually, it might be less work. By merely pulling back the marketing curtain and exposing the personalities and voices of the interesting people on your marketing team (through social networks and through your own socially-enabled website), you can contribute those personalities to your brand – rounding it out. Just look at what Dunkin Donuts is doing on their Twitter account. And it might be more than just a few that become interested, as word-of-mouth spreads at the speed of the web.

What brands do you think have character?