Farewell, New England

Dorky college senior, 1979

Dorky college senior, 1979

On Aug. 31, 1975 my parents dropped me off at the Boston University dormitory at 700 Commonwealth Ave. with a suitcase, a box of basic living supplies and a squash racket. I have no idea why they gave me the squash racket. I was never any good at squash.

The next few days were some of the loneliest of my life, but it didn’t matter. I was in Boston, the place where I had wanted to live since I was 13, and I knew this was where I belonged.

My opinion has never changed. Despite having many opportunities to move to other parts of the country, none has appealed to me as much as the area I’ve called home for 39 years. But now the time has come to leave. In two weeks I’ll pack up my family and my possessions and haul out for a new life in Reading PA.

The decision hasn’t been easy, but it’s the right thing to do. The three-story urban house that Dana and I bought eight years ago – with its postage-stamp-sized yard and tiny bedrooms – was perfect for our needs at the time but is now poorly suited for bringing up young children. The school system in my town is middle-of-the-road and there are no nearby open spaces for kids to play.

In contrast, Dana’s entire family lives within about a 45-minute drive of Reading. There are plenty of aunts, uncles and cousins for the girls to play with and a housing dollar goes about two thirds farther. My business is entirely virtual, so a high-speed connection, a phone line and a nearby airport are all I need to work. We hope to buy or build our dream home and settle there for good.

The Twillins - Lillian & BlairThose are my girls – Lillian and Blair. How can I not do what’s best for two such adorable kids?

There’s so much I’ll miss about this area. I raised two kids to adulthood here, enjoyed a successful career and came to know the city like the back of my hand. I’ve always loved the fact that you could walk from one end of downtown Boston to the other in about half an hour, and I’ve done so countless times. New Englanders can be prickly at times, but I’ve also found them to be goodhearted and possessed of a wonderful sense of humor. I had the good fortune to hold Red Sox season tickets during a decade in which the team won three World Series championships. I will be a New England sports fan until the day I die.

It’s tough to move away from my 26-year-old son, but I’m proud of how well he’s done overcoming his learning disabilities to live independently in Cambridge. My daughter is studying at Savannah College of Art and Design and will doubtless find her career opportunities elsewhere. I’ll miss my friends terribly, but I console myself with the fact that I’ll only be about six hours away.

A former boss of mine used to say “Change is your friend.” I’ll remember that as I take this next step. Bostonians like to call their city the Hub of the Universe. It will always be the hub of mine.

 

Skepticism on Gallup’s Gloomy Social Media Assessment

A new Gallup study appears to throw cold water on the whole concept of social media marketing, but I’d be careful about taking the findings at face value.

Gallup asked 18,000 consumers about the influence of social media on their buying decisions. Sixty-two percent said social media has no influence at all. Only 5% said it has a great deal of influence. That’s a pretty grim assessment, given that US companies spent $5.1 billion on social media advertising in 2013, a number that’s expected to triple by 2018. You can download the entire 60-page report here.

The sound bite from this research is summed up in the title of the Gallup blog post: “Americans Say Social Media Have Little Sway on Purchases.” However, a closer read of the study raises questions about exactly what respondents were thinking when they answered the question.

Influence of Social Media on Purchasing Decisions - GallupGallup is a first-class research organization and its methodology was no doubt rock solid, but even Gallup admits that “question wording and practical difficulties in conducting surveys can introduce error and bias.” The report doesn’t specify how the questions were phrased, but from the summary report we can infer that researchers used a rather narrow definition of social media.

More than Marketing

The summary specifically mentions the influence of “social media institutions such as Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, and Twitter,” and also refers to “social media campaigns.” These indicate that researchers were thinking in terms of social networks, which are only a subset of social media. The reference to “campaigns” also indicates that they were thinking more about branded than peer communications. In fact, the social media section of the report focuses almost entirely on how brands communicate with customers. There is almost no mention of how customers use social media to communicate with each other.

This distinction is important, and here’s where the report presents a bit of a contradiction. The authors take pains to note that family, friends and experts are the most important influences on buying decisions and that people primarily use social networks to keep in touch with those closest to them. Yet they also say social networks don’t influence decisions very much.

Without knowing exactly how the questions were asked, I would speculate that the terms the researchers used have caused confusion in the minds of respondents. If you ask the average person to define “social media,” you’ll get a wide variety of answers. Most people probably think of Facebook or Twitter, but not of blogs, customer review sites, video and other tools that also come under the social media umbrella. I know of no research in this area, but five years ago Google took to the streets of Times Square to ask 50 passersby what a browser is. The amusing results showed that very few had any idea (see video below).

When I speak to audiences I often ask who has made a recent travel reservation or product decision in which customer reviews have played a role. Typically about 95% of the people in the room raise their hands. Ask any hotel manager about the importance of reviews to business success and you’ll get an earful. Social media has completely transformed that industry.

TripAdvisor currently lists more than 150 million travel reviews on its site and Yelp has 57 million reviews of local businesses. Someone is a paying attention to this stuff. These services may not meet everyone’s definition of social media, but the function they perform is the same.

Peer Reviews With a Difference

People love online review sites even if they don’t always trust them. Despite ongoing allegations that even the biggest customer review sites are routinely manipulated by businesses and their detractors, 85% of consumers in one recent survey said they consult online reviews for recommendations of local businesses at least occasionally. A 2012 Crowdtap survey found that online reviews are second only to recommendations from friends as the most trusted sources of buying advice.

Most trusted sources of buying advice - Crowdtap

One of the problems with   online reviews, however, is that they require an act of will to publish. Customers must make a conscious decision to contribute their ratings, and critics argue that this fact tends to draw out the most extreme opinions – the lovers and haters, if you will.

But what if the millions of casual recommendations that people make every day on social networks could be captured and organized? That’s the task that Microsoft veteran Yoav Schwartz and a team of Israeli developers have tackled with WhoDoYou, a ratings service that taps into Facebook conversations to rank local businesses.

WhoDoYou uses some sophisticated linguistic analysis to parse public Facebook conversations and figure out which ones are asking for recommendations of everything from fast food restaurants to cardiologists. It then uses location data, website addresses, telephone numbers and a database of local businesses to match referrals to local businesses where possible. Registered members can also contribute their own reviews in the same manner as they do on Yelp and TripAdvisor.

The Real Thing

WhoDoYou logoWhoDoYou is impressive technically, even if the results fall short of the richness and detail found on more traditional review sites. The primary advantage of mining public Facebook posts is that the recommendations are genuine. Casual conversations between friends are obviously less prone to manipulation than reviews that are intended for a large audience. If you’re logged into Facebook, you can also view private conversations among your own friends.

WhoDoYou assigns a rating score to some businesses, but the algorithm used to calculate it is secret and unclear. An entry on the company blog says only that it is “customized for each search, and includes things like the number and quality of reviews, proximity to your search, and a social weighting.” A spokesman said the rating is a calculated from a combination of friends, location, rating and recency.

But…

There are several disadvantages to the WhoDoYou approach as well. One is that recommendations typically lack the richness of the often detailed reviews one finds on commercial ratings sites. Many are no more than a phone number or a URL and there is no way to tell if the recommendation is lukewarm or strongly positive.

Another disadvantage is that casual conversations are often difficult to categorize. If WhoDoYou can’t find an exact match in its database, the results fall back to a default “Attorney referral in Reading, PA.”  From there you’re on your own to figure out what’s in the thread. Fortunately, the review links directly to the relevant conversation on Facebook.

Machine intelligence can also have unexpected results. For example, the post below is listed as an attorney referral but is really a Facebook discussion of Risa Weinstock, the controversial director of New York’s Animal Care & Control agency. It’s not clear why a post titled “THE MURDERESS OF THE NYC SHELTERS” merits an 8.7 rating.

Despite its shortcomings, WhoDoYou is a fresh and innovative approach to mining an untapped vein of sentiment. The quality will no doubt improve, and WhoDoYou has done us all a service by capturing conversations that would otherwise be all but invisible.

WhoDoYou Attorney Referral


My recent book, Attack of the Customers, has an extended analysis of online ratings and reviews.

Marketo Tells How to Use Social Media for Lead Generation

Marketo: How to Use Social Media for Lead GenerationI often cite marketing automation vendor Marketo as a shining example of a company that gives away great information as a way to promote its business. Marketo recently contacted several B2B social media marketing pros to get their tips on how to generate leads with social platforms.

They report encouraging results. For example, 58% of marketers who have used social media for more than three years say it has helped boost sales. The marketers quoted here (I’m one of them) offer advice on how to create unique content that stimulates engagement, which is the currency of social media marketing.

Check out “How to Use Social Media for Lead Generation.” It’s a quick read and I think you’ll find some useful takeaways.

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Bulldog Reporter’s Faux Pas Shows Why Not to Take Research at Face Value

This lead from a recent Bulldog Reporter case study on business blogging certainly caught my attention:

“Recent research reveals that 64% of American companies will launch their own corporate blogs in 2014, and the average budget for corporate blogging will increase by nearly one-sixth. What’s more, 12% of American companies plan to hire a full-time blogger in 2014.”

Holy cow! Blogging is one of the oldest forms of social media and is not generally considered a high-growth field. In fact, statistically valid research conducted by the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth over the past several years has documented that about only about one-third of the Fortune 500 and fewer than half of the Inc. 500 have public blogs, and those numbers aren’t growing very fast.  What new research now predicts this kind of mind-blowing growth?

It turns out to be research that’s not very good. A little background checking revealed that the numbers cited by Bulldog Reporter came from a study conducted by a company called DeskAlerts, which makes messaging software for use inside organizations. In a press release, the company summarized its methodology this way: “DeskAlerts asked businesses around the US a single question: what would inspire you to create a corporate blog?”

That’s all. Nothing about how the survey was conducted, who the respondents were or how many people responded. This is kind of critical information to know if you’re going to cite the results in a responsible publication.

From Russia With Love

Rise of corporate bloggingI tried to reach the contact listed on the press release, whose name is Natasha Chudnova. I e-mailed Ms. Chudnova via PRWeb but got no response. I couldn’t find a direct e-mail address for her on the company website or anywhere else. Her LinkedIn profile says she’s in the Russian Federation, which isn’t surprising given that DeskAlerts’ website says that’s where its development is done. The headquarters are listed as being in Alexandria, Va., but when I tried to call the company using the phone number listed on the website, I got a recording saying only that I had reached a voicemail box. The recording didn’t even identify the name of the company.

So I’m having my doubts about the quality of this research. But you don’t have to do any detective work to figure out that these numbers are suspicious. The most obvious question is how DeskAlerts derived so much data from a question that didn’t ask for any? There is simply no way that response to a single verbatim question could be interpreted to reach these stunning conclusions.

That’s assuming the question is valid, which it isn’t. A professional researcher would never use a word like “inspire” in a survey because it creates bias. It’s like asking, “What would cause you to take on the drudgery of creating a corporate blog?” The term “you” is also indefinite. Does it refer to the person or the person’s company? Even if the research was conducted over a statistically valid sample, the results would be meaningless if the question was asked that way.

But the most damning evidence that the research is flawed is the data itself. If we accept the UMass research as a baseline, then DeskAlerts is telling us that 100% of American companies will be blogging by the end of this year. Um, no, they won’t. Then there’s the statistic that 12% of companies will hire a full-time blogger in 2014. Given that there are about six million employers in the U.S., this would represent the addition of more than 700,000 skilled jobs to the workforce. If that were true, the President would be holding a press conference to declare victory over unemployment.

Despite all these problems, I don’t blame DeskAlerts for releasing bogus research into the wild or for producing the obligatory infographic above. Bad data is only a problem if people believe it. The real problem is when respected brands like Bulldog Reporter put the badge of legitimacy on information that is so clearly wrong. Publishers owe it to their readers to at least run a basic reality check before validating third-party research, particularly when it’s from an unknown party. Bulldog Reporter publishes a lot of good information, but it dropped the ball on this one.

Stop Talking! I’m Trying to Listen!

Three years ago I routinely advised clients to spread their content around liberally through multiple channels as a way to reach the largest possible audience. I recommended setting up multiple Twitter accounts for different functions like customer service and marketing. And I advised linking generously to influential bloggers as a way of generating reciprocal links that build search visibility.

Today I would recommend none of those things. As social networks have grown, so has the amount of noise they generate. Spammers have corrupted the value of outbound links to much that some bloggers no longer even use them. The factors that once made social media so appealing – accessibility and openness – have become a liability.

What to Stop doing in Social Media_coverLast week David Spark launched an ebook that provides important updates on the social media practices that many of us have long taken for granted – but perhaps shouldn’t any more. Hazardous to Your Social Media Health (free with minimal registration) contains advice from Spark and 56 other veteran practitioners about 50 online behaviors that used to be cool but aren’t any more. One of my comments is included in the book, but that isn’t why I recommend it. I just think it serves a timely and valuable purpose.

Shhhhhh!

An overarching theme of the ebook is to shut up. The din of auto-posts and pointless comments about nothing in particular is drowning out valuable messages and undermining social media’s value, say several of the contributors. Democratic media is great, but when everyone is shouting at once you can’t hear anything.

David Spark

“This giant land grab of users was actually valuable when we weren’t so overwhelmed by social messaging,” Spark writes. “Now the influx is so overwhelming that we’re reliant on filters to manage the noise.”

For example, Leo Laporte (@leolaporte), who has nearly a half million Twitter followers, says he doesn’t even read his home Twitter feed anymore because it’s so clogged with useless messages. He now relies upon filtering and aggregation services like Flipboard and Nuzzle to sort through the noise.

The victim of too much noise is meaningful conversation. The opportunity to talk with constituents was the reason many brands went online in the first place, but it’s getting harder and harder to converse with an audience that’s overwhelmed with information.

Beyond Social Media

So maybe it’s time for the media to evolve beyond collaboration. Giovanni Rodriguez (@giorodriguez), CEO of SocialxDesign, suggests that the next evolution of social media will “enable people to do more, not just talk more.”

He’s referring to the emerging so-called collaborative economy, which uses social constructs to create value. Services like AirBNB and Uber either enable us to do things we couldn’t do before or make it faster/cheaper/easier to accomplish tasks. The collaborative economy is an exciting development. A couple of years ago we thought it was cool to consult our social network for advice on where to book a hotel. Now the members of our network have become the hotel.

Spark and his collaborators are particularly harsh on practices that contribute to the noise level without adding value or that have selfish objectives like raising the sender’s profile at someone else’s expense. Sections like, “Stop Blogging About Everything” and “Stop Lifecasting” drive home this point. In “Stop Sharing Without Consumption,” he scolds Guy Kawasaki by name for openly advocating the practice of sharing headlines without actually reading the content. He also tweaks the practice of content curation if it’s done simply to build one’s social profile on the back of others’ work. Much as I love Kawasaki’s Twitter style, I agree completely with Spark’s criticisms.

I don’t agree everything in Hazardous to Your Social Media Health, of course, including Stowe Boyd’s advice to stop using RSS readers and Charlene Li’s admonitions against personal blogging. Some of the listed behaviors are also duplicative or appear to have been added to stretch the list to 50, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is a useful, timely and practical how-to manual for the next stage of social media development. I guarantee that in five years much of it will be out of date, but it’s sure a useful document to read right now.

Constant Contact Colocates with Small Business Customers

Great companies go beyond just providing a product or service. They think of themselves as partners in the success of their customers. Three companies that do an outstanding job of advocating for the small business customer are American Express (with its Open Forum small business community and annual Small Business Saturday promotion, among other things), Intuit and Constant Contact, the Massachusetts-based e-mail marketing company.

I often use Constant Contact’s Twitter and Facebook profiles as models for other B2B companies to follow. About 90% of the content the company posts in social networks is intended to help customers succeed in small business marketing. Less than 10% promotes Constant Contact products. It’s like that in the company’s remarkable Pinterest account as well.

Constant Contact’s Small Business Innovation LoftNow the company is taking customer advocacy to the next level with the launch of the Small Business Innovation Loft. That’s a physical space within the company’s Waltham, Mass. offices were startups can set up shop for four months at no cost and get $10,000 to spend on marketing activities. They also get free meeting space and priority support from Constant Contact’s support team. This press release has more.

Innovation labs aren’t new, but they are usually sponsored by venture capital firms or real estate companies that hope to cash in on them. In contrast, won’t take equity in the startups it nurtures. The value to the company comes from the promotional benefit and the word-of-mouth awareness that will develop as some of these companies invariably succeed and set off on their own. What better way to put your money where your mouth is?

Constant Contact makes it a point to get inside the minds of its customers and understand their ambitions, fears and motivations. That’s the secret of content marketing, however you define it. Check out this clever year-end video the company put together to celebrate its customers.

A Nice Collection of B2B Marketing Stats and Videos

Earnest is a U.K.-based B2B marketing agency that says its mission is, “to chase out the humdrum and bring a lot of love and passion to B2B marketing.” Its work certainly bears out that goal. Earnest’s B2B campaigns have a lot of B2C energy inside them. Its research and how-to presentations on SlideShare are an excellent resource for companies that want to get into content marketing.

Here’s its latest collection of recent trends and statistics: This is the year that was in B2B Marketing crunched. Be sure to check out the links to some of the year’s best B2B videos on slide 37. You can also download the presentation as a PowerPoint if you want to borrow a few of these stats.