Infographic Gives Good Overview of Good Helpouts

One of the many little-known Google services is Helpouts, which are video meetings with experts who can help you do everything from seed your lawn to play the piano. You can hold impromptu Helpout conferences using Google Hangouts immediately or schedule them for later, depending on the expert and availability. Some carry a charge and others are free. Several brands offer free Helpouts to support their products.

A useful infographic arrived today from DPFOC, a digital marketing agency based in Ireland and the UK. It traces the history of Helpouts and offers some useful advice on what you can do with them.  I thought it was worth sharing. I’ll even forgive the agency for auto-launching a video when you visit its site.

DPFOC IG Helpouts

Why Facebook Isn’t Worried About Ello

I haven’t yet tried Ello, the newest social network to aspire to the role of “Facebook killer” (though my request for access is pending), but I know already that it is doomed to fail in that role. I’ve seen this scenario play out again and again, and result is a foregone conclusion.

Ello has attracted attention because of its pugnacious attitude expressed in a “manifesto” that begins, “Your social network is owned by advertisers” and ends “You are not a product.”

Some people are rooting for Ello to unseat Facebook by tapping into user rage over the giant social network’s controversial approach to using member information to sell advertising. They will be disappointed. Ello has no better chance of challenging Facebook than MySpace or Friendster. The social network wars are over, Facebook won and it’s time to move on.

My opinion is rooted in more than 30 years of watching battles play out over new platforms. Invariably the script is the same. To understand why Facebook has already won you have to understand the nature of technology platforms.

Platform Markets are Different

Platforms are technologies that serve as a foundation for development. Windows is a platform. So is the X86 chip architecture. Oracle is a platform and so are iOS and Google Maps. The winners in platform markets typically get 80% share, and everybody else fights over the scraps. This is because developers and customers want safe choices. They’re willing to pay more and accept less in exchange for knowing that a platform is going to be around for a while.

Platform winners are never supplanted by direct competitors. They fail for two main reasons: Customer preferences change or a new platform comes along that delivers a new kind of value.

An example of the first phenomenon is spreadsheets. In the late 1980s Lotus was larger than Microsoft and had a stranglehold on the highly profitable spreadsheet market with 1-2-3. Dozens of competitors took on Lotus with cheaper alternatives or modestly differentiated products. None gained more than a few percentage points of market share. What killed 1-2-3 was a change in preferences.Users preferred an integrated office suite based on a GUI metaphor. Microsoft had that and Lotus was slow to respond. (What’s sometimes forgotten is the Microsoft also discounted Office heavily in the early days, a strategy that helped tip the balance.)

An example of the second phenomenon is network operating systems. Novell’s NetWare reigned as the market leader until a good enough alternative came along in IP. IP wasn’t as elegant as NetWare, but it was free and accessible to all. Once it achieved critical mass, it became a safe choice and NetWare’s fate was sealed. Linux did the same thing to proprietary competitors on the server. Platform vendors are terrified by competitors that build critical mass.

Free doesn’t always supplant expensive. Linux on the desktop has never challenged Windows, but I think that’s due more to usability issues than price. On servers, Linux has done extremely well. It has critical mass.

Once platform companies become embedded they protect their franchise through a surround strategy. Some, like Microsoft and Intel, build formidable distribution networks and use volume discounts to block competition. Others, like Oracle and EMC, build software layers around their platforms that effectively embed them into customers’ organizations. Basically, it becomes more expensive for customers to switch than to stick with the incumbent.

What’s Really Different about Ello?

How does this relate to Ello? From what I’ve read, Ello uses the same basic social networking metaphors as Facebook and every other social network. Functionally, it’s a wash. Ello’s only major distinction is in the way it handles personal data.

The problem with that strategy is a few people really care. Privacy is important to a vocal minority, but in my view the vast majority of Facebook users couldn’t care less. As long as they can post photos of their kids and trash talk with their friends at no charge they’re happy. The recent disclosure that Facebook secretly manipulated the emotions of nearly 700,000 users has gotten plenty of media attention, but I don’t see anyone occupying Central Park over this issue. Facebook knows better than anyone that there are lines it shouldn’t cross.

What will ultimately unseat Facebook – or at least halt its growth – will be something that looks nothing like a social network. It may be based on sensors or artificial intelligence or free beer. No one knows. That’s one of the beauties of technology disruption. It comes from the craziest places. One thing is clear to me, however. It won’t come from Ello.

Engineering360 Joins Expanding World of Vertical B2B Communities

The world of online B2B news services continues to expand with the introduction of Engineering360, which owner IHS calls “the world’s largest online destination for engineers.”

Edited by David Wagman, a journalist and analyst who’s covered engineering for more than 25 years, the site features news, analysis, product research and tools, events, product catalogs, an interactive community and other resources typical of professional networks. Formerly known as IHS GlobalSpec, it was relaunched last week with an expanded news and community focused. The site is posting original news daily, most of it written by freelancers with apparently good domain knowledge. Their feature stories are mixed with a steady stream of un-bylined news shorts.

IHS Engineering360 editorial “covers the entire engineering landscape, with key areas of focus such as automation and control, electronics, energy and natural resources, general engineering, manufacturing, materials, network and computing and process equipment,” IHS said in a press release. IHS is the biggest media company I’ve never heard of. Based  in Englewood, CO, it had revenues of $1.8 billion last year providing information services for a wide variety of mostly heavy industries.

This is the latest in a series of 360 online platforms launched by IHS. Others include Electronics360.com, Janes360.com, IHSmaritime360.com, Datasheets360.com and IHSairport360.com. I’m working on getting an interview with some of the principals involved in these new communities for my FIR B2B podcast.

American Express Dreams Up a Potential Win-Win-Win

Here’s an example of a B2B2C initiative that looks like a potential winner for all parties involved.

American Express OPEN, the hugely popular community for small businesses sponsored by the credit card company, and Etsy are partnering ahead of Small Business Saturday on Nov. 29 to encourage small business boutiques  to support local Etsy sellers by hosting Trunk Shows.

According to a press release, “These events provide online sellers with the opportunity to put their products in front of customers in a traditional retail setting. For boutique owners, the trunk show is a chance to increase foot traffic into their store by providing diverse product all while supporting a local artisan in their community.” Each boutique that agrees to host a Trunk Show gets $75 worth of credits to buy supplies and a chance to win a $5,000 design consultation from Rue Magazine.

I’ve long been impressed by American Express OPEN. In addition to representing a large financial commitment on AmEx’s part, the community is a great example of a B2B initiative that really gets close to the customer. Small Business Saturday, which Amex invented four years ago, is one example of the energy and creativity that Amex has put into courting this audience. The Trunk Show idea is not only innovative, but it potentially benefits American Express, its small business merchants and independent crafters. That’s a rare win-win-win.

What You Probably Didn’t Know About Editors

New York Times newsroom, 1942This morning I spent 45 minutes cutting an article by a technology marketer by one-third. When I finished, the piece was better than when I started. And that made me happy.

I love editing, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. I also love my occasional roles as speaker, prognosticator and thought leader, but there’s something uniquely satisfying about taking someone else’s work and making it better.

Editors get little credit for what they do, but like film directors and record producers, their function is essential to a quality product. Today they are more needed than ever.

I sat down to write this essay after reading Alexandra Samuel’s eloquent post on the HBR blog network. Content marketing, she writes, “has emphasized producing a high volume of content at the expense of producing content that people actually want to consume.” But repetitive, unremarkable content drives audiences away, which is the opposite of what marketers want to achieve. The solution is better editing.

There are three types of editors: visionaries, copy editors and line or content editors. Marketing departments have no shortage of visionaries. They can also hire hourly workers to sweat the details of grammar and punctuation.

What’s missing are the editors in the middle, the city editors,  the people who shape individual stories and work with writers to turn ideas into content that people want to consume. In a world where everyone is a content producer but few people know how to write, they are in desperately short supply.

There are a lot of misconceptions about line editors. I’ll address a few big ones:

Editors work mostly with copy.

This is true only if the editors are incompetent or their organization is screwed up. Good editors do 90% of their work before a single word is written. They take ill-formed ideas and shape them with interesting angles and approaches. They guide writers on sourcing, structure, voice and format. They know when more research is needed and also when to stop researching and start writing.

Editors take words out.

This is sadly truer than it should be. People are taught from their earliest school days to equate length with gravity, so overwriting in the business world is epidemic. Sometimes the solution is to take words out, but it’s often better to rephrase ideas so that fewer words say the same thing. Editing is also about knowing where gaps exist and directing the content creators to gather more information.

Bill Blundell’s The Art and Craft of Feature Writing should be required reading for all editors. A longtime Wall Street Journal writer and editor, Blundell documents the almost obsessive culture at that newspaper with packing more information into less space. The reason for taking words out, though, is to fit more information in. The Journal’s time-pressed audience wants efficiency, not just brevity.

The editor’s most important constituency is the people who create the content.

Wrong. Good editors advocate tirelessly for the people who consume the content. They need to know better than anybody about the knowledge level, interests and time constraints of the audience, and they need to remind content creators, who tend to fall in love with their own work, that ultimately there is someone on the other end reading or watching. The best editors have spent years in the field with their constituents and continue to speak to them every day.

Editing is a thankless task.

It’s an anonymous task, but hardly a thankless one. Editors take pride in seeing a product they can be proud of. They also love to see the writers, photographers and broadcasters they work with blossom in their own right. One of my most rewarding moments was seeing a writer whose crude skills I had helped shape years ago receive a Nieman Fellowship.

Finally, editors take pride in knowing that their work has benefited their audience. No one will know or care that I cut 350 words from a marketer’s overwritten article this morning, but I’ll know that my time investment saved each person who read it a couple of minutes. And perhaps they understood it better, too. That’s reward enough.

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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