In Praise of Failure

I was chatting recently with Sam Decker, chief marketing officer at Bazaarvoice, about his company’s somewhat counterintuitive business. Its customers use Bazaarvoice to enable their customers to post product reviews and ratings right on their own websites.

I asked why would a company invite visitors to publicly criticize its products this way.  He told the story of one importer who sells a large and eclectic collection of overseas goods.  Customer ratings revealed that about one third of its inventory of more than 600 products would never sell well because of aesthetics, utility or other reasons.  The company used this feedback to quickly overhaul its inventory. Had it waited for customer objections to show up in sales figures, the process would have taken months longer.

Fear of Failure

If you have ever worked for a large company, you know that failure isn’t considered a good thing.  Losing products or business initiatives are usually killed off only after long and expensive efforts to save them. Powerful people stick with pet projects even in the face of overwhelming customer indifference.  People who fail are reprimanded.  People who fail repeatedly get fired.

Social media offers unprecedented ways to avert this syndrome, or at least to cut it short. By listening to customers, we can identify and fix shortcomings much earlier in the product lifecycle. By engaging in continuous dialogue, we are more likely to hit the market head on with new products. If we don’t let failure become some kind of referendum on our self-worth, then we are much freer to experiment.

I look at Google as being the most visible practitioner of the philosophy.  Spend a little time with the company’s line of applications and you’ll soon discover its amusing portfolio of error messages. “Whoa! Google Chrome just crashed!” says one. Another moans “We know this is lame, but consider that Gmail didn’t even have folders in its first version.”  Google is a company that doesn’t mind admitting its shortcomings because it knows customers would rather see that it working to get things right than pretending that everything’s okay when it clearly isn’t.

Google_LivelyGoogle also isn’t afraid to cut its losses. The company has shut down more than a half-dozen products and services in the last year, including Lively, it’s virtual world (left). It has also closed a couple of high-profile business ventures. Google makes no attempt to hide these business decisions but rather explains its reasoning on employee blogs. That’s because Google sees itself as an innovator, and innovative companies don’t mind getting things wrong now and then.  In fact, a company that doesn’t make mistakes isn’t trying hard enough.

Shoot the Losers

Unfortunately, few corporate cultures are confident enough to work this way. One of the most common questions I am still asked by audiences is how to avoid negativity in social media. My honest answer is why would you want to avoid it?  The faster you correct problems, the less damage is done. It might have been possible to ignore mistakes a few years ago, but that’s no longer an option. We can talk with our customers about our shortcomings or they will simply talk amongst themselves.  Which would you rather do?

It’s often been said that the reason Silicon Valley became such a foundry of technology innovation is that the culture accepts and even celebrates failure as a consequence of risk-taking.  In today’s media landscape, failure is no longer a private matter. Social media tools enable us to minimize the risks and consequences of our mistakes if we simply own up to them. It turns out that’s not nearly as difficult as we used to think it was.

Nonprofits Lead Way in Social Media Adoption

A new study by the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth Center for Marketing Research finds that a “remarkable 89% of charitable organizations are using some form of social media including blogs, podcasts, message boards, social networking, video blogging and wikis.  A majority (57%) of the organizations are blogging. Forty-five percent of those studied report social media is very important to their fundraising strategy.”

An interesting change is that 70% of the respondents now say they are familiar with social networking, an increase of 21% over the previous year’s study. Nonprofits are using nearly every tool at their disposal, with video blogging, social networking and blogs leading the way. In every respect, they’re blowing away corporations in their adoption of these tools: “Our latest research shows the Fortune 500 with the least amount of corporate blogs (16%), the Inc. 500 with 39%, colleges and universities blogging at 41% and charities now reporting 57% with blogs.”

These results really aren’t surprising.  One of the greatest appeals of social media tools is there cost-effectiveness.  It costs almost nothing to start a blog or Facebook group, which means that even a modest return is worth the effort.  Nonprofits also don’t have many of the political barriers to speaking openly that big corporations do.  Finally, they’re well-positioned to leverage the enthusiasm that their causes generate to maximize the potential of social networks to spread viral awareness.

umass_charities

Book Publishing For Everyone

I’m thinking about books this week because there are suddenly so many options from which to choose.  Take a look at the services being offered on Lulu.com, which is one of the most successful of a flock of new Web-based self-publishing houses. Other companies in this market include iUniverse, Blurb, Outskirts Press, AuthorHouse, BookSurge and CreateSpace.

For just a few dollars, you can select from a wide range of templates, upload your copy and images and publish for yourself, your friends or the entire world.  Lulu publishes on demand, which means you don’t have to maintain a garage full of bound copies.  It’s a little more expensive than keeping an inventory, but you can’t beat the flexibility. There’s also less chance of hard-coding errors into thousands of copies.

Just Like the Pros

Over the last couple of years, Lulu has added an impressive range of publishing, marketing and distribution services.  For example, a custom cover design can be had for as little as $80 and professional copyediting and design services are relatively cheap. The availability of high quality offshore resources has been a big factor there.

You set your own price and pocket the difference. Quantity one pricing for some books can be as low as $10 to $15 and significant quantity discounts apply.  For a book that sells a few thousand copies, you can make a lot more money publishing yourself than going to a commercial publisher.

There’s also the advantage of time. Boston Globe columnist Scott Kirsner has published two books using CreateSpace, which is run by Amazon. For his latest book, Fans, Friends And Followers, “I wanted the book to be available soon after I finished researching and writing it, not six or twelve or eighteen months later, as is typical with traditional publishers,” he wrote me an e-mail. “As a journalist, I receive review copies of lots of books, and I’d say about half of them have gone stale by the time they get into my hands.”

Scott also cites the superior margins of self-publishing.  While commercial publishers typically pay royalties of no more than 10% of the cover price, self-publishing can yield margins of 50% or better.  One publisher of children’s books and I met last fall pays $2 dollars per copy to have her books printed in Hong Kong and sells them for $19 at fairs and book shows.

Not a Panacea

With economics like that, you might wonder why more authors and businesses don’t self publish.  There are some good reasons.

For starters, self-publishing takes a lot of time.  In addition to writing a manuscript, authors must shepherd their masterpiece through editing and production, which involves many hours of detail work.  Unless you have crack copyediting skills, or pay copy editors and proofreaders to do a thorough job, errors are bound to make their way into the final product.  The Web may be a forgiving medium, but print is less so.  Grammatical and typographical errors can undermine the value of your prose and make your effort look amateurish.

Marketing and distribution are also major challenges for self publishers.  While most services offer their own bookstores and promotional venues, the reality is that it’s nearly impossible to get into Barnes & Noble with a self-published title.  Some publishers make it possible to secure a coveted ISBN (International Standard Book Number), which buys you entrée into libraries, catalogs and retailers, most of whom don’t sell books without this standardized code. However, there’s no guarantee of success. Professional book reviewers are also less likely to pay attention to a book that doesn’t carry an ISBN code.

Finally, there is the legitimacy that a name brand publisher can bestow upon a book. While Simon & Schuster or McGraw-Hill can’t make a bad book into a hit, they have the relationships and sales power to move large quantities through simple bookstore presence.

These factors may matter to you little to you, however.  Books have been called “one-pound business cards” because they confer credibility that creates business opportunities.  They’re a great promotion to send to customers and prospects and they have leave-behind value that collateral simply doesn’t.  Now they’re also simpler than ever to produce.

And in case you’re wondering, I’ve worked with a professional publishing house on all three of my books. Quill Driver Books (a subsidiary of Linden Publishing), has consistently delivered fast turnaround, personal service and a professional job. If they didn’t, I’d probably be publishing myself!

BzzAgent Cultivates Brand Influencers

Dave Balter knows a thing or two about brand advocacy, and his experience may turn some of your assumptions about brand relationships on their head.

Balter is the founder of BzzAgent, a Boston-based agency that specializes in generating word-of-mouth awareness for products and brands. Over the past eight years, the company has recruited more than half a million brand ambassadors it calls “agents” and applied them to campaigns for more than 500 clients.

BzzAgent’s success challenges two items of conventional wisdom about marketing:

  • People don’t want to have relationships with brands; and 
  • You have to pay them to spread your message. 

BzzAgent doesn’t pay any of its brand agents. “As soon as you put cash in somebody’s hands, it changes their opinion,” Balter says. “What we say instead is that we’ll let you try products and what you say about them is up to you.” Just being involved in the campaign is a motivator. “BzzAgent is a natural magnet for people who like to influence.”

Earnest Advocates

BzzAgent recruits people from all walks of life with the simple promise of a special relationship with the brands they endorse. No one is coerced or enticed into becoming an agent or working on a campaign; if they don’t want to be involved, they shouldn’t participate.

“We tell people that we see them as a thought leader for a product. We send them the product, send a BzzGuide [brochure]  to help them feel special and then they talk to other people as they want. We don’t tell them to what to say,” Balter says.

With no more compensation than that, some of BzzAgent’s most actuve participants devote 20 hours per week to evangelizing products. They’re asked to log on to a secure website periodically to tell about their activities. The comments – both pro and con – are acknowledged by a personal thank-you from a BzzAgent employee and transmitted to the client.

Both of these factors are powerful motivators for the core of agents, Balter says. “The idea that you’re so important that the brand is going to actually listen to you means your opinion matters,” he says. The personal acknowledgment shows that there’s a human being taking an interest in what the agent has to say.

Such influence enhances a person’s self-esteeem. Brand advocates also gain status from knowing that they matter and sharing that with their friends.

Balter believes that people do identify with brands and that identification is a badge of honor. “I think people want to ‘friend’ brands more than many of us can imagine,” he says. Being a vocal fan is a badge of honor. “It gains acknowledgement from their peers,” he says.

BzzAgent’s new BzzScapes site would tend to validate that opinion. Launched in late May, BzzScapes offers people the chance to build an online shrine to brands they support. Each BzzScape links back to an individual user’s profile, giving that person the distinction of being the first to express brand affinity.

In a little more than week, nearly 2,800 BzzScapes have been created for organizations ranging from soccer teams to soda pop. Contributors receive no reward other than the recognition that they were the first to establish an outpost. Some unlikely brands have generated impressive activity. The BzzScape for personal-care company Burt’s Bees has logged more than 22,000 contributions from nearly 750 users. The reasons aren’t clear. It seems that some brands just inspire that kind of passion from customers.

Click here for an audio interview with Dave Balter conducted on May 28, 2009. (40:00)

[audio:http://gillin.com/Podcasts/Balter.mp3]

The Web Is Going Social

If you’ve signed up for more than a couple of social networks, you’ve undoubtedly experienced the syndrome of seeing your mailbox clutter up each morning with notifications about messages, invitations or comments you’ve received from other members. This deluge can become so annoying that you may simply choose to relegate many of these notices to the black hole of your spam filter.

Welcome to the dirty world of the early social Web, a time of chaos and incompatibility that is stifling the real utility of these marvelous new networks.

If you’ve been around for a few years, you may remember a similar state of affairs from the pre-Web days. Back in the early days of electronic mail, users of CompuServe, America Online, Prodigy and other branded networks were unable to exchange e-mail with non-subscribers.  Even after Internet e-mail had been broadly accepted, America Online clung to its members-only prohibition for some time in the foolhardy belief that it could force members to stay within the fold.

Today’s social networks suffer from some of the same limitations. Each has its own profiling system, internal messaging, collaboration systems and applications.  Some aggregators like FriendFeed gather up member activity from multiple sites, but such services are mainly limited to collecting RSS feeds.  There is no such thing as an integrated online profile.

This profusion of information smokestacks won’t last. Two competing standards – one from Facebook and the other from Google — are duking it out to create a standard single identity that travels with Web users.  If you’ve signed in to Google and looked up your own name recently you’ve probably noticed that Google now prompts you to fill out a profile.  This sketchy self-description is the beginnings of a broader reach by Google to make the entire Web into a social network.

In the socialized future, people’s identities will travel with them and their details shared selectively with others within their social network.  Profiles will develop incredible richness as details of each person’s preferences, connections, memberships and activities are centralized. It will probably be a year or two before this concept begins to take shape. Regardless of whether Facebook or Google wins the standards war, the social network metaphor will become ubiquitous.

Social Colonies

Forrester analyst Jeremiah Owyang has called this next stage of evolution the “era of social colonization.”  Once every website takes on social network characteristics, the utility of the Web will change dramatically.  We will increasingly rely upon the activities and recommendations of others to help us make decisions.  Sites like Yelp, ThisNext and Kaboodle already provide a rudimentary form of this functionality, but they are limited by their closed nature.

One social bookmarking service I use –  Diigo.com – provides a glimpse of what the social Web may look like. Diigo (and a similar service called WebNotes) enables members to highlight and comment upon Web pages or passages and share them with others in their network. Visitors can read and add to existing comments in the same way that editors annotate and build upon a draft document.  Imagine if the capabilities were expanded to include star ratings, multimedia, discussions and other interactive features.  That’s when the social Web really gets exciting.

The ripple effects of this shift should be dramatic. Imagine a future in which your company homepage becomes a giant group product review. Forrester’s Owyang foresees a future in which marketing becomes oriented around customer recommendations. There will be no choice. Companies may lose control of the messages on even their own websites as visitors share their own impressions.

Owyang also believes companies will have to customize their Web experiences as visitors selectively share information about their interests and preferences. This information will become a kind of currency.  We will grant brands and institutions selective access to information about ourselves in exchange for discounts and specialized services. The shift from mass to custom will take a giant step forward.

Today’s social networks are no more representative of the Internet of the future than Prodigy was of the Web we know today.  These will be incredibly exciting developments to watch.  We just have to get past the necessary evil of a standards war in order to appreciate them.

LinkedIn Treasures

Ask a room full of college students and a room full of business professionals “Who belongs to LinkedIn?” and the results will be almost a mirror opposite of each other. Facebook is the social network for after-hours fun. In contrast, LinkedIn is for business professionals. It’s a buttoned-down, no-nonsense business destination with a two-color, text-heavy design that almost screams “Boring!”

LinkedIn is anything but boring, however. Its value as a way to establish and further business relationships is unparalleled, thanks to the unique services it offers. If you signed up long ago and forgot about it, I recommend you take another look.

Like any social network, LinkedIn has personal profiles, groups, and the concept of “friends,” which it calls “connections.” Its most distinctive feature is based on these connections: a six-degrees-of-separation structure that enables members to connect to people they don’t necessarily know through intermediaries within their trusted circle. It’s the online equivalent of arranging an introduction.

Personally, I don’t find this feature all that useful, but connections are the core of other LinkedIn features that I do like.

One is Answers, a section where members can post their questions about nearly anything to a select group of connections or to the entire membership. Answers is a great way to get questions resolved quickly, but it’s also a means to expose your skills. Believe it or not, some people answer more than 200 questions a week on LinkedIn. One reason for their generosity: the site enables members to rate the quality of responses and showcases the most prolific contributors in a Hall of Fame section (the all-time leader has answered an incredible 14,000 questions).

Company Research

LinkedIn is also unparalleled in its database of company information, but it takes a bottoms-up approach, focusing not on corporate leadership but rather on individual employees. If you need to find a specific person within a company or just check out a potential partner or employer, you can go in through the back door by consulting current employees. LinkedIn will tell you if you have a direct or second-degree connection to the people you seek.

Job listings go beyond the standard titles and description to provide contact information for people within the companies that advertise opportunities. If a job interests you, you can click through to find out who you know at the company and then contact that person for insight or a referral.

LinkedIn also excels at search engine performance. Its public profiles do so well on Google that they frequently outrank personal websites in search results. I don’t know the secret, but I suspect that the site’s system of internal links is partially responsible. This alone is enough reason to set up your personal profile.

Given all this career-boosting utility, it’s not surprising that traffic to LinkedIn reportedly doubled in the weeks following the stock market meltdown. Members can brush up their personal profiles by swapping recommendations with others, updating their qualifications and showcasing their expertise through integrated applications. Unlike Facebook, LinkedIn keeps a tight rein on the applications it chooses to support, limiting the current selection to just 10 business-focused services.

While LinkedIn doesn’t have nearly the membership numbers of Facebook, its business focus is an advantage. The CEO was recently quoted saying that the demographics of LinkedIn members are better than those of Wall Street Journal subscribers. In troubled times, that’s a very good place to be.

Facebook Is All About Sharing

From my weekly newsletter. To subscribe, just fill out the short form to the right.

This week I continue my series on marketing opportunities with social networks with a profile of the largest and most tantalizing network of them all: Facebook.

facebook-logo-roundedOver the past two years, Facebook has raced ahead of its predecessor, MySpace, to become the gathering place of choice for young adults. With membership of over 200 million, the population of Facebook now exceeds all but the six largest countries in the world, making it a compelling choice for companies that want to spread a message far and wide.

Facebook succeeded in accomplishing something that countless entrepreneurs and billions of investment dollars failed to do during the first decade of the Web: it got people to give up personal information. Lots of it. Facebook members share details about their lives, loves and passions to a stunning degree. The catch is that this valuable data is locked up in personal profiles, which are shared only selectively by members with their friends. The only way to broadcast a general message to Facebook members is by buying advertising.

Facebook’s core audience is college students, more than 85% of whom are members. However, the site is catching fire with the older crowd as well. In fact, the over-35 crowd is the fastest growing demographic group. Most people are captivated by their initial Facebook experience: filling out a profile reveals dozens of former friends and long-lost classmates who are already members.

A Culture of Sharing

“Friending,” a concept popularized by MySpace, requires a mutual agreement between two members to share information. Members can control to some degree how much access to grant their friends. Facebook also has several popular features built on this concept, including a public message space called the Wall, a changeable status message and photo albums that friends can see and comment upon.

The Twitter-like “News Feed” is a recently added feature that provides a constant stream of information about friends’ activities and recommendations. For active users, it is increasingly becoming an alternative to services traditionally provided by news outlets.

Facebook has millions of groups about every conceivable topic ranging from egg-lovers to people who believe in the Loch Ness monster. It’s ridiculously easy to start a group on Facebook, which is one reason why so few of them are active. For marketers who want to build a fan base, however, Facebook groups are an appealing way to reach a large number of people quickly. The trick is to convince members to recruit each other. Spam mail is prohibited on Facebook, so group organizers must create compelling outposts that members will want to recommend to each other. Among the examples of successful commercial groups are Nike, Victoria’s Secret, The Chris Moyles Show, Pink Floyd, The State of Texas and Harley Davidson. The secret: be memorable, shareable and fun. Here’s a list of some of the largest Facebook fan pages.

Facebook’s entire model is predicated on sharing. Since early 2008, the site has allowed third-parties to create applications that members can share with each other. Nearly all of the successful titles, such as Flixter and iLike, employ features that let members compare their preferences to their friends’ or to give virtual gifts.

Some people think Facebook is strictly a consumer gathering spot, but there are plenty of groups devoted to professional topics, with marketing and sales leading the way. While the thrust of the site is consumer, businesses shouldn’t rule out Facebook as a low-cost means to find constituents who are hard to reach elsewhere, particularly if they are under 30.

Why People Love Social Networks

From my weekly newsletter. To subscribe, just fill out the short form to the right.

Social networks are so popular these days that many  marketers and small business owners may feel compelled to use them regardless of whether they make sense or not for the business. I’ve recently been helping some clients to make these decisions, which can be expensive if poorly considered, and I find that many people still have some very basic questions. So I’ll devote a few posts to practical advice that may help clear up the confusion.

Why all the hype?

Online communities have been around since the earliest days of the Internet and in commercial services like CompuServe and The Well. So what’s different today? In 1998, a site called Classmates.com, which is still thriving, introduced the concept of “profiles” and “friends.” While this nation seems second nature today, it was revolutionary at the time.

The profile is a person’s (or business’) home base. It not only contains personal information about a wide range of topics, but it also keeps track of a member’s activity within the community. This is important, because as members accumulate friends, joins groups and help other members, all of those activities and relationships are captured in their profiles. The more they contribute, the more valuable they are to the community and the more their personal status grows.

Friending is essentially the process of sharing personal information with others. When two people become friends, they exchange glimpses into each other’s lives, much as we create and nurture real-life friendships. Friends relationships are very strong, whether real or electronic. The chance to build and solidify relationships with our friends is one of the greatest appeals of social networks.

There’s also utility in these online relationships. Social networks are great contact managers. Instead of maintaining our own address books, it’s easy to let the network keep track of where people are, what companies they work for, who they’re dating, etc. They also make it easy for us to capture fleeting relationships. Once we friend someone we’ve met at a conference or football game, we never need to lose touch with that person again.

Groups are a natural outgrowth of profiles and friends. Social networks keep track of information that can be used to find other people with whom we share common interests. While most networks don’t allow members to mass-mail other people based upon their interests, they do enable sponsors to buy targeted advertising and people to form relationships within the groups they join. The advantage of starting a group on Facebook, for example, is that Facebook already has information about a vast community of people. Group organizers can take advantage of this information to quickly grow their membership without starting from the ground up.

Profiles, groups and friends — these are the essential elements of social networks. Next we’ll look at how they’re applied on three of the most popular networks: Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter.

Forrester: Social Media to Lead Interactive Marketing Growth

Forrester has just released its five-year forecast growth in showing social media will outpace all other forms of interactive marketing spending, with a compound annual growth rate of 34% (off a very small base). Mobile marketing will be the second-fastest-growing budget item. E-mail and display advertising will grow more slowly over the next two years but the forecast improves after that.

The firm didn’t provide any details other than the chart below. The full report will be issued later this spring.

forrester_forecast

Why You Should Take Another Look at RSS

rss-logoMention RSS to non-techies and their eyes assume a faraway look that tells you that you’re better off changing the subject. Really Simple Syndication is seen by most people as being anything but simple. Their early experience with the little orange buttons that grace most websites has been that clicking on them resulted in a screen full of cryptic text that prompted them to quickly close the browser window and take a deep breath.

RSS is widely misunderstood.  People think that its main use is by the small number of techies who have the time and expertise to consolidate all their information in feed readers.  But the main audience for RSS is machines, which are increasingly incorporating RSS feeds into the information streams that power websites.

Cheeseheads

Let’s look at a silly example: here’s a page about cheese on the popular website Alltop.com.  Alltop is a huge engine of information about nearly any topic you can imagine, yet it produces no original content.  All of its information consists of headlines provided as RSS feeds from the websites it indexes.  Mouse over any of those headlines and you get an expanded description that tells you whether the information is of interest.

Now head on over to BlogHer, the popular site for women bloggers.  Nearly everything at the top of this page comes via RSS feeds.  BlogHer automatically collects the latest posts from members of its network and streams the headlines to its home page.

It’s the same at Engadget, which is one of the top 10 blogs on the Internet. Nearly the entire right side of this page is given over to content delivered in the form of RSS feeds.

So you can see that the audience for RSS feeds isn’t individuals, it’s websites. They can potentially magnify your content to reach thousands of other people. It gives you the potential to reach much larger audiences than you could with just your own small online outpost.

Personal Use

RSS also has personal productivity benefits.  If you look at my own home page on the right side under the “Speaking” banner, you’ll see a list of upcoming events at which I am presenting.  I don’t post this content myself; its origins are this collection of Delicious bookmarks.  By inserting a small snippet of code on my home page, I can have items that I bookmark distributed automatically.  To add an item, I simply bookmark it, modify the description and give it the appropriate tag.  All of the websites that I own are updated instantaneously.

You can even use RSS to feed your own information needs.  Look at this page of Twitter search results for the query “global warming.” Note the orange button in the upper right corner.  Click it, copy the URL in the address bar and plug it into any RSS widget to display the Twitter search results on a website.  Every time you refresh the page, the latest search results are added to the mix.

Nearly anything you read or publish on the Internet these days can be formatted as an RSS feed.  Once it’s in that form, it can be syndicated anywhere else.  That’s the real power of RSS.  It gives you the means to flexibly reuse and syndicate content to reach a much wider audience with very little effort.