Twitterville Explains It All

Shel Israel’s Twitterville is currently sitting at number 62,000 on Amazon, which is disappointing because a lot of people should be reading this book. I suspect that Twitterville’s performance has been impacted by the flood of how-to-tweet books that have hit the market this year, but this book isn’t microblogging for dummies. Rather, Twitterville is a celebration of a new platform that has unleashed the creative energies of a community in ways that few of us could have ever conceived.

Israel says he interviewed more than 100 people for this book and it shows. Its scope spans everything from politics to nonprofits to law enforcement to giant corporations. Each Twitter member finds value in different ways.

Israel was co-author of the groundbreaking 2006 book Naked Conversations, which was the first book to  dramatize the game-changing nature of social media. Twitterville is no less important in framing the context for a revolution. Israel starts with the story of James Buck, a freelance journalist who was arrested by Egyptian police in 2008 and whose plight (and subsequent release) was communicated around the world by a single tweet: “arrested.”

Buck’s case was emblematic of the multiplicative power of Twitter. He had only a few followers at the time of his arrest, but a sequence of re-tweeted messages by some prominent Twitter members quickly spread word to the State Department, which intervened within 24 hours.

This idea that an individual can attain great influence by virtue of telling a remarkable story is central to understanding the power of Twitter and of social media in general. It also dramatizes the triumph of the individual over the impersonal corporate entity. “An individual brand now impacts the corporate brand,” Israel writes. Twitter “is a community of millions of personal brands. They are shaping the present and future of individuals and the companies they represent.”

That doesn’t mean businesses can’t develop a brand on Twitter, and Israel provides many  examples of companies that have. His point, however, is that you can’t think of the Twittersphere in terms of mass. Brands are built in Twitter by imparting wisdom, helping others and contributing to the collective knowledge. Corporations that experience the most success are those that let their people come out from behind the brand wall and act human.

The value of contributing to the collective good permeates Twitterville. Israel calls this “lethal generosity.” It’s the idea that people who “are the most generous to their communities almost invariably acquire the greatest influence.” This concept is central to another recent book I recommend: Trust Agents by Chris Brogan and Julien Smith. Coming at a time when the world is still reeling from a financial crisis precipitated by greed, it’s refreshing to see celebrations of  generosity. In one section on fundraising, Israel recounts several stories of charitable success that would have been unimaginable before a medium like Twitter existed.

Twitterville isn’t all celebration. In Chapter 15, Israel analyzes the seamy underworld of spammers, bots and phishermen and relates a couple of hair-raising stories of people whose reputations have been trashed by identity thieves. As Larry Ellison once said, “Every ecosystem has scavengers.” Twitter is no exception, and by acknowledging Twitter’s dark side, Israel makes the argument for the medium’s value all the more compelling.

The book provides useful advice on how to keep out of trouble as well as how to optimize the Twitter experience, but it  isn’t a book about how to amass 100,000 followers. It’s about how relationships work in a world constrained by limitations of space and time, yet liberated by the ingenuity and spirit of its citizens. If you still don’t “get” Twitter, then read Twitterville. You’ll quickly understand.

Books Worth Reading: the Trust Equation

The stack of unread books on the nightstand has been getting pretty tall lately, so I took advantage of some recent travel and vacation time to shorten it a bit. Over the next couple of days, I’ll post of reviews of some titles I recommend. Starting with…

TrustAgentsTrust Agents: Using the Web to Build Influence, Improve Reputation, and Earn Trust – Chris Brogan and Julien Smith don’t need my help to sell books; they’ve already made the New York Times bestseller list and their success is well deserved. The market has been flooded with social media books this year, but Trust Agents is different because it’s more about the social than the media.

Oh, there are plenty of tech tips and tricks, which are organized conveniently into sidebars, bullet lists and “top 10” formats. What really makes this book work, though, is its unflagging devotion to a kind of social media Golden Rule: treat others the way you’d want them to treat you and the rewards will come back in time

The authors make a persuasive case that the value one derives from social media comes from using the tools to build trust, and that means giving till it hurts. It’s about answering questions, making connections, giving advice and donating time without any clear expectation of reward. Believe us, the rewards will come, the authors say.

You certainly can’t argue with their success. Brogan is an A-list blogger and Smith is a popular speaker and pioneer in online community development. If Trust Agents does nothing else, it provides a blueprint for achieving the kind of success the authors have demonstrated through the practice of listening actively, responding generously and constantly asking the audience for feedback. Take the tools out of the equation and the same tactics work offline. People who succeed are those who have the relationships and reputations to get things done for others.

The greatest shortcoming of Trust Agents – if you can call it that– is the lack of hard ROI data. The authors don’t try to calculate the return on their own time investments, perhaps because neither has ever needed to. ROI, however, has been the bugaboo of this fledgling media and the greatest excuse for executives so far choosing to do nothing. If you want numbers, read Groundswell by Li and Bernoff or Measuring Public Relationships by Paine. Both do an excellent job of assigning numbers to actions.

If you learn nothing more from this book than a few of the tricks to better leverage your own online presence, it’s well worth the price.

Connectors_coverThe Connectors: How the World’s Most Successful Businesspeople Build Relationships and Win Clients for LifeI sometimes share with audiences the story of Automatic Appliance, a local retailer and service company that has forever wrested my business from the big-box discount companies by tirelessly working to satisfy me at every opportunity. The last time I called seeking to fix a balky clothes dryer, the owner spent 15 minutes on the phone trying to help me resolve the problem myself instead of charging me $300 for a house visit. Such selfless generosity has won Automatic Appliance a customer for life.

This anecdote would fit perfectly in The Connectors, a book that echoes, in many ways, the give-to-get spirit of Trust Agents. To be honest, I almost quit reading this book by marketing entrepreneur Maribeth Kuzmeski after 50 pages because it appeared to be just another in a long line of bafflingly successful books that tell how you can succeed by believing in yourself. But there’s more to The Connectors than pop-psych pabulum. I’m glad I stuck with it.

The Connectors isn’t about connections as much as about going the extra mile to make yourself or your business exceptional. The connections the author refers to are those that create indelible impressions in the minds of those one seeks to influence. Over time, these become the basis for sustainable business relationships.

Like Trust Agents, The Connectors skirts the ROI issue and chooses to build its case through anecdotes and inspirational stories. The book includes a number of useful and downloadable self-assessment worksheets. While some of its examples have been done to death (it’s time to retire Fedex’s Fred Smith legend, inspiring as it is), Kuzmeski’s many examples of success working with individual clients are compelling. Her counsel boils down to:

  • Build your social skills in a way that works for you;
  • Focus on what you do well and use your strengths to establish a unique niche for your enterprise;
  • Find small ways to delight customers; and
  • Doggedly pursue business opportunities with generosity and goodwill until the client turns your way.

Like Trust Agents, The Connectors takes it on faith – and the author’s considerable success – that paying it forward pays back in the long run. The most compelling section for me focused on creating a personal impression with prospects that makes it impossible for them not to want to give you their business. This may involve considerable investment of time and energy, an issue the author doesn’t resolve completely, but you can’t argue with the results. In an age in which globalization makes long-term competitive advantage nearly impossible to achieve, trusted relationships may be all we have left.

A New Media Book That’s Actually Fun to Read

The Chaos Scenario cover imageI start lots of books about new media, but I finish very few of them. My ADD is only part of the reason. I often find that authors don’t have much to say beyond a few points that are stated clearly in the first 100 pages or so and repeated for the remaining 200.

Not so with The Chaos Scenario, the new volume by veteran advertising critic Bob Garfield. I devoured this book and was sorry to see it end. One reason: It is so much fun to read.

Garfield is a gifted writer and he’s funny as hell. Of the video for OK Go’s YouTube hit “Here It Goes Again,” he writes, “Everyone on earth has seen the video at least four times, except for certain remote areas in the mountains of Papua New Guinea, where several tribesmen had seen only twice.” Or “If it were Japanese steel Google was flooding the market with, instead of kitten videos, it would be called dumping.”

Such asides are garnish on a viciously insightful treatise on the death of advertising by someone who has the street cred to make that judgment. Garfield’s quarter century of experience qualifies him to say when media is badly broken, which he clearly believes it is.

In an opening chapter entitled “The Death of Everything,” he documents the implosion of mainstream media channels of every kind under the weight of new-media competition and changing audience behavior. If your CEO still insists on throwing away money on TV ads, put this chapter in front of him.


Much of the book outlines the principles of “Listenomics,” or the premise that institutions that fail to listen to and engage with their newly empowered customers will die. The power that now exists in the hands of ordinary citizens can humble even the most arrogant corporate giants.

Among the examples of this Garfield cites is a grassroots campaign called “Comcast Must Die” which he and a core of frustrated cable subscribers mounted in 2007. Through blogs and message boards, an angry mob of customers turned the tables on a giant utility, forcing meaningful change across its vast customer service operation. As besieged Senior VP Rick Germano ultimately admits, “I’m crying ‘uncle’ now.’”

Bob Garfield

Bob Garfield

Garfield believes in the power of the crowd but not necessarily in its wisdom. Chapter 9 (“Off, Off, Off Madison”) presents a scathing indictment of consumer-generated advertising (CGA), which Garfield characterizes as mostly a dull imitation of what non-professionals believe advertising should be.

“Most CGA has been the stuff of tiny little talents with tiny little budgets pursuing tiny little ideas,” he writes.  Which is not to say that pitting crowds against each other is always a bad thing, as long as the crowds know what they’re doing. Garfield praises CrowdSPRING, a competitive foundry for design professionals that created dozens of choices for the book’s logo for just $500.

The power of the crowd is not so much to create advertising as it is to keep institutions honest, he asserts. In that respect, the balance of power has completely changed. “Never pick a fight with someone who buys zeros and ones by the barrel,” he writes at the close of the Comcast chapter, “which, nowadays, is everyone.”

Time to Lego

The story of Lego Mindstorms is a vivid example of Listenomics at work. The staid Danish company allowed customers to take an active role in turning a marginal product into a global geek megahit. Customers paid their own way to come to Denmark and help Lego build a more profitable business. Crowds are at their best when they help guide brands they like, Garfield asserts, but rarely when they build the products themselves. Brands like Dell Computer and Procter & Gamble are now embracing this idea of customer involvement with a vengeance through initiatives like Dell IdeaStorm and Innocentive.

The book closes on a somber note, distinguishing itself from the relentlessly upbeat message of many marketing titles. In a chapter entitled “Nobody Is Safe from Everybody” Garfield recites chapter and verse of people whose careers and even lives have been ruined by character assassination, “trolling,” and the sometimes devastating choices of search engines.

In a world in which less and less information is private, ordinary citizens are increasingly vulnerable to the whims of a malicious few whose vendettas may be artificially magnified by unknown algorithms. “You have very little to fear from 1984, but every reason to quake about Lord of the Flies,” he writes.

In the final analysis, this clarity is one of the book’s most endearing traits. Garfield isn’t afraid to piss off his critics or to make fun of himself. He also doesn’t hesitate to point out that information democratization is hardly a win-win proposition. It is inevitable though, which is why marketers would do well to heed his well-reasoned advice. “Why, all of a sudden, is it so important to listen?” He asks in the first chapter “Because hardly anyone anymore is listening to you.”