Tribes Rule the Hyper-Social Organization

Hyper-Social Organization CoverI’ve been looking forward to reading The Hyper-Social Organization since I first heard François Gossieaux and Ed Moran discuss the findings of their “Tribalization of Business” research at a conference two years ago. I wasn’t disappointed. In this groundbreaking book, the authors expand upon ideas laid down in their early research that are both simple to grasp and momentous in their implications.

The assumption in The Hyper Social Organization is that human beings are basically social animals and that our behavior is fundamentally tribal. Given the opportunity, we seek help from others when making important decisions and willingly assist other members of our tribe. The popularity of social networks and collaborative projects like Wikipedia attests to these instincts.

In a business context, however, tribes have barely been a factor. Our ability to tap into networks of like-minded people has been limited by space and time. The whole relationship between institutions and their constituents is hard-wired around the assumption that people on the consuming end of the transaction are mostly in the dark. This is been a huge advantage to suppliers. Basically, he who shouted the loudest had the edge. That isn’t true any more, though.

Rules Have Changed

In the last five years, the supplier-customer relationship has begun to change fundamentally because of the Internet. Customers today can easily find each other for advice, and that’s exactly what they’re doing. The resulting changes in market dynamics, the authors argue persuasively, will disrupt business at every level. The Hyper-Social Organization is a look ahead at how those disruptions may play out.

Some markets have already seen this shift occur. A friend of mine who manages an auto dealership tells me that many customers today come into the showroom better informed about the vehicle they want to buy than his own salespeople are. As the Internet has created smarter car buyers, auto dealers have had to overhaul their businesses. Most make little margin on new vehicle sales anymore and must take most of their profit from service.

The same dynamic will play out across many more industries, the authors suggest. In markets in which peer information is easily obtained, the vendor becomes nothing more than one more voice in the crowd, and probably not a very important one at that. As companies cede control of the megaphone, they will have to re-examine their entire value proposition and change many of the ways they work.

For example, marketers will no longer be able to push empty messages because they will simply be ignored. The only hope for marketing is to become a valued source of advice. That doesn’t mean publishing more promotional white papers. It means listening to the market and helping customers make wiser decisions, even if that means recommending someone else’s product.

Similarly, sales must evolve into more of a consultation and systems integration role. Ultimately, the authors suggest, sales representatives must be encouraged and actually rewarded for suggesting lower-cost or even competitive products if that advice is in the best interests of the customer. Behavior that is anything less than helpful will be ignored or, even worse, punished in a public forum.

Marketing and sales organizations will both need to adapt to the end of the traditional funnel. Customers will no longer enter the company’s orbit at the early awareness stage; they may not make their first contact until they’re ready to buy. This means marketing materials must be overhauled to address customers who enter the funnel fully informed with information from other sources.

There are implications for the workforce as well. Gossieaux and Moran assert that successful companies will be those that empower their employees to make decisions on behalf of the customer regardless of their formal role in the organization. Among the many examples they cite is JetBlue, which shuns a rule book in favor of five core values — safety, caring, integrity, fun and passion — that each employee is expected to live by. Employees are never punished for making decisions as long as they adhere to those core principles.

Adopting an External Focus

Embracing an outwardly focused, socially active organization will require tolerance for a certain amount of “messiness.” This is inevitable and even desirable as organizations learn to quickly test, assess, fix and discard ideas based upon customer feedback. The good news is that customers can be remarkably tolerant of mistakes as long as businesses seek their input and are transparent and earnest about their motives.

In the end, the rise of social media “is likely to present companies with a critical question that is bound to keep executives busy for the next few years: What business are we in?” These kinds of life-or-death choices will be propelled by the ease with which operations can now be outsourced half a world away. Any line of business that does not provide the opportunity for clear competitive differentiation should be discarded, the authors say. Many companies will find that their only source of sustainable advantage is in customer service, systems integration and innovation. Businesses must effectively become integrators because otherwise their customers will do the integration themselves.

If this sounds like a lot of bad news, it is, but there’s also a silver lining in The Hyper Social Organization. Gossieaux and Moran believe that organizations that embrace the concept of hyper-sociality and involve external constituents at every level can reap enormous benefits. Crowdsourced product development is far cheaper than hiring legions of engineers. Customers who arrive via word-of-mouth recommendation are twice as loyal as those who respond to an ad. In fact, external constituents can take on much of the work that paid employees now do if they are courted appropriately.

Not that this is going to be easy. Twenty years ago, a lot of big computer companies made their money selling hardware. As market forces turned  that business into a commodity, they were forced to shed often very large businesses in order to remain viable. It was an agonizing process, but the companies that survived it are more diversified and better prepared for the future. Many didn’t survive, though, and if the scenario that Gossieaux and Moran portray comes to pass, a lot of other organizations are in for the same experience.

Tips For Making That “Networking” Meeting More Fruitful

Back in the early days of my career, I made a point to go on frequent informational interviews. These meetings, which were usually conducted in person, gave me a chance to sit down with people who were successful in their field and to learn from their experience. I never overtly asked people for a job or anything more than a little of their time. My goal was to learn, and possibly to make an acquaintance that could prove fruitful in later years. I’ve always advised young career-seekers to get as many informational interviews as they can. At the very least, they’re good practice for the firing line of a real job interview.

The strategy paid off for me when I was assigned to write a profile of Paul McPherson, then the president of McGraw-Hill Publishing, for an alumni magazine. At the end of our interview, I asked McPherson if he would mind if I contacted him from time to time for advice on careers in publishing. He generously consented, and two years later put me onto a lead that got me my first real journalism job.

Today, the shoe is on the other foot. Every couple of months, I get an inquiry from someone starting or switching a career who‘s looking for advice. I almost always agree to these meetings, but I often find them unsatisfactory. Over the past 20 years, the informational interview has been replaced by “networking.” The meeting is now all about the job-seeker’s needs, with very little benefit to the advice-giver. This is a shame, because I’m less likely to remember an encounter that has no value to me.

I think today’s “networkers” should steal a few tips from informational interviews. Here’s my advice:

Do your research. The fact that it’s so easy to find background information on almost anyone today makes it all the more astounding that so many people don’t.  Within 10 minutes, anyone can learn that I was born in Hong Kong, graduated from Boston University, have written four books, am a passionate Boston Red Sox fan and enjoy scuba diving. These are all entry points to the conversation, yet rarely do my meeting companions appear to know anything more than the basics about me. This shows a lack of resourcefulness on their part, and resourcefulness is a key skill for survival in these tumultuous times.

Have an agenda. I hate chit-chat, and I suspect the same is true for a lot of busy people. Planning the meeting gives you a better chance to achieve your objective and me the opportunity to prepare. If you want contacts who’ll help you find a job, say so and I’ll bring some. If you want to learn from my experience, then have questions along those lines. Don’t leave the discussion open-ended, because then I’ll start asking you a lot of questions and you’ll get a lot less out of the session.

Ask questions. People like to talk about themselves, so give them that opportunity. This is why the interview format works so well. If the meeting is all about the person seeking advice, it’s a lot less interesting to the  person giving it. That means they’ll be less likely to remember you.

You’ve asked for a meeting in order to learn, so have some questions ready. Ask about their secrets of success, the turning points in their career, mistakes they’ve made, memorable people they’ve met. Believe me, the more you get them talking about themselves, the more highly they’ll regard you.

Give value, too. I don’t mean this to sound self-serving, because I believe people who have been successful should lend a helping hand to those just starting. However, the “networking” encounter is going to be a lot more fulfilling if both parties see some return. This is where blogging is a fabulous tool. Instead of asking to “network,” offer to write up the interview and post it on your blog, or just point a Flip cam at the person’s face and post the video clip along with a link to their website. This gives both parties something to show for the encounter.

If you can’t think of a way to give value, ask the one question that no one has ever asked me in a networking meeting: “What can I do to help you?” This will surprise and flatter the person you’re meeting. Even if they can’t think of anything, they’ll remember you.

Follow up. Perhaps one in every three people who ask to meet for the purpose of “networking” ever bothers to send so much as an e-mail thank-you note. This baffles me, since I learned at an early age that thank-yous were a common courtesy when requesting a favor of another person. Your best chance to be remembered by the person you’ve just met is in the days immediately following the encounter. A thank-you note reinforces the impression you’ve made. It’s even better if you can tell the person how you’re putting their advice to work. Add 10 bonus points if you write the note by hand and send it in the US Mail.

Those are a few quick tips from me. What advice do you have?

The Changing Rules of B2B Marketing

Here is a draft of the first chapter of Social Marketing to the Business Customer by Paul Gillin and Eric Schwartzman. This chapter focuses on drawing the major distinctions between business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-consumer (B2C) markets and where social marketing has particular value to B2B companies. Your feedback is welcome. Please ignore the typos and grammar flaws that inevitably appear at this stage.

Friends know Scott Hanson as an affable native Texan with a penchant for computers, cars and poker. But to thousands of technology professionals around the world, Hanson is a celebrity. By day, he and three other technologists at Dell Computer manage the Dell TechCenter, an online community that helps enterprise IT professionals unravel the thorniest problems that occur when trying to integrate technology from multiple vendors.

Dell conceived of the community in 2007 as a way to enhance loyalty among its largest customers. Members share advice and ask questions of Hanson and the other engineers, who dispense it for free. The community is open and fully searchable, although only registered members can submit articles and comments. In 2008, about 100 people visited the site every day. By early 2010, that number was over 5,000.

Hansen and colleagues Jeff Sullivan, Kong Yang and Dennis Smith are celebrities of sorts in the community of enterprise customers, who frequently seek them out for meetings at trade shows and during visits to the company’s executive briefing center. Their celebrity is paid off handsomely for Dell: Hanson won’t provide specifics, but Dell has estimated that the Tech Center is indirectly responsible for many millions of dollars in sales each year.

That’s despite the fact that Dell Tech Center isn’t charged with selling anything. The site is free of advertising and the member list may never be used for promotions. “The last thing IT people want when they come to a technical resource is an ad asking them to buy a laptop,” Hanson says.

Those sales are generated by the affinity that the staff has developed with these key corporate customers. It’s a camaraderie that is nurtured by personal contact. In the early days of Twitter, the Dell TechCenter staff had set up a common Twitter account as a secondary channel of communication. But it turned out that customers wanted to speak to people, not brands. The Twitter initiative really gained traction when Hanson became @DellServerGeek and Sullivan became @SANPenguin. Suddenly the discussion became more personal and the people behind Dell TechCenter more real to their constituents.

Welcome to the new world of B2B communications. Dell TechCenter and other initiatives like it are microcosms of the changes that are sweeping across corporate America as a consequence of the rapid growth of social media tools like blogs, communities and user-generated multimedia.

Companies like Dell, which does 80% of its sales volume with corporate customers, are ideally positioned to take advantage of these new channels. In fact, B2B companies were among the earliest adopters of social media. Technology leaders like Microsoft, IBM and Cisco had hundreds or thousands of employees blogging as early as 2005 and those same companies are now expanding their footprint into social networks like Facebook, YouTube and, overwhelmingly, Twitter.

Microsoft used a video program called Channel 9 to show its human side to a market that saw it as a closed and secretive company. B2B technology companies have also been among the most creative users of social channels to reach the highly skilled people they need to hire in competitive labor markets. Recruiters have found that social channels are far more effective in identifying prospective employees than recruitment advertising sources and that prospects came into the hiring cycle with a better understanding and more enthusiasm about the company they were hoping to work for.

Yet B2B applications of social media get remarkably little attention. Perhaps that’s because their focused communities of buyers pale in size to the millions who flock to Facebook Official Pages for Coca-Cola and Nike is. Perhaps it’s because glitzy video contests and games don’t resonate with the time-challenged professional audience. It doesn’t really matter. Few B2B companies seek the consumer spotlight and their audiences, which may spend millions of dollars with them, are more interested in substance than in style. Fortunately, B2B social media is all about substance. Continue reading

Gain Control By Giving It Up

Open Leadership by Charlene LiCharlene Li’s new book will be out in a few weeks, and if you’re interested in how social media is transforming the way business gets done, you’ll want to pick up a copy.


The book is called Open Leadership, and I would classify it as the first of the post-social media books. By that I mean that it looks at the consequences of democratized communications rather than at the media itself. Expect to see a wave of similar books in the coming years. This is a very good first entry.


Open Leadership will make a lot of people uncomfortable because it proposes that the only way to govern effectively in a transparent business world is to give up control and trust people to do the right thing. Li makes a persuasive case by citing numerous examples of companies that have successfully done exactly that.


Li is a former Forrester Research analyst, founder of Altimeter Group and co-author of Groundswell, the breakthrough 2008 book that provided the first demographic profiles of social media users as well as a rigorous methodology for evaluating the ROI of social programs. In this book, she builds on some of the economic models first presented in Groundswell, but Open Leadership is more of a call to action than a financial exercise.


The premise is encapsulated in the title of Chapter 1: “Why Giving up Control Is Inevitable.” Li asserts that today’s business world is too complex and competitive to permit organizations to continue to manage the way they have since the Industrial Revolution. That top-down philosophy assumes that people are idiots who can’t accomplish tasks without instructions, rigid rules and constant oversight. That worked okay when companies had some control over their environment, but today too many factors are out of their hands. So one man’s story of how an airline broke his guitar and refused to fix it becomes a cultural sensation while the airline stands by helplessly and fumes. The most startling part is that no one questioned whether the owner of the guitar had used a protective housing in the first place!


Charlene LiLi (left) asserts that the only way to gain any level of control over today’s turbo-charged business environment is to give up as much control as possible. New business leaders set examples, demonstrate confidence and create cultures that tolerate intelligent, well-intentioned failure. And guess what? It turns out that when smart people are given the latitude to make decisions, they tend to make better ones than if someone else makes decisions for them.


Open Leadership provides some refreshing new examples of how this new management philosophy is working:



  • replaced a top-down approach to project management with one that requires stakeholders to persuade engineers to spend time on their projects. Productivity exploded;



  • BestBuy outlasted competitors in the brutal electronics retailing business in part by developing a culture that lets its employees guide customers toward the best decision, even if that means buying from a competitor;



  • Electronics distributor Premier Farnell distributed low-cost digital video cameras to every employee in the company so that they could document their best practices and share them on an internal network. Employees are more empowered and the quality of information is better.



Li is particularly inspired by John Chambers, the CEO of Cisco, which has undertaken a massive program to drive decision-making down to local levels. Chambers says the idea unnerved him at first but that Cisco is now a faster, more responsive and more innovative company as a result. And he’s working fewer hours. Chambers provides critical support for the concepts outlined in Open Leadership: He has the unwavering support of Cisco’s board of directors, which enables him to talk honestly about his own reservations and the mistakes he has made.


It is on the issue of mistakes that the author is most emphatic. Li stresses that businesses can only be innovative if they learn to accept the fact that failure is a necessary by-product of risk-taking, but if you really aren´t sure what to do then don´t just do whatever. Make sure you´re relaxed when taking desicions, a great way to clear your mind is by applying auto suggestions to subconscious mind. Companies that successfully practice open leadership evaluate decisions based upon the thought that goes into them rather than the results. Failure is an opportunity to learn and try again and the only unpardonable sin is making the same mistake twice.


Most businesses do a lousy job of this. They publicly declare a commitment to innovation, but privately punish employees whose ideas don’t succeed. Tolerance for failure is sometimes cited as the most important reason that Silicon Valley has outclassed every other region of the US in technology innovation. Reading Open Leadership, I get the impression that such tolerance is the only option for businesses that hope to lead in uncertain markets.

Another Great Giveaway!

Dale CarnegieDale Carnegie died more than 50 years ago, but the ideas he popularized about achieving personal success by influencing others have more resonance today than ever. I found myself revisiting some of his lessons when I was contacted by Dale Carnegie Training regarding their new application for the iPhone and iPod touch. This little 99-cent bundle of wisdom, called Secrets of Success, will invigorate and focus you by reminding you of such core principles as:

  • Don’t criticize, condemn or complain;
  • Give honest, sincere appreciation;
  • Arouse in the other person an eager want;
  • Become genuinely interested in other people;
  • Smile;
  • Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.

There are many more rules to live by in this handy app, which summarizes the teachings that have compelled more than 8 million people to complete Dale Carnegie Training. These principles are more important today than ever, because success is increasingly a function of our ability to be honest, generous and supportive of others.

I’ve been given a sweet incentive to help promote awareness of the application: I’m giving away 10 copies of Carnegie’s landmark book, How to Win Friends and Influence People, the global best-seller that has sold more than 15 million copies.

The rules are the same as for the entrepreneur trading card promotion I offered last week (I still have a few of those cards left, by the way): You must be a marketer or business owner and must fill out my survey on multiplatform social media practices. The survey takes about 10 minutes to complete and the results will be used in a research report on best practices in multiplatform deployment. Participants will also get an early copy of the results.

When you complete the survey, please note your address in the last field and specify whether you prefer to receive the trading cards or the book. I’ll give until my supply runs out.

As Dale Carnegie would say: “Throw down a challenge.” Only this survey shouldn’t tax your mind or your time too much.

How Twitter Got Shannon Her First Job

Shannon LehotskyShannon Lehotsky (SLehotsky) is a 2009 graduate of Emerson College, where I often speak to marketing and communications students. Last fall she contacted me to ask about ideas a new graduate could use to find a job. I gave her a few, but she went much farther that my advice. I got an e-mail from her last week about how she’s been leveraging Twitter to build a network and find work. The new crop of graduates who are set to hit the bricks in a couple of months could learn something from Shannon. The sentence in bold below is my own emphasis.

I’d like to share with you how Twitter has been helping me build my professional network (thanks to your advice!). I started when I moved to New York City after graduating in December, knowing no more than 5 people. I only had one or two job leads, so I pretty much had to start from the ground up:

– I created a new Twitter account and starting following industry professionals, job listings (@nyprjobs, @InternQueen), and industry publications (@Mashable).

– I started tweeting things relevant to my career to attract followers in the industry and make me develop a a brand as a thought leader.

– I avoided inappropriate or annoying tweets. On a few of my interviews, the interviewer mentioned that they looked at my Twitter account to learn more about me. (It seemed like a similar situation to Facebook, where a social platform is visible to professionals which can be detrimental to your career.)

– I joined the conversation! My goal was to get noticed, so I tried to keep all of my tweets thoughtful and relevant and directed to people so they weren’t just floating aimlessly in the Twitterverse. For example I’m following @EmersonAlumni, and they retweeted me once. I gained a few followers from that, including one fellow alum in New York City who put me in contact with another alum who was a job recruiter.

– A few people who I worked with previously would retweet job postings to me. Since it’s microblogging, a quick tweet isn’t too intrusive and it is less time-consuming than an e-mail.

– It is easier to find out people’s Twitter names rather than their e-mails. A quick tweet to a company to show that I was interested in them was sometimes the best way to contact people, especially smaller companies. It also shows that you are media savvy.

– Checking out Twitter accounts is also a good way to find out about company culture. When I applied for jobs, I would look them up on LinkedIn, Google, and then Twitter to see what topics they were talking about.

So those are just a few ways that Twitter has helped me to brand myself. I’ve found that sending out a resume is not enough to get a job in this market – networking is a necessity in the process and Twitter has definitely been helpful.

Job hunting has been a long process but I’ve accepted a job at a website ( and I’m excited to continue to work online.

More about Shanon.

Welcome to the Site-less Web

Posterous is a new service that radiates a person’s social media activity out to a network of community sites such as Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Tumblr and Delicious. Posterous is one of a host of new services that automate the once-tedious manual process of cross-posting information to multiple websites and social networks. Other pure-play entrants in this category include, and the WordPress plugin Supr, but the basic capability to cross-post information across multiple social media is rapidly becoming a part of nearly every Web application. Google Buzz, which was announced just this week, has some of the same functionality.

These are the first ripples in a wave of new technology that will make the Internet effectively site-less. By that I mean that the metaphor of the Web as we’ve known it for the last 15 years is breaking down. The Internet is increasingly not about sites but about content and people. As technology makes it possible for our online scribblings to appear wherever we may choose, the task of assessing influence will become considerably more complex.

The big change in the landscape is that information no longer needs to have a homepage in order to reach an audience. Facebook kicked off this trend when it created a service that was so popular that some brands found it was more desirable to use Facebook as a homepage than their branded websites. Honda is a notable example of this. The auto maker has started listing a Facebook fan page as the destination URL in its TV ads. The tactic is a bit of a gimmick, but it’s also indicative of a shift in marketer perceptions. As Coca-Cola’s Digital Communications Director Adam Brown told me recently, “Our philosophy is to fish where the fish are.”

Only it’s becoming more difficult to figure out where the fish are. As social networks integrate their content, the contributions of individuals will become detached from discrete websites. On Twitter, for example, conversations exist in a stateless form that finds a home on, TweetDeck, Seesmic, blog widgets or any other listening device that catches them. How do we assess influence in this environment?

In the early days of social media (and by that I mean 2006!), online influencers used their blogs as a home base and relied upon word-of-mouth, inbound links and search engines to deliver an audience. Today, the blog is almost irrelevant. With Posterous, a blog entry can be created as an e-mail message and posted automatically to a couple of dozen social outposts, formatted for the unique capabilities of each destination. Some of these services publish fan and follower counts but others don’t. Determining an influencer’s “share of market” is a matter of picking through search results and the metrics provided by various channels to measure a person’s total footprint.

In time, services will emerge that make sense of this chaos, but for now this is a classic case of technology outpacing people’s ability to understand it. For marketers, the key point is that the website as we have known it is diminishing in importance, influencers are magnifying their voices and the rules of engagement are being reset. The good news is that everyone can use these tools, so if you’re currently limiting your publishing activities to a blog or Twitter, consider expanding your scope. The bad news is that the influencer you thought you had identified and corralled is now blasting messages to a whole lot of different audiences. Only time will tell what the impact of that new reality will be.

Welcome to the Site-less Web

Be Inclusive Or Be Irrelevant

In my column in BtoB magazine this month I discuss the contrasting media relations styles of two giants of the Internet age: Google and Apple. The column focused specifically on their communications styles, but I believe the business tactics of these two starkly different but successful companies have bigger significance.

Google and Apple are diametrically opposed in many respects. Apple creates delightful experiences. Its products are proprietary, closed and self-contained, but people love using them because they not only work but seem to function the way humans expect. Apple is a technology company whose vision is rooted in human-friendly design.

Google’s vision is rooted in the potential of technology. The company produces an amazing array of products, ranging from mapping software to CAD design to medical records organizers. Google shares its ideas quite openly in public “labs” and is also prone to ending public experiments with little notice or explanation. Even its self-deprecating error messages are emblematic of the corporate culture, as if to say “So it didn’t work; we’ll make it better.”

The public-facing strategies these companies employ also couldn’t be more different. Apple holds its new product plans close to the vest and reveals them with fanfare at elaborate press conferences that generate months of media speculation. The company may only hold a couple of press conferences a year, but you can be sure they’re memorable.

Apple not only doesn’t use social media, it has actively litigated against bloggers who have revealed sensitive information. The strategy works well for Apple because its rabid base of fans is more than happy to indulge in speculative frenzy and drive awareness that no amount of advertising could buy.

In contrast, Google rarely holds press conferences. Most of its products are announced in a low-key style via blogs. Its developers and product managers work the long tail through one-on-one interviews and frequent speaking engagements. The company uses every social media outlet it can but shuns the media spotlight.

So Which Are You?

Is your company Apple or Google? Most businesses model their public personae on the Apple example. Their plans are shrouded in secrecy, access to executives is granted only to the top media and leaks are dealt with harshly out of fear that they could compromise the goal of being first to market. The theory is that the market is hungry for information, so it’s best to withhold news until it can have the greatest impact.

That strategy works for Apple but not for most businesses. Today, customers are swimming in information and if they don’t get insight about where you’re going, they simply move to someone else. Companies that build products behind closed doors risk becoming irrelevant because no one talks about them. What’s more, they lose the advantage of involving customers in a process that can not only make their products better but form the basis for a word-of-mouth marketing force.

How about being first to market? That benefit is vastly overrated. History has demonstrated that the only advantage of being an early mover is that it gives you the opportunity to make mistakes that others learn from. Apple’s sole first-to-market experience – the Newton – was also its most notable failure. The history of technology markets in particular is littered with businesses that created innovations that others later made successful.

In a world of plentiful information, the winners are those that do the best job of talking about their innovations before they reach the market. Prospective customers want to be involved in the process, and they punish those businesses that don’t indulge them. Look at the companies that are making headlines today and you’ll find nearly all of them have adopted an open and inclusive path to the market.

The Apples of the world are few and far between. Nearly everyone would like to be an Apple, but few will ever get the chance.

Love Your Subscribers

Ford Fiest MovementFord Motor Company is widely considered to be an outstanding practitioner of social media marketing. Under the leadership of Scott Monty (more than 36,000 followers on Twitter), the company has created such innovations as multimedia Ford Story website and consumer-generated Fiesta Movement (right).

So I was a little surprised recently when Scott Monty told me, “Most of the mainstream still relies on e-mail. Newsletters will be a big part of our strategy for 2010.”

Newsletters? E-mail? Isn’t that stuff so last millennium? In fact, e-mail continues to be the killer app of social media. E-marketer reported last month that “e-mail was the top channel for distributing content to friends, with 46.4% of all shares. About one-third of shares went to Facebook and less than 6% were tweeted.”

The Pew Internet & American Life Project reported last fall that more people use the Internet for e-mail than for any other activity, including search.

So allow me to sing the praises of e-mail as an engagement medium. Note I didn’t say “marketing medium.” Every marketer I’ve spoken to for the last two years has told me that e-mail blasts are delivering fewer and fewer quality results. E-mail newsletters, however, continue to be a core to their strategies. Here’s why.

Social media provides a great opportunity to create awareness among groups of people you don’t know, but they pale next to e-mail’s capacity to sustain relationships. My newsletter consumes about four hours of my time each week, which is not a small investment. However, it’s an invaluable way to sustain important relationships and a pretty steady source of new business. About 30% of my subscribers open each issue and I invariably get at least four or five direct responses as well as several comments to the blog. The newsletter also generates at least a couple of new business leads every month.

E-mail has one critical advantage over all social media: it’s permission-based. By subscribing to my newsletter, you give me permission to periodically intrude upon your inbox with a message that I hope is of interest to you. Your inbox is hallowed ground to me. While I don’t take unsubscribes personally, I do monitor them for evidence that my topics are going off-base. I respond to every reply I receive to a newsletter and I take those comments seriously. Anyone who takes the time to subscribe deserves my attention.

So let’s abstract this back to a business newsletter. I believe every company should have one. The subscription form on your site creates the opportunity to convert casual visits into conversations. It’s a chance to enhance visitors’ understanding of what you do, update them on new initiatives and demonstrate your value. A static website should catch attention; a newsletter should create a dialogue.

Think Different (As Apple Would Say)

You should think differently about newsletters than you do about other forms of communication. For one thing, you should make the message more personal. Your newsletter subscribers have a deeper interest in what you do than casual Web visitors. Give them your best stuff.

Subscribers should get value from a newsletter that they don’t get from a website or e-mail blast. That may be insight, an offer, an advance peek at something new or an invitation. If subscribers don’t get something special, why should they bother subscribing?

Newsletters are an excellent place to pull together your recent activities and show how your business is moving forward. Speak personally; this is a conversation, not an advertisement. Ask someone in your company to share a bit of expertise. Preview some new research before sharing it with the world. Give subscribers an exclusive discount. Share a behind-the-scenes look at a product or service that the rest of the world doesn’t get to see.

Always invite response. The “Reply” button is the fastest way to establish a dialogue. You might also give people the option to post their comments publicly on your blog or via Twitter hash tag.

When people respond, return the favor. I can’t emphasize this enough. Your newsletter is a way to convert an impression into a relationship. Why would you fumble away an opportunity for interaction? And when I say respond, I don’t mean with a boilerplate message. Better not to respond at all than to leave the task to a robot.

I subscribe to a lot of newsletters just to keep an eye on what others are doing. I’m often amazed at how little attention businesses pay to optimizing the potential of their newsletters. Airlines, for example, fill my inbox with discounts and package deals. I can’t remember the last time one of them invited my feedback or tried to help me be a better traveler. Perhaps that’s why I don’t subscribe to many airline newsletters anymore.

What ideas have worked for your newsletters? Let’s keep the dialogue going by sharing some successes in the comments area below.

This Crafter is No Dummy

Jenny Rohrs of Craft Test DummiesI met a woman this week at the Supergenius conference  who’s quietly making her mark on the giant crafting business. If I was writing a book, I might even call Jenny Barnett Rohrs a New Influencer.

Jenny is a professional music therapist who put that career aside for a few years to care of her kids. But the artistic instinct didn’t die amid the PBJ sandwiches and homework. The Lakewood, Ohio mom continued her passion of crafting and nearly two years ago launched a blog under the clever name of Craft Test Dummies.

Jenny was urged on by husband Jeff, who works at ExactTarget, an e-mail marketing term. Jeff knows a thing or two about digital promotion, and he urged Jenny to sweat the basics in organizing her site, writing good headlines and tagging all content. Jenny further promoted her own brand by volunteering to write for, a popular reviews site. Her Facebook fan page is a cornucopia of advice and offers. There’s a Ning community. And she’s on Twitter because, well, who isn’t?

The result: Craft Test Dummies is now the number nine result on Google for the keyword “crafting,” beating out even very large retail enterprises. Imagine that. In a population of hundreds of millions of crafting enthusiasts worldwide, this blogger has reached search nirvana in less than two years all by herself. Now Jenny gets hundreds of daily visitors, invitations to speak and samples from crafting supply makers around the country who hope to get one of her coveted reviews. She gets paid to demonstrate at trade shows and craft fairs and recently signed a contract to consult for an online retailer.

Jenny Rohrs is successful because she took care of the basics:

  • The blog is polished and well-organized. Categories are selected with care. Entries are thoroughly tagged;
  • The site is optimized for search. One trick: nearly every page title contains the word “craft” or “crafting;”
  • Jenny’s a good member of the community. She links to crafters she respects and they return the favor;
  • She uses every platform to her advantage, and the cross-links create more search awareness;
  • Most importantly, Jenny writes good stuff. Her entries are conversational, friendly and easy to read. They’re also full of ideas and advice. Not only does this appeal to crafting enthusiasts, but Google is tuned to love that kind of content.

With so many millions of blogs out there, you might fear that it’s too late to get into the game. But look at the results that this recent entrant has achieved. The secret is to deliver good content in an accessible format and to spread the word through as many channels as possible. The total cost of all the social media platforms Jenny Rohrs uses is $0. Her time may be invaluable, but the tools are cheap.