New Media Demands New Leadership

I don’t go to the South by Southwest conference for the sessions as much as for the people. The most interesting conversations usually happen outside of the conference rooms. One discussion that stuck with me this week occurred after a presentation by MIT’s Andrew McAfee entitled “What Does Corporate America Think of 2.0?”

While I was waiting in line to introduce myself to Mr. McAfee, I eavesdropped on a conversation he was having with the young woman in front of me. She gave her age as 28 and said she had recently been hired to coordinate social media at a real estate company where her bosses were mostly in their 50s. She was clearly demoralized and frustrated.

The young woman had been brought on board to get the realty company up to speed in the new Web technologies. She understood that conversational marketing requires a culture change, but her management wasn’t interested. Her bosses, she explained, saw social technology as simply another way to distribute the same information.

For example, she had been ordered to post press releases as blog entries and to use Twitter strictly for promotional messages. She had been told to get the company on Facebook but not to interact with anyone on its fan page.Her communications with the outside world were to be limited to platitudes approved by management.

I felt bad for this young lady and also for her bosses, who will no doubt lose her in short order. I suspect they hired a social media director in the belief that she could create new channels for them, but they didn’t understand the behavioral change that was required on their part.

Open Leadership

A couple of nights earlier, I attended a dinner given by Altimeter Group, whose founder, Charlene Li, co-authored the ground-breaking book Groundswell. Charlene was handing out galley copies of her forthcoming book called Open Leadership. In it, she suggests that management strategies must fundamentally change in the age of democratized information. I’ve only read a third of the book so far, but I can already tell that it will cause considerable discomfort in corporate board rooms.

In the opening chapter, Charlene notes that “to be open, you need to let go of the need to be in control… you need to develop the confidence… that when you let go of control, the people to whom you pass the power will act responsibly.” This notion of leadership replacing management will shake many of our institutions to the core.

The traditional role of management has been to control and communicate: Managers pass orders down from above to the rank-and-file who are expected to do what they are told.

In the future, communication will increasingly be enabled by technology. Employees will be empowered with information and given guidelines and authority to do the right thing. Middle managers won’t be needed nearly as much as they are today. Organizations will become flatter, more nimble and more responsive because information won’t have to pass up and down a chain of command before being acted upon. This will result in huge productivity gains, but progress will only be achieved when top executives learn to let go of the need to control and to accept the uncertainties of empowered constituents.

No Pain, No Gain

The real estate company’s mistake was in believing that it could participate in a new culture without changing its behavior. It saw social media as a no-lose proposition; distribute the same material through new channels but don’t accommodate the reality that constituents can now talk back. Any company that takes this approach will fail to realize the benefits of the media. Once its customers realize that their opinions don’t count, they will stop engaging with the company. That doesn’t mean they won’t do business with the company any more, but the benefits of using the new media will be lost.

I have never advocated that all companies adopt social media. Each business has a different culture, and some adapt more readily to open leadership than others. If employee empowerment and institutional humility don’t fit with your style, then social media is probably not for you. You may do just fine for several years without changing your practices. But if you choose to play in the freewheeling markets enabled by customer conversations, then you’d better be willing to let go of control.

Over time, I believe all companies will have to give up the belief that they can control their markets, because interconnected customers are an unstoppable force. In the short-term, however, businesses need to do what feels right for them. If you work for a company that can’t adapt itself to the concept of open leadership, then start circulating your resume. These days, there are plenty of businesses that are eager to change.

UPDATED: Draft Outline B2B Social Marketing Book

Here s a first-pass topical outline for the book Social Marketing to the Business Customer, by Paul Gillin and Eric Schwartzman (John Wiley & Sons, late 2010). This outline attempts to define all the major issues to be addressed in a book targeted at business-to-business marketers. Your thoughts are welcome. Use the comments area to tell us what we’ve missed and where we should devote the most attention. And if there’s anything that shouldn’t be here, let us know that as well

Note: Practical advice will be interleaved with case studies, vignettes and quotes from practitioners. We are very interested in identifying candidates for case studies. If you have a good story to tell or tips to share, contact Paul or Eric at paul{at}gillin{dot}com or eric{at}ericschwartzman[dot]c0m.

Update: This outline was revised and reposted on March 3, 2010. The most recent revision appears below. Earlier revisions have been deleted. Many of the comments refer to items that appeared in earlier versions.

Update: This outline was revised and reposted on Jan. 5, 2010 based on earlier feedback

1. The Changing Rules of B-to-B Marketing

  1. Traditional media in decline
  2. Rise of the unofficial spokesperson
  3. Proliferating channels to customer or, from a marketers point of view, audience fragmentation.
  4. The importance of peer-to-peer communications: the impact of markets as conversations.
  5. Assessing most effective platforms for B2B social media marketing
  6. Contrasting b-to-c and b-to-b audiences
  7. Creating a strategic framework for platform assessment.
  8. Promoting responsible edge work through corporate social media policies. If there’s no formal policy in place empowering employees to do the edge work, why would they risk their jobs to engage?

    1. Assessing value of end-customer pull vs. business partner push
  9. Estimating staffing requirements

2. 10 Ways You Can Use Social Media for B-to-B Marketing

  1. When social media is and isn’t appropriate
  2. Risk/reward matrix
  3. Applying social media to the traditional sales cycle
  4. Researching audience needs

    1. Listening and engaging
    2. Inviting feedback
    3. Market research
  5. Shift from demographic to psychographic profiling
  6. Product development
  7. Customer/channel relations
  8. Peer-to-peer marketing
  9. Cost-saving opportunities
  10. Applications of crowdsourcing

3. Getting Buy-In and Resources –

  1. Explaining value to stakeholders
  2. Adopting the mindset
  3. Test and revise
  4. Overcoming popular objections

    1. Top 10 arguments to make with legal and HR
    2. Convincing the CIO

4. Organizing for Social B-to-B

  1. Empowering employees to speak
  2. Integrating social media with conventional marketing
  3. Re-skilling the organization
  4. Marketing department organization
  5. Building bridges to other departments

5. Protect Yourself: Creating & Enforcing Social Media Policies

  1. Defining “transparency”
  2. Coordinating with existing corporate policies

    1. HR code of conduct
    2. IT policies
  3. Social media Policies vs. Guidelines

    1. Legal issues to consider
    2. Do you need a policy?
    3. Start fresh or build on existing policies?
    4. Issues to address

      1. Disclosure
      2. Private vs. Business Personae
      3. Privacy and confidentiality
      4. Respectfulness, diplomacy and conflict resolution
      5. Crisis considerations
  4. Enforcement and penalties
  5. Regulatory considerations

    1. Tweeting through an IPO

6. Lead Generation

  1. Building social media into the selling cycle
  2. Stages of the funnel
  3. Quality vs. quantity leads

7. Getting Starting: Easy Low-Risk Opportunities

  1. Identifying high impact applications for quick results
  2. Demand pull vs. supply push
  3. Choosing tools
  4. Analytics and metrics
  5. Worksheets
  6. Selecting participants
  7. Campaign lifecycles
  8. Budgeting
  9. Allocating resources
  10. Beyond the first campaign – next steps

8. Listening to Customers

  1. Listening through filters
  2. Embracing popular language
  3. Dealing with negativity without losing your cool
  4. Going “off message” in search of relevant conversations
  5. Keyword research primer (contributed by Lee Odden)
  6. Keyword validation
  7. Quality vs. Quantity tradeoffs
  8. Conversions
  9. Advanced search
  10. Competitive analysis
  11. Research alternatives
  12. Ratings systems
  13. Assembling a rapid response team
  14. Policies and procedures
  15. Building internal feedback loops

9. A Customer Is Not a Transaction: Deepening Relationships

  1. Incorporating social media into customer care and support (Social CRM)
  2. 360° listening scenarios
  3. Building a listening dashboard
  4. Creating customer testimonials and endorsements
  5. Integrating social media and customer events
  6. Brand ambassador programs

10. Profiting From Customer Communities & Social Networks

  1. Value of communities
  2. Branded vs. public communities
  3. Public vs. private
  4. Where do branded communities make sense?
  5. Best practices for encouraging activity
  6. Do you need a dedicated community manager?
  7. Skills requirements
  8. Employee involvement in customer communities
  9. Platform selection

11. B-to-b Uses for Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter

  1. Features and audiences
  2. Organizational versus individual value
  3. Using the platforms in combination with each other
  4. Behavioral standards and community values

12. A Non-Techie’s Guide to Choosing Platforms: Beginning, Intermediate & Advanced

  1. Securing the right infrastructure: Web 2.0, Licensed Software, Open Source and SaaS
  2. Matching platform to objective
  3. Overview of major platforms
  4. Public versus private platforms
  5. Selection grid and decision tree
  6. Examples of best practices
  7. Staff assignments and responsibilities
  8. Integrated campaigns
  9. Mobility (contributed by Christina Kerley)
  10. Risks: Data Portability, Back-up, Support, Service Level Agreements and Attention Siphons

13. Metrics and ROI

  1. How practitioners are approaching ROI
  2. Strength/weakness analysis of major metrics
  3. Working backwards from the goal
  4. Revision cycles
  5. Suggested ROI methodologies
  6. Multiplatform multiplier effect

14. What’s Next for B-to-B Social Media

  1. Expanding internal stakeholder involvement
  2. 2. Creating branded customer communities
  3. 3. Multichannel campaigns
  4. 4. Internal/external program integration
  5. 5. Creating a social media-aware workforce

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

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.

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.

Digital Lifeline for Struggling Artists

fans_friendsSelf-promotion is all the rage in social media publishing these days, with titles like Stephen Van Yoder’s 2nd edition of Get Slightly Famous, Jorge Olson’s Unselfish Guide to Self-Promotion and Dan Schawbel’s Me 2.0 hitting the market in just the last few months.  

I haven’t had a chance to read many of these volumes in any depth yet, but I did make it a point to pick up Scott Kirsner’s Fans, Friends and Followers when it arrived in the mail.  Two reasons:

  •         Kirsner is an accomplished journalist who knows how to tell stories, and I think stories are the essence of learning.
  •         He’s a tight and efficient writer, so I knew that the 183 pages would be time well spent.

I wasn’t disappointed.  Fans, Friends And Followers is packed with useful information about how to create a following online and possibly quit your day job.  Kirsner, who writes extensively about film for a variety of publications as well as his own CinemaTech blog, did his homework, conducting dozens of conversations with successful artists who have created enthusiastic followings and featuring their words in a section of first-person narratives interviews that make up the majority of the book. He distills their experiences into 35 pages of advice about how to maximize your search visibility, use low-cost promotional channels and distribute products cheaply

And in the best tradition of practicing what one preaches, Kirsner self-published in both print and digital form and has taken responsibility for marketing the title himself.

Self-publishing shaved months off the production process. “I’d say about half [the books I receive from publishers] have gone stale by the time they get into my hands,”  he told me in an e-mail exchange.  Not only that, but authors can make considerably more money off of self-published books than those produced by commercial publishers if they promote them well.

I had heard of only a few of the people I met in Fans, Friends And Followers, but that doesn’t matter.  These people have built legions of followers through hyper-efficient and inexpensive word-of-mouth marketing juiced by digital tools. The artists profiled here have little in common other than their ambition to chase a dream and the street sense to double down on opportunities.  Some have made the jump to semi-stardom, like Richard Cheese and his band, Lounge Against the Machine.  Most, however, are content with small but passionate groups of followers who provide just enough income for them to develop their talents.  Not everyone in this book is making a living as an artist, but most are coming pretty close.

Audience Connection

Scott Kirsner

Scott Kirsner

Another thread that runs through these interviews is a remarkable connection these artists have with their audiences.  That’s because the tools they use, which range from e-mail lists to Facebook groups to fan-based distribution networks, are so easy to develop today compared to a few years ago.  In contrast with the recording or film industry megastars, these people are almost addicted audience feedback. 

Singer-songwriter Jonathan Coulton, for example, actually asks fans to sign a log book if they want him to come to their city.  While planning a trip to Seattle, he messaged local fans that he was having difficulty finding a place to perform. Within 24 hours, a half dozen volunteers had come forth to help.

Many of the artists Kirsner profiles publish their own work and sell them out of their homes or through fulfillment services.  There’s a nice section on how to do this, and the trade-offs of distributing through various means.

Fans Friends And Followers is clearly targeted at the struggling artist who has to do as much as possible with very little. If you want to learn how to market your business, there are other books better for that.  Not many of the people in this book are getting rich, but all are getting by and they’re having a wonderful time doing something they love.

Kirsner thinks wealth will be in the picture pretty soon.  “In the near-term, the ‘pots of gold’ will definitely come from people who get signed to make records for big labels or movies for big studios,” he wrote. “But over the longer term, I do think you’ll see people who figure out a mix of projects that…get the best of both worlds.”

In Defense of Blogging

swiss_army_knifeI had to laugh last week when I heard the keynote speaker at a public relations conference refer to the conventional wisdom that blogs are “so yesterday.” Maybe it’s because I spend two to three hours daily tending to my own blogs and others, or maybe it’s just general frustration with trend-chasing, but blogs are more relevant today than they’ve ever been, and they’re growing more useful as options proliferate.

The blog is the Swiss army knife of social media. Simple to use and easy to update, it accommodates every type of media: words, images, video and sound. Blog entries can be of Twitter-like brevity or can go on for thousands of words. Content can be displayed in a wide variety of formats and designs. Visitors don’t have to register to read.

Blog content is automatically syndicated via RSS feeds, making it simple for the owner to republish information through other outlets. A blog can also act as a catch-basin for the owner’s other social media activities. All of a person’s tweets, Yelps, Flickr PhotoStreams and YouTube creations can be aggregated and displayed in one place.

Content can be automatically reformatted for display on devices ranging from text readers to mobile devices. A countless variety of useful widgets can be added to entertain and inform visitors. Web analytics can show detailed information about where visitors originated, what they read, how long they stayed and where they went next. Blogs can even incorporate order forms. Last but not least, blogs rock on search engine performance.

Not Perfect

It’s true that there are a few things blogs don’t do well. They’re not as quick and easy to update as Twitter or the Facebook status message. And they lack interactivity. While visitors can comment on individual entries, they can’t comment on the overall theme of the blog, and even threaded comment strings can be difficult to follow. There are also limits to what you can do with the simple reverse chronological format, although innovators like Brian Gardner are managing to make WordPress do things I never thought possible.

For businesses, blogs provide a critical element of control. They’re the social media equivalent of speaking to an audience. The author retains control over subject matter, tone and direction while offering interaction around subjects of his or her choosing. Businesses that shrink from the unpredictability of unmediated discussion can take comfort in the fact that blogs give them a healthy dose of control.

For business-to-business applications, blogs are the overwhelming tool of choice. That’s because b-to-b professionals often don’t have the time or patience to fill out profile forms, answer friend requests or join groups. Blogs are simply a fast and easy way to share information with very little overhead.

Blogs are the building block of nearly every form of social media. They are the tool you need to master in order to understand the rich nuances of other media that are available to you.