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CareOne Cashes In On Community

February 12, 2011 by  
Filed under Newsletter

CareOne Debt Relief Services contends with a business climate that few of us (thankfully) have to face: Its industry has a terrible reputation.

CareOne logo

That industry is debt relief, a field that many people associate with fast talking pitchmen on late-night infomercials. But there’s nothing underhanded about CareOne, a nine-year-old company with 700 employees and a philosophy that “There’s no reason to be ashamed of being in debt,” according to Social Media Director Nichole Kelly (below right).

A busy online community has been a remarkably effective engine of growth. By enabling customers to freely exchange experiences, CareOne helps shatter suspicions that dissuade people in debt from seeking professional help. In fact, the conversion rate of prospects who have signed in to the CareOne Community is a remarkable seven times higher than that of non-members.

That claim, which is one of several ROI metrics cited in a summary of the company’s social media successes, sounded so extreme that I gave Kelly a chance to qualify the numbers when I spoke to her recently.

Nichole KellyShe would do no such thing.  CareOne actually takes a disciplined approach to figuring ROI, she said, using control groups and thousands of data points. Not only do community members convert at dramatically higher rates, but the boost in sign-ups is only one of several business benefits CareOne has realized from its customer community. But more on that in a minute.

Happy Accident
The 1.4 million member community was actually an accident. It was created five years ago as a way for CareOne employees to share advice about their own debt issues. A few outsiders stumbled upon the site and joined the conversation. It turned out that they were a rich source of prospects.

Debt is a touchy subject. Most people don’t like to admit to financial problems, but they crave solutions, often desperately. CareOne discovered that customers who engaged online were far more likely to seek professional help than cold-called candidates. “It’s real customers telling each other that the program works,” she said.

CareOne’s approach is a good example of soft-sell marketing. The site features numerous articles, worksheets and video tutorials about debt reduction. A recently launched video series called Financially Fit TV interviews personal finance experts. About 30% of visitors who register and tap into the free advice never become customers but “That’s fine,” Kelly said. “If they can get out of debt on their own, we’re happy to help.”

But more than 60% of visitors aren’t current customers, making them a lucrative prospect base. Word-of-mouth recommendations help drive inbound inquiries, and the presence of so much helpful information in the community lowers the barrier to conversion. It’s clear to casual visitors that CareOne is no fly-by-night operation.

Not that managing a community is easy. The number of active participants – or those who regularly contribute content – is in the sub-1% range. That’s not surprising for a topic that few people like to discuss publicly. However, lurkers invest a healthy five to 10 minutes per session and return frequently, indicating that the audience is engaged.

CareOne has invested time and money to encourage the minority who interact. Its busy Ask the Expert forums have certified credit counselors responding to inquiries. The experts are compensated for their time. A full-time four-person social media team manages the community and other social media programs, responding to questions, correcting misstatements and encouraging lurkers to come forth.

Active members are promoted and applauded. As in most online communities, a very small percentage of members contribute most of the content, but those people can become heroes to their peers. One popular blog, My Journey out of Debt, is written entirely by customers.

The Insight Dividend

In addition to the remarkable conversion rates for community members, CareOne has realized other benefits. For example, last year it detected a shift among its upper-income customers away from debt management plans and toward debt settlement relief. It adjusted its resource commitments accordingly.

Recently, “We noticed that a lot of our customers were one car breakdown or one illness away from bankruptcy,” Kelly said. “That changed the content we were delivering. We reduced our focus on frugality and began creating more content on dealing with life events.”

One of the more impressive aspects of the whole effort is the company’s focus on ROI metrics. Kelly ticks off her favorites: cost per conversion, cost per acquisition, customer value, customer profitability and retention rate. Nothing about hits, followers or comments. Those aren’t financial metrics.

CareOne ROI metricsCareOne is focusing on the right stuff. The section headlined “CareOne + Social Media: The Measurement” on the successes page devotes substantial attention to five challenges of measuring social media ROI. In all cases, it focuses on bottom-line drivers.

Customer communities aren’t for everyone, and in the age of Facebook and LinkedIn, you actually need a compelling reason to start your own. The ability to build detailed audience profiles, customize services for individuals and maintain a level of confidentiality were good reasons for CareOne to choose the path it did. The company clearly cares about bottom-line return, and by being able to track individual visitors through their various interactions with the company, it has shown some impressive results.

Jason Falls has an excellent profile of CareOne Community here.

Answers to Common Social Marketing Questions

Lately, Eric Schwartzman and I have been participating in a lot of online events about B2B social media marketing, and there are invariably more audience questions than we have a chance to answer. So we’ve been posting our responses through the good graces of our hosts. Here are a few you might have missed:

Frequently Asked Questions about B2B Social Media (Marketo)

  • Should I use a personal Facebook page for business?
  • How do I encourage participation in my corporate blog?
  • Should a small B2B company to have a Facebook fan page?
  • And more…

Twitter Questions Asked…And Answered! (Part One)

  • What about using corporate versus personal employee accounts?
  • How can I reach people who tweet about a topic that’s relevant to me?
  • Should you tweet differently for a B2B versus a B2C audience?
  • And more…

Twitter Questions Asked…And Answered! (Part Two)

  • How do you grow your following on Twitter?
  • What do you think of scheduling services like HootSuite?
  • How do you handle people who tweet negatively about your business?
  • And more…

Tip of the Week: Nimble

Nimble logoI usually devote this section to services that are publicly available, but I’ll make an exception for Nimble, a social CRM tool that I’ve been using in beta release for several weeks. Nimble was created by Jon Ferrara (below right), the founder of the legendary GoldMine sales automation software. After cashing out of Goldmine and taking several years off, he is back with a CRM tool that makes social connections an essential part of the contact management equation.

Jon Ferrara, NimbleWith Nimble, you can import your address book, Facebook and LinkedIn contacts into a single record and associate people’s activities in those networks – as well as Twitter and your inbox – in a single place. So if you’re making a call on a prospect or customer, you can quickly consult the personal or company record to find out what’s been happening in their lives or careers.

In its current form, Nimble still needs work, but the enhancements I saw previewed this week add a lot of power. In this next release, the software will automatically discover a contact’s social media footprint and even create an integrated news feed so you can see what all of your contacts are saying across all platforms. This is where I think social CRM has power. It can give you insights that lead to better engagement.

Ferrara told me he plans to make Nimble free to individual users and charge for corporate licenses. You can sign up now for the beta invitation, and I expect you’ll get an invitation soon. I’ve never used CRM software before, but I think I’m going to start.

Just for Fun: Icons of Progress

Bar Code from IBM 100 Icons of ProgressThis week’s selection isn’t so much fun as really, really interesting, particularly for history buffs like me. IBM is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, which is quite an achievement in a world in which the average life expectancy of a multinational corporation is between 40 and 50 years. One of the many ways in which Big Blue is marking the centennial is with a historical retrospective called 100 Icons of Progress. This site will be regularly updated with historical information about technologies that changed our world.

IBM’s just getting started, but the accounts of how innovations like the floppy disk, the IBM 1401 mainframe and the universal product code came about are mesmerizing. Check back regularly as new icons are added. And if you want to know what was the first product ever scanned by a bar code reader, find the answer here.

Millennials: Coming Soon to a Cubicle Near You

August 26, 2010 by  
Filed under Newsletter

This weekend I’ll pack my daughter off to college, so as a little celebration, I took her and a friend to a Six Flags amusement park this week. As we drove west on the Massachusetts Turnpike, I took the opportunity to eavesdrop on the conversation in the back seat, affording me one of my too-rare glimpses into the world of Millennials.

During the 75-minute drive, I listened to the girls talk excitedly about the people they would soon meet in person for the first time. They already knew many of them, of course. Thanks to Facebook, they had been building connections with future classmates since the late spring. When today’s students arrive on campus, they already know dozens of others.
My daughter, Alice, had already “spoken” to her future roommate several times. I use the term figuratively because Alice hates to talk on the telephone, as do most of her friends. By “speak”, she means text messages, instant messaging sessions, wall posts and maybe a few webcam interactions. For today’s teens, interaction with friends is multi-channel and multimedia.
I actually shouldn’t say Alice hates talking on the phone. She just can’t fathom doing nothing but talking. Her favorite context for conversation these days is a massively multi-player game where friends can slay dragons and battle wizards while chatting about the same things their parents talked about: music, school and romance.
Much has changed there as well. Thanks to MySpace pages and BitTorrent, Millennials have constant and immediate access to the latest music and video. They like the top artists, of course, but along with Lady Gaga (left) they favor an assortment of bands I’ve never heard of that cater to eclectic tastes. When I was their age, I learned of new artists from cassette tapes exchanged between friends. Today, a link in an instant message does the same thing, and Apple’s Genius and Pandora make the process programmatic.
Relationships? Well, after listening to two teenagers talk for an hour, it dawned on me that there were people they felt very strongly about whom they had actually never met. One of Alice’s best friends lives in Texas. Their relationship was already well established last year long before they met each other for the first time.
It’s not unusual to hear terms like “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” applied to virtual relationships. Nor is it surprising to hear of relationships ending in novel ways. Two years ago, I listened in as a group of Alice’s classmates spoke of a friend who had just ended a romance. Everyone in the group knew the news except the guy who had been dumped. He hadn’t read the message yet.
Sound strange? A survey of teens this year by textPlus found that 30% percent said they’ve broken up with someone or been dumped via text message. Call it passive aggressive or conflict avoidance or whatever you want; it’s the way things are.
Coming To Your Town
And so they head off to college, and in four years they will enter a workplace that understands little about their values and systems. They will encounter managers who believe that Facebook is a productivity drain and who would rather employees spend an hour in traffic jams each day than get work done from home.
They will have their first brush with cover-your-ass thinking and will sit in meetings that waste hours of time so that everyone in the room can be “in the loop.”
They will encounter rigid, top-down hierarchies in which risk is avoided and decisions are unchallenged. They will find mid-level managers who hoard information out of fear that sharing will threaten their job security.
They will wonder how anything gets done in environments like these and they will gravitate toward those companies that discard tradition. They’re young, confident and coming to your town. Are you ready?

MediaBlather is Back

Shortly after recording our 100th episode of the MediaBlather podcast, David Strom and I took a break during the first half of this year. But we’re tanned, rested and back in action now with new podcasts posting every couple of weeks.

In Identity Crisis, we discussed the helplessness that BP felt as its Twitter identity was hijacked by an anonymous critic. Freelance Destruction looked at the plummeting pay rates in the freelance market and assessed the impact that would have on traditionally trusted sources of advice such as product reviews. The bad news: technology reviews have taken a turn for the worse. The good news: people like David Strom are figuring out new models.We’re always looking for guests and ideas, so if you’ve got an interesting story to tell or a new book to promote, drop me a line and we’ll get you on the show.

MediaBlather


Tip of the Week: OneForty.com

Twitter has unleashed a torrent of creative energy in the form of applications and websites that do everything from automatically unfollow people to calculate the total potential reach of a tweet. The problem is keeping up with them all. The crowdsourced Twitter Fan Wiki is a great resource, but its organization is weak and it’s not always up to date. It can also be overwhelming: The apps listing page runs to 20,000 words.
OneForty.comEnter OneForty.com, a startup dedicated to finding and rating the best Twitter applications. Its site is clean, easy to use and chock-full of intelligent reviews, many by business customers. The founder and CEO is Laura Fitton (@pistachio), co-author of Twitter for Dummies, and a visionary who saw the potential of this platform long before it became a staple of corporate marketers. Check it out; it will help you tell your app from your elbow.

Just For Fun: Amazing Tattoos

Amazing TattoosI’ll admit I’m not much for tattoos. It’s not the pain that scares me; it’s just that they’re so, well, permanent. Nevertheless, I do appreciate great craftsmanship, and this selection of 40 amazing tattoos demonstrates what today’s technology can achieve using flesh as the principal medium.

Note: Some of these images are a little disturbing, so if you have a weak stomach, look elsewhere. At least you don’t have to live with them etched into your arm!

The Appeal of B2B Social Networks

June 10, 2010 by  
Filed under Newsletter

Eric Schwartzman and I are wrapping up the manuscript for Social Marketing to the Business Customer, which will be published by John Wiley & Sons in January. This following excerpt is from the chapter on B2B communities. I welcome your feedback by e-mail or by commenting on the blog entry.

Online communities are a bit of a paradox. They are both the oldest form of social media and also the newest. Forums and discussion groups date back to the late 1960s and have been a staple of customer support operations at technology companies for 30 years. Internet newsgroups, CompuServe, The Well and other early communities had membership in the hundreds of thousands a decade before anyone had heard of a Web browser.

Those early online outposts looked little like the Facebooks and LinkedIns of today, though. The modern features that have made social networks the fastest-growing consumer phenomenon in history have created all kinds of new use scenarios, including some compelling B2B examples. Communities are the convention centers of social media. They are flexible gathering halls that can fill a wide variety of purposes ranging from product development to lead generation. The key is to get members to want to participate.

Friends and Fame

The great innovation in online communities came in 1998, when Classmates.com introduced the concept of personal profiles and friends. Those metaphors are now a staple of every social network and provide a powerful incentive for participation. Profiles are a member’s personal homepage. Everything the member contributes, from establishing contacts with others to joining groups to posting status updates, is captured in the profile. The more active the member is, the higher his visibility and the greater the value of the network to his personal success.

Friends are a virtual version of their real-world equivalent. When people create friend relationships, they exchange information that is not visible to others and they form persistent connections based upon trust. That’s actually how it works in real life, too. At their simplest level, friends connections are an efficient way to stay in touch. Members can always learn each other’s current address or job situation by searching within the network.

In B2B communities, personal profiles are a way to register areas of expertise that others may find useful. Activity
is also a validation point. It’s one thing for someone to say he is an expert in direct marketing, but it’s more powerful when he can prove it by solving the problems of other direct marketers.

That proof is stored in the person’s profile. Online friendships also translate fluidly into real-world connections. “Community isn’t just about discussing products but about getting to know each other and making friendships,” says Nicholas Tolstoshev, a Spiceworks community manager.

Online friends in B2B communities frequently arrange meet-ups at trade shows and events. Successful community managers we spoke to invariably augmented their online worlds with physical events to meet and thank their most active members.

Prior to the introduction of personal profiles, it was difficult for participants in online networks to build visibility. Recent experience has shown that visibility is the single most powerful driver of participation. Many communities use a recognition system that ties a member’s status to contributions. A few, like SAP, celebrate their most active members at physical events.

Spiceworks awards points to members who post well-regarded answers to other members’ questions. Valued members of the community are invited to participate in conference calls with Spiceworks developers. Their contributions are rewarded with low-cost swag like T-shirts but more importantly with inside information. Community managers also publish occasional interviews with featured members, highlighting their contributions and career accomplishments. “Online status drives a huge amount of activity without our sending money out the door,” says Tolstoshev.

FohBoh.com, a social network for food service professionals, highlights new contributions by its members on its home page and invites others to congratulate them on their celebrity. TopCoder, a contract software developer that hosts programming competitions and licenses the best solutions to commercial customers, applies an elaborate algorithm to the code submitted by its members to compute the quality of their work. Leader boards are maintained for the major competitions and quality ratings are reflected back to individual profiles. Top coders win money and also visibility that leads to jobs and lucrative contracts.

The most prolific contributor to LinkedIn’s “Answers” forum is Dave Maskin, a New York-based event marketing specialist who has answered an incredible 25,000 questions. Maskin refers to himself as “Mr. Lead Generator,” indicating that the value he provides to the community is good for his business.

How to Integrate E-mail and Social Media Marketing

As hot a topic as social media has become, the fact is that most of us still live in our inboxes. The challenge for e-mail marketers is to incorporate new tools into their programs as a way to gain subscribers and deliver messages through additional channels. I just finished creating a brand-new presentation on this topic entitled “Social Marketing With Email.” Click here to see it on SlideShare. I’d be pleased to present it to your e-mail marketers or local professional organization either on-site or remotely. Please contact me if you’re interested.

Meet Me In NYC

I’ll be in the Big Apple a lot in June and July. Here are some upcoming events where I’m on the program. Please come and say hi:

Tip of the Week: Maximixing Follower Value

Most people send Twitter messages whenever the spirit moves them, but that may not always be the best time to get those coveted retweets. To maximize the impact of what you say on Twitter, schedule your tweets to coincide with the times when you have a lot of followers online.

Twitter Analyzer is a great tool for analyzing follower activity. It can show you the times of day when your follower count is highest. Then you can use a tool like HootSuite or the latest version of TweetDeck to schedule tweets for the times when your messages are most likely to be seen (and forwarded). If you have international followers, you may find that they cluster around different times of the day than your working hours, so scheduling tweets for the middle of the night Milwaukee time may be just the ticket to reach that cluster of fans in Norway. Start with Twitter Analyzer and see what times work best for you.

Just for Fun: Eight Years in 103 Seconds

When we see people regularly, we don’t notice how much they change. But they do change a lot in a short time. JK Keller proved it. He took a picture of his face every day for 8 years and lined them up one after another in this video montage. This 1:43 video might leave you feeling a little old. Take your mind off it by looking at Photos That Will Never Be in Your Wedding Album.