Right-brainers and a Start Up mindset

On May 30, 2011 I had the unique honor of giving the Commencement address at St. Mark’s School in Southboro, MA. I graduated from there in 1984, so I was humbled (and maybe a little freaked out) to have been selected to be the speaker.

In it, I talk about the need to have a start-up mentality in order to succeed today, how right-brainers will carry the day, and I may have even squeezed in a golf anecdote or two. I decided to release it as a podcast, since I have been somewhat remiss in podcasting this year. (Podcast link here) Also, Thomas Friedman’s recent column basically stole everything I talked about during my address six weeks ago, even though I did not notice him in the audience takin notes. (Just kidding, I realize it’s just a coincidence but it begs the question, “Where’s MY NY Times column?”)

Would love to hear your comments and if you agree or disagree with my overall thesis. Oh, and I’ll try to be better about podcasting…

The iPad 2 and why I’ll never cancel my NY Times subscription

I finally got around to getting an iPad2 about a month ago and it has replaced my laptop, for all intents and purposes. My workflow is centered around my desktop, and the laptop had become a big, clunky travel workstation that I realized I was mostly using for email and reading.

Ahhh, reading.

As many have already written about at length, the iPad is a wonderful consumption device, maybe not so much for content creation. For someone who travels a lot, it’s a great thing to not have to lug a bunch of different books around, or perhaps make an impulse buy based on a conversation or a quick browse through a Hudson News.

But how about newspapers?

Reading the morning newspaper is lifelong habit critical to my sanity. No matter where I travel, I will always read the NY Times as well as a copy of, as my father used to call it, the local blat. To their credit, the Times has worked as hard, if not harder, than any other old media outlet to try and keep their offering current, relevant and, above all, profitable to a new generation of readers or an old generation, like me, who might consume the paper in a different way.

Lots of virtual ink has been spilled over whether the Times app is any good or whether their paywall idea is sustainable or not. I don’t review apps and I don’t know if the paywall gag will work or not. For me, I don’t use the app for two simple reasons:

1- Holding an actual newspaper in your hands is not incidental to the absorption of its contents and,

2- I simply cannot shake the nagging feeling that I am missing something when I read the paper via the app versus the actual paper. And after a side-by-side comparison, it turns out I think I’m right.

Taking the above points in order: With any web interface, so much development time is devoted to UI and UX (user interface and user experience). You may have a great product, but if one or both of those elements are lacking, you’re kind of dead in the water. I have never ONCE heard anyone talk about the UI or UX of a newspaper, so let me be the first. Well laid out newspapers, like the Times, Washington Post or WSJ, will guide the readers’ eyes to the most important stories. Over time, you “learn how to read” a newspaper, and you figure out the best way to scan the content. But perhaps more importantly, during this process of scanning, every once in awhile you will come across something that you might not ordinarily have read. The physical act of holding a paper, however, offers the reader the chance to see the paper in its totality, something apps cannot really match. I cannot prove this, but I believe that being exposed to two facing pages of text and photos has an affect on the way readers take in the information. To me, it’s like the difference between information and knowledge.

With regard to point 2 above, I spent four days in Boston last week reading the Times app in bed upon waking up, and then buying a copy and reading it over coffee. I don’t know if its for editorial reasons or for reasons of space, but there is a lot missing from the app that you can find in the paper. Despite the categories that attempt to mirror the analog reading experience (Top News, Opinion, Sports, Arts, etc.), the app takes some getting used to, particularly the way a story from yesterday’s paper might hang around in the app for two days or more. While it is indisputable that a printed paper has no chance keeping up with fast moving events in other time zones like the Middle East revolutions, there is a sense with the app that I have only experienced with certain cable channels: “Is this new, or is this just new to me?” It seems like a hedge for a news app to tout its immediacy, but also keep old bananas on the shelf.

Anyone who knows me or reads this blog knows that I am no Luddite. But I’m keeping my newspaper subscriptions for as long as they’re still around.

What do you think? Are apps just as good as the printed paper or magazine? Am I just being stubborn?

 

How to make social media work

Today’s New York Times featured two articles, one in the Arts section and one in the Business section, about how word-of-mouth reliant businesses were having different results employing social media to advance their goals.

The two industries mentioned were hotels and Broadway theaters, but honestly what struck me the most was how tough it must be to edit a newspaper. The thrust of the Broadway-focused article was that social media has not resulted in an uptick in sales because only human ticket brokers were adept at “aggregating details about the 39 Broadway shows this spring and then differentiating them for longtime customers whose preferences are reflected in databases listing their past purchases.”

Meanwhile, the hotel piece talked about how successful some hotels have been using social and web-based apps because “Facebook offers analytics showing the aggregate demographic information of the people who “Like” a particular page.”

So, to recap: social media doesn’t work because it can’t aggregate details about its users, except when it does a bang up job of aggregating details about its users.

Alrighty, then!

(Assuming you have not gone over your allotment of free NY Times pieces this month, here are the links to the two articles. Broadway and Hotels)

Moving past this basic contradiction in both fact and substance, let me offer a couple of my thoughts, slightly off the topic of whether social works or not.

The Broadway article talked about how “50-year old white female tourists, the average Broadway ticket buyers” were not taking their buying cues from twitter or Facebook. Fair enough. But I am reminded of an anecdote I heard at a convention way back in 2007 during the frontier days of what we still call “new media,” particularly podcasting. The Los Angeles Opera realized that in order to continue to filling seats in its shiny new facility, it would need to reach out to a new audience to get them to sample opera. One of the ways it did this, and continues to this day, is via a regularly produced  behind-the-scenes podcast http://podcast.laopera.com/pr/laopera/default.aspx While it’s debatable whether this outreach reaches its older demographic (I have no data either way), the LA Opera wisely went to where a potential NEW stream of customers might emerge. Not to put too fine a point on it, but their audience was, quite literally, dying off.

Broadway tickets are still largely sold via group sales, repeat sales and old fashioned telephone work. Adding social to that mix not only makes sense, but might be the only way that Broadway can survive.

Of course, the travel business lives and dies by word of mouth, never more so than in this age of search marketing. As we noted in this space about the evolution of search online, trusted recommendations about where to stay and what to do has never been easier for the shopper or more critical for the destination.  David Godsman, the VP for global web services for the Starwood chain is quoted in the Times saying, “We want to be there when someone transforms the recommendations of their friends into booking a reservation. If they press the ‘Like’ button, we want to start a conversation.”

What both of these articles are saying is that social must be a part of both of these very human businesses, but it does not mean putting your business on auto pilot and letting social solve everything. Social works when you work social.

 

My Thoughts on Social Media ROI

Lately I have been getting pulled into conversations with clients about how to measure their social media efforts. There are lots of differing opinions about WHAT to measure, what realistically CAN be measured and how to figure out whether the time and effort  of implementing a social media strategy is worth it.

As you might expect, I have some very clear ideas about all three topics.

The aim of this post is to try and shed a little light for other professionals confronting this issue as well as for clients considering extending their digital influence through social media. (I am going to assume, for the sake of this blog post, that everyone’s first step is to set some very clear goals and  understand what “success” will look like. A HUGE assumption, I know, but a necessary one in order to keep from bogging down this post.)

WHAT TO MEASURE– The obvious, but maybe not the most useful, metrics are Facebook fans, twitter followers, and blog/website traffic. “When we started, we had no Facebook presence and today we have 10,000 fans. So we’re doing great, right?” Maybe, maybe not. If those fans are not actually DOING something, who cares how many you have? So the question becomes, what was it that you wanted them to do in the first place? And what did YOU want to do when you got into this whole social media thing? Are you a restaurant trying to improve foot traffic on Monday and Tuesday nights? Are you a somewhat hard to understand service that requires the testimonials of customers in order to persuade their peers to give you a try? Are you trying to build awareness of who you are and what you do?

Whatever the answer is, I submit that the REAL value in these networks is not their size, but their quality. 500 motivated fans who can’t wait to hear about what you’re up to is much better than 5000 ones who joined your Facebook page and then never came back. This can be very hard to sell to the C-level, but the logic is unassailable. Magazine ads, radio spots, slick brochures, in-store appearances- none of them are held up to the same level of scrutiny nor do they always generate a lead or a sale in a straight line fashion. But which would you eliminate, if you had to? Is it as simple an answer as “the most expensive one?”

WHAT CAN BE MEASURED?– I revert back to the above answer in terms of hard numbers. But, of course, there are other things, too: newsletter sign ups, coupons downloaded and used, sentiment, e-mails forwarded, etc. But what are most people REALLY trying to figure out when they talk about measuring social media efforts? I think in the majority of cases it’s two things: 1) Am I selling more stuff and, 2) Have I increased mind share around my brand/product/company/service?

Both of these are valid questions, but it’s back to the influence thing. How can you determine at which point someone decided to pull the trigger and buy you? There is a big difference between causality and just a simple correlation. (I know nothing about math, but I know what I’m talking about here.) Yet people tend to look for causality because it’s easy: I did this over here which made that happen over there. Does that happen sometimes? Sure. But social media is not about causality in most cases. Like any other PR or Marketing effort, it is more about the steady drip-drip-drip of trying to earn mindshare and, hopefully, wallet share.

I don’t know about your life, but I know mine does not move in a straight line. And neither are decisions about whether to engage with your brand made in a straight line. Sales cycles can be long and influence comes from multiple, and often invisible, sources. As a customer, you might happen across something on the internet. A few days later, you hear a friend mention it. Maybe you see a blog post or tweet about it. Next thing you know, you find yourself on their Facebook page, which leads you to their website and BOOM!, you’re trying whatever that something was you first saw two weeks ago. The point for marketers and brands is, it can be a long and winding road involving multiple touch points. If you’re going to make social media a component of your brand’s identity, the only thing you CAN control is your authority. In other words, you need to be seen as solving problems honestly, repeatedly and well. So, did that sale come from social media? Hard to pinpoint the EXACT moment someone made up their mind,  but clearly it was one of many critical stops along they way to making a decision.

If someone tells me they can’t tell if their business is benefitting from social media, I think three things right off the bat:

1- They never set up a clear, measurable plan to get them from point A to point Z. If you don’t have a map, how will you know when you get there?

2- They’re too heavily focused on the numbers, i.e. Facebook fans, twitter followers, etc., instead of the opportunity those numbers represent, namely what can they DO for their fans and followers and what would they like for their fans to do for them? (Was JFK talking about social media at his inauguration?)

3- They did their homework and it became clear that the opinions and assumptions they had about their business were not shared by their customer base. In other words, the measurement data they got back made them take a hard look at themselves and they were not prepared to do that. Not a fun place to be.

A critical thing to remember in terms of social media activity is that MOST people do not actively participate on blogs, twitter or even on Facebook fan pages. Most internet users, and the percentages have been put as high as 80%, are “lurkers.” They read and  take in information from trusted sources, but they don’t feel comfortable or compelled to add their voice. But the messages are definitely getting through to them. So what’s your message? Are you constantly refining it? If you make people feel recognized, heard and understood,  you will have a connection for life. Social networking should just be an extension of what you’re already doing in real life.

Here’s an example: Well over a year ago, I had a nice salesman help me at a Banana Republic. I’ve been back to that same store a few times since then, but never saw that salesman again. Today, I stopped in there and there he was. The truth is, so much time had passed, I forgot about him. But he saw me, asked why I had stopped coming in (I hadn’t, we just kept missing each other) and if there was anything I needed. Just that simple act of recognizing me as a former customer and making me feel welcomed made me more inclined to buy something. But, how many times can he do that per day? Now think how many people you can connect with per day online, and the ROI calculation becomes easier.

So what’s the ROI of having a telephone number? What’s the ROI of a round of golf with a client? How about a dinner? Or the ROI of making someone feel heard?

Now multiply that by the Internet.

I want to hear your thoughts in the comments.

This just in…

Today’s blog post is less about analysis more about some exciting company news.

We are very excited to announce the launch of our new website which better reflects who we are and what we do. Since the business launched in 2003, we have gone from being strictly a video production company creating both broadcast and corporate communications, to a full service social media consultancy and video production company.

Of course, back in 2003 there really was no such thing as social media. Facebook was still a year away from launching, podcasting was in its infancy and iTunes was only about two years old. Social media was e-mail back then. It boggles the mind to think of how quickly communications has changed in less than a decade.

We have also incorporated the blog right here on the website, so no more jumping from place to place. I even broke down and got some new head shots.

We recently got around to launching our Facebook fan page (I know, I know- what took us so long), so we hope you’ll become a fan. The idea is to use the fan page to share links that we hope pique your interest and get you thinking and talking.

We’re not done with the exciting news, but the next bombshell will be in a blog post in the not too distant future. In the meantime, let me know in the comments what you think of the new site. And stay tuned for some big news coming soon.

Thanks to all of our clients and friends for their support for the past 8 years. We would be nowhere without you.

Not another facebook privacy rant. Actually, no.

Facebook is everywhere. If it’s not a story about its gargantuan user base, it’s Oscar buzz about the film “The Social Network.” Recently the talk has been about its pending, or not pending, IPO and the massive influx of cash it recently received. Through it all runs the ever present discomfort over facebook’s often cavalier attitude towards privacy that makes some users blanch and might be the factor that keeps non-users from becoming users.

But that’s not what this post is about.

I am beginning to have an issue with the ubiquity of facebook for a slightly different reason. facebook’s strongest selling point might be its ease of use. Its basic features are drop dead simple, and once you have mastered the basics, there are only a few nuances that catapult you into the elite echelon of “power user.” Let’s face it: technology is scary to many people and an impediment to the success of scores of great ideas down through the ages. But technology, and I am using the term broadly to include everything from running water to the printing press to space travel, has been the catalyst for every significant social, cultural and economic shift in human history. But there will always be a segment of society which finds technology daunting enough to reject it outright. (From those with clocks perpetually flashing 12:00am on their VCRs to touchtone phone holdouts, Luddites unite!)

Enter facebook and, more specifically, facebook Pages for businesses. With a few clicks, you can have your business up and running on facebook and in front of their 500-million strong user base. And, why not? The opportunity to reach your customers directly, generate leads to attract new ones, address customer service concerns, improve your Google ranking, etc etc etc. And all without having to know about writing code or hiring someone to maintain your website. Sounds pretty good, right?

But, at what cost?

I return to the privacy and, more broadly, control issues touched on above and in other posts here and here. All facebook pages look, feel and function pretty much the same, which makes it harder to separate your business from the pack. Access to the social web was supposed to be the great playing field leveler, theoretically allowing a local soda producer to compete with Coca-Cola. If all websites begin to look, feel and function the same and are controlled by the same gate keeper, well, I think you see where it might lead.

I recognize that for some businesses having a facebook page might be their only point of access to the world wide web, and for them a presence on facebook is likely an invaluable boon to their business. After all, there’s no dollar cost to set one up, although the cost in time and effort can be significant. I think that making your business more social should be one more arrow in your marketing quiver, if possible, not the whole marketing/customer service arsenal.

Facebook has a history of making arbitrary changes to its terms of service, it has shut down Pages and their customer service is virtually non-existent. For a small business, setting yourself apart from the rest is the key to success. Controlling your presence online is critical, too.

Trust. Relevance. Search.

What is the connection between these three words? Search  improves in relevance when results come from trusted sources. I have long maintained that there ain’t much “new” about new media or social media. Gathering in groups and sharing stories and experiences are among our most primal human instincts. The Internet just enables those things to happen remotely. Now I can write on my facebook wall, instead of the wall in my cave.

What’s this got to do with search? Google is great for finding out facts, locations, baseball scores and settling bar bets. But what about where to eat? What movie to go see? Which book to read? Well, in those cases, the trend online is to rely on our network of friends. See what I mean? Everything old is new again. Once upon a time you picked up the phone. Now you can connect your facebook and Amazon accounts to see what your friends are reading or watching. There are even ways to watch TV together separately.

But there are two problems, as I see it, that get worse the larger your network gets.

1- Signal to noise ratio. One of the biggest problems with sites like Yelp.com, Trip Advisor and others is you don’t really know WHO is leaving these reviews, what ax they may have to grind and whether or not the reviews are authentic.

2- If you’re a serial “friender” on facebook and find yourself with 1000+ friends, at what point do their recommendations lose value? This kind of brings you back to problem number 1, which is not really knowing your “friends” and what their tastes are. Curation is key but, alas, it may be too late if your network has spiraled out of control. And un-friending people is so gauche. (Now HERE is a case where I wish offline life more closely resembled online. Imagine if you could un-friend someone with the click of a button. But, alas, that is fodder for another post.)

Nevertheless, the trend still holds: we still ask our friends and family what they think of stuff and social networking just makes that possible at all hours of the day and night from your computer or phone.

So, what’s the best movie you’ve seen lately?

Social networks as focus groups- The future of live TV

A couple of months back I wrote about how social networking was making inroads  connecting people while they watched TV.

Liveprogramming, such as awards shows, were benefitting disproportionately from this type of community building with some estimates showing the Golden Globes, Grammys and Oscars with 14%, 35% and 14% bumps in viewership, respectively. Can it ALL be attributed to social media chatter and participation? I doubt it. But these events consciously make social media a part of their promotional campaigns by leveraging the conversations that are already taking place on twitter and facebook. (Here is what the Grammys did in 2010.)

 

During the interminable World Cup and the almost-as-boring NBA Finals, twitter said that there were over 3000 tweets per second referencing these events. Normal twitter traffic is about 750 tweets per second, evidently.

So what? Well, here’s what: TV is losing viewers, but is in no danger of disappearing. Partially because instead of fighting against social networking as a threat to their hegemony, they have decided to co-opt it to their benefit. (“They” being the faceless, nameless “them” that decides what goes on the air.) With laptops and iPads and smart phones at full throttle as people sit on the couch watching whatever, the Mystery Science Theater 3000-ization of TV is complete. Every tag for every promo on every sports channel and reality show implore us to follow them on twitter and friend them on facebook. The real time feedback from viewers coupled with the demographic information we all gladly provide as payment for joining these networks is a data gold mine for programmers, advertisers, producers and folks wanting to target a specific sector of the populace.

We’re making it easier for them to make TV that better resonates with us that we can chatter about in an endless, self-referential loop. The focus group has reached its zenith.

KCRW- Your one stop shop for finding great music online

I am going to take a break from the usual social media trend analysis to share with you all a fantastic iPhone/iPod Touch app I discovered over the weekend. Don’t have an iPhone/iPod? It’s also a website, so no worries.

Ever since radio officially stopped caring about you and me, finding good music has become a real chore. Like mining for gold, hours spent searching often results in a few nuggets that lose their luster in short order.

Enter KCRW.com and the KCRW iPhone app. For those who do not live in the Los Angeles area, KCRW is the NPR station for Southern California which has become renowned for their excellent music, public affairs and political programming.

The app does so many things perfectly, it ought to be shown to all app developers as the “how-to” use case. Like other radio station apps, you can listen live, or filter by “news” or “music.” The “On demand” feature, however,  is where this app really shines. There you will find 25 different shows/DJs and the option to play back either their latest show or a past one. A playlist pops up in real time that allows you to then take the songs you like and create your own playlist, buy the song in iTunes or share the show you’re listening to with friends. But here’s the real kicker. As we know, Apple does not allow apps to work in the background. This non-feature becomes particularly annoying with a music app such as this one. Well, fear not, music seeker- the “Play in Background” feature is what separates the men from the boys here. AND, the music streams over WiFi or 3G, and I have not had any problems with the hand off. (In other words if you start listening at home over WiFi and then get in your car and switch to 3G. The music keeps right on playing.)

OK, so whatever- all these features are cool. But what about the music? You’ll find KCRW’s signature daily music program “Morning Becomes Eclectic” as well as world music, jazz, indie pop, trance, hip hop, remixes, soul, and on it goes. The DJs themselves are all excellent and, unlike on hit radio, they don’t blather on endlessly. They play the music and stay out of the way. (Special shout out to Tom Schnabel, who was my favorite DJ to listen to when I lived in LA. I probably learned about more music through him than anyone else. Nice to hear you again, Tom.)

So, look, all the time you’ve spent reading this post, you could have spent the .99 cents and downloaded the app already and gotten as much pleasure from it as I have. Ever since I left Los Angeles, I have missed listening to KCRW. Now I don’t have to miss it anymore, and you can have a great LA experience, without all the freeways.

At last, a great way to find great music.

facebook and the losing battle over privacy

So facebook doesn’t seem to care about your privacy. Until they do. Or, do they? Kind of hard to tell. The people who run the service that was pitched to all of us a few years back as a semi-private club where we would have control of who saw our photos, status updates and hackneyed inspirational quotes have now, for the fourth or fifth time, moved the goal posts on what constitutes “privacy.”

Finally, on May 26, facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was forced to address the frenzy whipped up online and off over what many perceived as a sneaky attempt to manipulate people’s information. Past attempts have stirred up a storm among the digerati and have been mostly confined to blog posts and tweets. This time, however, it landed on the front page of the New York Times which for an internet business can only mean two things: you have stopped being cool because the stodgy Times found out about you OR because you did something bad/stupid/illegal or some combination of the three.

This is not the first time they have done this, nor the first time I have written about it. But for some reason, THIS time it is really freaking people out, and not just the techie geekerati. So what is at the heart of the problem, and what can be done?

facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg firmly believes two things:  1)  the web is making us all more open and that privacy is an illusion and 2) facebook is on a mission to transform they way we all interact with the web. Facebook wants to be the center of our digital lives, the starting point of our engagement with the internet. facebook believes that “By making the world more open and connected, we’re expanding understanding between people and making the world a more empathetic place.” Oh, brother.

The hue and cry was so intense about their ham-handed changes, that Zuckerberg was forced to acknowledge their mistakes and offer up different settings options for users. The previous privacy settings had 50 pages of clicking and over 170 possible permutations. Who the hell is going to go to all that trouble? That, of course, is EXACTLY what they were counting on- that few of us would.

So, is facebook evil, stupid or crazy like a fox? The truth is, there is not as much of a business for them in only being a place for you to upload your photos and provide status updates as there is in collecting massive amounts of data about their users which can then be used to earn advertising income by more effectively targeting those ads based on your online activities and expressed interests.

If you believe their  numbers, facebook has over 400 million active users, two thirds of whom live outside of the US, but the privacy features are explained in ENGLISH ONLY. So many users have invested so much of themselves (ourselves) into the service that simply quitting facebook is not really a viable option. And even if we did, what would become of all those pictures, videos, intellectual ramblings, etc.? facebook would tell you that they are simply reflecting the change in people’s attitudes about privacy. I have seen no evidence of that. Rather, I would suggest that they are forcing change in order to be able to better target advertising and make more money. The truth is, given the choice, human beings typically opt for convenience over privacy.

(Side note: the implication here is that young people don’t care about their privacy. Zuckerberg himself is only 26, and that may very well be his personal ethos. Yet a Pew Reserch Center study released on May 26, 2010 about reputation management and social media found that 71% of social network users aged 18-29 have changed their privacy setting on their profile to limit what they share with others online. “Reputation management has now become a defining feature of online life for many internet users, especially the young.” Here’s a link to the survey.)

For those who were freaked out by this latest breach, I think the main reason is that  our privacy has been under assault from so many quarters, and that is a real concern for many of us. From illegal wire tapping and circumvention of FISA to self-inflicted revelations in public fora, many of us face a constant push-pull over how much to reveal and the harm it may inflict. When I say “harm,” I don’t necessarily mean physical harm, although there are many heartbreaking stories of physical harm. It could be embarrassment, getting caught in a lie, or just forgetting that you are sometimes speaking to a broader audience. But these missteps feel manageable because we realize that WE were the ones that made a mistake by revealing too much. It’s quite a different, and creepy, feeling when someone ELSE reveals our personal information without our informed consent. Betrayal is tough to come back from. Unless you’re facebook and no one seems to give a damn.

For all intents and purposes, facebook has no competition and, as danah boyd points out, the deeper a relationship, the higher the cost of ending it. So what can be done? Not much, I’m afraid. Stay on top of the changes (because this WILL happen again. And again.), and remain ever mindful of what your goals and objectives are when you join an online club.

As always, I would love to hear your comments.

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