Business models for a brave new *social* world

Blank logoThis fall, I have been auditing an MBA class, Managing Growing Businesses, at Babson College. For several years, the program director Ed Marram has asked me to sit on a panel of entrepreneurs for the class. This time, at his invitation, I decided to sit in for the full semester.

Last week, the featured speaker was venture capitalist Les Charm. Les talked about one of the first dot com companies that his firm funded in 1994. He talked about putting trust in the company founder, since no one at his firm knew what it really meant to have a web-based business. There really weren’t any. They planned on applying the subscription model to sell content. That was their plan, anyway, until AOL (the Google of the 90s) decided to give their content away for free. Their business model was seat of the pants stuff. There were no tried and true cases to learn from. So they tried everything. Eventually the business, FamilyEducation.com, was bought by Pearson Education.
In the class of 60 students, I am guessing that 80% are under 30 years old and couldn’t comprehend a world without sophisticated web business models. These students found it hard to believe that 28 K dial up modems were the standard, if consumers had access to the internet at all.

Jim AyerIn 1994, we built our first website for J. C. Ayer & Company. The site is now in it’s 5th revision. When we built the first one, Jim Ayer had to come to our office to see it since he didn’t have internet access.

The social web is a perspective shift for some, but not the students in this class. They don’t miss a beat when talk turns to publishing content. Most of them have their own blogs. If we are to get the attention of these savvy consumers, we need to understand their perspective. After all, these are the young business owners and consumers that will buy our wares, now and for the next 50 years.

Table Talk

I admit it, blog writing has gone to my head. This year while I was sitting at Thanksgiving dinner I took note of a few things inthanksgiving table addition to the usual, how many inches the children have grown, whose doing what in school, and who’s looking for a new job. I paid particular attention, believe it or not, to the changes in technology.

It was only a few years ago when we were oohing and aahing about slicker, smaller cellphones, snapping away to our heart’s content with digital cameras, talking about the smaller and lighter laptops, dotcom jobs – you know all the rest.

This year at our Thanksgiving table, there were conversations about YouTube, IM, Facebook, Google (I couldn’t keep count of how many times I heard, “I googled this, I googled that”), and of course the infamous, iPhone. Only one of them was present at our table, and us older folks huddled around it like it was Motel’s new, revolutionary sewing machine in “Fiddler on the Roof.”

Later that night, I read a blog post on WebMetricsGuru about the 2007 Social Media Survey designed by Content Connections who are working with a group of authors and publishers, examining the impact Social Media will have on society- especially business. They’re looking to hear from people whether they consider themselves Social Media savvy or not, and are planning to share the results with all participants via YouTube.

I took the survey and even just reading the questions gave me an insight into what I know, and don’t know about social media; and it doesn’t take long to complete. Okay, being entered in a drawing for an iPod Nano did catch my eye.

Naturally I’d be delighted to win, but chances are by next Thanksgiving the new iPod Nano will be old hat, and I’ll have to multi-task so I can listen to keep up with the latest and greatest, while I pass the gravy.

Don't forget to talk to your customers

News ideasLast week, I wrote about the importance of listening to what is being said online about your company and by whom. But, we all know that listening is only one element of the conversation. We not only need to listen to what our customers are saying, we need to engage our customers, participate in the dialogue, and then act on the conversation. By doing this, we keep the conversation moving and enable live dialogue to flow where the ideas and interests of those participating choose to take it. A coherent social media and Web 2.0 strategy can make that happen.

One great example of this strategy in practice is Dell. They recently created Ideastorm to open the conversation with their customers. The site enables Dell to talk with their customers, and listen to advice on products and services. According to Dell, the site was formed to foster candid and robust conversation about customer ideas and to bring customer ideas to life. Congrats to Dell for opening the conversation! To date they’ve generated close to 8,000 ideas on the site!

Did you know?

Last night in my inbox there was a Google Alert about Adrian Sudbury, a young newspaper reporter in the UK, who won a 2007 Weblog Award in the Best Medical/Health Issues category for Baldy’s blog, which documents his battle with leukemia. Congratulations, Adrian!

Leukemia is an illness I know a fair amount about, so I was curious to learn more about Adrian and what he’s been writing. Baldy’s blog is courageous, and makes the personal, global. I was awestruck not only by what Adrian writes about his battle with leukemia, but having the opportunity to get a glimpse into a man’s life whom I would never had known anything about, if it weren’t for his award winning blog. Not only was I able to read about him, but I was able to join in the conversation.

Then this morning I received another Google Alert about blog writing. I skimmed the list to see if there was anything that stood out before reading them all. One of the descriptions was about a recent conference “Beyond The Web: Connecting To The World” that had been held at a college in New Paltz, New York where I’d gone to school many years back. Naturally, the whole technology and alumni connection caught my eye.

The article mentioned a video, “Did you know?” (embedded from YouTube below) which had been shown to conference participants. The history behind the video is this: it was created for a Colorado high school staff of 150 in August of 2006, to start a conversation about what students will need to be sucessful in the 21st century. By June 2007, an updated version had been created, and it’s estimated that there have been at least 5 million conversations about it, around the world. Which is completely amazing!

The video contains some astonishing facts and figures about the evolution of technology, the shift that is happening right before our eyes; and what the world will be like for our children. There are far too many facts to cite here, and I wouldn’t do them justice. Instead, it will only take you about eight minutes to watch the video. My guess is that after viewing it you’ll want to pass it along to friends, adding to the millions who have already talked about it.

I will leave you with one quote, from the end of the video which I love:

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.”–Alfred Einstein

Monitoring Word of Mouse

mouseI just returned from a trip to Orlando this past week.  With a one-hour delay and multiple gate changes, you can only imagine the customer complaints and negative sentiment fluttering around the cabin during Flight 353 to Boston. 

Not unlike this airline’s experience, you know your customers are expressing opinions about your company and its products daily.   Whether they’re having actual conversations like the passengers on Flight 353, writing emails and IMs, participating in a message board on your website, or visiting third-party blog sites, they are talking.  These communications (hopefully positive) take many forms, but regardless of the venue, they have remarkable influence.  If you’re not listening to what is being said, you are leaving yourself at an incredible disadvantage – particularily regarding customer retention. 

If the communication is occuring on your own site – perhaps in a company blog – it’s easier to listen.  The trickiest part in this case is deciding whether a comment warrants a corporate response, and who should communicate it.   The bigger challenge comes, however, when the communication isn’t focused at your firm.  

How do you listen to the conversation about your company, brand, and products outside of your site and at other company venues?  To address this question, I recently came across some good advice in an article entitled, ”How to Monitor the Blog Conversation” by TJ McCue, which was published on MarketingProfs.com

Key tips for monitoring what is being said included:

  • Set your monitoring goals and determine why monitoring is important to your firm.
  • Research what key words and meta tags are used on your website.
  • Choose the 2-3 top phrases (key words/tags) for google alerts so you don’t bury yourself in information.
  • Try free conversation tracker tools such as www.Blogpulse.com that allow you to immediately start “tracking conversations” by clicking on links next to your search words.
  • Consider paid tracking services ($200-300/month).  Market leaders include: www.cymphony.com, www.nielsenbuzzmetrics.com, and www.biz360.com.

Whatever tools you implement to monitor the conversation of your customers, don’t forget to participate in the dialogue too!

 

 

Planning to succeed at blogging

Calendar DeadlineOK, so I made the editorial calendar for this blog and I am blowing it out of the water. Rules are made to be broken, right? In the case of a blog, rules (or plans) are important. After all, it’s only as good as the new content we post each week.

As usual, I have too much on my plate, so I put off my post until it is overdue. In fact, this post is really last Wednesday’s post. Does it really matter what day we post to the blog? Not really. What really matters is that we share interesting, bite-sized morsels of good information, and that we keep it fresh.

Last week, I talked to a colleague about his “new” blog. They pulled it down because their last post was in April and, well, April is so last year. In this lightening speed world of technology, blogs can become stale quickly.

Most of our clients are concerned that if they launch a blog, this will happen to them. It is a real issue to contend with. Here is how we do it:

Debbie HemleyMake it someone’s job

We have a project manager who owns the blog. That means making sure all is running smoothly, developing new ideas for how to raise it’s visibility, and to provide us with new techniques or technology to be more effective. Here at CW Consulting Group, that’s Debbie. In your organization, her role could also be to make sure the authors get their posts done, or actually post for them. In some organizations, it is common to have a writer interview the author and generate a post for them.

Have a content strategy

Three of us post each week on predetermined topics. If we veer off topic because we stumbled on something worthy of covering, that’s ok too. We meet each week to talk about our challenges and share new ideas and information throughout the week via email. We recommend that a blog has a clear objective and more than one author to provide different perspectives and share the load. Some large organizations have a blog for individual products, among other topics. We suggest thinking about your audience and what they want to hear about. Maybe one blog can serve them all.

Keep it fresh

We are plugged in to the topics we cover through Google Alerts, which deliver contents related to key words into our Inbox each day. It is a great resource for anyone writing about any topic. You will notice that we often direct you to content that already exists and provide our perspective, rather than regurgitate someone else’s ideas.

Make it fun

Our marketing team enjoys learning about the topics we write about. For me, it’s a time set aside to absorb and report on new ideas or events that impact our business and our client’s business. What do you have to share with your audience: employees, clients, partners?
Until next week…

For innovators, too much information is just enough.

Broken In BooksOver the weekend, I was in a brick and mortar book store called Broken In Books. The proprietor told me that he left his job as an engineer at MIT to start an online store that sells used books cheaper than any other seller on the web. The store front, he explained, was really just one of his warehouses that inventories books, many of which were purchased from private collections. They have wonderful old and not-so-old books of every kind, cramped in to this small space between a sub shop and a bakery. His business is bustling and he wanted me to know it wasn’t an MBA that got him where he was, but just taking his idea and running with it.

Information Innovation

When I got to the register, he discounted my books further than the already good prices labeled on the spine, based on the current going rate online, plus an additional discount for buying quantity. To determine their pricing, they rely on a quick search on Amazon.com to see what the rock bottom price is at the moment of purchase. Then they provide an additional 20% discount below those prices. When the book I picked up marked $25 ended up costing me $6, I couldn’t have been more pleased.

Picasso's GuitareWhat made Picasso and Monet so famous? They all pretty much used the same tools: canvas, paint, brushes. Some even painted side-by-side, painting the same scenes in the south of France, but the result was different, and spectacular. These artists had unique ways of seeing. They were innovative at the time for seeing and presenting information in a way that no one else had before.

What ever you need, when ever you need it

Our access to information is growing, thanks Google and to companies like them. For instance, you can search Google Patents for original patent documents for anything ever patented. As fast as it took me to think about the light bulb and the typewriter, I downloaded PDF’s all of Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas A. Edison’s inventions, with diagrams written in their hand. You can find a patent by inventor, key word or date. Who would have imagined that we could do this all from our desk chair or our couch for that matter?

Making Sense of Information Clutter

I am not alone in being overwhelmed by it all. As the deluge continues, I think the job of a professional communicator is to find valuable information and share them succinctly like we do here three times a week in this blog. While my plate is full, these posts help me to sort through all of the information and share the cream that rises to the top for me each week.

What rose to the top for you this week? We’d love to hear.

The View from the Tip of the Iceberg

These days, I feel like an adventurer exploring the great Web 2.0 terrain with the Internet as my compass.  The more I search, the more I discover. Some days it feels like it’s only the tip of the iceberg. 

Tip of the Iceberg

Every morning, I read a list of articles and blogs related to Social Media and Web 2.0. Most days I find many great resources. There were two white papers referenced this past week on New Communications Review which I found most informative.

The first one is a white paper from Marketing Sherpa entitled “Marketing Wisdom for 2007: Special Report.” The paper features contributions from 110 organizations on lessons learned and test results on a full spectrum of marketing topics: blogging, social networks, email campaigns, search marketing, and website design. In particular, I found the anecdotes about blogs and podcasts (part 2) and Social Networks (part 5), extremely interesting.

The second one, is a white paper entitled “Gross Blog Anatomy:Dissecting Blog’s from a Marketer’s Perspective” by Janet Johnson. Don’t be misled by the publication date of 2005, the information is still right on the mark.

Ms. Johnson describes seven distinct body parts of the blog’s anatomy: 

1.       post/entry are terms used to refer to a blogger’s commentary or article written in the blog.
2.       permalink is the blog entry’s link. It helps bloggers and others who want to link to a specific entry. Maybe you have an email newsletter and you want to refer your readers to a blog entry, use the permalink so they go right to it when clicking on it instead of searching for it.
3.      comments are one of the most vital elements of a blog since they open the door to an interactive discussion between the blogger(s) and readers. Comments are typically found at the end of the entry. Readers usually just click on the link to add a response.
4.       trackbacks connect another blogger’s entry to an entry you wrote. Instead of leaving a comment on your blog, the blogger leaves a comment on his blog and links back to yours as the source.
5.       blogrolls are lists of other blogs that cover the same topic as your blog or lists of blogs you read and recommend. Some blogging applications come with the blogroll feature built-in and others you add it with help from a third-party tool like Blogrolling or Blo.gs. Blogrolls are simple lists of blog names with links to the actual blogs.
6.       categories provide an easy way to archive your past blog entries. If a reader wants to find entries related to a specific category, she can see a list of entries for that category and read them. Some readers may only have an interest in one category you might cover, and categories make it easier to identify such entries.

7.   RSS / XML gives your readers another way to read your blog and other Web content. Instead of coming to your Web site to check out your blog, readers can subscribe to get your posts as you publish them. Your blog can be set up to feed an excerpt (called an RSS / XML link) into a “feed reader.” The feed reader can be accessed on your PC using Feeddemon or similar applications, by logging into a website like Bloglines, built-in or an add-in to your browser like Sage for Firefox or delivered right into your email like Newsgator or You Subscribe.

I recommend reading the entire white paper, there’s always more to learn! So that’s the view from the iceberg for this week. I don’t know about you, but I’m going to keep chipping away.

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Wake-up Call for Customer Retention

wake up womanDo your customers fully understand the breadth of your products and services?

I pose this question to you as yesterday afternoon I had the opportunity to sit in on a webinar entitled,”Cross-selling & Up-selling: Uncovering Hidden Opportunities,” that was sponsored by Hoover’s, Inc. and Miller Heiman. In the session, more than 600 attendees were asked this same question and responded with an overwhelming (86%) “no.”

Although I wasn’t overly surprised by the response, it should be a wake-up call for retention marketers. We know that we need to retain customers and build customer loyalty for the long-term success of the business. We also realize that our customers can be our biggest advocates. But, at the same time we acknowledge that our customers “don’t fully understand the breadth of our products and services.” This disconnect can only point to the fact that we are not effectively communicating with our customers.

With Web 2.0 conversational marketing tools, we are better equipped to communicate with customers more than ever before. In keeping with Doc Searls latest thinking, the purpose of conversation is to create and improve understanding. We can talk, not announce. We can pay attention, not get attention.

We need to think conversational marketing when communicating with customers. A blog, customer forum, or message board are ideal venues to invite and maintain ongoing conversation with customers.

“God-View of the Internet”

earthfromspace3.jpgTechnorati  lists the most popular blogs in the blogosphere, measured by the number of people who have linked to them or made it a favorite.  Consider this, at the time of this writing there were: 

816,526 blog reactions to Engadget
252,792 blog reactions to Gizmodo the Gadget Guide
118,836 blog reactions to Boing Boing 

This past week, National Public Radio,(NPR) did a story about Wikipedia Vision (seriously, check out this link!), a new online map which spins across the globe, tracking the changes people make to the encyclopedia. You can see what was edited, when and where. As NPR reported, a wired blogger referred to the online map as a “God-View of the Internet.”

With Web 2.0, people anywhere can start a conversation, broadcast news and video, and now with Wikipedia Vision, can virtually make our mark on the universe. Why do we have the need to do this? I suggest it’s human nature.