Sunday, September 25, 2011


I spent much of my young life living by an academic calendar, much longer than people using spend that way.  Every year had the same cadence of semesters, final exams, and summers off, so for me September has always seemed like the beginning of the new year, not the end of summer.

As soon as I was actually a teacher rather than a student, I found that the year just kept on, there was no true break over summer, I was never truly done with everything.  And when I left academia, even more so, the working year just rolls from task to task to project to report to budget planning, on and on without a break.  It's unusual even for people to take long vacations, lots of two days off and leave early on Fridays and frittering away one's annual vacation in tiny bits so you never really get a sense that you're done with everything, no one can ask any more of you.

This isn't true in every field, though. When I lived in Australia, all of my favorite personalities on the radio typically took two or three months off during the summer.  There were still broadcasts to fill the airwaves all day, but they were the second string, the substitutes, the apprentices.  It wasn't until February or so (the start of autumn in that hemisphere) that you heard familiar voices and settled back into the familiar schedule.

Here in the US, radio personalities don't seem to take long vacations, but the TV schedule does.  This week has been the premiere of all the commercial networks' new fall shows, and this weekend the new seasons of all the important, award-winning cable TV series have come back on the air.

So with this blog.  My hiatus was longer than a usual one this year because in May, I changed employers and started a new job, which took quite a bit of time and mental bandwidth.  I was pursuing some other time-consuming summer hobbies through the end of August, and then September has had a few family issues that delayed my intended return.  But now, with the TV schedule, I am back from hiatus and ready to start regular posts again.  I might make this an annual tradition, summers off from blogging.  I do feel refreshed, and I've stored up some new things to talk about.  Plus, now that temperature in my northern town creeps toward freezing every night and our nights are longer than our days, staying indoors and cozying up to a warm computer seems like a much more attractive pursuit.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Three stories that show that anonymity makes people behave badly

1.  Many years ago now, I had a job where I had to drive every day for work from Killcare, on the Central Coast of New South Wales, to Castle Hill, a surburb to the north of Sydney.  It was an hour and a half each way, the first half hour along a stretch of road where the speed limit has since been lowered about 30 kph, but where at that time the morning radio traffic report frequently features stories of accidents, usually "car v. rock wall", that would take whole lanes out of action for the morning.  For most of that year I did the drive in an old Jaguar XJ6, two tons of British engineering with a powerful engine but aging brakes and no modern features like side mirrors or retracting seat belts or window defoggers or little luxuries like that.  It was a dangerous stretch of road, and in the morning everyone on it was a stressed-out Dad or Mum heading into the city to do some job they resented, and they all went way too fast as a rule and acted like jerks.  One of the worst tricks, to gain unfair position in traffic, was to speed up to right behind me in the left-hand lane, which is the slow lane in that part of the world, then when we came to an on-ramp, zoom around me on the wrong side using the on-ramp itself as a passing lane.  This maneuver was always startling because you don't expect someone to do something so egregiously wrong, and the first time or two it happened I was filled with a red-hot, blinding, quaking rage.  But after a while I learned that I couldn't let other drivers get to me.  They might cheat and do studpid, unfair, dangerous things to try to get to work a little faster, but I just had to take a Zen approach, ignore them and drive my own drive.  I also learned to slow my mental metabolism down like a lizard in a freezer, so that the hour and a half seemed to take only a few minutes.  Both of these skills came in handy for international air travel as well.  They were Bodhisattva skills I developed in that cauldron of road rage, the F3.

2.  The next job after the one with the long commute, I was manager for a global company of their Asia, Pacific and Latin America websites.  This was way before the days of "Web 2.0" so it was unusual to hear any direct interations from customers, but we did have a "Contact Us" mailto link on each site, and as manager of all the sites those emails came to me.  It was a time when the US market included a direct sales channel, so US customers could come to our website and order products directly, but in the rest of the world sales still went through a distribution channel, and at every hop there was something like a 13% margin added so the local prices got nowhere near the price available to US customers, and the issue sometimes got a bit sensitive.

One time I got an angry, angry email from a local customer, I think he was in Perth.  He'd installed our product, got an automated screen advertising an upgrade for $99, thought that was great, clicked to order it, and then oops, at some point during the purchase process it became clear that the offer was only available to US customers, and his own upgrade would cost something like $367 (I'm making all these numbers up).  He had a very good point, his own product on his own computer had prompted him to take advantage of the sale price and nowhere was it made clear that the dollars in question weren't Australian dollars.  He had a fair point, we were completely in the wrong, but his email was spittingly angry, vitriolic in the extreme.

So as the manager, I wrote him back, apologized as profusely as a I could, admitted that our ad was misleading, that it had only been intended for US customers but of course launched from his product as well, and offered him a free upgrade which we could mail to him.  I signed my name and gave my title and full contact details.

Well, I got the nicest email back from him.  In order to get his mailing address and sent out the upgrade we had a few messages back and forth, and he was always extremely cordial and grateful and complementary.  I think the vitriol he spilled was at a computer, a set of machines, an impersonal mistake that had enraged him, but when he got a message from me, in my voice, with my name - a message from a real person who listened and apologized and made good (and we also instituted a policy that I tried to police regularly forever of saying "Offer good in US and Canada only" on the .com site, even though consumers should know that site wasn't for everyone, so we put preventative measures in that would prevent anyone else having the negative experience he had), I know that solving his problem made him happier but I still think knowing there was a real person at the end of the email address immediately calmed him down and caused him to behave much better.

3.  More recently, I worked on a product that had launched a change in the market.  This product had been around some 80 years, and they knew from research they had a loyal core of fans, but hadn't really been able to hear from them directly.  In what was in retrospect probably not a wise move, they instituted product reviews on their website at the very time this product change hit the market.  It wasn't quite as bad as New Coke, but they did get what felt like an overwhelming number of negative messages on the new reviews page.  Yes, these were the loyal fans, but they were not happy at all that the product had been messed with.  They had liked it for years, just the way it was, and didn't see why it had to be changed.  Some time later, that same brand launched a Facebook page, and they were worried the same thing would happen, but this time, it turned out that the loyal fans showed up and said mostly nice things, testifying to their long loyalty and how much the brand had meant to them.  The theory among the managers was that because when you post something on a brand's wall in Facebook it displays your own name and your own photo, it prompted people to be nicer.  When they were posting on an anonymous wall with a screen name as an alias, they were much meaner.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Emily Dickinson weighs in on whether internet relationships are real.

The Fourth Annual Fox Cities Book Festival is on this week, and I have volunteered all four years, although this year I was late to sign up and only worked at one session, which happened to be last night.  The session was called "Turn Up the Volume: A Riff on Creative Writing and Music", and it featured three different writers who incorporated music into their work in various ways.  Stephen McCabe was first - he would lay down repeated loops of guitar sounds with electric vibrophone or something as percussion and then read poems over the top of them; it was all very jazzy and beatnik and I loved it.  The last speaker was Bill Gillard, who read some poems and one story with themes drawn from his previous experience as a musician, including in the opening passage of the story the most perfect, moving description of a girl playing guitar (a Gibson 335 ES through a Fender Twin, to be exact) to make sounds in order to forget the boy she had lost, and also to remember him.  I went up to him afterwards to tell him that it was a perfect description of why girls play guitar - to make a sound that a boy made once.  It nearly made me cry when he read it.

But the one I want to talk about here is Ron Rindo, a Professor of English at UW Oshkosh down the road.  His thing is to set poems of other writers to original music.  Two of the pieces he did were Emily Dickinson poems, and to introduce one of them, poem 249 that starts "Wild Nights - Wild Nights!", he was talking about the different theories of her relationship with Susan Gilbert, the woman her brother had married and then they moved in next door.  There were many theories about this relationship and of what the poem was about, but he was in the camp that read it as a love poem, and believed Dickinson had a lesbian attraction to Susan Gilbert that was intense and passionate but also could never, never be requited.

Emily and Sarah used to pass notes between the houses, they lived next door but would communicate in writing, Emily in the end wrote more than 300 letters to Sarah, and he quoted her view that people in their flesh and blood were always disappointing, but she believed that in writing we are lifted up, and are our highest selves.

So, I thought, here is another vote for verbal relationships


Seeing an academic speak and then thinking of commenting on his work made me think about academic work and its research and rigor.  These little pieces haven't had much research or rigor.  I do know how to write properly rigorous academic prose, supported by full reviews of the existing literature and fully footnoted, revised and refined over months or years, carefully argued and vetted for being an original contribution to the field.  My dissertation was rigorous enough that the good people of the University of California thought it was worthy of giving a Ph.D.  But here, I am working to put out these little pieces for you at a higher frequency.  I read other people's blogs and know they have worked harder to refine their entries, and these in contrast are going to seem tossed off and casual.  I just wanted to make sure you realized that I know this.  I guess what you'll get here are many swift passes through a subject, like many cuts from a rapidly rotating blade.  Eventually I should get to the bottom of them.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Prioritize Quarterly

I'm drifting off of social media topics for the moment, and onto something more businessy, org-designy, productivity-y, but since I heard the following advice on the radio this morning it has stayed with me.

I was bored with NPR (Wisconsin state politics has reached a kind of stasis with nothing new to report), and switched over to the online stream of my old favorite talk radio station from Sydney, ABC 702.  Since morning here is night there, I listened to Nightlife with Tony Delroy, and one of his guests was an expert in organization and efficiency and time management.  I didn't catch the guest's name but will look it up and try to include it here soon.

The lead topic was how to manage an email Inbox, but this didn't grab me because I conquered the Inbox problem many, many years ago and it gives me no trouble at all any more - my technique is that I read emails, but I never delete or file any of them, I just wait until Outlook shouts at me and I move the whole lot of them into a folder called "Inbox - Old".  Then two or three times a year I group the messages into batches and create archived pst files, extract them back out again, and bang, I can find everything I ever need using Search.  This has saved me countless hours, and I recommend the technique to anyone.  It also helps if you sort of think of projects based on the people who were working on them, but what kind of Relationship Marketer would I be if I didn't do that?

No, it was the second topic that really grabbed me.  Tony was asking about prioritizing tasks, and said, "So, do you pick certain tasks to focus on that day?" and I was nodding in agreement because this is something I've been trying to do recently, to just focus on the most important accomplishments that need to get done, fill in with other little things but really pick just two or three things that day which should get done before day's end, and which will feel like real achievements.

Well, no.  This expert thought that a daily priority list was far too small a unit.  In order to really work on the most important tasks, rather than work reactively on shorter-term urgent tasks, he recommended that you work quarterly.

Quarterly.  Every three months, pick out two or three things which will be your main focus for that three-month period.  Then go back into your schedule and make sure at least 60-70 percent of your time is scheduled to spend on those two or three most important goals.  Then fill the rest in with other smaller term or even reactive tasks, but the bulk of your time should be devoted to the main things you want to accomplish.  And then the big goals can be reviewed annually.

This is how objectives are set in workplaces, but I'd never even thought of operating on that time scale in my personal life.  Quarterly objectives!  What do I hope to accomplish three months from now?  It seems almost fancifully far away.  But when I think of the kind of thing that would be an appropriate three-month goal, I do find myself drawn to much more grand and ambitious thoughts than when I think of daily ones ("Get the tax return in the mail, for real, by 5pm."  "Load of dark laundry including towels."  "Buy milk."  That kind of thing).

It resonates with another principle I heard some years back, advice for people going through difficult times, especially those who might be close to despair and giving it all up.  If you can get the person to agree to hang on for three months, usually things will turn around and they will gain a different perspective.  And this person said it's because within three months, the seasons usually change.  The world looks different, either sunnier or snowier or more autumnal or verdant, and it can give a different perspective and that in itself sometimes gives hope.  People work well quarterly.  I'm going to try this new approach and see how it works.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

What you get when you hire a philosopher

The last time I spent any length of time on the job market was after I finished my MBA.  I remember thinking at that time about leaving my Ph.D. off of my resume.  In addition to making me appear about ten years younger, I thought it might also have made my career history look more like a typical Marketer, a better fit for the mold.

But in the end, I have always left it on, because when you hire me, you get a Ph.D. in Philosophy, and if that's not what you want, then you don't want me.

What do you get when you hire a philosopher?

1.  The philosopher will question assumptions.  All assumptions.

If your new employee has spent a while in academic Philosophy, be warned that they are going to question everything.  Every little thing.  No assumption will be left in place, unexamined, and your new hire is going to be constantly asking why, about everything.  Remember that we spend at least seven years, and in my case 11 years, being trained to uncover and test every assumption that can possibly underlie a human thought.  Everything.  Whether time and space exist, whether pure thinking exists, whether if it did it would prove that anything else exists, whether cause and effect exist or all of history has been a series of coincidences, whether sentences can be both true and false at the same time.  We comfortably spend all our time questioning things like these.  So do you think we're going to be afraid of questioning the steps in your latest process flow chart?  Do you think we're not going to bring the full machinery of our highly trained analytical minds to the question of why, exactly, we have to fill out time sheets?  Did you think we would be too busy to bring you numerous alternative paradigms for your departmental organizational structure?  Nothing is safe, with a philosopher around. 

Some bosses appreciate this approach.  I had one boss who had a signed posted right outside his office door that said, "If you've always done it that way, then it's probably wrong."  It was no accident that he hired me, I don't think.  But the poor manager who inherited me when that boss moved on probably didn't realize what he was in for.

2.  Prepare to be contradicted in public.

Philosophers respect authority and hierarchies, but not in the standard ways these are recognized in the corporate world.  When I was a young academic, one of only two women, both of us first-year teachers, in a department full of white heads and grey beards, I had to learn how to speak up and ask questions and be seen to be testing the strength of ideas presented in departmental meetings or when visiting speakers came to give presentations.  This was hard for a young female academic to learn to do, partly to gain the confidence that my own, junior ideas could stand up to those of more senior and experienced colleagues but also because I possess a typically female conversational patterns of saying "Mm-hm" when someone else is talking, which they sometimes take for agreement when in fact it just means I'm waiting for my turn to talk.  So I had to learn to speak up and speak my mind, even in formerly intimidating and uncomfortable circumstances.  I picked up one of the greatest phrases I ever learned - "I disagree with you."  It certainly lacks the ambiguity of the "Mm-hm", and it always stopped people in their tracks because they want to hear why.

However.  When I moved over to the corporate world I found this very useful phrase had a different effect on my superiors.  "I disagree with you."  In the middle of a meeting, or on a conference call.  Especially in front of others.  Corporate bosses are definitely not used to being spoken to like this.  I remember some raised eyebrows, some exasperated sighs, and once a full, angry dressing-down.  I am sad now that I have had to un-learn "I disagree with you."  I much more often respond these days with a variation of "Sir, yes sir!", which seems to be how corporate bosses want to be addressed.  But it took years - if you are hiring someone who has worked more recently in academia, be ready to be confronted with a contrary opinion, even in front of people.  This is how we used to have to build our professional credibility, so it takes a while to realize that we're in an environment with different rules.

3.  You will never hear us say, "I'm really a visual person".

Philosophy is done with words.  Words are our only tools.  Sometimes the words are in Latin.  And I suppose there are the occasional images like Wittengenstein's duck-rabbit, but mainly, philosophy is done with words.  Furthermore, it doesn't matter at all to the validity of the argument what font those words are in.  They could be Courier, Times New Roman, Comic Sans, serif, non-serif, printed on the head of a pin or in skywriting hundreds of feet high.  The appearance of the words don't matter.  The words matter.

So we end up a bit handicapped in other forms of communication that do require visual elements, like graphic design or the construction of a persuasive PowerPoint.  Don't let the philosopher approve the creative for a new print ad or package design, because they can't tell the difference between balanced and busy, kerned and unkerned.  And try to be patient when they struggle to understand the point of meetings to develop models and frameworks for those PowerPoint slides - those hours spent hashing out whether the process should be depicted with a triangle pointing up or one pointing down, or maybe a set of three circles, or maybe it's three overlapping circles, or a stacked pyramid of bars of different lengths.  Even just typing this I'm having combat flashbacks to meetings like this, and a red fog of frustration and rage passes over my eyes and makes me unable to think.  If you want to know what the organization is like, why don't you just ask me?  I can talk it through in about 50 minutes (I learned to explain things in exact 50-minute increments when I was teaching), or I could write you an essay about it, why won't that work?  That will get you closer to the truth.  Philosophers think words describe truth, at least as well as anything can (see #1 above), and that geometrical models are just pictures of nothing, and that therefore no one can be the right model or even better than any other one and so any meeting about which model to use in a PowerPoint slide is a complete, expensive waste of time.  Be prepared for this, all you visual people in business.  You are going to be bombarded by words, so please do what you can to help translate this into a medium that other business people speak.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Creating Value

I've been reading the new book by Gary Vaynerchuck, called The Thank You Economy.  And then only just yesterday put together its thesis with something I've been talking about for a couple of years - "Ooooh, the Thank You Economy".

The basic thesis of his book is that companies who out-care their competition will win, and that the new Social Media tools available for communicating with customers will amplify this process.

The thing I've been talking about for years is how building a two-way relationship with customers over time can create equity that will make customers pay a premium price without hesitation, and never even consider buying from anyone else.  I truly believe this is true, and I know it's how I shop, but it can be hard to convince business people and brand managers, especially brand managers of products that are traditionally considered "low-involvement".  But I know even for the lowest, most comoditized product, there is a loyal core out there who love it, and that love can be fostered to encourage loyalty and reduce the need for discounting and promotions.

All of that is in CPG-Marketing-Speak, but here is my point in simpler terms:

The very same transaction can be valued very differently by the buyer, depending on how the seller sells.

I did a brilliant training course at work about a year ago called "Influence Without Authority" (the instructor was wonderful, a great presenter and demonstrator of principles who also had great insight into the structural features of Corporate America that create barriers - I will find his company name and update the link here) in which during several role playing exercises we got a really vivid feel for the difference.

In one example, the instructor played the Busy Senior Executive and had three class members come up and pitch an idea to him while the rest of us observed.  His rendition was perfect - he was reading a paper the whole time, barely acknowledged their presence, cut them off brusquely and generally was unwilling to give them any time or attention.  The poor classmates started in on the pitch for their product idea, talked about what it would mean to their own department, talked faster and faster as the Senior Exec turned off, and ended by offering bribes of plane fares and expense-paid trips to their facility, but none of it worked.  In the debrief, he pointed out that they had missed an opportunity to go in and start with questions, so that they could establish what the main priorities of the Exec were, what problems were keeping him up and night, so that they could position their idea as a solution.

Later in the course when we were doing exercises in pairs, I was assigned to play the role of Employee B in a series of three negotiations. I knew, from reading my briefing document, that in Exercise 3 I was going to ask Employee C if he'd be willing to meet monthly with three members of a combined research team.  We were on Exercise 2, in which Employee A was trying to sell me an idea.  Suddenly I heard him say, "What if I were to give you three members of my team, say once a month, to meet with senior leaders on this project?"  I knew from the script that that was exactly what I would need for the next exercise.  Oh my!  Here was this thing that was exactly what I needed, being offered to me on a platter!  I tried to keep a poker face and not act too excited about it, so that I still had some leverage in the negotiation, but the main thing I remember was the feeling.  I was not going to have to push and cajole and hard-sell and finagle and maneuver or bully Employee A, the offer and what I needed were perfectly matched!

When we did the debrief with the whole class, it turns out our little group playing the roles of Employees A, B and C were the only ones who'd actually come to an agreement.  Credit to my classmate for taking the time to find out my interests and issues, and pitching the solution to me as he did.  Others in the class had gone in hard with demands, and met resistance.  Same exact transaction, since all of us had received the same briefing documents.

So, the conclusion I draw from this, which I only really just figured out yesterday, is that the very same transaction can create feelings of relief and happiness in a buyer, or it can create feelings of resentment and resistance.  The background situation is the same.  The parties are the same.  The product is the same.  The only difference is the words the seller uses, and the order in which the seller says them.  "I have this thing that can help you with your problem" is different from "I need you to buy this thing right now."  Same thing.  Same speaker.  But the first approach actually makes the buyer value the thing differently.  For example, makes the buyer willing to pay a premium, and sets of a feeling of gratitude and trust that will make the buyer turn to this seller in the future for more solutions.

The buyer values the same thing differently.  The customer-centered approach creates value.

Ooooh.  Thank You ECONOMY.

Some cool things found via my new Twitter followers

I have just returned home from the Bazaarvoice Social Commerce Summit, where I connected with all sorts of colleagues in the field of Social Media.

Now that I'm home I'm taking the opportunity to review the profiles of some of my new Twitter contacts, and I've found a couple of sites that are really cool and in keeping with this blog's themes, so I wanted to share them with you.

My first follower from Finland.  I clicked through to the site and found the coolest thing, Digitalkoot is a joint project  by the National Library of Finland and Microtask to digitize and index the library's archives to preserve the country's cultural heritage and make it easier to access.  So, to help them in this project, they have created several interactive text-matching games that, by playing, you can actually use to improve the accuracy of their scanning and indexing.  They're all in Finnish, of course, but even a non-fluent human reader could probably do better than a machine on some of the older and degraded texts.  If you want to check them out, visit the site above and you'll need to log in using Facebook.

Barkley manifesto
Clicking on another new follower's link I found myself on the homepage of Barkley ad agency in Kansas City, and the introductory video (which doesn't auto-play, so full marks for that).  If you weren't reading it, it might come across as the usual fast, high-impact boldly colored text animation that designers throw together in five minutes and show along with some kind of dance music underneath at the start of their show reel or right before their CEO comes onstage at an awards ceremony.  Same old same old.  But the words are different.  They actually call on the industry to keep to a higher standard, remember the responsibility that comes along with the messages we put out, and to remember that for everyone who reads them they are personal.  Do they mean it?  If they do, this is the kind of message I can get behind.  Communication, even marketing communication, is a conversation between individual human beings.  If they mean it, I'm glad to see this message out there.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Walking the Talk

The field I work in goes by various names - Relationship Marketing, Social Media Management, Community Management, Conversational Marketing.  But whatever you call it, the role I'm supposed to play in my company is to listen to customers, understand everything about them, anticipate their needs and feed those insights back into the strategy and innovation teams. so that they can build products that delight customers and are exactly what they're looking for to solve their biggest problems (ideally, things they don't even know they're looking for but that delight them once they get them, because then we're more likely to be the first to market with that thing), and can build marketing communication programs that deliver exactly the right message with the right offer to the right customer at exactly the right time.

Because I work in this field, I am the key point person for tons of agency partners who are in that same business.  They do strategic analysis and insight work to help us understand our customers.  They build programs and tools that help us create and execute marketing communication programs.  They sell stuff to me so that my company can more effectively sell stuff to our customers.

So we're all trying to do the same thing, and everyone in the field can write articles and retweet tweets and create PowerPoint slides that convey the fundamental principles of doing this well. 

But it's really, really hard to actually live by all the principles we espouse.

And I think all of us forget how many levels of "customers" we really need to treat in the full, open-eared, interactive, caring Relationship Marketing way.  I need to devote lots of time and energy to understanding and conversing with our end users, but we also have a layer of distributors who are also customers in a way, and have their own distinct set of needs and characteristics and problems to solve.  And then since I work in a department that acts as an internal consultant to several departments, those are my customers as well, who will have a completely different set of things that keep them up at night that I must understand in order to sell in my recommendations as a solution.

So it shouldn't be surprising when the agencies that sell me the tools and services I need to manage all these various customer constituencies forget the princples espoused in their own PowerPoints and tweets and t-shirts and coffee mugs, and instead focus on the features of their tool and the applications they have dreamed up for it.  But they, of all people, should really be forgetting this less.  I am your customers.  You need to listen to what I say, mine data about me, truly understand my objectives and strategies, identify the things that keep me up at night, and then bring me your tool or service as the ideal solution to help with that.  If you can sell your products to me in a way that helps me sell products to my customers, all those various diverse layers of customers, I will pay a premium price and buy additional services from you in the future and have such ferocious loyalty that I would never think of buying anything like it from anyone else.  This is what you tell me is the level of loyalty I can achieve with my own customers if I use your tools and services, right?  So if you believe your own white papers, you should believe that you and I can have that same relationship.  So why don't you live it?  Why aren't you better at Relationship Marketing or Social Media Management or Community Management or Conversational Marketing to your own customer, who is me?

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Direct Marketing, Magic and Creepiness: I create a 2x2 grid!

In a meeting last week we were talking about geofencing, the technique of identifying someone's location based on the signal from their mobile phone, and the use of geofencing for pushing targeted marketing messages.  The marketer's dream use of this tool is that a customer who wants to buy your product, say a hammer, is walking by your store and they get an alert, "Hey, we have hammers inside! Come right in!"

Rightly so, though, someone in the meeting mentioned that with these kinds of messages,there's a line between "magic" and "creepy". 

It's a line that all Direct Marketers need to respect, whether using SMS communications or another medium like email  We collect information about customers and are growing increasingly efficient and sophisticated about using it to target products and offers to specific individuals.  When this works well, from the customer's point of view it's like we knew what they wanted before they even wanted it, but when it works badly we can come across as presumptuous idiots or creepy stalkers.

Later in the meeting someone else gave an example of a text campaign he opted in to that didn't work well at all - he'd just bought a new car from a dealership and signed up for regular text messages, but all the ones he received were trying to get him to buy a new car.  This fell on a different spectrum, between "magic" and "really not magic", and so I set my mind to trying to figure out the model that would show the relationships between these example.

And lo, I ended up creating my first ever 2x2 grid!  I first ran across these in business school, and was the most impressed when I once participated in a consulting competition among my classmates.  We were in groups of four or five, received a case study and had a limited time, I think it was a couple of hours, to develop a response to the case and present it.  My team was kind of dysfunctional because we had no brilliant ideas and everyone was waiting for someone else to jump up and lead us, but another team I watched present included a graph that perfectly explained the universe of the business situation and crisply locked in their concepts.  I remember the presenter making a passing snide comment about, "a 2 by 2 grid, of course", and I realized that this was a business "thing" and that I didn't really know how to spin them out.

That was my first exposure to the 2x2 matrix but it is actually quite famous and well-known, with its own website, Wikipedia page, and whole book you can buy from Amazon, and articles calling it "a consultant's best friend".  I realized it was just a b-school technique, a model you could whip out and apply to business situations to look smart, but it really did make my classmates look smart.

And I never got the hang of using them, until this meeting last week!  Because as I was thinking about "magic" vs "creepy" and "magic" versus the really not magic texts the new car owner had received, I realized that they weren't arranged on a single spectrum, they were arranged along two axes!  Voila!  The sides of a matrix grid!

The two axes are, one, whether or not the messaging is targeted based on data the company knows about the consumer.  And two, whether or not the consumer actually wants the thing the company is offering.

Dividing these axes into two, you get these four quadrants:
  • Magic - when the company, based on knowing the customer well, sends an offer for a hammer just exactly when the person wants a hammer
  • Creepy - when the company targets a message based on what it knows about the customer but the message is unwanted - this is when customers start to wonder how the company knows these things and starts to feel stalked and exploited.  It's a failure of using targeting outside of an established trusting relationship, and it's just as inappropriate for business as it is for personal relationships.
  • Lucky - Companies who don't use targeted messaging or who don't even collect customer data still advertise, but they have to do it by pushing out mass messages using vehicles like TV advertising and newspaper inserts, "Sunday! Sunday! 10% off all hammers!", and just cross their fingers and hope that some member of their target market happens to be listening.  The fact that any advertising messages meet their target at all is a bit of a miracle in this system, and it necessarily involves incredible amounts of waste.
  • Spam - That leaves the last box, when a company blasts out a mass untargeted message for something the receiver of that message doesn't want.  This is spam, this is noise, this is clutter, and this is the thing targeted Direct Marketing is mainly designed to prevent.
 Here is my grid!

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Owned Social Media, Defined

At work we've started classifying our marketing communication media into three categories: Paid, Owned and Earned.  I believe one of our agencies coined these category names, I've definitely seen them outside of my own company as well, but lately they are terms that it behooves a person to whack on the first slide of any PowerPoint presentation.

The classic example of Paid Media would be a television spot, or a page in a print magazine.  Earned is classically used for PR impressions, in other words when what we do garners enough attention that it gets mentioned by the news media, when we didn't pay for the placement.  Owned, especially in the digital realm, is used for a brand's own website.

Trying to apply these terms to Social Media, I got into a number of interesting arguments with other classification-minded analytical types at work, and we especially got stuck on Facebook.  We don't own Facebook, Facebook owns Facebook, so it seemed weird to call our brand's Facebook pages examples of "owned media".  But it's also kind of our space that we control, so it's more than just "earned", it's not like the front page of the New York Times or some blogger's blog.  But the comments that people leave on the page seem like "earned" impressions, we didn't pay for them or sponsor them, but the people cared enough to come and post.  So which one is it?

Back when I was teaching Intro Philosophy, I worked up a patter about analytical definitions, because it was such an important part of the philosophical tradition in which I was trained and also because it was most of what we did for the whole first year of the major.  I explained it in terms of a lasso - you have a word in a language, and you have some intuitions about what it applies to, but there are borderline cases and the edges are fuzzy, so philosophers come along and try to provide a definition, another set of words, that more clearly draws the line about what's in and what's out.  If your definition applies to more things that you intuitively would use the word for, then your proposed definition is too broad.  If it excludes things to which you would intuitively apply the word, then it's too narrow.  At any point, of course, you can just decide to take your definition as prescriptive, and change your behavior so it matches the definition rather than your intuitions.  But in general you want to match it as much as possible, because you're trying to provide clarity, not necessarily stage a revolution.

So, applying this technique to "Owned Social Media", I came up with a definition, perhaps more of a criterion, that seemed to work really well.  Social Media is Owned if we, our company, are able to delete user's posts.  Not owned, if not.

Being an example of Owned Media, then, really comes down to whether or not someone inside the company has the Admin password.  So that's pretty operational, but I think it really draws a nice distinct line - we can delete things on our own Facebook page, but we can't delete things on someone's personal Facebook page. 

So I give you that definition for free, to use if it's helpful in your own organization.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Fire Drills

We've been talking about how human beings behave in groups, and as I continue to think about it I'm coming to the hypothesis that for human communities to be ruly, as opposed to unruly, they need rules, but I'm not sure if they also need rulers. In the last post I talked about an artificial example where groups (i.e. rows of people in a meeting room) self-organized around a common goal and set of constraints. I wasn't in the room so I don't know if there emerged in each row a natural leader, but it was definitely the case that apart from setting the initial goals and constraints, the fact that the task was not micromanaged from the stage at the front of the room added speed and efficiency.

I often think of the way Western people respond to disasters in buildings as maybe another example. Crowds around the world frequently get out of control and stampede or kill people in crushing injuries, and I'm not saying the US hasn't had its share of examples (the concert by The Who in Cincinnati, the Black Friday incident at Walmart).

But when you hear those examples of disasters where everyone kept cool and behaved in an orderly way, like the evacuation of that plane that Sully Sullenburger landed in the Hudson River and the passengers proceeded onto the wings to patiently wait for rescue, it makes me think of how we were all raised on school fire drills and their rules - don't run, walk in a single line, don't use elevators but use the stairs, help each other but fit your own mask first.  It makes me think that if we all hadn't grown up with all these rules, and with the practice of them that drilled them in, would we behave as well in groups in crisis? Or would we be more likely to devolve into stampedes that cause crushing injuries, or at least to do so more often?

Sunday, March 27, 2011

To what extent can groups of people self-organize?

Continuing on with the themes from last week, I continue to think about how people behave in groups, because what else is social media management but the attempt to get them to behave well, and toward some mutual benefit?

I think it is probably true that in pure anarchy, human behavior tends to the lowest denominator.  But what is the minimum required to get people to behave well?

I saw an experiment conducted at a SXSW keynote address that gave me some ideas.  The talk was by Seth Priebatsch, an internet super-genius with a gaming background (there's a video version of the same presentation as a TED talk).  The key factor of his genius, to me, was an understanding of human motivation, and a strategic ability to set up situations and reward structures to elicit the behavior you want.

He had the audience play a group game, toward the end of his presentation.  I didn't participate directly because I was watching a simulcast in another ballroom, but I keep thinking back to it and what it demonstrated.  In the ballroom where he was speaking, he had distributed paper cards in four different colors among all the seats.  For this game, the rules were that no one could leave their seat and there would be no talking.  The objective of the game was for each row of seats to get all the same color of cards.  The game started with them scrambled, so to get each row with only blue, or only green, or etc. would require some trading.  When a row was finished, they were to hold up their cards.  He gave the group three minutes to complete the game.

But they needed far less than three minutes.  The first group held up their cards after about 30 seconds, and row by row they followed quickly after.  We weren't playing, but we could watch footage of what was happening.  Rows decided really quickly what color they would be.  I didn't directly see but I imagine the people sitting in a row all looked side to side to each other, and one person kind of emerged as a natural leader, held up a card and waggled it, and everyone else nodded their heads.  You've been in team situations yourself where this happens, I'm sure.  Someone just steps up and makes a proposal, and if everyone else follows you quickly become a team with a common purpose.

What happened next I did see - row members who had the card of the right color would hold it up and waggle it to people around in other rows.  "I need blue", this meant.  Blue was sent that way.  People couldn't walk around (some did, but they weren't supposed to), so the blue cards had to make their way to the rows where they were needed through a series of small, local interactions.  As he pointed out in the wrap-up after the game concluded, since people couldn't move around, all the interactions were restricted to about eight people sitting right around each person, in a room with something like 2000 people in it.

The cards got sorted in an amazingly short amount of time, I think it was just over two minutes.  Seth himself looked amazed - he said he'd never tried the game before, and had tested it only with about 25 people.  But it demonstrated the point he was trying to make - he could have given elaborate instructions from the stage, saying, "Okay, Row 1, you're blue, and Row 2, you're going to be orange," and so on.  But by not doing that, by letting the room organize themselves, the whole thing got done many, many times quicker.

So what makes me continue to think of this experiment is the question, what does it take for groups to cooperate and self-organize like this, to act in harmony and also to achieve this kind of efficiency?  They needed an overall group objective, which he supplied.  They needed some rules - some of the rules were constraints to make the game harder and show how cool it all was, but some were guidelines that helped constrain and guide group behavior. 

Did they need a ruler?  That's the question I'm left with.  They had one in Seth, because he laid out the rules of the game itself and gave them their common objective.  They didn't have any preordained within the rows.  But probably some leaders naturally emerged, as in picking colors that their rows would be.  They didn't have anyone pre-mapping out the process how they were to get to the goal, they were free to improvise and sort of figure out the trading process as they went along.  Since it was a big crowd of people who had all probably had many years of schooling and all naturally fell into the pattern of obedience from an educator figure speaking from the front of the room, they didn't need enforcers to bring people who were breaking the rules back into line, or a system of punishments or banishment.  So is this all you need?  Or were the experiment and the crowd it was done in so artificial that you can't draw general conclusions?  Did the crowd bring in with them all the obedience and cooperation strategies and social hierarchies and etc. that made it work?

I'm almost worried that I'm thinking about these questions, because I know I'm right away going to get into some arguments with Political Science majors and macro-economists and other people I know, and my ignorance of the literature and major schools of thought in this area are going to be a problem very quickly.  But I'm thinking that social media management is management of big groups of people just like people have been trying to do throughout history, so it's worth it to see what smart people have had to say about it before.

Many more examples to consider, as well - Egypt, Madison, Japan, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in 1911.  Stay tuned, I'm sure I will have more to say soon.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Derelict Buildings and Benevolent Dictatorship

I was talking about the previous post to my guitar teacher, and we got into a conversation that ultimately was about whether people, when left to their own devices, are fundamentally good or fundamentally bad.  It was a revival of a theme I first ran across in Intro to Western Civilization the first year of college, basically Rousseau vs. Hobbes.

I was talking about dealing with troublemakers in online communities, and my guitar teacher knows a bit about this because he was manager of the forum for his band on their website for some years.  I contended that it was possible that troublemakers could be reformed, from the equivalent of office hours where they could talk and be listened to.  He contended that any online community would always have a destructive element, that any group left alone will deteriorate and start to post angry, stupid hateful posts.  His examples were some of the things that have popped up since the earthquake in Japan, which I won't quote here because the points of view are so abominable but harked back to WW2 and various old grudges.  I mentioned 4chan (content warning, caution before you click through) as an example, which does, yes, have some abominable content, but it hasn't been destroyed, and in fact has produced some valuable memes and content, at least for comedic value.  Would it be because it's so big, because it doesn't have an archive?  He still wasn't having it.  Groups of people, when left by themselves in anarchy, end up being destructive haters.

Well, yes, actually I agreed with that.  Which is why you need a manager of an online community, to set the tone and model the desired behavior and enforce guidelines.  Aha!  He thought he had me.  So people can be made to behave online when there's someone in charge, when there is someone there to enforce rules.  But that's not anarchy.  No, I agreed, that's a benevolent dictatorship.  I have always found myself in this kind of conversation defending paternalistic systems of rules.  I guess I have an overall schoolmarmish perspective on controlling and leading groups of people.  But if that person can take charge, then people can display their best selves, and the community won't necessarily succumb to haters and be destroyed.

Somewhere in there I made an analogy to derelict buildings.  Sure, they get their windows broken and graffiti if no one is looking after them, but if someone is looking after them and goes and fixes the window and removes the graffiti, then the vandalism stops.  Aha, he said again.  So, that's not anarchy.  No.  But I glanced out the window at the main street of the town where I live, with some of the lowest crime rates in the entire country.  No, it's not anarchy, but it works.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Are Internet Relationships Real?

Doing what I do for a living, I frequently get into that argument about whether Facebook is good for you, or if it's destroying society and ruining our youth.

A few weeks ago at a work lunch, when I was seated beside a co-worker I hadn't met before, I found myself in the argument once again, and this time I decided to deploy a trick I learned when I was a young philosopher of saying straight out, "I disagree with you."  But in hearing her side of the argument I realized that she was coming to it with a completely different set of priorities from mine.  In talking to her, I realized that for her, for something to be real it had to be physical.  She was worried about her kids spending too much time online because things didn't count as real for her unless they involved moving one's body around outside.  Sports, active pursuits like biking or going on long hikes, those counted as real, and those were what she wished her children were spending more time doing.

I argued the other side at that lunch, that internet relationships are perfectly real and not isolating at all, because you are conversing and forming relationships with actual human beings.  Once I realized her privileging of the physical, though, I realized how strange this must sound to her, since I have an equally biased privileging of the verbal.  I think it's true of me that for me, the only relationships that count as real are those where thoughts and ideas are exchanged in words.  (Hello there, by the way.)  Social media is built almost entirely on verbal interations, so for me its as real as real can get.  Whereas for her, because it doesn't involve bodies moving around, that claim sounds preposterous.

A few weeks after the lunch debate I attended a big social media conference, and found my bias at play again.  For one of the first times, I decided to install Tweet Deck on my phone, follow the hash tags for sessions I attended while they were going on, and tweet out my own summaries and perspectives on the meeting.  In addition to sessions with speakers and panel discussions, this conference also had lots of industry parties, paid for by different companies and usually held in some bar with some loud band.  Although I probably should have taken advantage of the networking opportunity, and although I'm sure I ended up missing some pretty good bands, I decided not to go to any parties, but just go home and catch up on the online discussions that continued each night.  The one party I looked into, I didn't stay long, it was just a bunch of people with matching lanyards standing around in an upstairs bar, and I couldn't work out what one was supposed to do there - there was no host apparent, no one making introductions or helping establish connections, nothing in particular to spark conversation.  So I went home and hung out with the people inside my phone.  For me, since I don't privilege the physical, just standing in the same building with a bunch of people didn't count as being together with them at all, if we weren't exchanging any words.  I wonder what my work colleague would have thought about it.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Dealing With Troublemakers

Last week when I was at South by Southwest Interactive, one morning I had got up late and only just made it to the first session of the day, so I hadn't had any breakfast.  I was waiting in a longish line at the coffee shop at the Hyatt for a proper coffee and a bran muffin, so I took the opportunity to check my work email on my work iPhone, and since it took a while to load because the tens and thousands of internet hipsters were all flogging the SXSW wireless so heavily, I checked my home email in the iPhone in my other hand.

"Two phones!" I heard from behind me.  I gestured with my left hand, "work", and right hand "home", and muttered a promise to converge them one day, but actually I think the person behind me had just used the observation to start a conversation.  Turns out he was a journalist, scheduled for a panel the next day on something about mobile, I didn't actually catch what it was and didn't end up going.  But like any talented journalist, by the time I was at the end of the line and paying the cashier, he had asked me enough through-provoking questions that we were having a really interesting conversation about the industry.

He got to it by asking what I did, what that entailed, what I did every day, and I mentioned our new social media policy which had only just launched earlier that week.  He asked about the type of posts that we had to include in our moderation guidelines, which got us onto the topic of trolls and haters.

He then asked a really interesting question I'd never thought about before:  Of the people who cause trouble in online communities, what percentage of them will come around and rein in their behavior if the community starts to react to them, and what percentage don't respond and you just have to ban them?

I hadn't ever thought about before, but thought back to incidents on forums that I've managed and participated in over the years, and "Actually, more of them don't change, and you just have to ban them."  He was surprised at this, but I followed up and had one of those experiences where you find yourself having an insight just fall out of your mouth while you're speaking: "It's just like troublemakers in class when I was teaching.  If shame was going to work on them, it already would have."

Again like a good journalist, he expressed amazement at this insight and said that all community managers should spend some time as teachers.  We were all paid up at this point so we went our separate ways, but I kept thinking about the exchange.  Because one difference between teaching and online community management is that for the troublemakers in class, the best way to manage them was something I learned from Professor Emeritus Hazel Barnes, who was still teaching at U. of Colorado - Boulder when I went there.  I remember a departmental gathering where she was holding forth, dressed in her signature one-piece purple jumpsuit with stitched-on metal belt detail (she was well into her 70's at this point and clearly hadn't bought any new clothes in 20 years, because maybe when you hit a certain age, you think, why bother?), and she was sharing wisdom gained over a lifetime of teaching mouthy and opinionated Philosophy students.  The best defense, she said, was to invite disruptive students in to office hours and just let them talk, until they were done.  It might take hours, but they always had things to say and wanted to get them out.  And once they did, she found they didn't take up class time in the same way.  I did use this same technique to good effect during my lecturing days.

So reflecting on it made me think, we really don't do this with haters in online communities.  We just ban them.  And the social media best practices literature is full of examples when banned people just go off and start their own blog, and sometimes the problem escalates into a PR crisis (I went to several sessions on just this topic later in the conference).

But what if that's the wrong approach?  What if the better way to deal with online haters is to invite them to some virtual version of office hours, and let them blather on and say what they have to say?  Would that actually contain problem conversations more effectively?  Would that opportunity to speak and be listened to neutralize online community troublemakers, in a way that banning does not?  Who will be the community manager to test this, and get back to us?  Because I'd love it if it were true, that haters could actually be reformed through openness and listening and generosity.  Some won't ever reform, it's true, and that's why you have Campus Security.  But I wonder if this technique that works with university teachers would work online as well?

Sunday, March 13, 2011

At South By Southwest Interactive. This morning I tried to attend a session on measuring the ROI of social media programs, which would be very relevant to one of my big objectives at the moment at work, but I got there eight minutes late and it was in a one-out-one-in situation, so I stepped next door and ended up in a session called "Does The Internet Make You Happy?", which was all about forming communities and genuine human connections and sharing love, and was great. Next I took the shuttle to catch another session, also about social media measurement and ROI, and found out I was at the wrong building and that talk was completely across town, like 45 minutes away, so I wound up in a session called "Dreams Into Action". I can only conclude that the universe is trying to tell me something.