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Archive for March, 2011

Here’s the text of a speech I gave at Miva Merchant’s “It’s a Social World” conference in San Diego this last week. I used the opportunity to try out some stuff I’d been musing on for a couple of months, that when it comes to retail the power of social media is not in its ability to increase reach, but in its ability to create depth of commitment from its users. Much thanks to Clay Shirky and Jay Rosen for the vocabulary for of a couple of these concepts

Welcome and good morning! The title of the next 45 minutes is “The War is Over – Fan Communities and the rise of buyer-seller collaboration”. Now, that’s a bit of a mouthful, so there is an alternate title I was considering: “Everything I ever wanted to know about marketing I learned from comic book geeks.” Today I want to take a step back and talk a little bit about what why we’re doing all this. What’s so great about a fanbase.

A while ago, a large company decided that it wanted to write a reference book. It was going to be really really big. They realized right off the bat that it was going to be way over their budget, even if they hired an entire new staff, the quality just wouldn’t be worth it. A solution was finally suggested: they would find fans who had shown an interest in similar books –intelligent people with a little spare time every day, and they would ask them to each help out, just a little bit. By the end of the project they had over 800 volunteers who produced what ended up being 12 books worth of information.

The Oxford English Dictionary took from the year 1860 to the year 1895, and it was a huge success. Now they didn’t have to do it this way. Their product was in high demand so no matter how crappy the quality, they knew people would buy it. And if people didn’t buy it, they knew they had some of the most powerful advertisers in the world working for them at the time. But Instead they used the wisdom of their potential buyers, and that’s probably why, instead of being a passing fad, we still use dictionaries today.

It was a brilliant concept. But it did take 35 years. Today this idea of working with your customers for a shared goal finally has the chance of taking place in a reasonable amount of time because the internet has changed the way we think about group dynamics. That’s just a fancy way of saying that we not only talk to each other differently, we think about each other differently too.

Ecommerce changed how sellers see themselves – it’s so much easier to make the leap to being a seller now – but it is also changing how sellers see their customers. It’s true that many of us still consider it the job of merchants to extract money from customers with pliers: push people hard enough in the direction of a product and a certain number of people will go for it.

The war is over! Maybe?

But I think it’s not overstating things by saying, a good two centuries later, we might be witnessing the end to the age-old adversarial relationship between customers and sellers. Why? Because there are a couple of seriously huge incentives for sellers to begin taking seriously the phrase they’ve been using ever since the advent of Facebook: fan communities. The idea of fans dates back hundreds of years, but the metaphor I’m going to use is comic books, of which I myself am a fan. If you buy a comic, you’re by default a fan. All you need in order to join this exclusive fan community is interest. Your badge of membership is the product you’ve purchased. When a new product comes out, it’s the fan community who discusses its merits, who makes suggestions for the next issue, and who spreads the word to other potential customers. And because it’s self-advertising, there are a lot of members. And oh are they motivated

With the rise of social media we are all of us potential fans. We’re looking at a possible future where all consumer groups are fan groups, and where buying a product is just a side product of that fan activities. Will this be better for business as a whole? Well, If nothing else it will be a lot more fun. I mean, given a choice between cajoling customers into purchases through high pressure sales tactics, and delighting them so much that they give you money for the sheer joy of being in your product’s presence, I know which one I’d pick. Remember, concentrating strictly on money instead of the buying experience is like praying to win the lottery but refusing to buy a ticket.

So, a fast review. What we know and love today as Social Software is made up of all kinds of services: Wikis, Realtime editors, social networking services, bookmarking tools, microblogging, forums, chat rooms, virtual worlds, MultiPalyer Online games, and technically Blogs, sometimes, and all of their purposes are to allow many-to-many interaction. So instead of a website talking to you, which is how we are used to dealing with the web, now, the website can talk to you, and you can talk back to it, and you can also talk to all the other fans who are reading it. Now, just to get some vocabulary out of the way, today I’ll be focusing on facebook, and I’m going to use that word “fans” a lot. To avoid confusion, I’m talking about fans as in football, not fans as in facebook. Their Fan tool was aptly named, but a little confusing in a talk like this.

So, Social Networking is powerful in terms of connectivity and reach 1) because it’s a good way to quickly contextualize and build stories around people and things , for example, a few moments on someone’s facebook page and you probably know if you want to get to know them better or not. And 2) because it deeply reduces transaction costs for meeting new people and ideas. That means the amount of energy it takes to try something new. Whereas once meeting required going to parties and joining activity groups, now you might just have to scroll down through a list. But very quickly, smart people realized that where you have large groups of people money also follows. It’s a fact of technology that systems created to help people share cute kitty pictures can suddenly be reused for completely different purposes, like overthrowing governments. This is the fact on which what facebook has made their billions.

We are all fans

As you’ve been hearing these last two days, social tools are not a panacea – it’s not like you can just sprinkle some social on something and voila, here is profit. The reason is because causality is networked. There’s a buzzword, it means that many different things influence a final outcome. Very few us ask, would I buy something from me? Would I be influenced by my posts? Would I comment on this entry? Would I ever be a fan of my page (fan in the facebook sense)? At best, people answer “Well, I wouldn’t, but fans are different.”

The fans are you. We are all fans. The line between sellers and buyers doesn’t exist anymore except in your bank account. If you wouldn’t participate in your own social community, no one else will either. While it IS possible to reach unlimited people with our new tools, unlimited reach isn’t good enough because we ourselves aren’t unlimited. Our budgets aren’t unlimited, our resources are not unlimited.

So, social tools with infinite reach are only free if our time is worthless. That means we need to focus on the real-world triggers that can cause the type of behaviors we want to encourage. As retailers, what do we want? We want influence, control, buzz, we want as much reach as we can get for the least effort.

But, what does a potential fan community want? Note, that’s a very different thing from asking what your customers want. Your customers probably want discounts and free shipping. The good news is, your fan community wants things besides product. What they want is stuff that you can give them, and more importantly, stuff that they can give each other. Why is this so cool? Sooner or later we run out of our capacity to want more stuff. Whereas your potential fans want things that, as humans, we will never run out of a capacity to want.
The basic pluses to social media membership are those of any group:

  • Comradeship. Perhaps they’re feeling lonely
  • Access to techniques (things passed on as knowledge rather than officially documented)
  • Collaboration. They want to have a voice in something bigger than themselves
  • Approval. They’re looking for someone else to tell them how great they are

All of these boil down to two major categories: Recognition, and belonging

Each transaction you make with a fan has an unspoken question: this transaction is free, so what is the social coinage I expect to be paid in. Is it a feeling of belonging? Or is it feeling of achievement? Do I expect “thanks” or do I expect “attention”. Now, the best fan interactions address both motivations at once – they allow a feeling of both “I did it” and “we did it”. Wikipedia is a great example of this. Editors get the thanks by having their name listed, but they get the satisfaction of watching their entry become more and more accurate.

When creating an active, involved fan community, the first question to ask is, what are my potential fans like? What are they after? Who’s your imagined user, and what do they get out of this tool? At Squshable ours are motivated by a little of each category. They like being part of a community: They want to talk about how to wash our products and swap stories about how they got theirs, and they want to tell us which designs they want next and what colors to make them in, and they bring in their friends so we all as a group can reach certain quotas and feel good that we reached them together. But, they’re also looking for recognition. They create videos. They write stories and want feedback on it. They post pictures of themselves and want to be told how cute they are, and that’s all completely valid too.

Your Facebook Page is Not an Advertisement

The best thing you can do to in order to encourage your fans in fanlike activities, hopefully one of which will eventually be a purchase, is to give them a venue to discuss their opinions. And I do mean a venue to discuss. Your facebook page is not an advertisement. I’ll say it again because that’s so important. You can’t hold a discussion in an advertisement because everyone knows that the communication is only really going one way.

This is one of the reasons why many companies have latent pages: they may or may not have a relatively large number of fans but they’re not engaged. So when you are evaluating why a fan community isn’t working, you want to address these two major motivations: Perhaps people rarely comment, so there’s no motivation of community acceptance. Perhaps you rarely comment, or comment with the wrong replies, so there’s no motivation of approval.

Attracting fans is a topics being addressed by a couple different panels here, so for now the important thing to remember is this: becoming a fan with a lowercase f, a facebook fan, takes energy. It takes a leap of faith and trust – “yes, I hereby believe this person isn’t going to cause me annoyance.” It’s small transaction, but they add up fast. These people have done you a huuuge favor by visiting you fan page, so make it as easy for them as possible.What it comes down to is, never underestimate someone’s willingness to bail during the beginning of any complex interaction. Getting over that hump is the first issue.

Your second step is creating a safe place for potential fans to land. Once a user has taken the leap of faith required to take time out of their very important lives to check out your materials, what kind of environment have they arrive in? Is it active? Is it friendly? Does it give a feeling of community? To get a web sale you might need 30 seconds of attention. But social media requires a much longer term relationship.  Here are some items to check:

Are fans encouraged to share their tokens of membership, their tribal colors if you will, their signs that show “you don’t know me but I am embedded in your society”. If not, you should encourage users to submit them. What am I talking about? We receive roughly 30-40 pictures a week on our facebook page of people showing off with our product. They’re not showing off for us, they’re doing it for each other, to prove they belong. Even if you have only one or two images showing real live people, every bit helps, so, you want to support these displays of identity as much as you can.

Is it timely? Do fans see you responding to other fans within a couple of hours? Being timely is more important than being transparent or accurate because the recent activity area on the facebook page is there to create social pressure. All of these people are doing something. Why aren’t you?

Do they recognize that this is a communal space, and not just a commercial space? There’s an easy trick for this one – I call it the 40/40/20 rule. To keep your fan area social, and not just make it into advertising, 40% of your posts should be about You. You as a person. What you’re thinking and doing and what you’ll do later. Another 40% should be about topics of interest to your fans. Only 20% should ever be about you as a corporate entity. That’s your sales announcements, your product launches, the stuff that you want to slip in under the radar. If anyone has ever used the OKCupid dating website, they’re brilliant at this: they have an entire blog devoted to data of all things, and it keeps people coming back because it’s not really related to what they do, and thus nonthreatening. So basically, when users look at your page, you want something in the users brain to say, “hey, it really looks like those guys are having fun. I wish I was a part of it.”

Our last step to building this fan community is keeping those fans active. Remember, your facebook page is not an advertisement. It’s a social space that happens to be populated by people who like your product. So Socialize! People like to talk to real people. They like to talk to each other (that’s that community motivation we spoke about) and they like to talk to you (that’s the approval motivation we spoke abut.)

People are fans of you, your product, your store, your branding, your other fans. The one thing they are not a fan of your corporate entity. People can tell when you’re thinking of them as customers, not fans.

The key to staying in the right mindset is good old fashioned authenticity. It’s as simple as being careful to never use marketing speak. “On sale for a limited time only”. New and improved”. “Act now.” Come on guys. When small businesses try to take on the trappings of big corporations you often find it has the opposite results. Our biggest strength is that we are not Walmart, and people aren’t coming to us for a Walmart experience. Incidentally, part of authenticity is sometimes breaking the third wall – admitting you’re a retailer: a person, and not a corporation. Let them know you’re trying to make money, so you can fund your vacation to Bermuda. You like watching Dr Who re-urns. When works is done you’re going out for a beer.

Another key to authenticity is consistency in acknowledging the customers experience. They’ve gone through a lot of effort to post that picture, to let you know what they did and didn’t like about your store or hairstyle or whatever. The least you can do is validate it, approve of it, by replying.

Comments are not a way to keep score! We often think of them that way – look, I got fifty posts on my page, I must be hot stuff – but they aren’t. Each comment no matter what it says is a request for your attention

Using your Powers for Good

So, as any cult leader will tell you, controlling the actions of large groups of fanatical people is an exciting experience, not to mention rewarding financially. So our question becomes, how can we use this goodwill, and benefit from these motivated fans.

First off, obviously they can become your marketing force. Because of the way facebook is set up, every interaction they make with our fan page informs their friends of their preferences, and that social pressure is one of the most powerful motivators in existence. There are a couple ways to use that: You can use it for build-up to a big event, you can make private launches on products, you can give discounts or sales, or really, anything that will get people excited enough to weigh in.

But although it has its place, strict marketing still confuses fans with customers, when there are so many other ways to use this active, engaged community you have created:

Beta testing. Outside of advertising I can’t stress this enough as one as the most important services your fans can provide. Testing new site updates, testing design or product ideas

Usability testing services. That ‘s a biggy

You can also use them for user-contributed resources and services. These depend on the size of your company. A rabid enough fan community cares about you and cares about your store, and wants to help you succeed. When you’re small it can be invaluable to put a call out for peple to help with things you can’t do. For example, every once in a while we need some models. We know exactly where to go to get them.

Idea sourcing. This one is very cool – if you know exactly what your customers will buy, you suddenly know exactly what to supply. Ourselves we use a voting system to find out what types of new animals people would buy, and we make the top ones. It’s never failed us, except once. They wanted a zombie. That was just weird.

User-generated content. This is where the pictures, the videos, the reviews, etc. all comes in. Each one continues the cycle of interaction by rewarding the fan with recognition and encouraging group engagement in others. That makes up for the times when you yourself can’t be in on a conversation – if done well the conversation is still going on without you.

So when you’re trying to decide what to do with your newfound fans, the question you should ask yourself is: What do I want to accomplish, and what is the simplest thing that could possibly work. We’ve had situations where we scope out large complex rewards systems – fans get free merchandise if they complete a set of tasks, etc. In the end, simple is best. We are small businesses; let’s stick with what we know.

Keeping the Balance

I’d like to end on a downer. After all this cheer-leading it’s important to acknowledge once again that social media is no panacea, and more importantly, it’s no place for anyone who is insincere. It is possible to fake authenticity for a little while, but it sounds pretty exhausting to me.

One of the biggest challenges in transferring from customers to fans is you gotta start treating them with respect. They are your fellow travelers. And with the loss of control that comes with abandoning our strict authoritarian pigeonholing of roles comes some unhappiness too.

Social media survives on a very delicate balance of exerting just enough control to encourage behaviors you want, and at the same time suppressing those behaviors you don’t. I am not talking about trolling, or spam, or malicious hacking, all of those should be stomped on without mercy. But, say for example someone rants about the price of your shipping. And someone else points out that it’s because of the size of the box. And someone else makes fun of their spelling. And pretty soon you have a flame war going on.

There are a couple of things you can do:

First of all you can encourage that conflict! It’s important to recognize the extremely important role that conflict plays in keeping your fans involved. Having a civil debate sometimes means that people do beat each other up. There is very little as effective in keeping a fan involved in a scene and coming back to your page as a good fight. Why is this? The danger in fan groups is not that they blow up, but that they fade away. The danger is not from conflict but from disinterest. If people are fighting, it’s going to be okay because that means there is some long-term commitment.

And furthermore, Flame wars are a side effect of creating a great space where people feel comfortable expressing themselves. Metaphorically speaking, we want a space that people think is worth vandalizing. I remember one of our proudest moments, a while back we put up a vote on four new designs and then we noticed that someone had created a hack to stuff the ballot boxes for the design they wanted. That showed time and commitment: it meant we were doing something right.

Second off, you can accept the conflict you can’t change. The knee-jerk reaction is to immediately suppress what people are doing to your lovely page. However here’s a good rule: Don’t forbid what you can’t prevent. For our fans, feeling controlled is a demotivate, just like feeling ignored. Instead of just deleting comments you disagree with, try disarming them instead. When someone complains about shipping times, remind them that you don’t ship on weekends because the post office is closed, and anyway your wife wanted you to paint the kitchen. People respond well to fairness even if they disagree with you, especially if they view you as a person.

Suppression is a very distant third option. It’s true that groups where each person is completely free to do what they like…aren’t groups.

I’d like to leave you with this final thought: The strength of social media comes from it’s risk. People pay attention to it exactly because it cannot be completely controlled by one person. But that loss of control is a small price to pay for a self-sustaining, attentive, involved, enthusiastic, and most importantly, happy fan community.  Who might even buy something at some point.

Thanks everyone.

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The road to professional academic success often seems to be paved by wild refutations: pick a pet theory by another leading academic and disagree as loudly as you can. Maybe the concept is to to provoke a response which will drive traffic to your site. I’d feel bad for all of the recent flack Malcolm Gladwell is receiving for his well-researched and thoughtful New Yorker article from people who obviously did no more than skim it, except that Gladwell himself is occasionally guilty of this method. Another prime example, well, Evgeny Morozov love him though I do.

The lesson here: it’s never too early to backlash. Let’s call it the ‘Remora Effect with a twist’, although I’m sure there’s an official name for it (and someone who loudly disagrees with that name). Romoras  (AKA Suckerfish) are fish that hitch rides on a host to save themselves the effort of really thinking about a topic.  Alright, I added that last bit.

The concept does bring up an interesting question though, how much of news media released is original thought, that is to say primary source reporting and editorial, and how much of it is a rehashing of other sources. Jay Rosen points out the surprising amount of “reporting” is taken directly from press releases, and anyone following Japan on twitter the last two days sees that new developments come about once every six hours, not on the second by second basis that the firehose would have you believe.

To do this xkcd style, I’m guessing the graph of actual news before and after digital tools looks something like this:

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Roughly a year ago in March 2010 Mathew Ingram wrote a post titled “Forget Paywalls – How About More Serendipity?”  The article itself acted as a good summing up of a meme sweeping media thinkers at the time:  the loss of randomness and rise of homogeny in the news-reading experience.

The argument went like this:  As readers browse the squashed tree version of a newspaper their eye catches on unexpected content.  Maybe it’s an article that’s been fit into a leftover portion of the page, or a picture that’s been substituted for unused advertising space.  Suddenly (the argument goes) the reader will find themselves reading about child-weavers in India. It will unexpectedly speak to their soul. They will quit their job to spearhead labor movements in the third world.  Serendipity.

I remember this one because its comments section contained this great anonymous post:   “…serendipity is the great rationalization that generations of journalists have convinced themselves has some consumer value” . Consumer value is the important phrase here:  the purpose of news is to inform, but the value to consumers is different.  The value of honey is the concentrated calorie source, but we eat it for the sweet taste.

In the intervening year I think it’s become obvious that there are a couple of problems with the “serendipity mourning” meme. IE: One of the few advantages for traditional journalism’s use of the internet is that there’s just so darn much of it, but a vast, sparsely populated prairie can’t be explored int he same way as a small, dense neighborhood:  who takes a stroll through the digital news anymore? We may make lightning strikes on favorite areas, but ever since Google switched our brains from from browsing to searching that’s the form most of us prefer when dealing with a large landscape.

But all this overlooks the more basic issue here: Serindipity as found in newspapers might be adverse to the most basic law of Web Usability: “Don’t make me think”. While it’s a great thing to unexpectedly delight and impress your users, it’s anathema to surprise them. Jeff Jarvis writes that Serindipity at its best serves to “satisfy a curiosity you didn’t know you had”. But that’s not quite serendipity – that’s actually the definition of a really good “related products” algorithm.

What it comes down to is this: delight in randomness only works in a situation where it’s replacing something boring. This sort of frisson occurs when an expected uninteresting experience is replaced by something enjoyable – when an amusing ‘news of the weird’, pops up where a “news of the regular” was expected. It’s the classroom delight of a rescheduled math quiz, or suddenly learning your straight-laced teacher has a tattoo: a feeling of sly relief over dodging an expected downer.

But! Without a captive audience already resigned to a dreary experience, these extras have no purpose. Rumors of a tattoo are uninteresting to kids who are clamoring to go to recess, and being detoured from the intended aim is frustrating. Frustration is the sworn enemy of usability, and should be ripped out of any webpage with extreme gusto.

I too wish it was possible to amble through the day’s articles and trip over the gems hiding among the mushrooms.  But as long as readers are crying out for a more targeted reading experience, it seems a little silly to decry a lack of a less-targeted one.

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