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Archive for the ‘Startups’ Category

stop-sign-744192_960_720Let’s say you’re a new startup, a startup that shows some signs of possibility. Let’s say you’ve grown beyond the “I’m jobless, so I’m working on this little idea so I won’t have a gap on my resume” stage (you know what I’m talking about).  Well then, you know who has some great advice for you?  Absolutely everyone.

It’s a weird phenomenon experienced by every fledgeling startup, the unbelievable enthusiasm with which outsiders want to pass startups around from hand to hand hot-potato-style.  Not, allow me to qualify, to render any type of actual assistance in the monetary or manpower departments. That would be too close to some type of real help.  But advice?  Or yes oh yes oh yes.  Everyone in the world suddenly has an expert opinions on exactly what the startup is doing, how they are doing it, and, most importantly, who is the next person in line who you absolutely must talk to in order to get their opinion.

For a new startup this can seem amazing. They might even be a little star-struck. Look at all these experts who are taking the time out of their busy day to give us encouragement!  Look at all these great connections we’re making! Look at all this fantastic advice!  This networking is really going to come in handy if we ever get around to actually doing anything…

And of course, therein lies the problem. Meetings take time, which the advice-givers have lots of (if they didn’t, please believe they wouldn’t have taken the meeting). The startup does not have a lot of time. The first couple of months of any new company is a rush to overcome the event horizon that sucks most good ideas back to earth before they ever leave the atmosphere. Startups have a choice about how they use those precious few moments they spend wafting through the air before gravity kicks in. Don’t waste it.

There are no new ideas in the world.   Any thought passing through your head is already grubby from the thousands of other heads it’s visited first. Ideas are fun, but they’re absolutely worthless without the implementation to back them up. Which means that, beyond the initial planning phase, wasting time talking with a series of potential, hypothetical  mentors can be absolutely pointless. Talking can’t refine an idea, only trying out various implementations can do that.  Which is precisely what a startup isn’t doing if they’re spending all their time ooing and ahhing over their role model’s wonderful office furniture and complimenting them on their custom espresso machine.

Most experts don’t actively set out to drown young startups with  buckets of well-meaning advice.  It’s flattering to have your opinion asked.  It feels good.  And often the suppliants were referred by a well-meaning friend or colleague, someone for whom they want to do a favor. It would be rude to decline. And of course,  inhabiting the role of advice-giver puts the givee in their professional debt, something that they can call upon in the unlikely event the startup does in fact become a success.

How often do experts honestly have anything to say that will materially help a new company, an organization they know absolutely nothing about besides what they learn during a single, hour long meeting over tiny bottles of water? It’s difficult to say. The ties of “doing a favor for a colleague” are fulfilled no matter that gets said. Having an opinion is easy, and having a strong opinion is impressive. Ask enough people and it’s possible to get enough opinions to cover every possible contradictory course of action. Multiple opinions can just be paralyzing. And of course, that’s not even counting the most popular type of mentorship of all, just passing the supplicants off to someone else.

Here is a rule of thumb. Any meeting that ends with the phrase, “Do you know (person who does something only very tangentially related to you)? They’re in  (field that’s only vaguely related to your topic). I bet they have some great advice for you,” stop.  That should be your last meeting.

There is no perfect piece of advice.  There is no external compass that can point  you in the direction of certain success. Only getting out of the meeting rooms and back to your desk, or basement, or coffee shop, or temporary office space, or bar, or  wherever you’re doing the actual work of the startup, can do that.  Chasing after just one more piece of advice from just one more fascinating expert has been the death of many a project.

Break the chain of well-intentioned meetings! It’s a path that leads to another and another, and another, a series that can go on forever until you run out of gas with the window of opportunity left far behind you.  Have faith in your own  expertise – you might know less than the experts, but your real-world experimental findings are worth much more than their hypothetical guesses.  Get out of your mentors offices and back in the lab.  The next time you hear the phrase “you know, you should really speak to…” say, “No! No, I really shouldn’t!”

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New-Logo-Vertical-DarkDamn it Uber, I like you so much as a service. You’re everything I look for in a disruptive business concept: grass roots, reliable, demonstrably better than the status quo. So why do you keep doing such terrible, terrible things as a company? You’re coming perilously close to my Chicken McNugget line.

Everyone has a Chicken McNugget line. It works like this. The average American attempt at dieting lasts a day and a half – it gets broken at about 3pm the second afternoon. That’s the point at which the brain says, “Listen – I respect that you’re dieting, really! But here’s this doughnut. Isn’t it possible that this is an unusual exception? I mean, you’ve had a really rough day/ you’re unusually hungry right now/ you deserve a reward/ not eating it is wasteful/ you promised yourself treats now and then/ whatever other excuse will fit in here to SHORT CIRCUIT YOUR LOGIC AND EAT THIS DOUGHNUT.” A serious dieter will take a step back and say waaaaaitaminit, this is exactly the type of situation where I said I wasn’t going to eat a doughnut. But most of us won’t.

When a person doesn’t want to diet, there will always be a completely logical reason why they can’t diet today. When a student doesn’t want to do their work there will always be a completely valid reason why they couldn’t possibly have done it. And they will believe, truly believe that they were totally, powerless over the situation, no matter how ridiculous the excuse. Studies show that the same is true of many folks convicted of violent felonies – they have completely plausible and valid reasons why it was everyone else’s fault that they were forced to track down and stab that one dude.

But everyone has a Chicken McNugget line. That’s the point at which the junk food you crave is so godawful disgusting that your brain just can’t find an excuse ridiculous enough to eat it. Chicken McNuggets are an unholy mix of cartilage, nerves, and skin, mixed with grain-based fillers, and held together with silicone. They qualify as food only under the definition “items that fit in my mouth”. I pass a McDonalds every day on the way to work, and sometimes the smell tempts me. My brain steps in with its siren song: I know you don’t eat crap like this, but isn’t it possible this is a totally different situation where you should reward yourself with an arg arg arg they’re just so so nasty, for the love of god don’t do it…

Car service Uber is getting perilously close to my McNugget line. Their app has resulted in at least one death, a whole bunch of rape cases, generalized attacks (with a hammer?) and one “slapping in response to a burp“, all of which they’ve denied any responsibility for. They’re accused of everything from failing to enforce the background checks they claim protect their customers, to engaging in aggressive campaigns shaming and discrediting the victims who have been assaulted by their drivers. They use startlingly icky sabotage tactics against competitors, which, if not illegal, are at least creepy as hell. And not that it makes a lick of difference, but their misleading pricing has given them and F rating from the Better Business Bureau, which isn’t easy. Hell, even some Ikea locations have a A+, so it can’t be that hard.

But today’s snafu is particularly ‘eek’-inducing – at a recent dinner, Uber’s senior vice president of business, Emil Michael, explained his plan to spend a million dollars on a smear campaign against journalists who dare report on Uber’s failings. The focus for his ire was PandoDaily editor-in-chief Sarah Lacy, who’s been key in exposing some of Uber’s scarier infractions, particularly against women. Michael suggested that researchers could be hired to “dig up the dirt” on journalists and their families, and use what they found as a threat to keep them silent. In his own words, it would give the media “a taste of its own medicine”. When it was pointed out how this might backfire, he responded, “Nobody would know it was us”.

Now, besides the basic first amendment issues at work here, this is about as bad PR as a company can manufacture. Using threats of violence and intimidation against a plucky underdog who dares to stand up to a powerful business is a classic Hollywood trope.

At the same time, it’s easy to understand the allure. Terror is an extremely effective weapon in silencing critics, particularly when the victims are women with families to protect. For all that movies are full of square-jawed fathers trying to save their wife and kids from kidnappers/burglers/ terrorists/dinosaurs, in reality these soft targets are much more likely to be used against a mom. Few dudes consider sending their family into hiding or requesting FBI protection before publishing an exposé, whereas their female counterparts are often forced to do just that. Just ask any of the brave lady journalists recently targeted by Gamer-Gaters. But while it’s easy to silence critics, it’s much harder to silence the fact that they’ve been silenced.

When asked for comment, Michael gave a carefully worded response that said, in summation “LOL/JK, I was just a little annoyed”. It’s still better than an earlier response where he said Lacy should be held responsible for any woman who got themselves raped by a taxi driver after deciding not to use Uber. I swear I couldn’t make this stuff up.

So, it begs the question, why the hell is this guy still talking? Or more importantly, why is Uber still letting him talk? In public? Don’t they have any sense of self-preservation at all? I don’t know enough about the financial ins-and-outs to say if he should fired or not (I mean, obviously, but he hasn’t been yet, so…?). But Uber, at the very least, for your own good, lock him in a basement somewhere with a gag on so he can’t keep making these outrageous PR blunders every time he opens his mouth. While you’re at it, lock up most of your senior staff – very few of them are passing the basic “pretend to be human” test right now.

I want to use Uber. I want to use them so badly. And I can always find an excuse why this time is the exception. The local drivers aren’t to blame for corporate error/ yellow cab drivers are often so much worse/ it’s cold out/ I’ve got my puppy Oyster with me/ I’m wearing these awesome heels. And as of yet, my willing suspension of disbelief is still gamely chugging away, defending what I really want to do from what I really know is right. Especially if I can’t get a ‘Go Green Ride‘ car. Hey Go Green, do some usability testing already – you’re fantastic, but your app sucks.

So if that doesn’t work out, I may still use an Uber. We haven’t crossed my Chicken McNugget line…yet. But it’s not going to take much more – this camel is already carrying a whole lot of straw. Just try me, Uber, just one more revelation, one more horrible remark, one more incident. I’m using you today, maybe, but tomorrow, who knows.

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urbanThe physical experience of shopping at an Urban Outfitters is different than shopping at a Zara or Gap.  Unlike other stores’ carefully organized layouts, at Urban, clothing is strewn in piles dozens high and wedged into wall units. Multiple styles are crowded onto the same rack. Some styles are hidden in nooks and crannies, under pieces of furniture where only the most dedicated spelunker will find them.  And everywhere, carefully-folded piles of shirts, shorts, and jeans, dozens high, require the shopper to shred the entire tower to find a specific size.

This is a setup meant to encourage browsing. It’s not a setup meant for quick item location.  Finding a specific type of shirt is a daunting task.  Sometimes jean are in the same place, but then again, sometimes they’re not. But Urban still makes it work with a secret weapon: manpower.  They flood their stores with, by my count, twice the number of staff other stores employ on the sales floor at any given time.  Yes, finding a specific tank top often requires dismantling an entire 6×6 display, but I suspect Urban has run the numbers, and discovered it’s cheaper to pay a college student to immediately re-fold everything than it is to buy classier fixtures.

In the physical world, retail outlets can afford to use the “acceptable anger strategy” of customer service, assuming that their customer’s frustration can be overcome through other, more human means.  At Urban, the jumbled “garage-sale” feel stays just this side of impossible by the constant ministrations of staff. It’s almost fun, in a way. Like playing hide-and-seek, with the bonus that someone else has to clean up after you.

Discount furniture store IKEA  overcomes the built-in frustration of walking around a maze of a store, long lines, and carrying your own packages, by imbuing their store with a quirky cheekiness. Yes, this is horrible, hah ha, but we’re all in this together saving cash!  Have some meatballs and lingonberries! It’s almost fun! They have almost certainly run the numbers and decided more money can be made by exposing users to a vast number of products than can be made by improving the customer experience. Like Urban Outfitters, a certain number of people will swear to never return, but many will shrug and say, “well, I guess it wasn’t that bad – and hey, look at this great shirt/necklace/dresser/bag of meatballs.”

In the digital world, it’s a little more complicated.

In 2011 my company shared an office with one of those cool online cosmetics services.  They specialized in sending out boxes of samples to subscribes each month. Not Ipsy, the other one. As a workspace it was great – perfume samples everywhere, free coffee in the kitchen, but there was one significant downside.  Our pod was placed right next to the customer service team.  Every phone call, every single phone call, with almost no exceptions, started this way:”Hi, this is E___ at B____, how can I hep you?  Oh I’m so sorry!”. By week two we came to realize that the apology was, in fact, probably encoded into their script.

Now, the customer service team at this company was absolutely gorgeous. For almost all of them this was their first job directly out of college, where many had belonged to the same sororities.  The uniform was stilettos, professionally blown-out hair, and full evening makeup no matter the weather or time of year.  Lunchtime meant doing each other’s nails and nibbling on celery.  A couple times a day a bell would ring. The entire team would lay down their headsets, take off their heels, and do yoga together.  Then they would spend 8 hours apologizing. Constantly apologizing. Shipping issues, technical issues, packaging issues,  “Oh I’m so sorry, let me see what happened” over and over and over

I can only assume this company had run the numbers and decided it made more sense to employ a huge and very specialized customer service team  – at the time significantly bigger than their tech team – to apologize, than it did to solve the institutional problems their customers were complaining about.

In the real world, this is a brilliant compensatory strategy.  Walk into a physical store with a complaint about your perfume and meet the sheer perkiness, the earnest enthusiasm of these gorgeous mayflies, and few shoppers with would find themselves able to stay angry for long.

But charm doesn’t work at a distance. There’s a certain charm to being annoyed and confused by the IKEA store. People boast about it.  There’s a 30 Rock episode about it. There’s no charm to being confused by the IKEA website.  Virtual services can’t afford to compensate for organizational failings with quirkiness the way a store in the real world can, because they require a level of trust that isn’t needed at a physical location where someone can simply walk away.  Few disgruntled shoppers at Urban Outfitters ever approach the level of panic and outrage evinced by those cosmetics customers. You could hear it through the speakers 10 feet away.

Perhaps all of us could take a page from the Evil Overlord list. This was a viral email from back in the mid-90’s listing all the classic blunders an evil ruler might make in their quest for domination. It includes common sense suggestions such as “My ventilation ducts will be too small to crawl through.” and “I will not turn into a snake. It never helps”.  One of the best ideas here was this: “All naive, busty tavern wenches in my realm will be replaced with surly, world-weary waitresses who will provide no unexpected reinforcement and/or romantic subplot for the hero or his sidekick.”

As more and more services arise to mimic interactions that previously required physical proximity (I’m looking at you, Google Shopping, Instacart, PostMates…), we’d do well to remember this.  Charm, romance, playfulness, all of these are important tools in allowing customers to overlook issues with the real-world shopping experience.  But when it comes to a virtual storefront, there’s no substitute for actually solving the problems people raise as quickly as possible on an institutional level.

In an app or a website, the “world weary waitress” of proper user interaction beats out the “busty tavern wench” of fun customer service every time.  In a way, by the time the complaint makes it to customer service, it’s already too late.

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If new media theory is so interesting, why are the articles about it so boring? Articles about its practitioners aren’t boring, they’re all like hey, guess which just made $50 million? Or, ooh, its a standoff between Gladwell and Shirky, or between Jarvis and everyone.

But when it comes to the the actual theory it’s suddenly time to break out the footnotes and google charts. These are topics that are new and, let’s face it, they make us a little uneasy. Talking about the effects is easy, but when it comes to technicalities it’s safer to cloth them in what sounds suspiciously like marketing speak rather than admit we’re kind of making our vocabulary up on the fly.

But no more! I am about to attempt to talk about a potentially boring piece of Media theory that I’m not totally concrete on. And it’s going to be interesting. Let’s give it a try!

We all know that the holy trinity that is online content curation: Crowd-sourcing, algorithmic curation, and human editing, have an uneasy truce. At each point of the triangle we have a good example of how a purist version can do wonders: Wikipedia, Google News, and Huffington Post respectively. And each has detractors who spend all day talking about how subscribing to the other two points on the triangle will bring about the end of civilization, the parade of “Editors are out of touch/Machines can’t really know what we want/Groups only care about sensationalism.” Also, boobs. See? You’re interested already.

As in all cases where there’s dogma involved, there’s a temptation to say that the best option is actually a compromise between the three. Of course, that makes no sense at all – no one would say that the best choice between green, purple, and orange would be a little of each, but that’s just what we’re implying here. Yes, plenty of services have BOOBS succeeded in combining two forms (See StumbleUpon or the ICanHaz empire), but the key is in the judicious choice of which two it should be LOTS OF BOOBS.

And even single-source success stories have worst case scenarios where perhaps they should have tried a little more mix n’ match – see Facebook’s auto-deletion of Chinese dissidents accounts because the used pseudonyms, or youTube’s removal of Egyptian protestors footage for being too graphic. Orange and green are great together if you’re aiming for a portrait of a brunette in a mud-bath, not so much for a blond in a snowstorm. Both of which incidentally would contain boobs.

Here is my grid for choosing citation methods, depending on what the needs of the system, and more importantly, the worst case scenario that they want to avoid.

I have a lot of I have very little Accuracy Needed? I should curate using
Money Time Nope Algorithmic – if you don’t care about accuracy and just want some sort of results, pouring the cash into software is probably the way to go
Money Time or computing power Yep Editorial – if it has to be accurate, with unlimited funds you might as well just hire the graduating class of your local Liberal Arts school. Problem solved.
Computing Power and Time Money No Crowd-sourcing – A free or cheap crowdsourcing system can go far as long as you have the tech power to wrestle it itno the submisison and scale it up.
Computing Power Time No Algorithmic – A fast turnaround time rules out the crowdsourcing option unless you already have a pre-existing fanbase to launch it on. Boobs.
Time Nope Algorithmic or Crowdsourcing. If you don’t care about accuracy, pretty much anything you throw at it will be fine. So you might as well take the easy way out.
Time Money Yep Editorial – With unlimited time, even if you’re only hiring a single person to curate they’ll get through it eventually
Time Computing Power Yep Crowdsourcing with a bit of editorial on the side. See above, except you might wanna hire a couple more editors to make up for that Mac SE you’re running it off of.

Properly sourced content curation. Its sexy stuff.

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I recently took a stab at talking about how the power of online fandom – any fandom, not just the Facebook kind – can change the foundation of the customer/seller relationship to everyone’s advantage. But there’s one point that I think keeps getting ignored by industry, and also by Social Networking platforms themselves (who should know better!). Why oh why is Facebook still being spoken about as if it’s an advertising platform?

The other day I had a conversation with a very nice guy from a large social network who was was profiling the social network activities of one of my companies for a success stories report. He wanted to know how we decide to run a campeign, if we use an ad agency to coordinate it with our other properties, our objectives, targeting, and analytics, and what kind of custom quizzes, games, videos, and other bells and whistles we integrate to catch peoples attention.

The answer is that we don’t use any custom quizzes, games or ad agencies, and the only analytic I care about is the Engagement score. We have one custom page: a list of our products. To continue judging Social network success by these old-school marketing phrases is to throw away the number one advantage of a social space: Authenticity.

The secret to our success on this Social network is that we reply to every post. We answer every question. We ask our users what colors to use for our new design, and we go back to the drawing board if they don’t like it. We tell them what we had for lunch. We sympathise that they had a bad day. We wish them happy birthday, and we do it morning, noon, nights, and weekends because that’s when they’re on. And in return they give us something that’s so much more valuable than their wallets, they give us thier goodwill.

What it comes down to is this. If you treat Social Network users as customers, they’ll treat you like a corporation. Treat them as people and they’ll treat you like someone worth paying attention to. To narrow it down: Facebook is not just a bigger megaphone. Its sad to see so many companies turning thier pages in to themeparks when they should be turning them into summercamp. Come on people, try a little authenticity. It will go a long way towards not looking quite so desperate.

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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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