Tag Archives: communities

Introducing Blippy, where ca-ching connects with the social web

I just checked out Blippy, which, if you’re a cynic, you might just think of as place for a new consumer segment — the shopping exhibitionist — to indulge a perverse desire to show the whole world every purchase they make.

When you register a credit card on Blippy, your purchases show up on the Blippy feed.  It looks a lot like a Twitter feed except the only thing it says is “So and so” (that means you) spent “so much” at “such and such a place.”  It also shows a list of what you bought. You can imagine what kind of trouble that could get you into.  But like most social media sites, you can limit who sees and who doesn’t see that you just spend $180 at the Filene’s basement designer wedding gown sale, even though you’re a guy.

I don’t quite know what to make of Blippy.  But it has some cool functions.  You can follow and be followed, so there could be value in keeping tabs on people who make frequent purchases in the same categories you do.  You can click on people to see a record of their purchases.  Or you can click on a location to see a list of everyone on Blippy who bought someting there.  You can also comment on purchases, which might include tips on where the person might get the product for less the next time, or make suggestions of related goods that might interest the buyer.

Apparently there’s no revenue model yet, but one can imagine that the data collected here could be a gold mine for retailers to connect with their most loyal and valuable customers.  Check out this New York Times article for more information.  I learned a new term there.  It’s called passive sharing.  That’s what Blippy does because your posts are automatically uploaded every time you buy something with the designated credit card.

If you’re not careful, that really could get you into trouble!!!

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General Mills goes social

Here’s the killer chart…


Picture 1

During the launch of the Fiber One Bar, General Mills could see a nearly exact correlation between weekly online postings and volume.  As Mark Roddicks, General Mills’ CMO, points out in his inspiring presentation General Mills Goes Social, it’s the kind of chart you can take to management to prove the value of consumer participation in the development and launch of products through social media tools.

General Mills has a stable of well-known, iconic food brands, including such favorites as Pillsbury, Cheerios, Green Giant and that venerable but ageless queen of the kitchen, Betty Crocker.  Back in the 40’s, the Betty Crocker brand received up to 3,000 letters a day from passionate homemakers.  Social communities built around brands have existed for decades.  Only now, thanks to today’s online social tools, General Mills can leverage the power and passion of those communities in unprecedented ways.

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Here’s just a few examples of how General Mills is “going social,” because, as Addicks says, the company has only recently started on this journey and continues to learn as they go.

General Mills regularly gets new products into the hands, and kitchens, of engaged consumers before they launch.  The company uses social media tools to encourage those consumers to talk about the product, share experiences and feed back opinions and suggestions.  Not all the feedback is positive, but that’s how the company learns.

Two tools they use for this are My Block Spark and Pssst…, which invite connected consumers and bloggers to participate and provide them with platforms to share and provide feedback.

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By leveraging communities in this way, General Mills builds early awareness and involvement among influencers, which facilitates fast word of mouth when the product actually launches.  Progresso Broth was launched through the Pssst… community with almost no support from traditional media.

One way General Mills gets the conversation going is by saying to consumers, here’s why we created this product, here’s how we think it works, tell us what you think.  Feedback can be in different forms, including video, and the ensuing dialogue provides rich insights for the product developers and food experts.

General Mills brands also support a number of causes.  The effectiveness of these programs has been enhanced through web 2.0 tools put in consumers’ hands.  The Yoplait “Save Lids to Save Lives” initiative in support of  Susan G. Komen for the cure saw participation increase by nearly 50% when women were provided with online tools to set up their own teams behind the program.

Addicks understands that going social with consumers with this degree of transparency can seem pretty radical to C-suite members who are used to a traditional tell and sell approach.  One way he suggests to get started is within the company itself.  One of the first things General Mills did was to create a common portal inside the organization, which enabled employees to form communities, discussion groups and interactive best practices.  This helped senior management understand the power of becoming social by demonstrating the power of the organization to help itself through these kind of tools.

Inspiring stuff.  You can see the presentation deck, as well as a video of Addicks presenting it, at the Business Building Blog.

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Suicide Girls shows how online communities can monetize by thinking small

If you don’t know George Parker, you should.  Creative consultant, 30-year advertising industry veteran — he’s known for his no-holds-barred opinions and perspectives.  He writes a blog — Adscam/The Horror — and is a popular guest on various marketing podcasts thanks to his bitting, comic commentary.  He’s a bit too hard-edged for my taste and his humor often depends on the below-the-belt put-down — like the jokes of Don Rickles, a comedian I never could stand.  But beneath all the rancor, George is a pretty smart guy, has seen it all, and is worth listening to.

On a recent episode of the BeanCast, which has become one of my favorite podcasts on marketing and communications, George enjoyed a healthy rant about Facebook and Twitter and the fact that despite their popularity and growth, they don’t have a viable business model.  According to George, they never will.  The problem is that they’re too general.  They’re trying to be all things to all people.  So they can’t create a unique, distinctive online social experience that people will pay for.  In George’s opinion — and he may be right — the future belongs to small, niche online communities that offer a unique package of services, content and ways to connect that are highly desirable for that specific community.  One that he calls out is Suicide Girls.

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Suicide Girls is a web site tailored to the lifestyle and fashion aesthetic of young women (and men) who are into piercing, tattoos and living life well beyond the borders of  what most of us would consider mainstream.  You’ve got to pay $4.00 a month to join.  But that’s only the beginning.  Building on the common interests and attitudes of the community, Suicide Girls has grown into an “alternative” lifestyle brand that now includes books, DVDs, a magazine (how “old media”!), a burlesque tour and a fashion and accessories line.  Here are just some of the items you can order on the site:

The Suicide Girls Beauty Redefined Book ($40)

Women’s Huddie ($100)

Suicide Girls Graffiti Panties ($12 — that seems like a bargain!)

Suicide Girls Buttons (pack of 10 for $7)

According to Crunchbase, Suicide Girls has 5 million unique visitors a month.  So you can also imagine that the banner ad for the London Tattoo Convention in the photo of the SG home page above will garner a hell of a lot more clicks there than it would as link on Facebook or Twitter.  For the right advertiser, niche communities mean a much a higher ROI, boosting  the viability of advertising as an online revenue source for these narrowly targeted sites.  It’s not the quantity, but the quality of reach.

You can learn more about how Suicide Girls has successfully monetized its online community in this interview with its founder, Missy Suicide.  Her real name, of course.

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Slay big old Goliath with social media

The May 11th, 2009, issue of The New Yorker features an article by Malcolm Gladwell entitled “How David Beats Goliath.  When underdogs break the rules.”  Gladwell reviews principles by which the weaker of two competitors, who under normal circumstances would surely suffer defeat, can shift the odds to come out the winner.

One of the key principles will be familiar to anyone who has read Adam Morgan’s marketing classic, Eating the Big Fish: How Challenger Brands Can Compete Against Brand Leaders.  Morgan says that in order to succeed, small-share challenger brands, as he calls them, have to change the rules of the game — for example by breaking the conventions of the category.

A great case study of a challenger brand (although I’m not sure it’s mentioned in Eating the Big Fish) is Felix Cat Food.  Originally the number 4 or 5 cat food brand in the UK, Felix advanced up the ranks to challenge the market leader Whiskas with an unconventional, consumer relevant creative approach and by using newspapers as its primary medium, rather than TV.  TV was where most of the other cat food brands were putting their money.

In The New Yorker article, Malcolm Gladwell’s signature case for this principle is the story of David and Goliath.  Gladwell writes:

In the Biblical story of David and Goliath, David initially put on a coat of mail and a brass helmet and girded himself with a sword: he prepared to wage a conventional battle of swords against Goliath.  But then he stopped. “I cannot walk in these, for I am unused to it,” he said … and picked up those five smooth stones.

When the David’s of this world choose to play by different rules than the Goliath’s, more often than not, they win.

iStock_David&GoliathSmall

Another great example that Gladwell writes about in some detail is the story of a girls’ junior high basketball team, whose players were neither especially tall, nor especially gifted, but who nevertheless made it to the national championships.  They did it by utilizing a strategy that is basketball’s equivalent of David reaching for the five smooth stones.  It’s called the full-court press.  Many basketball teams practice the full-court press a few minutes at a time, but the Redwood City girl’s basketball team pursued it relentlessly.

There is a convention to playing basketball that most teams follow.  When Team A makes a basket, they immediately run back to their own end of the court to await the approach of Team B, who now has possession of the ball.  As Gladwell explains, this convention favors good teams:

Good teams, after all, had players who were tall and could dribble and shoot well; they could crisply execute their carefully prepared plays in their opponent’s end.  Why, then, did weak teams play in a way that made it easy for good teams to do the very things that made them so good?

The coach of the Redwood City’s team — who, by the way, had never played basketball or coached a basketball team before, and therefore had no preconceived notions of the game’s conventions  — took a different approach.  He coached his girls to exercise the full-court press constantly.  Rather than retreating to their own side of the court after they scored a point, they aggressively challenged the opposing team for the possession of the ball on that team’s side.  Instead of standing behind the single opposing player she was assigned to shadow, to impede her if she received a pass, each Redwood City girl maneuvered herself in front of her opponent, to prevent her from even receiving the pass in the first place.

Often this meant the opponents would lose possession because they would fail to advance the ball across the mid-court within 10 seconds, a rule of the game.  This helped the Redwood City players to regain possession close to their opponents’ basket, which meant they could score more often with an easy lay-up, rather than going for lower percentage, long range shots, which demanded greater skill.

They also aggressively tried to block the inbounds pass, which is when the opposing team throws an out-of-bounds ball back into play.  Most teams don’t bother with this, but the Redwood City girls did.  This often forced the opposing team either to exceed the five second limit for getting the ball back into play (and lose possession) or, panicking, to simply throw the ball away.  In general, the opposing players simply lost their groove against the Redwood City team’s tactics.  Flustered and frustrated, they couldn’t take advantage of the strengths that normally made them so powerful.

iStock_girlbasketballSmallSo what does this have to do with social media?

As I read Gladwell’s article, I began to see interesting parallels between advantages of the full-court press strategy for the Redwood City underdogs and the use of social media for a challenger brand.

First of all, social media is not the conventional choice most big brands will use for communicating with consumers.  They aren’t comfortable with it and continue to focus their efforts, and their budgets, on the standard TV, radio and print media they already know.  But just as Felix replaced TV with newspaper, which was the unconventional medium for the time and the category, a dedicated commitment to social media and the power it has to forge brand-consumer relationships can be a potent strategy for stealing share from the big guys.

Another point Gladwell makes about the full-court press is that it takes much more physical effort than the conventional way of playing the game:

It is easier to retreat and compose yourself after every score than swarm about, arms flailing.  We tell ourselves that skill is the precious resource and effort is the commodity.  It’s the other way around.  Effort can trump ability … because relentless effort is in fact something rarer than the ability to engage in some finely tuned act of motor coordination.

In other words, it’s easier to create and produce a flashy 30″ TV commercial and stick the thing on air, than to be out there in the social media space day in and day out, talking like a human being with individual consumers, engaging with your brand enthusiasts and building your brand’s reputation one consumer at a time.   As my friend Joseph Jaffe says:  in the world of new media, “Marketing isn’t a campaign, it’s a commitment.”

And finally, consider this quote from the Gladwell article:

Redwood City attacked the inbounds pass, the point in a game where a great team is as vulnerable as a weak one.

Putting a positive spin on it, the inbounds pass is the point in a game where the weak team is as powerful as the strong team.  The same can be said for social media.  It doesn’t require a mega-budget for a brand to put together an effective social media effort.  Unlike conventional broadcast media, the playing field in the online social media arena is fairly even, whether you’re the market leader or a smaller challenger brand.  Social media is the place where great ideas can catch on and spread without big budgets, thanks to the connections people have within their communities and their passion to pass on content they love.

So to all you small players out there in the marketing world — think like David and the Redwood City girls basket ball team.  Consider how social media can help you shift the rules of the game to your advantage, and slay big old Goliath.

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Inspired social media from an unexpected source — the Mayo Clinic

The Mayo Clinic would not naturally have occurred to me as a topic for Steve’s Social Media Soapbox.  Not because social media can’t create value for medical institutions and their patients.  On the contrary — social media and online communities can obviously be of tremendous help to people challenged by illness, investigating treatments, dealing with the side effects of medications and coming to terms with a host of other health related issues.  Similarly, the people who treat and care for patients can surely profit from the broad ranging opportunities for collaboration and sharing that social media tools offer.

But as a friend of mine who works for a health care communications agency told me, social media is fraught with legal implications and risks for pharmaceutical companies and medical institutions.  For example, a drug maker that hosted a web site allowing patients to share information about a particular medication would apparently be responsible for documenting and, I believe, investigating all claims of side effects that weren’t yet covered in established protocols.  There are also obvious issues with confidentially and patient privacy.

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That’s why when the Mayo Clinic recently launched Sharing Mayo Clinic, a blog for patients, families and staff to share  stories, it seemed to be a breakthrough.  In an excellent interview with Shel Holtz on the For Immediate Release podcast (2/05/09), Lee Aase, who heads up social media for the Mayo Clinic, pointed out that there really wasn’t an issue regarding patient privacy.  According to the Mayo’s lawyers, “If someone decides to tell their story on our site, that’s them disclosing their information, not us disclosing their information.” (This and other quotes of Mr. Aase are from the For Immediate Release interview.)

The upside is tremendous.  In the past the Mayo Clinic posted patient stories on their web site.  But these were written by a freelancer, who first interviewed the patient, and then wrote the story.  According to Aase, they didn’t match the impact and authenticity of people telling their own stories in their own words as they now can do on Sharing Mayo Clinic.  And clearly this transparency is much more credible and trustworthy to patients seeking information about the character and quality of treatment at Mayo.  It’s also highly motivating for Mayo staffers to read these patients’ stories, which often praise the professionalism and humanity of the clinic’s personnel across the board.  Finally, it also costs much less than hiring freelance writers!

Sharing Mayo is only the latest of several blogs from the Mayo Clinic.   These cover — among other topics — health policy, clinic news and diseases, treatments and therapies.

Especially pioneering for a medical institution, the Mayo Clinic provides blogging guidelines to Mayo staffers and allows them to represent the clinic online.  Private sector companies should take these words of Mr. Aase to heart, and recognize the potential power their companies have within the organization to communicate with customers (or in this case patients, friends and families) through engaged, well-guided and social-media savvy employees:

“We have a half a million patients a year, we have 50,000 employees, and our goal with our social media team is to engage and empower them and to get them involved in the conversation, not having the top-down kind of messaging where we try to control and script everything.  My position is that we can’t afford to hire enough people to communicate all things that need to happen, but we’ve got these 50,000 employees who we’re trusting to treat patients and deal with patients everyday that they can probably handle a blog too.”

He finishes the last sentence with a chuckle, as if to say, “Wouldn’t it be silly not to entrust your employees in this way?”  But so many companies have yet to free corporate communications from the iron-fist clutch of the corporate communications department.  Surely the possible risks of this transparency aren’t higher for a Fortune 500 company than they are for the Mayo Clinic?  And the potential benefits are the same.

The Mayo Clinic’s social media engagement goes well beyond these blogs.  They run a Facebook page with at last count 4,990 fans, where you can watch videos on specific health issues and Mayo clinic treatments, link to news bulletins and the main web site, and also read stories of patients and their families.  These posts of course have particular word-of-mouth value as they appear on the pages of Facebook friends, coming from the most credible and trusted source of all, people they know.

The magic of Facebook was also apparent when I clicked on photos of Mayo Clinic buildings uploaded there.  I didn’t find the photos particularly good — the buildings appeared monolithic and kind of scary.  A place where a patient could feel lost.  But these two comments about the photos erased any such impression:

mayo-clinic-picture-3Colleen Manley Wells (Orlando, FL) wrote
at 1:24am on January 27th, 2009
Our favorite doctors in the whole wide world work in this building. Dr. Casler and Dr. Maples – the Wells family loves you!

mayo-clinic-picture-21Jill Hughes (Trenton / Princeton, NJ) wrote
at 5:10pm on January 26th, 2009
my second home

What a great example of “patient generated content” improving significantly upon an institution’s own official communications.

The Mayo also produces a large number of podcasts dealing with health issues of all kinds that can be downloaded from the website or from i-Tunes.

The only reservation I had about the Mayo’s social media efforts was a statement on their Blog Comment Policy page.  It said in effect that if you posted a comment on Mayo-sponsored blogs, you gave the Mayo Foundation the “irrevocable right” to “reproduce, distribute, publish, display, edit, modify, create derivative works from, and otherwise use your submission for any purpose in any form and on any media.”

This seems extreme and dictatorial.  Surely, considering the personal dimension of health issues, patients who share stories and experiences on Mayo online properties, which are beneficial to the institution, its patients and its stake holders, should be permitted some say in how their contributions are used beyond their initial appearance.  Perhaps it’s not an issue for many patients and their families, but I imagine that many people, presuming they read this regulation, would prefer not to tell their stories, or would not share as openly and honestly as they might otherwise.  Would you? … Knowing your words could be edited and published anywhere without your permission, at any time in the future?

Other than that, I was inspired by the Mayo Clinic’s wholehearted embrace of social media and the rich and positive  impressions it provided about the institution, its values and its dedication to patients and their families.  If, God forbid, you are ever confronted with a serious illness, this is the place you want to be.

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A Hippocratic oath for managers — is it an idea whose time has come?

My first post of the new year expressed the hope of a new, better type of marketing inspired by social media and online communities: “Marketing that is truly transparent and honest, that acts with integrity — always.   …That will raise the title of ‘marketer’ in the public’s mind at least a few rungs up from its current ranking slightly above used car salesman as the grungiest, most lowly of professions.”

Apparently two professors at the Harvard Business School, Rakesh Khurana and Nitin Nohria, share similar hopes.  In a visionary article entitled “The Reinvented Manager,” which appeared in the 1/2009 issue of the Harvard Business Review, German Edition*, Khurana and Nohria make the case for transforming business management into a true profession, including a code of ethics and a supervisory body to oversee professional standards.  There would be an exam, like the bar exam all lawyers must pass in the United States, as a prerequisite to practice, and the overseeing organization would have power to censure individuals violating established standards of conduct.

The article is particularly topical in light of the recent excesses of the financial sector, but it reflects the same shift of outlook embodied by online communities, social media and the conversations taking place online thanks to web 2.0 tools.  It’s a shift that demands integrity, partnership and responsibility to the community from brands and businesses.

Here are some of the most interesting and thought-provoking perspectives from the article:

Over the past ten years there as been a decline in the self-control of, and ensuing trust in, business.  Managers have lost much legitimacy.  They will only regain society’s trust by rejecting the economic philosophy that management’s sole concern should be the maximization of shareholder value, while markets and government take care of the rest. (Milton Friedman be damned!)

Managers should serve a higher purpose — society as a whole.  They “should view society as their real customer and strive ultimately to provide society with sustainable businesses that create value.”

To the question whether codes of ethics are actually effective, the authors reference the American political scientist, Robert Axelrod.  According to the article, Axelrod has shown that a defined and unified ethical framework and shared professional ideals influence behavior decisively.  Khurana and Nohria  conclude that “Morally impeccable behavior is an important component of the self-image of professionals (like doctors and lawyers) and most will seek to preserve this sense of professional self.” (Doctors maybe. Not sure about lawyers.)  “We know from the social sciences that people’s actual behavior is strongly influenced by the expectations that are placed upon them.”

The authors go on to provide a draft for  a “Hippocratic Oath for Managers.”  This is my favorite part of the oath from a consumer-centric, social media point of view:

“I will undertake to represent my company’s performance correctly and transparently to all relevant parties, in order to make certain that investors, consumers (my italics) and the general public are able to make informed decisions.”

Khurana and Nohria elaborate on the challenges that the establishment of business management as a profession would face.  But they believe these can be overcome and their vision achieved.  Above all, they are convinced it is necessary, an idea whose time has come.  They don’t pretend that this would eradicate all marketing transgressions in future.  But they do argue convincingly that it could bring about a meaningful and worthwhile shift for the better.

*The original article appeared in Harvard Business Review, October 2008, under the title, “It’s Time to Make Management a True Profession.” Reprint or PDF available at Harvard Business Publishing.  Quoted passages are my translation from the German.


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Social media can change marketing for the better — forever

The juncture between an old and a new year is a time for reflection and evaluation.  So forgive me if I wax philosophical about my wishes and vision for social media and marketing as we enter the new year.

At the risk of sounding airy-fairy, moon eyed and idealistic, I’ve been playing around in my mind with the notion that social media and online communities will be the platforms for a new, better type of marketing.  Marketing that is truly transparent and honest, that acts with integrity — always.  That truly respects the intelligence and humanity of the “consumer.”  That will raise the title of “marketer” in the public’s mind at least a few rungs up from its current ranking slightly above used car salesman as the grungiest, most lowly of professions.

I would hope that more and more marketers begin to recognize that honesty and transparency are more than simply virtuous.  In a digitally-connected world that enables people to find out in a flash the truth about products, brands and the companies behind them, these values are good, even essential, for the future of their business.

But whether they do so will depend on whether consumers continue to step up to the plate in greater numbers.  To demand integrity and transparency from brands and corporations.  To demand that companies engage with them directly via social media channels and tools, monitor and listen to their questions and concerns, collaborate, take their suggestions seriously, and respond.  To use the community and sources of information about brands that are now so easily accessible on the internet to determine whether a marketer is being truthful about their product claims, their employment policies, their treatment of suppliers, their sustainability  efforts.  To spread the word and connect with others via the web when they’re unhappy or delighted with something a marketer says or does.

Thanks to the unprecedented access to information and the ability for people to support each other on questions of mutual importance via the web 2.o internet, consumers are truly more empowered than ever before in their relationships with brands and the companies that market them.  As they exercise that power more and more, marketers will also have to step up to the plate.  They will need to practice marketing that lives up to a much higher standard of integrity, honesty and transparency than was required in the past.  And that will be a very good thing — for business, for consumers and for society as a whole.

Happy new year!

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