Archive for the ‘Engagement’ Category

Your Blog is a Cabin in the Woods

Ben Yoskovitz wrote an interesting post this week entitled “You Can’t Build Authority and Thought Leadership via Twitter”. He made a good case for the idea that microblogging platforms like Twitter are great for transient stuff, but cannot replace a blog for developing “authority” through in-depth, focused opinions and subject matter knowledge. He also pointed out that no one has established themselves as authority on any subject strictly through their activity in Twitter, but that it is a great tool for expanding  your audience.

As an example of that last point, I found Ben’s post through Twitter. There was a discussion going on there regarding his post which evolved into a question about where communities start.  That got me thinking about how and were online communities develop.

Communities can develop around all kinds of social platforms.  Those communities have notable differences which I think are due in large part to the nature of the platform.  Ben says if you are looking to be a thought leader/authority then you need a blog.  But what if you are an organization looking to engage a community (or build your own) using social media?  Is is a blog the best place to start or is there a sharper tool in the social media shed? Let’s take a look.

Forums

Long before blogging became popular, online forums and chatrooms provided the foundations for “virtual town halls”. Forums are still widely used as a vehicle for supporting  discussions regarding certain products (Macbook, cars, gaming).   Forum content is typically moderated and  limited to specific topics.  A forum Moderator is responsible for ensuring that the forum’s content is appropriately organized and on topic.  Online forums are much like conferences.  They offer subject matter experts sharing their opinions and knowledge of specific topics with attendees who have questions and want to learn.  Conferences typically offer a number of topical sessions which are often moderated.

Are forums the right place for you to engage.  Perhaps.  If your objective is to provide assistance regarding  your products or services, engaging in forums may be a good approach.  The downside is that forums don’t generally have the traffic or reach of social platforms like Twitter or Facebook.  Some organizations have been successful creating forums within their website to assist in product support.

Blogs

In recent years, well known bloggers have developed dedicated audiences who visit and comment on the blog regularly.  Of course, very few bloggers ever  rise to this level.  The internet is a very big place and a blog is like little cabin out in the woods.  You better have some amazing stories to tell on your front porch if you are looking to attract and build a community on your property.

Is creating a blog the best way for an organization to engage a community.  Many have tried it, but my personal opinion is that corporate blogs are generally boring and offer very little for the community they are trying to engage, therefore there is usually not a compelling reason for people to travel down the dirt road to your cabin in the woods.

Personals

If blogs are like cabins, then “personals” sites like MySpace, Facebook and LinkedIn are like large residential developments.  Lots of people have houses there but only your trusted friends and neighbors know where you hide the key.  Like in a physical neighborhood, you meet new people through your neighbors and through social associations and events.

There are many more Personals sites than the three mentioned above and even they have significant differences.  MySpace never had much appeal to adults and appears to be losing favor with Millenials as well; however it does have a strong music-oriented component.  If you are a musician/band looking to build a community, it’s a pretty good place to start.

LinkedIn is clearly oriented to professional networking.  Using the groups feature, you can establish and engage with communities, but I sense that most people who have LinkedIn profiles don’t spent a lot of time interacting there.

Facebook has evolved into much more of an application platform than the other two.  Companies have leveraged this capability to create Facebook applications that can be useful (or not).  The trick with Facebook is finding your target community and then getting them to use your application and share it with others.  Simply setting up a Facebook page because it’s the latest corporate trend is not going to provide any value to you or your customers.

In all of these cases, the reach potential is great because they have very large populations.  On the other hand, you are dealing with platforms that require some sort of acceptance on the part of the “residents” before you can interact with them which may be a barrier for your organization.  If you want to engage the people in this neighborhood, you better be offering something of value or they won’t be answering the door.

Microblogging

There are many emerging platforms that follow this model, but the king of the hill is Twitter.  Twitter is a village festival.  Everyone is in the street, talking, sharing, showing off their wares (blog posts, presentations, subject matter expertise).  There are people (lots of them) providing entertainment, news, advice.  It’s vibrant, alive, growing and you don’t need permission to come in.  People will listen to you (and tell others about you) if you have interesting things to say.  They will just as easily ignore you if you are annoying. For companies, Twitter is a great place to just sit back and listen for a while to see what people are saying.  They are talking about their lives, their families, their friends and their jobs.  If you are in business, chances are someone is talking about the the stuff you are selling, or they may be talking about YOU!

Would it make sense to engage communities like those on Twitter?  Absolutely, BUT you must do so in a way that adds value.

  • Does that mean telling people to go read your corporate blog? NO!
  • Does that mean pitching your junk in 140 characters or less? NO!
  • Does that mean listening first and offering ideas and solutions to help people get something done?  YES!
  • Does that mean helping people in the community connect with others who have similar interests? YES!
  • Does that mean getting involved with charitable causes or perhaps organizing your own? YES!

There are certainly other social platforms out there and there will be more in the near future that we haven’t even thought of yet.  Ben’s post said you can’t build authority on Twitter and he may be right, but I know of no better platform to build community engagement.  Participation in social media continues to grow and organizations will find creative ways to engage with their customers there.  Will you be one of them?

Are You Focused on the Transaction or the Experience? (part 2)

open-24hrsNow that the turkey and pies are gone, I guess it’s time to jump back into the blog.  Recapping from my last post:

  • Companies who differentiate on customer experience are more likely to succeed in the face of shrinking margins and discretionary spending.
  • A highly engaged customer-facing workforce will deliver a consistently better experience.
  • An “Open Organizational Culture” is necessary to drive employee engagement.

So what exactly is an Open Organizational Culture?  Fundamentally, it’s one that fosters transparency and accountability to its employees, customers and the public.  This is in contrast to traditional organizations that operate in a hierarchical model with an authoritarian culture that seems to foster privacy or secrecy.

An Open Organizational Culture has several unique characteristics:

Transparency and Open Communications

Leaders of high performance organizations nurture a culture that allows for people to question openly and have honest dialogue. They create a climate of candor throughout the organization.  They remove the organizational barriers — and the fear — that cause people to keep bad news from the boss. They understand that those closest to customers usually have the solutions but can do little unless the organization encourages open discussions about problems.  When people can raise objections when when necessary (and without reprisal), it paves the way to higher engagement.

Values

In an Open Organization, the leader’s beliefs and values create the direction and the boundaries that people need to perform well.  The values are clearly defined & communicated, and reviewed periodically for relevance.  More importantly, the organizations practices, systems & processes are clearly aligned with the values and management ensures that employees’ day to day experiences are consistent with the values.  You can quickly identify an organization that does not adhere to its stated values by gauging the level of cynicism amongst the staff.  Open Organizations really walk the talk and it is reflected in their employees’ attitudes.

Empowerment in Organizational Culture

In “Good to Great” (2001) Jim Collins asserts, “good-to-great companies built a consistent system with clear constraints , but they also gave people freedom and responsibility within the framework of that system.”  Open Organizations not only actively engage members of the workforce, they rely upon their contributions to on-going improvement.  Driving Empowerment and responsibility down to the lowest appropriate levels within the organization, especially to the customer-facing members, has many benefits:

  • It provides employees the opportunities and incentives to shape the company experience.  Encouraging involvement in this way fosters a feeling of ownership on the part of employees.
  • It promotes organizational creativity which leads to innovation.  As I stated above, customer facing associates are typically the ones with the best insights regarding the customer.
  • It allows decisions to be made without unnecessary or authoritarian approval process which can lead to a more responsive organization.
  • Encourage continuous learning which in turn improves decision making.

So in summary, an organization’s culture is shaped by and reflects the values, beliefs, and norms held by its founders, leaders, and organizational members. In Open Organizations, values are aligned and honored, transparency and open communication are the norm and decision-making is informed by a process of continual learning. Cultures that embody these characteristics demonstrate them in the organization’s structures, standards, policies, and systems. They shape the work environment, staffing practices, and organizational performance, all of which influence the employee experience and by extension, the customers they serve.

If this sounds like your organization, great.  I’d love to hear about it.  If not, I’m curious about that things  you see are barriers to getting to an Open Organization.

[image: Open 24 Hours on Houston Street]

Does Disney “Get” Virtual Worlds?

Second Life is looking for it’s Second Wind. There.com isn’t quite there yet. The media hype that surrounded virtual worlds just a year ago has ratcheted way back. Real world companies who came in not understanding what they were getting into quickly faded away after they didn’t get what they were expecting.

But one demographic seems to be doing quite well in the virtual space: Kids. If you have one of these living under your roof, you probably know that they are actively participating in online virtual/social networking spaces. They are joining online social networks at increasingly early ages (pre-school in the case of Club Penguin) and in those spaces, they are forming relationships that are very real.

This high level of participation has made kid-oriented worlds like Habbo, Gaia Online, Neopets, Webkinz and Nicktropolis more successful that adult oriented virtual worlds. Disney’s launched Virtual Magic Kingdom in 2005 with a target audience of 8 – 14 year-olds. Seeing business opportunity in the virtual space, they paid $350 Million to acquire Club Penguin last year. This year, Disney launched Pirates of the Caribbean Online to attract a somewhat older, but still teen aged audience (mostly boys) and Pixie Hollow (targeted at girls) is set to be launched later this year. The longer range plan, according to Mike Goslin, VP of Disney’s Virtual reality Studio, is to “have a large number of virtual world for a range of different audiences… sort of like a theme park.” The strategy also includes making the different worlds “feel like a common experience” including the ability to move your social contacts between virtual experiences.

Last Week, Shel Israel posted an fascinating video interview with Goslin and other senior team members from Disney’s Interactive Studios.

In the interview, the Disney team talks about the differentiators that they bring to the game. The most interesting one for me was the idea of Context. Like physical playgrounds, Disney sees their virtual worlds as socializing environments. In them, kids are learning collaboration skills, communication skills and social skills, but as with most everything Disney does, these interactions and communications are done in the context of a story. Disney believes creating social environments and communities around a context adds value to both consumers and business. On the customer side, building environments around a theme drives engagement by communities of interest who are passionate about that theme (think “ESPN Fantasy Football”). This leads to large communities that are defined by their common interest as opposed to the relatively small number of people that may be in your friend list. Those large communities with common interests provides a context for a business model like advertising. Because the community is all there for the same reason, they will likely engage in predictable ways (i.e. minimize random and inappropriate behavior).

Conspicuously absent from the interview was any mention of Disney’s Virtual Magic Kingdom (“VMK”). VMK was launched in 2005 as part of the Disneyland 50th year celebration. In it, participants create rooms themed after Magic Kingdom attractions, play mini-games, collect inventory and make friends. Just seven months after launch, Disney announced the game surpassed one million players and over 1.3 million personalized in-game rooms. Last month, with no advance notice, Disney announced that they would be shutting the doors on this virtual theme park on May 21. Predictably, the outcry from the “community” has been loud and is growing as the date approaches. A number of petitions have collected thousands of signatures, boycotts are being threatened and one group, VMK Kids Unite, is organizing a protest at the gates of Disneyland on May 10 which may be covered by CNN and CBS. Obviously, adults are helping to organize these efforts, but the kids are the driving force. Kids who are already comfortable with the participatory web and who want to have their voices heard.

So here’s my takeaway. From the interview, its clear that Disney understands the business opportunity in Virtual Worlds & Social Networks. The also have a pretty good idea how to build communities through contextually engaging virtual experiences. On the other hand, Disney’s decision to shut down VMK demonstrates that perhaps they don’t really get the “social” component. In these social environments, Disney’s role is to provide the frameworks (architectural, security and creative) and the context, but the real content is created by the participants. In shutting down VMK, they aren’t just closing an amusement park attraction. They are throwing away the work of the thousands of dedicated, passionate kids who have spent countless hours building and sharing wonderfully imaginative experiences, and in the process, will be alienating many of their most dedicated and influential advocates.

What do you think? Is closing VMK “just business”? Will the kids get over it? Is this consistent with Disney’s brand?

Update: Per my daughter’s advice, here are links to http://www.savevmk.com and http://www.savevmktoday.com

Update #2:  My daughter wrote a song and created a video about saving VMK.  Check it out here.

Circuit City 2.0 in Second Life

ccsl-map2.jpg

Looks like Circuit City is finally developing the four island Second Life estate that was purchased back in May ’07. As some of you may know, I was in charge of the Second Life project before my job was cut, so I’m really interested to see if what they build follows the strategy that I proposed.

IBM developed a Circuit City store on IBM10 last December which generated a good deal of press, but like most corporate sims, its usually empty now. The store was never really intended to be a permanent home for Circuit in Second Life. It was primarily for demonstration purposes to allow IBM to showcase what could be done for retailers in SL. The content of the store has not changed at all in the last six months and there has been no effort to develop community engagement at the store, primarily due to contractual hurdles with IBM (its their island).

As a starting point for planning a larger SL presence for Circuit City, I did extensive research on early real world brand entries, speaking with counterparts in other companies as well as marketers, branding experts and others. It didn’t take long for me to come to the same conclusion of many prominent Virtual World observers:

Most real world brands just didn’t understand how to approach the medium.

It would not be appropriate to reveal details of the strategy I proposed as Circuit has not done so and it may not be what they are going with in the end. I will say that the strategy leveraged lessons learned from other real brand builds and was specifically designed to promote engagement on several levels. I have not been in contact with anyone from Circuit since I left, but from the 30,000 ft. view on the map display, they seem to be close to an announcement.

2nd Annual Retail Customer Dissatisfaction Study

I was pleased to see that Wharton’s Jay H. Baker Retail Initiative along with Canadian consulting firm, the Verde Group, had conducted the second of what is now an annual study of retail customer dissatisfaction.  If you are a regular reader, you know I have written about this before.  The big takeaway from this year’s study is that the most impactful area of dissatisfaction comes from interactions with the sales associate.

The study found that disinterested, ill-prepared and unwelcoming salespeople lead to more lost business and bad word-of-mouth than any other management challenge in retailing.

Of the 1000 shoppers surveyed about their most recent shopping experience, 58% indicated that they had either been unable to find an associate to help them or were outright ignored by the sales associate.   The survey identified a number of other sources of dissatisfaction including inadequate parking and out of stock product, but shoppers were much more likely to forgive these problems than they would bad sales help. 

As identified in last year’s Consumer Dissatisfaction Study , customers are much more likely to share a bad experience than a good one.  Half of all shoppers have chosen not to visit a particular store because of someone else’s bad experiences.  According to Wharton marketing professor Stephen J. Hoch, director of the Baker Initiative:

“The importance of consumer dissatisfaction, rather than satisfaction, is the fact that a negative experience leads people to want to go and talk it.  They are less apt to talk about it when things go well.”

The study also revealed differences in attitudes based on age with the coveted 18-29-year-old demographic reporting the highest number of bad experiences.  The key reasons:  Lack of authenticity, lack of knowledge and inability to find things due to a disorganized store. 

The study also gathered information regarding the types of characteristics that would be found in an ideal sales associate.  The top two were “engager” (willing to stop whatever they are doing to help) and “educator” (someone who can explain products, make recommendations, etc).

Both last year’s and this year’s studies should be required reading for anyone in retail today.  After you read what shoppers are saying, give some serious thought to how your sales associates are interacting with your customers. 

<via  http://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article.cfm?articleid=1735>

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