In November of 2005, Wired's Editor in Chief Chris Anderson raved about his new Xbox 360, particularly as an "extender" for his Media Center, linking TV, PC DVR and the game console.
Anderson is interested in the Media Center PC as a "Long Tail video platform." The term "Long Tail" is a three-way title: it is an influential article that Anderson published in Wired in November of 2004. "The Long Tail" is also the name of Anderson's blog and the title of his forthcoming book, due out this year from Hyperion. Anderson argues that "our culture and economy is increasingly shifting away from a focus on a relatively small number of 'hits'... at the head of the demand curve and toward a huge number of niches in the tail." (You can learn more about the theory of the Long Tail here.)
After the positive Xbox 360 review in November, Anderson discovered that the console had disabled his older extenders in his home network. Several bouts with Microsoft tech support proved fruitless, so Anderson reached out to Charlie Owen, a Microsoft blogger, who got Anderson in touch with the right Microsoft team and together they fixed the problem. You can read Anderson's post about this experience here.
Anderson's experience was in sharp contrast to BuzzMachine blogger Jeff Jarvis's negative experiences with Dell, so I reached out to Anderson to chat about his experience, dealing with companies that blog and that don't blog, and what this holds for the future of corporate blogging and marketing.
Brad Berens: Were you following Jeff Jarvis's epic battle with Dell a few months ago? He finally got them to take care of his problems. It's a similar tale to your Xbox problems. The question is this: do ordinary consumers have anything akin to the leverage of big-time media folks? Or, how much of an aberration do you think your experience with Microsoft was?
Chris Anderson: I did indeed follow it, with awe, and it has greatly influenced my thoughts about how companies should approach the blogosphere (Step one: set up those Technorati filters. Step two: put out fires fast!)
My experience was a bit different. After hitting a dead end with the regular customer service channels, I didn't blog my frustrations. Instead, I emailed some of Microsoft's very approachable bloggers first, and they were quick to help me. We sorted it all out in email and I then went public as a satisfied customer. Would they have done the same for any blogger, or even a non-blogger? Perhaps not quite as much, but I do believe they would have tried to help in some way. That's the egalitarian compact of blogging -- your readers are your peers and you try to respond to them as such.
No doubt if Dell had some equivalent public bloggers with email addresses, Jeff would have done the same. But because they didn't, he vented on his own blog, just as I would have done. There's a lesson in that ;).
Do ordinary consumers have the same power as media folks? I think they do.
Most people probably don't realize that Jeff was a big-time media guy; instead they know him as a prolific and influential blogger, which is something he earned one smart post at a time. That's a path open to anyone.
As an example, I'd point you to the experience of regular-guy blogger Thomas Hawk, whose horrific experience with a Brooklyn bait-and-switch shop also resulted in an outpouring of web fury over similar scams (and got the company implicated delisted from Yahoo! shopping).
Berens: Corporate blogging-wise, Microsoft is clearly -- and, to my mind, still surprisingly -- on the cutting edge with Robert Scoble, Channel 9 and the rest. We also have a bunch of executive and C-level bloggers out there. (See this link for a handy -- and long -- list of CEO bloggers.)
On the consumer side, the great thing about blogs and blogging is that any thoughtful, engaged citizen with a browser and an internet connection can become a media voice in just a few minutes. On the corporate side, this is great if the citizen is a thoughtful and engaged customer. But the terrible thing about blogs and blogging is that any meathead with a grudge or too much time on his hands can have the same megaphone. Whose job is it to tell the engaged customers from the meatheads?
Corporations currently don't have much of a rule book for when and how to engage with blogs. I like your first two steps: 1) Set up the Technorati filters and 2) Put out fires fast. Those are good reactive goals. Having the CEO blog is a proactive way to get the company's vision out before the fires start. But let's drill down a little more: Just how are corporations supposed to do this? Are call center folks supposed to ask callers if they happen to be bloggers? How should usually siloed divisions like Product Management, Development, PR, Corporate Communications, Marketing, Customer Service and the like work together? And who decides when a fire is a fire and when it's just somebody playing with matches?
Anderson: You're certainly asking the right questions. My general advice is have PR watch the filters and notify the appropriate product managers where there's something that needs to be responded to. But that response itself is always best coming from the line managers -- the folks who are actually responsible for the product or service.
As for proactive blogging, product-level people again tend to be best. They know their stuff, often have a real passion for what they do and come across more like peers to the typical reader, which makes them more approachable and trusted. It's hard to have specific corporate guidelines on how they should blog, since anything too specific tends to suppress the natural voice; my experience is that "Use Good Judgment" usually suffices.
Berens: Let's take a back door into your book. In November of 2004, Micropersuasion's Steve Rubel wrote a piece here at iMedia Connection called "The Long Tail of the Blogosphere."
You've linked to Steve's piece in your Long Tail blog, and I wanted to check in and see about your thoughts on how the long tail of ecommerce and retail equates -- or doesn't -- to the long tail of the blogosphere -- how, in other words, does infinite niche media parallel infinite niche retail? And, since it has been a while since Steve's article, how has the landscape changed in the last 12 months or so?
Anderson: Yes, but it's even more infinite ;).
Berens: I'll wind up by asking you about one of Wired's new initiatives. In a recent -- very recent -- blog post you talk about a new joint project between Wired and SocialText: "The Fortune 500 Business Blog Index" in which you track business performance against corporate blogging. One of the interesting early findings is that, generally speaking, companies that blog are doing less well than companies that don't blog, which empirically supports Doc Searls' contention -- which you explain at length in your post -- that companies blog when business is bad, and when business is good they're afraid to blog because they don't want to dilute their marketing message.
I can't imagine this trend lasting, can you? It seems very much like a threshold phenomenon that is an artifact of blogging as a new medium. I'd predict that -- if technology stopped changing, which it never does -- within five years the businesses that didn't blog would be performing worse. What do you think? More generally, as podcasting, RSS, better cell phones, local search and the like come online in the next months and years, I think we'll see the blogging = poor performance phenomenon reiterated again and again, with each new technology functioning as a canary in the coal mine. Do you buy this, or do you think it has something more intrinsic to do with blogging?
Anderson: I suspect you're right. Since business blogging seems to reflect a whole bunch of qualities I think are good for companies to have -- transparency, good community relations, passionate employees, engaged customers, trust in its employees, decentralized communications, et cetera -- I would expect it to correlate with good performance over time.
But these are early days yet, and the virtues and best practices of business blogging are not yet clear enough for many. So it doesn't surprise me that it's often the companies with the least to lose in terms of image and reputation who are jumping in first.
Brad Berens is executive editor for iMedia Communications.
I'm a big fan of ad networks, even the BubbleNick guys. But not every ad network is created equal, and frankly, I couldn't pick any one of them and proclaim it the champion. Regardless of which ad network you work with, remember, there are always choices available to you. Type in "Ad Networks" on any search engine and spend the next three hours becoming familiar with the sheer volume of choices at your fingertips. Whether you are satisfied with your network or are considering a change, it's clear that there is always room for improvement. Perhaps that's the primary difference between a "network" and a "notwork" -- the willingness to improve results for you and your brand with each placement on each campaign.
Disclaimer: I hate bad service. This applies to the dude at the Starbucks counter who insists that I call a large coffee a "Venti Drip," as well as to the ad network I do business with. How much does your ad network focus on "getting" your business versus "servicing" your business? The ratio should be 1 to 10 in favor of service. Advertising via an ad network is a complicated and, for many, overwhelming process. You need to have a committed account team there to help you navigate the territory.
It should be taken for granted that an ad network is going to deliver 100 percent of what it promises. It doesn't get to play in the big pool if it can't hack it in the deep end. Most networks are reliable and accountable. But how are they helping you improve results for your brand? How are they better than the rest where education and project management are concerned? Every network promises reach, targeting, measurability and, yes, even service. If "service" means taking your calls and sending reports on time, find a new network.
Many brand marketers use ad networks more for reach than relevancy. They see this "shotgun blast" approach as cost effective. Some of the biggest and best ad networks out there will gladly relieve you of some of your ad budget and perform against this expectation without helping you understand that the true power behind the network is its ability to target on a mass scale. In my view, that's poor service.
Many of the larger networks do a solid job in the way they track, report and optimize their campaigns. This is great news for brands. While, ultimately, the onus is on the client to determine which metrics need to be measured, it's up to the network to have the technology in place to be able to track, well, everything!
You need to be able to see real-time results against each creative, placement and site in the network. You want to measure impressions, clickthrough and conversion rates against each creative, each placement and each site in the network. Time, geographic, contextual and psychographic-based tracking should also be part of your measurability standards.
Optimization is a mixture of technology -- software configures results and optimizes based on pre-programmed performance data, and the human-driven analysis that involves you and your account rep looking at the data, reviewing the placements and making optimization decisions.
For my money, I would want to know that a woman named Grace, 34, from Green Bay, Wisc., who is a Virgo and likes cats and needlepoint, clicked on my ad for the new BlackBerry Curve at 4:33 P.M., while she was reading the latest dirt on TMZ.com about how Britney refuses to put her PDA away when she is driving. This might be a pie-in-the-sky expectation, but your ad network should be able to keep up with most of this.
Regardless of how you optimize, make sure you have a network partner that will balance good judgment and great service with cutting edge technology. A good network will be committed to optimization as a practice, not as a sales pitch. The best campaigns are typically those that required the most optimization. I've often said that a good ad network is one that consistently delivers good results, then consistently optimizes to deliver great results. Okay, I just made that up for this article, but you get the point.
How effective can a company be at managing 30,000 website publishers? How often does the network review its sites for target and traffic compliancy? How reliable is the information you have from an ad network when you are making a decision about advertising on a website or a group of websites? Once you make the decision and run the campaign, did the numbers fall in line with the data you used when making your determination to advertise?
The bigger an ad network becomes, the more important it is for them to provide accurate, up-to-date website visitor statistics. While you aren't going to get that level of data from every site in an ad network, it's important to make sure that you aren't burning through impressions on sites that have changed their audience profiles in the span of a few months.
Your ad network needs to be able to certify that the audience profiles in its portfolio of websites have been recently verified for targeting and traffic standards. This affects how heavily you will need to focus on optimization once the campaign is in flight.
We've all heard stories of "ads gone wild" where display ads are shown on objectionable or otherwise inappropriate sites. This is one of many reasons why transparency is important. But, while a particular website might be an appropriate venue to showcase your brand, beware: Not all of the content on that site will match up well with your brand or the creative you are using to market it. Here are some examples:
These kinds of placements are becoming more and more of an issue for ad networks, especially those that have websites that publish user-generated media. Your ad network needs to be able to identify likely problems before they become problems. Sadly, this is a problem solved through humanity rather than technology -- no computer program can make the right judgment call every time.
If your ad network cannot control contextual placement based on the content that will approximate your ad, you become unable to determine whether the site and/or the placement is truly appropriate for your brand. Optimization then becomes more about binary code and less about contextual relevance -- which then makes any advertising moot.
With the amount of content flying back and forth on the web, even humans can't keep up. Still, your ad network needs to be proactive in addressing these kinds of problems up front. While they are a part of most ad network buys, don't let these kinds of placements to be deemed "part of the deal."
Does anyone really buy from networks that aren't transparent anymore? You bet they do. The real question is why. With 20-plus large-scale networks, tens of thousands of publishers and at least a dozen marketing methodologies to choose from, the landscape is confusing enough. Navigating it blindly is just plain foolish, especially for those brand marketers who are new to the ad network game.
Lack of disclosure takes the control out of your hands and puts it into the hands of the ad network, which in some cases is more software than anything else. I've been playing the advertising game long enough to know that the more we trust software to make certain marketing decisions, the more disconnected from the consumer we become.
This is a hot debate in the ad network industry. Some networks will tell you that you will pay a premium for transparency. Pay it. At least with transparency, you know what you are getting in the deal. Some ad networks will also tell you that quality and disclosure are not mutually exclusive. That's correct, but neither are disclosure and lack of quality. You can reach your targeted audience very effectively with ad networks that disclose their list of sites. It's irresponsible of networks to claim otherwise.
King of the hill
Foursquare is one social media platform that might seem trivial on the surface. But for businesses, it can be a highly effective, multi-functional tool. Every day, as commuters in San Francisco's SOMA district saunter sleepily to work, hundreds will stop at the Blue Bottle Café, just off Fifth Street. While they wait in line for freshly brewed espresso made from organic and pesticide-free, shade-grown coffee beans, most customers will pull out their mobile phone to check in on Foursquare:
Why do they do this every morning? Because Foursquare is as addictive as the coffee Blue Bottle serves.
Foursquare is fundamentally the grown-up version of King of the Hill -- whoever can stay on top of the hill the longest without getting shoved off by another contender wins. Multiple check-ins enable a customer to become the "mayor" of a location. Many businesses offer mayors discounts on services, or even discounts to users who happened to check in. In this sense, Foursquare has become the next evolution of the frequent flyer card, allowing for endless combinations of reward programs: 10 percent off for mayors, buy-one-get-one-free with proof of check-in, and so on. For example, this summer, Starbucks offered mayors at all of its U.S. stores $1 off Frappucinos.
Foursquare users are your business' loyalists. They want to show off how much they love their neighborhood hangouts. Each time a user becomes the mayor of a location on Foursquare and the activity is posted to that person's Facebook wall, the user is essentially shouting from the mountaintop to come check out that business. That person is saying, "I frequent this brand because their services are valuable to me."
The competition between customers vying for mayoral status only drives this social activity further -- and as a business, you haven't spent a dime. Checking in becomes a compulsive experience ("I must check in to every store on my Saturday morning errand run!"). This is all related to positive reinforcement -- the reason why Pavlov's dog salivated upon the ringing of a bell. It's the reason why we think our mobile phones are buzzing with phantom texts or emails, even when they aren't. Like any other organism, we tend to repeat particular behaviors once we are given positive stimuli as a consequence of those behaviors. The incentives offered by a business through Foursquare, or just the sheer urge to become mayor of their favorite local shops, fuels customers' need to check in regularly.
So what if you are a new business or trying to build awareness of your new storefront? Much like Yelp (although with a much more fluid interface), users will often leave short tips or commentary on your services. These endorsements not only display on your company's Foursquare profile, but they are also served up geo-contextually as Foursquare users search for tips in their area. All of this compulsive behavior brings you more customers and encourages the ones you already have to stay loyal.
If free advertising and loyalty programs are not enough incentive for you to engage your customers through Foursquare, then perhaps the newly launched business tools featuring free metrics will get you on board.
Image source: Foursquare
Once business owners claim their location, they can begin viewing real-time reports of total check-ins, check-ins per day, unique visitors, plus Twitter and Facebook activity. The capability to track more stats is on the way (very likely via a subscription-based model). Engaging new and regular customers with Foursquare should be a no-brainer for any small business.
If you don't speak up for your brand, then who will?
One aspect of social media that scares off many businesses is the possibility of negative criticism or slander. Small businesses should be more wary of missing out on the conversation around their brands than they are of having to regulate nasty comments. Instead of living in fear of negativity, why not utilize your Facebook channel as a sounding board for your customers? If the tone of your social communication is more conversational than mechanical, your customers will feel more open in sharing their positive experiences and growing your brand's culture.
One of my favorite neighborhood lunch spots is Speciality's. I check its Facebook page regularly, as it will often post trivia or polls and invite customers to participate. If I can reply with my correct answer before the 30-plus other customers do, I could win a free cookie or sandwich. Frequent events like these will get your fans to refresh your page religiously in hopes of getting a free lunch.
Besides offering promotions, Facebook enables a business and its customers to share personal, emotional stories, which put an honest, human face on a platform that can otherwise be cold and impersonal. Specialty's fans will often beg for their favorite menu items:
Recently, Speciality's felt close enough to its 4,000 fans to reach out to raise funds for one of its employees who had shattered vertebrae in her neck and was facing large hospital bills:
Such transactions are just not possible with traditional advertising media. Down-to-earth, conversational social content can only serve to enhance customer perception of your brand. Consumers are going to talk about your business, whether you are present on social media or not. It is vital to a brand to be able to guide the conversation and offer counterpoints to dissension. If you don't speak up for your brand, then who will?
Be where your customers are
There are some business models that rely on social media exclusively for offline customer traffic, such as the nomadic food cart phenomenon in metropolitan areas. Consider the cupcake truck Cupkates, operated by Bay Area resident and ex-Dwell magazine editor Kate McEachern.
As her staff drives the mobile sweet dispensary around the Bay Area, Cupkates will post its location to its 3,000 Twitter followers:
Missives like these conjure images of the Pied Piper, leading a herd of sugar frosting-enabled zombies into tooth-decaying oblivion. Using Twitter, Cupkates is able to circumnavigate the lack of a storefront by keeping loyalists constantly aware of its current location and new menu items. Updates are cheerful, yet to the point, and are often synced with the company's Facebook profile, where another 4,000 wait with bated breath.
Cupkates also uses Twitter to answer customer questions and invite suggestions for new confectionary, further enhancing its customer relationships -- rather than simply issuing updates composed of textspeak ("Haz cupcakes 4 u. BRB.") and inane observations not related to its business. As consumer attention spans shrink, correct utilization of microblogging services like Twitter must be efficient, while maintaining a helpful, well-branded conversation.
If a business offers custom products, which expand well beyond the bounds of the typical catalog display adopted by most ecommerce websites, then social media offers a chance to show off unique offerings, while allowing potential customers to visualize new products in their hands.
Manifesto Bicycles in Oakland is a tiny shop on 40th Avenue, where a compact showroom offers a rainbow of disembodied bike parts, from which customers can pick and choose to create their dream ride. Shop owners Sam Cunningham and MacKay Gibbs take pride in their custom builds with blue-collar price tags, and they upload nearly every custom bike they produce to the Manifesto Bicycles Flickr gallery.
Customers can browse nearly 800 unique bike configurations, all accompanied by their owners, smiling with contentment. A traditional ad campaign with models and testimonial copywriting to match this implementation would be well past the typical small-business budget.
With Flickr, past and soon-to-be customers are encouraged to revel in Manifesto's creations. Visitors can express admiration, and soon-to-be customers can be inspired by the list of gear combinations, before they even set foot in the brick-and-mortar store. These image galleries have had an astounding impact on Manifesto's bottom line, "A third of our business comes from folks browsing our Flickr gallery," Gibbs says.
Getting lost in a sea of endless content might be daunting at first to small businesses that are hesitant to jump in the fray of social media. But a free tool that lets you make connections with customers and distribute your content quickly is hardly a fruitless exercise. Social media marketing is a logical extension of the oldest form of advertising -- word of mouth. Utilizing these free social media tools in a contextually relevant and insightful manner can shape the conversation your customers are already having about your services.
On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.