The Ever-Shrinking, Ever-Growing Business Blogosphere

Yesterday, I had the absolute pleasure of sharing a malt-beverage or two with Neville Hobson and Shel Holtz, who were in the neighborhood for The New Communications Forum. (By the by, the Bombay Bomber IPA…delish.)

Neville and I had traded a few emails in the past few months, and I noticed on his blog that he was in from Amsterdam for a couple of days for the NCF conference. Shel and Neville have known each other for a decade. Two quick emails and 12 hours later, the three of us were shooting the breeze in person, without any of the typical awkwardness that comes when people meet for the first time. We already knew each other. It just so happened that, prior to yesterday, we’d never been on the same continent at the same time.

Reason #6537 why business folk should write, podcast, or otherwise communicate often, and in their own voice: your customers, vendors, and partners get to know you before they even meet you, so when you do get together, you already have shared context and can get things done 10x faster than you ever have in the past.

The Business Blogging Field Guide, Part 5: The Customer Advocate

Continuing our series on customer relationships and business blogging, we’re now to where the rubber meets the road. Today, we’ve a couple of particularly salient examples where business blogging engages directly with the customer in order to better drive the direction of the organization. Enter the “Customer Advocate” business blog.

Customer advocate blogs (or advocate-styled posts within a larger, more general blog) are those that expressly engage directly with the customer, solicit feedback, answer direct customer questions, and generally reach out and act as a bridge between customers, their concerns and suggestions, and the organization.

When done well, customer advocate blogs will communicate full-circle, and follow the following steps:

1) Engage the conversation – Ensure that customers have a mechanism for providing feedback, suggestions, needs, wants, and the like.

2) Distill and group the feedback – Many of the feedback items may be around similar topics. Group those together and handle them in aggregate.

3) Determine your own prioritization mechanism – All feedback items are not the same. How will your organization decide which ones to address, and by when?

4) Report back – Let the customers know what’s going on. The customers took the time to share their thoughts…what is being done with them? This is the step that is often overlooked.

5) Get to closure – When things are done, let customers know. Don’t let the feedback mechanism be a black hole. If enough suggestions are submitted that don’t seem to result in feedback or action, customers are going to stop participating the conversation.

“Customer Advocate” example #1


Blogger: John Dowdell
Role: Support
Company: Macromedia
Blog Location: http://www.markme.com/jd/archives/006722.cfm


“Customer Advocate” example #2


Blogger: Robert Scoble
Role: Technical Evangelist
Company: Microsoft
Blog Location: http://radio.weblogs.com/0001011/2005/01/06.html#a9118

(n.b. I’ve notes into both John and Robert, explicitly asking for followup on what their respective organizations are going to do with the feedback and suggestions they’ve received, per point (4) above…this post will be updated as responses arrive)

Update:

(31Jan2005) John has responded in the comments. Thanks for the quick response!

Another Baby Step Forward: A Zero Configuration, All-In-One Podcasting Device For About $25 That My Mom Could Use

Although I’m not an MacHead, the iPod shuffle did push a couple of buttons for me, especially around the use case of having a device that was intended to be transient in nature and only store a few songs (or podcasts) for a limited amount of time. The capability to sync a podcast to a flash-based device with the intention of listening to it on a commute seemed like something that would be useful to have. So, I was thinking about getting one of the shuffles.

Before doing so, and just for giggles, I did a quick search on Froogle for USB flash-based MP3 players. Although the shuffle has a killer cost/MB, I found a flash-based device for about 25 bucks that I thought it would be fun to try this out with. Less memory (128MB), but cheap. Definitely in the “good enough for concept hacking” category.

Looking at the specs, I noticed that it was a pretty nifty little bit of engineering for 25 bucks. Not only could you explicitly use it as a low-end MP3 player, but it was also designed to be used as a general-purpose thumb drive. Since I’m on the road a lot, I figured hey…why not? It’d be good for the quick-storage of documents that I might need to move between machines, etc…the usual use case for a thumb drive.

Then I started thinking about it and realized…holy crap…this is an MP3 player and a storage device. That means that the system will recognize it as a storage device.

One can put applications on storage devices.

Epiphany time…what if we took this one step further? What if…in addition to the downloaded podcasts…we put the podcatching client on the device itself and set it up to auto-run every time the device was plugged in?

The first step was to find a small footprint podcatching client. Doppler fit the bill. Fully installed, it only takes up about 1.2MB. So, I installed Doppler on the flash drive itself.

Podcastdopplerinstallflashdrive_1

The next step was to configure Doppler to write to the device itself. Piece of cake. Just specify the E: drive as where you want Doppler to store the podcasts.

Podcastdopplerinstallflashdrive2_1

Podcastdopplerinstallflashdrive3

Ok, cool. That seems to work so far. Let’s configure it with this feed. Fire it up and…holy crap…it works!

Podcastdopplerinstallflashdrive5

Let’s plug in the headphones. Yup. Works (note to self…since this cheapo device doesn’t have a volume control, ensure that all levels are normalized to 0db).

Podcastpix_003

Let’s try it in the car. I use the Belkin Tunecast (kinda like an iTrip, but device-neutral). This would also work with a cassette adapter. In this configuration, total weight has got to be less than two ounces. Cool.

Podcastpix_009

Next step. Set up Doppler to AutoRun. Everytime the thumb drive gets plugged into a machine, Doppler automatically starts and downloads the latest podcasts to the device itself. No setup for the user, no configuration, no nothing. Plug it in, it does it. Lights out. We now have a basic self-running, self updating, podcast listening device, that can be preconfigured and set up and handed to someone with no knowledge of podcasting, who can begin to listen to feeds. For a price point that’s low enough that even the most staid old company won’t even require an expense reciept.

Podcastdopplerinstallflashdrive4_1

Ok, this is pretty neat. So what?

So…here’s the business problem we can now solve. One of the things that my employer does is competitive intelligence. Up until now, we’ve always delivered this as an online document. But the actual end-users of this stuff (typically sales and marketing folks) don’t always have time to read the documents. They also can’t be sure that they are in possession of the latest update of the documents that we’ve delivered to them. However, as sales types, they are often in the car, or on a plane to see the client.

What we can now do:

  • Preconfigure these dirt-cheap devices, one per sales rep, with a preinstalled version of a podcatching client that is preconfigured to subscribe to a tailored competitive intelligence podcast feed. We can do one “post” per competitor. This allows easy navigation inside the device. We set up the device, subscribe it to the feeds, and hand it to our customer.

  • Prior to heading out to the client, the sales rep can plug the device into his or her machine, and within a couple of minutes the latest-and-greatest kill points will be automatically loaded to the device.
  • In the car, on the train, on the plane, the rep can listen to what’s going on in the competitive landscape. And always have the most up-to-date information available.

This is cool. This has been a good day.

Caveats:

  • AutoRun on WinXP is not natively enabled. Either it needs to be enabled on the destination machine, or the user may need to explicity run Doppler off the thumb drive when the device is plugged in.

  • Doppler is still twitchy. I’m running on the 2.0RC, and it occassionally crashes.

Update:

I did find that this does indeed have a volume control, it’s just less intuitive than it could be.

Update 2:

Steve’s right…put an extra five-spot in the budget to do the right thing for whichever podcatching client you use.

Equivalency (?) Between Ketchum And BzzAgent

(n.b. this is a continuation of this discussion)

Armstrong Williams and Ketchum (well commented on here). BzzAgent.

Any difference?

Both situations have an individual being compensated (or having the potential to be compensated) for talking about something. Both situations have a behind-the-scenes intermediary (Ketchum in the former, BzzAgent in the latter) that is itself compensated to have individuals start a conversation. These conversations take place in situations where the other parties in the conversation would typically feel that the commentator is speaking from the heart, and not as part of a part of a program (or under contract). In both cases, the others in the conversation feel duped afterwards, upon learning that an interaction that seemed genuine was actually staged and part of a program of payola.

Despite all the metrics and process, I still feel the BzzAgent model is broken. How to fix?

1) Explicity lose the incentives (per here). If only a small portion of the BzzAgents are redeeming them anyway, what’s the harm? Even if half the current participants drop out, there still are (if the claims are true) many tens of thousands of people who are participating.

2) Require disclosure. When BzzAgents are buzzing, anything less than stating (either verbally or in writing, if blogging, etc.) “By the way, I’m a volunteer part of an organization that’s getting compensated to promote this product, and I will be writing a report on it at some time in the future,” is disingenuous. Just say it. The Marqui people do. (I’m not thrilled with the Marqui model, but I do respect their upfrontedness about it.)

3) Aggressively change the meaning of the word “agent.” For this to work, “agent” needs to mean “agent, as in catalyst,” not “agent, as in shady operative.”

Communication is good. An increase in interpersonal interaction is good. Making money is good. But doing the first two as a means to the third without disclosing it is a good way to rile up a lot of hornets. And that’s not-so-good.

It’s Wiki To Rock A Rhyme, To Rock A Rhyme That’s Right On Time

Mike Pusateri, the customer who is at the heart of the so-called wiki war nails it.

“The point isn’t what software we are using, but can we get people to use wikis at work? I tell ya folks, it ain’t easy to wean people off of email…”

90% of the time, the real “competitor” isn’t the company that just put out the press release. 90% of the time, the real competitor is inertia.

The Business Blogging Field Guide, Part 4: The Maven

“Maven” blogs (the maven moniker shamelessly stolen from the Malcolm Gladwell book The Tipping Point) are business blogs that highlight an individual’s expertise in a particular area.

Contrast these to the “Tour Guide” blogs mentioned earlier in this series. Where the tour guides are showing an inside view of the company, the mavens are putting their expertise out there for readers to discover. Want to know about the latest trends in PR? You’ll likely trip across Steve Rubel in short order. Want to know about wikis and collaboration? Ross Mayfield is your man.

The most interesting thing about the maven business bloggers is that, typically, the blogs are centered around a business area or concept, and are not focused on the blogger’s employer or associated organization. Instead of being directly tied to the corporation, the blog is tied to the individual. The assumption is, if you are an expert in your field and provide a reason for readers to frequent your blog, then you will be “top of mind” when a particular reader is looking for someone to help him or her with a particular business need in a related area at some time in the future. Most of the examples of mavens shown here are in “services”-oriented fields — PR, marketing, consulting, etc. — areas where the individual’s ability to contribute has a direct impact on the final result of an effort.

“Maven” example #1

Blogger: Steve Rubel
Area of Expertise: PR
Company: CooperKatz
Blog Location: http://www.micropersuasion.com


“Maven” example #2

Blogger: Johnnie Moore
Area of Expertise: Marketing & Branding
Company: The Clarity Partnership
Blog Location: http://www.johnniemoore.com


“Maven” example #3

Blogger: Carolyn Elefant
Area of Expertise: Solos and small law firms
Company: The Law Offices of Carolyn Elefant
Blog Location: http://www.myshingle.com


“Maven” example #4

Blogger: Russell Beattie
Area of Expertise: Mobile Technology
Company: Independent consultant
Blog Location: http://www.russellbeattie.com


“Maven” example #5

Blogger: Ross Mayfield
Area of Expertise: Wikis and collaborative technologies
Company: SocialText
Blog Location: http://ross.typepad.com

Minimizing Comment Spam: The Big Kumbaya

The big search engines have just announced that through the addition of “noFollow” tags in links in comments, they will no longer be weighting links that come from blog comments in their search results. This, in theory, will cause the incentive for comment spam to disappear. The big blog providers will be adding these tags to links in comments automagically.

Who’s on board:

(hat tip: ross)

Two Great Social Customer Examples From The Last 24 Hours

Got an email yesterday from Brian Dear, of brianstorms.com:

“Hi Chris…Big fan of your Social Customer Manifesto blog here…Just went through a delightfully awful customer experience with Intuit. Blogged the whole thing, thought you might find it amusing.”

Indeed! Brian blogged his whole convoluted experience trying to get his QuickBooks Pro 2005 “Slowbooks Amateur 2005″ up and running, including a hysterical* exchange with a customer service rep who sounds like a cross between Jeff Spicoli and Patient Zero. The comments indicate that Intuit may have lost a potential customer or three based on Brian’s experience.

Then, not 10 minutes after reading Brian’s account, I’m listening to Adam Curry’s Daily Source Code for 18JAN2005. He not only talks about his ongoing hassles with British Telecom (BT) and EasyNet in getting the last 15m of wire put in place so he can get broadband, but records and podcasts the entire conversation with EasyNet customer service. (Click on the MP3 link; the EasyNet conversation starts at about the 4:50 mark in the recording.)

What does this mean? It means that the barrier to entry of publishing…be it via blogs, web pages, podcasts, what have you…has gotten so low that customers, at any time, can share exactly what their experiences are with the vendors with whom they are working. Not only that, but these experiences become persistent and searchable, sometimes to the point of being more visible than the contrivances the companies themselves are putting out.

Warms my heart, this does.

* – well, hysterical if you’re into schadenfreude, that is…

The Business Blogging Field Guide, Part 3: The Recommender

“Recommender” blogs (commonly known as “link blogs”) are not designed to be a destination in and of themselves, but are instead a resource for readers of a particular business blogger. One can almost think of these types of blogs as reviews or, as the name suggests, recommendations of items that the blogger believes will be of interest to his or her readers. In contrast to almost all of the other types of business blogs, Recommender blogs oftentimes do not contain commentary on or visibility into the company for which the blogger works. Rather, the blogger becomes a resource for his or her readership and, as a side effect, brings more attention to the organization for which the blogger works.

“Recommender” example #1


Blogger: Jeremy Zawodny
Role: Platform Engineering
Company: Yahoo!
Blog Location: http://jeremy.zawodny.com/linkblog/


“Recommender” example #2


Blogger: Robert Scoble
Role: Technical Evangelist
Company: Microsoft
Blog Location: http://www.scobleizer.com/linkblog/

Doc And Adam Need To Think Different About Podcasting

Adam Curry and Doc Searls slag on the iPod shuffle and its appropriateness as a device for listening to podcasts. In an article today in InternetNews, Doc comments on the device:

“It’s neither a boon nor a bust. It’s just not useful for listening to podcasts. Navigating inside a long podcast — and many are very long — is difficult even with a regular iPod, as it is with all players. So, rather than fix the one feature that’s lame about the iPod, they eliminated it completely.”

Adam echoes the sentiment.

“Apple hasn’t picked up on podcasting because they are thinking about how things work from Apple to the rest of the world. They are not seeing what is happening.”

Adam, Doc…I respect the hell out of both of you. But blaming the device is only looking at half the problem.

The other half of the problem is in the structure of the podcasts themselves. When a broadcaster podcaster constructs a long, monolithic podcast of, say, forty minutes or so, it is a black box. It is monolithic. The only current way around this is to create detailed “show notes” to give the listener (who is your customer, btw) some visibility into the inside of this black box. This is the core of the problem, not the device. This currently needs to be done separately from the podcast.

Let’s take a step back, and look at another example of monolithic content that is delivered digitally…DVDs. The DVD makers figured out early on that they needed to break their creations into “scenes” to make them navigable. Podcasters need to do the same thing.

Three solutions:

  • The pragmatic one: Podcasters…break a monolithic ‘cast into parts, and post them separately. More work on your part, but solves the problem. And its doable today.

  • The midrange one: Create a way to easily bundle the monolithic content with a cue file or the equivalent that tells where things are. If a customer is interested in better navigation, the customer can split the podcast based on the cue file prior to loading it to a device.
  • The long range one: After the podcasters do their part to indicate the cues, Apple, Creative and others build devices that take into account the bundled MP3 and cue files, and allow random access navigation.

To dismiss the device is only looking at a small part of the issue. The onus is just as much on the creators of the content to provide clearer navigation clues into the things that they are creating.

(hat tip: nevon)

Update: Come to think of it, the midrange option could be handled inside of iPodder, iPodderX, or Doppler as well, I s’pose. Have the podcatching client split up the podcast on its way in, based on the cue file, and then automatically write out the component parts for easier navigation.