Enterprise Web 2.0 Efforts: How To Get To Critical Mass

In an earlier post, I put forth a checklist of things to think about before launching a business-oriented Web 2.0 effort (thanks, everyone).  Going to continue that discussion here and get down to some tactics.  In particular, going to look at a number of the things that one can do to help get a community on the path to critical mass and, more importantly, ongoing sustainability.

Readysetgo

Like offline communities, online business-oriented communities grow over time based on the interactions of their members. As such, growing an online community takes time and dedication; there’s no “just add water” silver bullet. (We’re people, not sea-monkeys.) That said, there are a few things that can be done to get things off on the right foot. These are host graciously, act as a catalyst, and help community participants to achieve their goals.

Host Graciously: This means exactly what it sounds like. The job of hosting any interactive effort does not end when the site goes “live.” Quite the contrary, actually. Some things that can be done:

  • Welcome newcomers

  • Make “virtual” introductions between members of the community
  • Start conversations
  • Keep things (relatively) on track (a little drift is actually good, however)
  • Highlight commonalities between members
  • Keep the dialog going
  • Thank others

Act as a catalyst: A host’s job is not to “be” the show. Instead, the host should start snowballs rolling and enable others to engage with each other. Particular things that can be done include:

  • Promoting others in the group

  • Posing questions to the group (can be open-ended, or polls)
  • Starting conversations by asking others “Why did you join?” — This is key to ensuring the group meets the needs of its members
  • Commenting on contributions that others have made

As anyone who has ever started any online group can tell you, getting things rolling can take a fair amount of effort. Some groups by their nature seems to have a sort of shyness with respect to individual contributions. While it’s easy to attribute this reticence to personality, it’s equally likely that it’s due to other factors. That’s why “ease of contribution” needs to be considered — the less friction there is in the participation process, the easier it is to engage. Augmenting online efforts with regular face-to-face interactions also makes it easier for folks to contribute online, since there is a certain je ne sais quoi to that first face-to-face meeting that seems to catalyze later online interactions. Regular, outbound reminders such as newsletters and mailers also aid in bringing participants into the fold.

Help community participants to achieve their goals: Kathy calls this “helping users to kick ass.” What this means is it’s all about the customer.

  • Enabling participants to connect with others working on similar problems

  • Connecting with others who do business in similar ways, and are going down similar roads
  • Facilitiating person-to-person information exchange

Especially in the business-oriented world, it’s critical to note that, while an online connection may initiate the interaction between individuals, the final exchanges of information are not always electronically mediated by the system. While forums and bulletin boards and comment threads make be the common means of interaction on Slashdot and Digg, many exchanges of business information already have well established paths, including email, phone and in-person conversation.

Prerequisites For Setting Up A Business-Driven Web 2.0 Effort

Since the beginning of the year, have been asked the following question (in various forms) time and time again: If we want to use this social media "stuff" to connect with customers, how do we get started?

At
this point, it seems that the natural inclination is to jump right in
and start prescribing technology (e.g. "well, let’s set up a WordPress
or TypePad blog and we’re done!" or "Let’s get the Haystack network up
this week!").  While the technology is an enabler, there are still the
basic questions that need to be answered in order to get things off on
the right path, and help to stack the deck in favor of success.  Today,
let’s concentrate on the fundamentals of what an organization needs to
think about before embarking on a social media activity.

Communityprereqscolor

#1) Why

Why do
this?  Why start a blog or a social network or other Web 2.0-oriented
effort?  Sometimes, the answer is simply "In order to connect."  And,
in the case of many, many blogs (and IM, and Plazes, and Twitter,
etc.), that answer is sufficient.  However, as is more often the case,
there are additional reasons to jump in:  better and more timely
feedback from customers, the ability to connect with others working on
similar problems, putting a human face on what had been historically a
sterile organization, creating a framework for communications, or, most
importantly, creating a platform for enabling better/broader/more
timely information exchange. 

The "why" is critical.  (And, as a point of note, "because we
want to explore this and get to understand it" may be the right
answer.  When that’s the case, make sure that expectations are set
accordingly.)


#2) Who

Web
2.0 is about people.  Period.  Who are the people involved?  Who will
be the primary contributors to the effort?  What are their
backgrounds?  Who are they as people?  In addition, who are the other
people who will be interacting with the environment, even if they don’t
initially contribute?  In a blog, the ratio of commenters-to-posters is
large; the ratio of readers-to-commenters is astronomical.  What’s in
it for each of those constituencies?  Does the environment support them
and provide what they need?  What value does each group derive from it?

Similarly, in a social network, there are typically a handful
of "power" users, a slightly larger group of sometimes-contributors,
and a huge group of people who may only be observing.  (Members of this
last group are commonly referred to as "lurkers.)  What’s in it for
them?

#3) Where

Online gathering places are examples of the "third place" as
defined by Oldenberg:  a "place" other than home or work, for
democracy, civil society, and social engagement.  Is what you are
putting together a destination, or a directory that sends people forth
on their journeys?  (Both are relevant.)  What does the place feel
like?  Is it open, or exclusive?  Is it part of a larger site, or a
stand-alone entity?  How will people find it?


#4) When

Is the activity that you are proposing using social media an
ongoing concern, or tied to a particular event?  Note that unless there
is a large, existing group of participants, it will oftentimes take a
few months, perhaps even a year, to achieve "critical mass."

It’s like planting a garden.

#5) How

"How"
is all about the norms of the place.  What’s the tenor of the
interaction?  Is it "strictly business," or relaxed?  Is it moderated,
or free-wheeling?  What will participants do if their contributions are
edited or deleted?  If there is a "topic," will off-topic discussions
be immediately squelched, or will the interactions be free-form, like a
lively dinner party?

Additionally, a key "how" item is thinking about how the
site’s members deal with "trolls" and spammers.  Will the be ignored?
Banned?  Given a warning?  Deleted without comment?  Sent to "time out"
for a period of time?

Much of the "how" derives from the "who."  The types of
individuals who collectively make up the constituency of the place are
the ones who will drive the "how."  Heavy-handed moderation will make
the place constricting, yet too lax a policy will rapidly devolve the
interactions into noise.

Want to see a guide that you can use to start conversations in your organization?  A template you can use, after the jump.

Continue reading

A Conversation With Eric Mattson At MarketingMonger

Eric Mattson of MarketingMonger is on a mission to have 1,000 conversations with marketers, and to present them all as podcasts. Eric writes:

“For the 20th podcast in my project, I connected with Chris Carfi of Cerado.

I first ran across Chris’s blog when he published his original Social Customer Manifesto.

Then I heard interesting things about Cerado’s Haystack social networking software for businesses.

So I was excited to get a chance to talk with Chris about his social customer philosophy, his entrepreneurial efforts with Cerado, Haystack’s success to date and more.”

A link to his summary of the call here, and have a listen to the mp3 file here.

Thanks for the invitation, Eric!

Signal vs. Noise vs. Customers

There’s quite the conversation going on over at 37signals‘ “Signal vs. Noise” blog today, and I’m still puzzling over why said conversation is even taking place. What’s going down: Matt Linderman, from 37s, today put up a post that starts like this:

Useless, absurd, must, need, appalled, just, infuriating, essential, etc.

“What could be more fun than those magnetic words that let you write poems on the fridge? How about a set of magnetic words that let you write support emails. Our kit would include the following: useless, absurd, must, need, appalled, just, infuriating, essential, oversight, pointless, confusing, nutty, and maybe some good phrases too, like ‘it can’t be that hard,’ ‘i’m a programmer, i should know,’ and ‘even Blogger let’s you do that.’ Of course, the whole set should be ALL CAPS too.”

He then proceeds to excerpt fifteen customer emails that 37s has received, annotating each one with a snippet of text that certainly could be interpreted as an accusatory finger, highlighting what was wrong with each email that their support line had received.

After reading and re-reading the emails that Linderman posted, I’m even more puzzled. Yes, some of them contained some hyperbole. But what about the others, like this one?

“Please call me regarding my basecamp system — (615) 780-XXXX.”

Yeah. Boy, I could see how that would be upsetting…a customer wanted to connect with someone at her service provider. Or how about this one?

“We NEED a web based system like Basecamp, but I cannot tell if it will be any better by reading the information you have available. I’m looking for sort of a web based excel-like program. We need to be able to see at a glance every sponsor’s name, sponsor level, address, contact info, if they’ve been billed/payed, if we need/have artwork, and if they have comments. We need to authorize up to five people for editing and another 60 or so for viewing.”

Indeed. A customer clearly spelling out his requirements and needs. That customer must obviously be deluded and prone to hysterics.

The conversation plays out over 120+ comments. And then “JF” (I’m assuming Jason Fried, of 37signals) jumps in with two comments that, frankly, just seem defensive and tinged with the slightest bit of hubris, all at once.

“We’re well aware of that, we’re well aware of our cash flow, we’re well aware of our churn, we’re well aware of our signups, we’re well aware of our growth, we’re well aware of our big-picture customer satisfaction. We’re well aware of what we’re doing, thank you.”

and

“120 comments in and I’m surprised we haven’t heard from a progressive thinker who might wonder if all this ‘bad’ stuff is actually good for business. Could these sorts of discussions actually be good for a non-traditional business like 37signals? Do sales/signups go up on days with these heated debates? Could there be a positive business motive behind all this that more traditional business observers haven’t groked?”

Now, Cerado is a customer of 37signals, in that we use Basecamp. But this last quote from Fried has given me pause, and I’m hoping it’s not a canary in the coalmine. The phrase “Do sales/signups go up on days with these heated debates?” is looking at a point in time. It’s solely looking at the transaction. Now, couple that with the fact that (I hope!) any rational customer would certainly entertain taking his business elsewhere if he saw his support request pilloried in the public square as an example of what not to do. Put those two data points together, and one begins to wonder if 37signals is truly doing something differently (as they continuously claim), or if it’s just another business looking for the quick turn, long-term-relationships be damned.

Others talking:

Zoli Erdos
Jason Kolb
Kandace Nuckolls
Steve Portigal
Marcus Campbell
Joe Taylor Jr.

(thanks to Zoli for the tip)

No, Really. Put The Customer In Charge.

Guy Kawasaki* cranks out a top-10 list on “The Art Of Customer Service.” My favorite of the lot:

Put the customer in control. The best kind of customer service happens when management enables employees to put the customer in control. This require two leaps of faith: first, that management trusts customers not take advantage of the situation; second, that management trust employees with this empowerment. If you can make these leaps, then the quality of your customer service will zoom; if not, there is nothing more frustrating than companies copping the attitude that something is “against company policy.”

The other nine are just as solid.

(By the way, if you want to really put the customer in control, this is a good place to start. Then again, I’m biased.)

* – “His name is synonymous with evangelism as a secular business technique, and motorcycles.” Still one of the best lines in a book jacket biography, ever.

Chevy Careens Out Of Control (Or Do They?): A Roundup Of The Tahoe / Apprentice Ad Flap

PeakoilThe writing has been fast-and-furious over the weekend, with opinions flying on whether Chevy royally screwed the pooch with their current ad campaign for the Chevy Tahoe, a tie-in (somehow) with the TV show The Apprentice. To summarize: Chevy has set up a site where anyone can create his or her own commercial, splicing together a number of video clips and background music supplied by Chevy. More importantly, these user-generated commercials can have text floating over the images of the creator’s choosing. Therein lies the rub. It’s no surprise (to anyone with an IQ above room temperature) that this has unleashed the creative juices of a number of folks who have found the perfect platform for their messages.

A couple of examples that C|Net has archived can be found here. (Go ahead, check them out if you haven’t seen them. We’ll be here when you get back.)

Thoughts on the situation so far:

Tara Hunt: “[Chevy] should taking advantage of the valuable (even if it is vitriolic) feedback that they are getting and use this as an opportunity to change direction and survive into the future of this community-driven market.”

Doc: “Watch.”

B. L. Ochman: “Proving that execs at big companies, and their agencies, don’t monitor what’s being said online over the weekend, Chevy left thousands of anti-Chevy consumer-made ads on the Chevy Apprentice make-your-own-commercial site this weekend.”

Seth Godin: “Chevy is learning this the hard way with their Tahoe campaign… in which the best commercials are the ones that say, ‘Don’t buy me!'”

TechDirt: “It seems like perhaps GM understood what would happen a lot more than the so-called ‘experts’ give them credit for. In this day, anyone opening up such a contest has to know that it’ll be used for ‘anti’ ads. It’s happened so often that they must have expected it. In fact, by then being open about it, GM is getting even more mileage from this campaign, and making it appear that they are more open to listening to those who disagree with them…So, it’s questionable as to whether or not GM was ‘slow to react’ or if they are simply doing everything according to plan.”

AdRants: “Negative things will always be said about a brand. Understanding and accepting opposing views does far more for a brand’s mojo than killing off divergent opinion. Let’s hope this is what’s happening at Chevy and not that the ads are still up because it’s the weekend and big companies don’t work weekends.”

Carl: “I don’t understand how otherwise rational people look at this campaign as a positive. It would be like letting people create print ads for McDonalds, and publishing all of the ads that talk about cholesterol, fat, calories, carbohydrates and fat kids. And then patting themselves on the back for letting people ‘speak their mind’ and for ‘understanding social networking.’ This campaign can only damage the brand by reinforcing the negatives. Isn’t this marketing 101? The best GM can hope for is to convince all of the people who already hate the product that GM is a cool company with products they hate.”

And a whole bunch more.

I think there are a few things to think about here. One perspective that that this is, in some ways, akin to the LA Times wikitorial fiasco. If that’s the case…the GM didn’t consider the possibility that people would create ads that were not in line with GM’s vision of what should be done…then shame on GM. Any opportunity for “user-generated” media in any topic where there are strong feelings will generate the same spectrum of responses. If that’s the case, GM was simply Not Thinking. Any subject that evokes passionate responses will naturally have this outcome.

A thought: Perhaps a worthwhile tactic to take in these types of situations is to proactively set up areas/categories for the primary viewpoints that are likely to emerge. In the LA Times case, setting up two wikitorials (one “pro-war” and one “anti-war”) may have radically changed the outcome of their experiment. In Chevy’s case, allowing the “directors” of the videos to classify them as “pro-SUV” and “anti-SUV” would have been one way to proactively address the problem. It’s what Scoble did here (“Let The Venom Flow!“), and it’s a very effective tactic in cases where this type of activity is likely to occur. It’s going to happen. Might as well embrace it.

So, it seems from my vantage point that there are three “standard” things that Chevy could do. The options…

  • Option 1: Pull the negative ads

  • Option 2: Leave the negative ads, do nothing (It’s the Marc Canter approach: “I don’t give a damn about what anyone says about me, just spell my name right.”)
  • Option 3: Leave the negative ads, engage

Option 1 is the Bad option. If they go down that road, they’ll get crucified.

Option 2 is an OK option. They may be called “clueless,” but they’ll still be getting some buzz out of the campaign. (And, pragmatically, the folks who are creating the negative ads — as well as the individuals who find that the negative ads resonate with them — probably aren’t going to be buying an SUV anytime soon, anyway.)

Option 3 is a Pretty Good option. In addition to leaving the ads up, trying to understand what the negative-ad-creators are attempting to communicate and putting some plans in place to ACTUALLY address the concerns could rocket GM forward in this regard, if they are able to make some commitments and meet them. There’s some upside here, if they get their act together.

What do you think GM should do, if anything?

UPDATE:

Chevy responds in the NYTimes (registration or bugmenot req’d). The money quote, from Chevy representative Melisa Tezanos:

“We anticipated that there would be critical submissions. You do turn over your brand to the public, and we knew that we were going to get some bad with the good. But it’s part of playing in this space.” (via Adrants)

So, it’s at least Option 2. Wanna trade that and go for door #3, Melisa?

As a footnote, it’s worth noting that not all the ads are anti-Chevy or anti-SUV. Some are chuckleworthy. Examples:

Snakes On An SUV! (not advised for those with an aversion to profanity)
Badgerbadgerbadger (disclosure: we did this one, inspired by this)
Way too Emo (for Kathy Sierra, apparently)

Yee-hah! Charter Street Launches!

Charterstreetlogo

For the second time in as many months, am thrilled to announce that a new business blog is on the scene; this time it’s the Charter Street blog (“a blog about entrepreneurship, the internet, and the state of the software industry”) from Cerado customer Versai Technology. Charter Street is penned by industry vets Paul McNamara and Greg Olsen, with whom I’ve been fortunate enough to work closely over the last few months. Paul and Greg are jumping into the business blogosphere with both feet, and will be chronicling their new company through its birth, growth and eventual world domination*.

I’m not yet able to publicly say what Versai is going to be doing, but I can tell you it’s very, very cool and very much in line with our belief of where the technology industry is going.

Their first two posts are up as of last weekend, with Paul bringing us up to speed on what he’s been doing since leaving Red Hat in 2001 (hint: it’s a lot), and Greg laying the groundwork of his vision and explaining why “going bedouin” is the right choice for a startup in 2006.

The money ‘graphs from Paul:

As Mark Twain once said, rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated. As some of you know, I left Red Hat in 2001 to join Hal Covert (another Red Hat alum) at SGI. 2001 was a year that saw lots of the early guys at Red Hat leave.

I have to say that most people think that moving from Red Hat to SGI was a dubious career move. But in truth I found it to be a really rich experience — there’s no better experience than a turn around. There are two really big lessons that I learned from the SGI experience. First, I grew to understand how and why SGI, once an extremely hot company, lost its way in the market. And second, I learned just how hard it is to remake a public company.

My advice to anyone trying to affect a major turn-around of a public company is simple: don’t. Take it private first.

…and some insight from the good Dr. Olsen:

Given peoples’ experience with telecommuting and distributed team projects from the open source community, a neo-Bedouin approach is not as hard to envision as it once may have been. The requirements for a neo-Bedouin business, however, go further and must include support for all business functions (such as sales, marketing, finance, engineering and customer support). A neo-Bedouin approach can be executed through a wide variety of specific choices. Here is a sample recipe:

Recipe5

Subscribed!

* – Of course, the phase after “world domination” is typically an embarrasing VH-1 retrospective sometime in mid-2025, but hey, that’s the price for success.

The Social Customer Manifesto Podcast 3FEB2006

click here to subscribe

Summary: Leif Chastaine and Christopher Carfi discuss Yahoo’s strategy, Google’s censorship, the remix culture and customer “co-creation” of products, the American Marketing Association’s “Ahead of the Curve” session in Scottsdale, and this week’s RIM/BlackBerry update. (33:06)

Show notes for February 3, 2006

The audio file is available here (MP3, 32MB), or subscribe to our RSS feed to automatically have future shows downloaded to your MP3 player.

00:00 : Intro

01:04 : Yahoo “quits” the search race? Or do they?

09:08 : Google image censorship and strategy

16:30 : The importance of customer “co-creation” of products

27:30 : RIM: “Non-final” judgement regarding BlackBerry is just that

31:45 : Social Networking: Ahead of the Curve (Scottsdale)

32:23 : Wrapup

Links:
Dave Taylor (“What do Yahoo, Apple and Ferrari have in common?”), Yahoo quits, Yahoo gives up, Yahoo content to be Google’s footstool, Yahoo gives up race with Google, Steve Rubel, Google image censorship, Paul Greenberg, BPT Partners, customer co-creation, NTP=”No Tenable Patents?”, RIM patent dispute, AMA High Tech Trends in Marketing

Salesforce.com’s Latest PsyOp Against Siebel

“To seduce the enemies soldiers from their allegiance and encourage them to surrender is of special service, for an adversary is more hurt by desertion than by slaughter.”Vegetius, ca. 390 A.D.

It appears that Marc Benioff and his minions are up to their new/old tricks, this time in San Mateo, CA. Through utter and sheer coincidence, I happened to be driving through the intersection in front of Siebel’s offices today, and what do I see? Not one, but TWO Salesforce.com billboard trucks circling the building on two-minute intervals (it’s not a very big block).

salesforce-siebel1 salesforce-siebel2

The text on the trucks reads (click the pics to enlarge):

Suffering from post-acquisition syndrome?

[circle-slash through “FUTURE”]

Change your future.

http://www.salesforce.com/myfuture

(This harkens back to SFDC’s “picketing” of past Siebel events, and Benioff’s continued unhealthy fascination with both Tom Siebel and Larry Ellison.)

On one hand, this kind of stuff evokes a chuckle. On the other, Paul Greenberg had two great posts on this type of behavior that is increasingly endemic in the industry. The money quotes:

“Its time to stop this crap now – at least with me. I truly don’t care if you have some gloating piece of information on “you’re better than they are because they suck at this.”

I think that its about time for the On Demand crowd to recognize they are a major force in the business world now and they have to act like it.

Or maybe they are acting like it.

All I know is that I find the “tactic” of demeaning ones opponent rather than competing on the merits and value of the applications or services or products to the customer dismaying and disgusting.” – from here

and

“I’m going to reiterate something I’ve said before. The On Demand world needs to stop this ADD [“Attack, Demean, Degrade”] offensive. It is deeply offensive because it is just so damned childish.

What makes this dangerous is that On Demand will be the dominant force in CRM without a doubt very soon and will be the dominant platform for the customer experience over the next few years. Do you want your customer’s experience run by an industry that loves to spit bile?” – from here

Louis Columbus also chimes in with a gem: “Denigrating competitors is a sign that companies doing the slamming don’t really and truly have enough faith in their own applications to sell on the value they deliver. Taking the low road of celebrating a competitor’s misfortune makes you wonder how a company feels about valuable, yet sometimes difficult customers pushing the limits of applications and services…”

Despite the brief amusements they provide, “vendor sports” (a term I believe Doc Searls coined, more refs here) really do, ultimately, hurt the customer. Why? Because the combatants are investing their time, energy and creativity in tasks that ultimate are nothing more than the Silicon Valley equivalent of chest-thumping and locker-room comparisons instead of focusing their scarce resources on the things that improve the customer experience.

tags: , , , , , ,

The “First Mile”

The following line in Charlene Li’s post on the Yahoo! acquisition of del.icio.us stood out for me. Charlene:

“The acquisition by Yahoo! is significant for much the same reason why it bought other social computing darlings, Flickr and Konfabulator – Yahoo! is laying the groundwork for its users to add, personalize, and contribute their content and votes to the Web.”

Follow my reasoning here, and I’d love your thoughts.

  • One: With telcos, a significant strategic advantage goes to the provider who controls the “last mile” – the access to the consumer’s home (“consumer” used thoughtfully here). In traditional media distribution, the “last mile” is a strategic bottleneck, and whichever entity controls it has disproportionate control over its competitors (and customers, as well). In times when “content” only flows one way, downhill, those bottlenecks are critical.

  • Two: There are a variety of ways to try to control the last mile. For example, Google’s trying to do it via setting up wireless networks. Others try to control the physical lines themselves, the access to those lines, and so forth.

HOWEVER…with user-created content (be it in the form of blogs, photos, tags, what have you), it’s now a two-way content flow. It’s not just one way “down the pipes,” but also from those myriad “endpoints” back into the pipes.

  • Three: Perhaps, therefore, it’s not just the “last mile” that matters, but also the “first mile” as well. That is, whomever controls the access to the means of user production of content will have symmetric power to those who control the “last mile” of the distribution mechanism.

Telcos are fighting over the last mile. Google wants to set up the GoogleNet and control the last mile.

The question: Is Yahoo! doing a strategic end-around, and trying to gobble up the significant “first mile” technologies? What would be the strategic advantages?

  • Whomever controls the first mile gets “first look” at any new content

  • Whomever controls the first mile can optimize the indexing of new information as it is created
  • Whomever controls the first mile doesn’t need to “crawl” those sites anymore…the first mile provider gets perfect visibility into the nuggets of user-created gold as they are created…

Hmmm…