Monday, November 28, 2011

Social Media Engagement Comedy: Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback

It's not unusual for businesses to monitor the web and social media looking for mentions. Companies like Dell, Comcast and Best Buy have noted social media customer service programs designed to engage people over social media, listened for disgruntled customers and making efforts to resolve issues before they turn into Dell Hell.

So along comes this story of Governor Sam Brownback and a Kansas teen. Here are a couple of the details from Talking Points Memo.
A Kansas teenager got in some trouble with her school for comments she posted on her Twitter account -- in which she claimed to have trashed Gov. Sam Brownback (R) to his face during a field trip.
And her post:
Just made mean comments at gov brownback and told him he sucked, in person #heblowsalot
And then what happened:
But as it turns out, Brownback’s office watches Twitter for comments about him. Brownback spokeswoman Sherriene Jones-Sontag told the event organizers about the comment, “so that they were aware what their students were saying in regards to the governor’s appearance,” the Wichita Eagle reports, also adding: “We monitor social media so we can see what Kansans are thinking and saying about the governor and his policies.”

Brownback’s office flagged the tweet to the event organizers, who in turn passed the complaint on to Sullivan’s school. This got her called to the principal’s office:
Imagine if Dell or Comcast had the option of calling the principle at your school to 'discuss' your complaints about their product. Imagine if, instead of contacting you about your product problem or your complaint, they attempted to contact your boss or the company president. Instead of engagement for resolution, this event essentially amounts to hostile engagement.

Considering that I've since seen several reposts of this story, the whole thing blew up far beyond a simple negative post on Twitter. Lesson one of social media engagement should probably be obvious. Of course, politics is different than customer service. One might argue that, if this were a political post from an ideological zealot, there would be no way to change the dialog, to resolve the complaint.

But instead of reflecting on the politics or on the 'tell your principal' approach to the dialog, it's probably a worthwhile thought experiment to think about the possible outcomes and to try and how this should have gone. Imagine seeing this tweet come across your wire -- what would have been the right way to resolve this situation? Is there a way that you could improve the outcome? In some cases, this kind of media explosion might actually be a welcome result. Are you prepared to resolve issues that you face on social media?

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Moneyball, Big Data, Analytics, Correlation, and the Evolving World of Marketing

Recently, one theme that's been running through much of my thoughts is wrapped up in the ideas presented in Moneyball, the book and, more recently, movie starring Brad Pitt. And while I have not seen the movie or read the book (other than a short excerpt), I've listened to several extended interviews with Michael Lewis.

Moneyball is sort of about baseball, but what makes it interesting for marketing is the analytics theme. You're probably already familiar with the basic story -- A's general manager Billy Beane takes over and is forced into an extremely low payroll. In order to be competitive in a league where the New York Yankees can afford to spend more than three times his budget, Beane turns to analytics and statisics to look for undervalued players and player characteristics that can help win games on a budget.

There are a lot of interesting posts on Moneyball and business. Here's a good one, Moneyball – Lessons from Baseball for Voice of the Customer, that I thought pulled together a good summary. If you had to put it all together, you could boil it down into a core recipe:
  • Measure as much as possible
  • Log your data
  • Look for correlations (or non-correlations) -- find the numbers that matter
  • Question conventional wisdom
  • Learn to play by the numbers
Keeping stats isn't new. Baseball tracked batting average for years, and players were often listed by batting average. But the team with the best batting averages didn't always win. In the early days of the web, the big measure was clicks. If someone convinced you to post an ad on their site, they would then tell you how many clicks the ad had -- and that was considered the measure for success. Like tradeshow badge scanning leads, these numbers could easily be padded with tricks like cool give-aways. Clicks don't equal quality.

Modern marketing runs on web scale. With today's web, we interact constantly with the data engine, supplying test results that dwarf some of the some of the most sophisticated focus-group programs of the past. With tools like Google's Website Optimizer and A/B or Multivariate testing, even small businesses with modest marketing budgets have access to sophisticated experiment engines. But, just in case you're one of those old-school marketers and you missed the memo, a revolution has taken place and everything has changed.

Analytics versus Design
In the web world, we've been working with analytics for quite some time. One of my favorite stories about the power of analytics comes from a time when I was visiting Google a couple of years ago. There, they were showing off their Web Site Optimizer tool and talking about how they had looked at redesigning the page to look more like their Google Analytics page. However, when they ran the A/B and multivariate tests, they found that the new design didn't perform as well as the existing design.

Contrast that with this quote from a post about Fab on PandoDaily:
The difference was pronounced in a recent meeting Goldberg had with a Valley-based recruit for a technical position. Within in ten minutes of the interview the two were fighting. Goldberg asked what he’d do with the Fab homepage, and the recruit gave the usual spiel about A/B testing the layout to see which products made people click more, and how the data said they should be laid out on the page. He called the product placements on the front page “ads,” and Goldberg balked. They aren’t ads, he said, they’re editorial. “We aren’t trying to make people buy certain things, we want to guide them through a story,” he says.
So which is more important, Design or Analytics? Style or Stats? Perhaps, more importantly, can you find the right balance between the two?

Monday, November 7, 2011

Some Interesting Marketing Reading

I came across this site while doing a search for examples that I could use to explain why multiple contact channels could be confusing to customers. It turns out that it's easy to find information that explains the importance of multiple contact channels when it's "for customer support, contact us through our toll free number or email or on our Facebook page or Twitter." Unfortunately, finding an explanation for why it's confusing to say "for customer support, contact Bob at this number, Fred at this number, or Carol at this number" turns out to be a difficult search.

Needless to say, in the process, I came across this site, Customer Innovations. There are some great examples of the psychology of customer experience here. Dive in and you'll probably spend a while reading!

Friday, November 4, 2011

PR and the Superheated World of Political Zealots:

The radio show Marketplace recently ran this story of an Alabama small business owner who found himself rocketed into the public spotlight over comments that he made to the local Birmingham paper about the immigration law that Alabama had enacted. Based on the story, here's a quick synopsis of what happened:
  • A restaurant owner is quoted by the local paper expressing concerns about losing workers as a result of the newly enacted law
  • A local conservative radio host focuses attention on the story
  • The story goes viral on anti-immigration web sites
  • Restaurant is deluged with negative reviews and hate mail from around the country
On the one hand, this type of story should stand as a warning to anyone who faces commentary on a politically charged issue. To quote the Marketplace story:
The incident shows just how risky it can be for a business owner to take a stand on an issue. Stephen Craft is dean of the business school at the University of Montevallo, near Birmingham.
Stephen Craft: You hate to drive the voice of the small business out of public policy; however, for better or worse, it is predictable that there's going to be some repercussions when you weigh in on a controversial subject.
In short, you probably want to avoid speaking out on controversial issues. Of course, this assumes that you can identify "a controversial subject". But, as I wrote about in a previous post, sometimes you just find yourself in the midst of a controversial subject.

Being an expert or having unique access to the facts doesn't matter
Often these reactionary explosions have little to do with the material substance of the story. Consider this example from the ongoing saga of whether Michael Arrington is a racist. In essence, CNN approached AOL and Michael Arrington about an interview for a documentary on start-up accelerators and Silicon Valley. Here's Arrington's own synopsis:
- I was told by CNN it was about startup accelerators, not minorites.
- CNN then created a clip that highlighted me saying I didn’t know any black entrepreneurs, even though later in the conversation I corrected myself.
- CNN then wrote two articles, one of which was the top story on CNN last week, focusing on my race problems.
- Only a very few people have seen it. I haven’t, and I’m in the absurd position of not having seen it myself (to know how they edited the long version) and defending myself from people who also haven’t seen my interview.
Arrington's complete post on the repercussions of the CNN controversy are captured in this post, Racism: The Game. Both of the posts that I've linked to are worth reading, not just for the back story, but because it's important to understand that there is no uncontroversial position in this quagmire. Rather than looking at this story about substance, think of this as a media equivalent of profiting from credit default swaps during the sub-prime mortgage era. They have no interest in the public good, the facts, or right and wrong; they profit on the energy created from the controversy. What better way to cover a wildfire than to bring matches along with your cameras.

Managing PR in the Internet Era
In the traditional world of PR, both of these 'events that turned ugly' started out down the right path. Most businesses seek out media coverage and are thrilled when they are rewarded with it. In that same way, traditionally, you look to engage with the media when they contact you, to be responsive to their questions. But in today's superheated world of political zealots, your innocent responses and expressed expertise may be used as the spark for a viral content wildfire. You may want to think about strategies to avoid becoming that spark.

Consider the Michael Arrington racism saga as possibly the most telling example of a cautionary PR tale. These weren't off the cuff remarks, the CNN people contacted AOL's PR team. Arrington was a go-to media personality for them. Arrington has dealt with controversial topics (like the women in tech story) and ensuing fires at Techcrunch. This was not simply an example of a bad interview, of someone who stumbled on their words or unknowingly spoke out of turn. Nor is it the cautionary tale of someone being interviewed by The Daily Show, only to have strange questions and interview snippets used for comic effect. As Arrington says, "It was a “gotcha” and that’s that."

And while the Arrington story reminds us that expertise offers little protection, the story about the restaurant owner is a good reminder that it can happen to anyone, to any size business. Speak to the media or publish something, and you could find yourself at the center of a media scandal. Not to say that you should never say anything, never publish anything. But when it comes to managing PR in the Internet Era, like the classic line from an instruction manual states, "Care must be taken..."

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Social Classes in the Workplace

For me, one of the interesting aspects of the Frank Rich piece that I previously linked to was bringing together the idea of surprise over the great sense of mourning at the loss of Steve Jobs coming from participants in the #Occupy Wall Street protests. As noted in the Rich piece, some media figures characterized this as hypocritical.
Yet those demonstrators who celebrated Jobs were not necessarily hypocrites at all—and no more anti-capitalist than the Bonus Army of 1932. If you love your Mac and iPod, you can still despise CDOs and credit-default swaps. Jobs’s genius—in the words of Regis McKenna, a Silicon Valley marketing executive who worked with him early on—was his ability “to strip away the excess layers of business, design, and innovation until only the simple, elegant reality remained.” The supposed genius of modern Wall Street is the exact reverse, piling on excess layers of business and innovation on ever thinner and more exotic creations until simple reality is distorted and obscured. Those in Palin’s “real America” may not be agitated about the economic 99-vs.-one percent inequality brought about by the rise of the financial sector in the past three decades, but, like class warriors of the left, they know that “financial instruments” wreaked havoc on their 401(k)s, homes, and jobs. The bottom line remains that Wall Street’s opaque inventions led directly to TARP, the taxpayers’ bank bailout that achieved the seemingly impossible feat of unifying the left and right in rage against government—much as Jobs’s death achieved the equally surprising coup of unifying left and right in mourning a corporate god.

That bipartisan grief was arguably as much for the passing of a capitalist culture as for the man himself. Finance long ago supplanted visionary entrepreneurial careers like Jobs’s as the most desired calling among America’s top-tier university students, just as hedge-fund tycoons like John Paulson and Steve Cohen passed Jobs on the Forbes 400 list. Americans sense that something incalculable has been lost in this transformation that cannot be measured in dollars and cents.
Anti-Business, Anti-Capitalism, Anti-Success, Socialist, Communist and Un-American
Historically, and with particular energy during recent years, the political right has tried to apply a broad brush of anti-capitalism. During the Cold War, it was used to equate the values of the political opposition with the values of "the enemy." During the Obama administration, it's been used by the right as an avatar for "Obama is black" and to channel the political energy drawn from that. Rich's piece is, in part, an effort to debunk aspects of #OWS as they have been characterized in the media, with a key one being the idea that #OWS was anti-business.

What struck me about this was how it tapped into many aspects of workplace culture that we all deal with. For many people in the workplace, few things are more frustrating than managers or colleagues that receive accolades for not doing anything, collecting fat salaries and workplace kudos while skating by on the hard work and talent of others.

And while this perceived inequality may just be an aspect of our cultural DNA, the natural reaction of humans working in groups juxtaposed against the perceptions of self, there is also an underlying aspect that connects back to Steve Jobs versus Finance -- Steve Jobs did stuff. His success was built on the creation of things, not collecting money from some Bluto-style counting game (one for you, two for me, one for you, three for me).

Most of us have have little animosity toward those that work hard and to the success that comes through entrepreneurial efforts. This is part of what makes Tony Stark's character in Ironman likeable. Similarly, we have an established hero mythology for "the guy that rose up through the ranks to lead the organization" and it's implied understanding of the values and principles gained through participating in the mechanics of the business operation.

This is one of the more enticing prospective benefits of working in a start-up. While most organizations inevitably draw a certain amount of slackers and free-riders that surf the waves of bureaucracy, there's not really any room for dead wood in a start-up. It's also usually small enough that people can recognize strong contributors.

The Reality of Social Classes in the American Workplace
One point that I would counter the themes in Rich's piece is the notion of an absence of social class here in the US. Even here in Silicon Valley, there are entrenched social classes in the workplace.

Ask any admin if there is a hope of escaping their role. Try to find a job outside of the field or the industry that you have been working in and you will come face to face with an entrenched establishment. While social class may not be defined at birth, it's not far off from the career chip concept from Futurama.

In career social classes, your status typically doesn't advance more than 1-5% of your salary annually. Your class may be defined by token milestone adjectives like "senior", but realistic changes in your status tier often require changing companies. Often, attempting to break this career social class structure is real goal behind going back to school, relocation or changing jobs.

This is also the American Dream that lies at the heart of working at a start-up -- the opportunity to re-invent yourself, to escape the bounds of your existing career class and redefine yourself through your ability to respond to a new set of challenges -- the new frontier. One of the reasons that people like start-ups is that, because start-ups tend to have more needs than resources, there tends to be greater opportunities to expand the boundaries, to be entrepreneurial, to win success though initiative and innovation.

Hope Springs Eternal
As I noted in this previous post, it's unlikely that we'll see an Arab Spring in the business world. Nor is it likely that we'll see things go the way of the London riots. Don't expect a revolution or transformational class reform in the workplace. And while the odds are pretty good that, of the people dreaming of a more open career environment with less rigid social classes, few are anti-business. After all, the first step in the entrepreneurial dream comes from envisioning the possibility of a change, from thinking different.