All posts in Business

Beyond Marketing: How Social Media Can Help Companies Save Money, Keep Customers Satisfied and Gain Access to Fast Information

This post was written by Lisa Qualls a while back and not published. Some great points here about looking beyond the SM ROI of marketing efforts and realizing how social media can yield many other benefits inside your companies and organizations.

Leads, sales, and new revenue get most of the headlines when discussing ROI or why you should take advantage of social media platforms. However, cost reductions need to be considered as well when figuring/estimating time spent, as well as customer retention. Social media introduces new possibilities to traditional business practices such as customer care/service, research and development (R&D) and internal communications. These may not be as “sexy” as marketing and sales but anyone of them can be the Achilles heel to even the strongest of companies.

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Never Stop Dreaming

post-never-stop-dreaming

A lot of things have been changing in my life lately, as many of you can imagine with the personnel changes we’ve gone through the past couple of months – I’ll talk more about that in a coming post – but I was thinking this morning about an important facet – maybe THE most important facet of business or personal growth, and that is to never stop dreaming.

I have always wanted to own a restaurant. I think I have a mission to feed people or animals, or something because it comes up again and again. I feed the neighborhood cats at the country house, which my husband hates but it seems like the least I can do given there’s no one who really cares for them in any other way. I ran a vegetarian website for a few years, with the mission of someday owning a chain of veggie fast food places. But given I make little money as it all pretty much goes into this still-growing business, it hasn’t seemed anything near reality, just a future goal or hope, wish or dream that comes up now and then.
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End of Year Marketing Assessment… We’ve Still Got Work to Do. Do You?

holiday-homework-post

Last year I wrote a post called Holiday Homework for Website Owners, on December 27th. As I am working on our portfolio and some minor changes to our site today I thought I’d pull this up and see if I’ve made any progress at all on the always-needed, but oft-neglected marketing of Fresh ID. Like working out and eating right, letting marketing slip when business is busy is all too easy… we just have to keep trying to do better!

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The Perspective on Pricing

I had the pleasure of writing this article for the special edition 2011-2012 “The Thinking Bigger – Guide for Entrepreneurs” publication that was placed on the news stands in October. We understand many of our blog readers are from outside the KC area so wanted to shared it here to help anyone who may be involved with setting product and service price points.

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The best PR is often incidental

A lot of our site visitors know about my love and admiration for CJ Sapong, rookie forward for Sporting Kansas City. I call him my #lilrookie on Twitter and love to make threats against those who threaten to injure him or even give him a bad time during a game. He did something completely unique and unexpected yesterday – with the women’s national team in town to play a game at LIVESTRONG Sporting Park, he decided to serenade Hope Solo, goalkeeper with a rap-style poem he had penned the night before. Watch the video and then let’s discuss the outcome… Continue Reading →

Organize, Socialize and Fantasize

As summer begins to wind down it’s time to look ahead and prepare ourselves for the new season and changes to come. I often call this time in my life “Back to School Mode”. Although it’s been several years since I’ve spent my days at an academic institution,  I still go through a phase every time around this year where I look back at the year so far and mentally get ready for the what lies ahead.

So I’ve decided to focus on three fun areas whilst in my mode, and of COURSE I found websites to help me out in the focus areas and I wanted to share them with you all.

We are going to Organize, Socialize and Fantasize! Continue Reading →

The Urgency of Differentiation

This is more of a “food for thought” post than one containing a solution…

My hospitality expert and friend Jeffrey Summers tossed out a phrase the other day regarding the “urgency of differentiation” – he was going to be discussing that topic on his restaurant podcast. I noticed it because we have been discussing this for a while here in the office… Lisa is always pushing us on “what makes us different?” and after having it roll around in my head without a full articulation, I randomly spit out some things that make us different on a phone call with her one day:

  • We are not an “ad agency” because many of them are not strong in regard to social media culture (though they may be using social media push tactics) and they do traditional ad buys (we do not)
  • We are not a “PR firm” because many of them don’t understand the social space and they do traditional PR whereas we do online-focused releases in relation to a specific campaign or event – we like to work with PR specialists, ideally, for larger reach
  • We are not an “interactive agency” because they tend to do more motion-based design (we outsource what we can’t do in-house) and often don’t do marketing (which we do)
  • We are not a “usability firm” as we are not singularly focused on product/web design or information architecture, though it is what we do when working on various types of projects and we have usability testing and lab-building experience
  • We are not a product development company although we develop products – we would prefer to help design them, develop them ourselves or work with your in-house devs, create help systems, do user testing, PLUS work on the overall brand identity and marketing collateral in addition to helping lay a social foundation and do staff training on using social channels for customer service, and then do graphic design for presentations, tradeshows, etc. in a holistic, comprehensive effort to sell a new or redesigned product
  • We are not a “marketing firm” exactly as we do design and development in-house and lean toward product design or enhancing sites with features/functionality
  • We are definitely not a “social media agency” as we do design and development and have a long history of product and traditional marketing (and many social media agencies are brand, spanking new in this industry – in fact, frighteningly new)

We also have done business development, product line planning, visual merchandising, online events, ecommerce design and dev, research & analysis, copywriting, tech writing, user experience planning and testing, project management, tradeshow event design, speaking, and more as professional services since 1994. So today, we call ourselves as a “creative services” company for lack of a better short description.

But clearly that doesn’t really explain what sets us apart. Now that we see what we are not, determining how to explain what we are in a way that includes the differentiator will be something we will actively work on over the next month or two, because we do feel it’s important to define, and it is a needed facet of our overall brand experience and positioning.

How do you explain what makes your business different? And do you agree that there is an urgency of differentiation in today’s competitive, yet economically challenging climate?

Steve Jobs takes medical leave of absence… now what?

It’s no longer breaking news that Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple, is taking a medical leave of absence.  This is not the first time that Jobs has had to hand over day-to-day operations for medical reasons and, unfortunately, probably won’t be the last.

As with any company, the strength, and in this case, health, of the companies leader plays a vital role in the publics perception of the companies financial strength and viability.  This is clear by Apple’s stock slump following the announcement of Jobs’ leave of absence.  However, Apple has been in the situation before and appears to have plans already in place to make sure that the public feels comfortable that Apple is in good hands.

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Holiday Homework for Website Owners (including me!)

It’s the last week of the year and I always feel a surge of energy at this time, for the coming year and our business. And then I realize I want to clean up some things around the site, make some long thought about improvements, and get ready to open the doors to a fresh new Fresh ID in the new year. Combined with several of our clients needing significant home page improvements, I’ve got a little checklist of site and marketing things I am going to address this week and I challenge you to use it if needed on your own sites. Let’s be fresh together in 2011!

1. Is your homepage in need of an update? If it’s static, meaning, it doesn’t incorporate real-time or dynamically changing elements to keep it fresh, you need to change it at least monthly to create new experiences for repeat visitors. You can also do coding to have content rotate randomly so the mix of content feels fresh, and you can add real-time updates from Twitter or Facebook or YouTube so that users are presented with constantly changing content.
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21 Reasons You Should Attend Red Chair Portland, if You're Not Going to SXSW

n246001126929_2879Two neat social media-related events are going on this week: South by Southwest (SXSW) and Red Chair Portland. Alas, most people know about SXSW… a long-standing shindig in Austin, TX that originally focused on music and film and now has loads of interactive sessions and networking events (and let’s face it, it’s pretty much THE place to see and be seen if you’re a social media consultant or practitioner of some type.)

Not as many people know about Red Chair, but it’s new – this is the first event – and the creator of it is an only recently discovered gem in the sm industry. His name is Olivier Blanchard, and we are pleased to call him both a friend and business partner… he is someone that we rely on for advice, debate, discussion and who we mention in RFP’s and proposals for corporate or on-site training. We’re lucky enough to get to pick his brain at will, but his Red Chair events offer everyone the chance to get to know him personally and take whatever understanding you have of social media marketing, social media ROI or social communications and customer care to a new level of intelligence.

Here are 21 reasons we think you should head to a Red Chair training in Portland this week, or a future event if you can’t make it there now:

1. Olivier doesn’t do “fuzzy math”. His slideshare presentation from a conference speech on social media ROI has garnered over 104,000 views, was featured on Mashable as a lead story, is embedded on nearly 600 websites and blogs, and has literally been used in dozens of presentations by OTHER social media consultants, to make a point with clients or close a business deal.

2. He has been an outspoken advocate FOR corporations WITH consultants who insist that ROI is just an old-fashioned term that deserves a new-fangled meaning, diluted for the social media space. Return on inanity, return on engagement, return on interaction, etc. mean little when it comes to budget spend and making decisions that are going to impact the health of your organization. He offers a site dedicated to just the topic of social media ROI at http://smroi.net

3. A former business consultant, product marketer and brand advisor, Olivier has both B2B and B2C as well as startup and Fortune 500-level expertise, working with such companies as Microsoft and SYNNEX and he knows operationally, and from the corporate level, what it means to do something as simple as start a Twitter account. You’ll never find him promising to make your video “go viral” or get you a ton of followers on your Twitter account. The short-term tactics of many consultants are not the strategy Olivier takes when helping you assess your approach to social media.

4. An active blogger since 2005, Olivier has had a front-row seat to the changes we have all made online the last few years, and has been at the forefront of experimenting with and learning about marketing to and serving customers with a mix of traditional and social methods since the first social platforms started appearing. He brings practical, real-world experience to both his training sessions and his consulting gigs.

5. He will help you, in these Red Chair events, determine a blueprint and strategy for designing a comprehensive social media program. (That link is just a very brief snapshot of what this training will include.)

6. Olivier has become a sought-after speaker the last year, and his presentations, keynotes and chats bring valuable insights to participants and are often tweeted about and written about online.

7. He goes deep and delivers real substance, above and beyond what many experts in this field offer for advice and guidance. Case in point: covering every detail of presenting your company’s brand on Twitter in images and verbage as a plan and not an accident.

8. Red Chair trainings, at least as far as I know, do not exist in this form anywhere else. This is like a crash-MBA in social media marketing and communications… without the MBA pricetag!

9. Olivier, with all of our help, wants to help people understand the real value behind using social media for business, and how to use it to transform your company culture, user satisfaction and ultimately sales. He has spearheaded the use of terms like “people to people” and “social communications” that others pick up on and use, because they make sense and add another step along the path of social evolution that all of us in this realm are defining.

10. Olivier has made me smarter. I honestly believe that everyone attending his Red Chair trainings will walk away smarter too. It’s not merely the education he imparts or the insights he pinpoints for you so sharply… it’s in his questions. He poses questions and theories that make you think for yourself and in doing so, your brain enlarges just that little bit more, that you feel you really see things in a different way, or you can imagine something new you hadn’t quite visualized before. Armed with new viewpoints, you will tackle problems and see opportunities in a different way after being exposed to this unique frenchman!

11. And speaking of France… Olivier is not 100% American. His heritage is French, with some other influences mixed in. Why this matters is because he has a lot of international, and therefore broader experience in the world than some of us do. And if social media has taught us anything, it’s that the world feels smaller than it used to – we can reach people faster and easier than we ever could before. And we need to be aware of what that means from the organizational standpoint, if we’re becoming a social company.

12. Olivier is active on his and other people’s blogs, Twitter, Facebook and Linked In. I don’t want to speak for him, but I am pretty sure that if you attend his trainings and get to know him, you’ll have a lasting and rich relationship with him and will be able to reach him as things come up that you need a nudge in the right direction with. I have seen him help countless numbers of people online.

13. Customer service managers, directors and support people: Red Chair will have a lot of information to help you build or improve a solid customer care program.

14. Executives and anyone concerned about social media and the ramifications and impact: Olivier will be covering lots of legal issues like defamation and confidentiality, as well as social media policies.

15. Ad and PR agency principals and managers: you will leave with a blueprint for how to help clients put a social media program in place, as well as concrete, actionable steps you can take to improve your own social presence.

16. Chief Marketing Officers: you will be armed with the knowledge you need to help you make hiring decisions, marketing campaign decisions and more after your Red Chair sessions.

17. Human resources managers and recruiters: Do you know how to hire a social media director, community manager or other social media personnel? Olivier has been very vocal in the community about who is qualified for these important responsibilities and he’ll guide you in making sound choices that will actually be effective for your company.

18. Social media is about integration into many facets of your operation… not just something the marketing team or your PR agency does. You’ll learn how to integrate social media into your company in a planned strategy that minimizes risks and embarrassing brand failures.

19. Olivier Blanchard has… well, finesse. His approach has been admired by many industry heavyweights, who I have seen compliment him on his style, manner of handling issues and people, and willingness to stand his ground about topics others shy away from. What better person to learn from?

20. There is an art to teaching something that sticks in your memory. Olivier blends humor with graphics with clear, concise words and his indelible style equals a pleasurable learning experience you’ll be able to relate to, comprehend and remember.

21. We value the work Olivier does and highly recommend attending his training! It will be an investment of time and cost well spent.

We love what Olivier is doing with this training program so much we will be bringing it to Kansas City this summer. The date is not yet determined. His next event at the moment is not until May, so check out the Red Chair Portland sessions and if you absolutely can’t make it, see the schedule of future events at the site.

Information vs. Engagement: Are You Giving People What They Need?

kris-biz-3I don’t expect this to be an overly popular post – I have brought this conversation up several times – I even moderated the #sm42 chat about it, and it almost always results in a backlash of folks that claim all social media communication is about engagement, and I am wrong to think otherwise. But still… I think otherwise. I just can’t let go of the notion we can make social media work even more efficiently and effectively for all concerned.

I’m not against engagement and talking to people. Obviously I talk to lots of people who talk to me on Twitter, and do my best to engage both new people I don’t know and people I consider friends. As well as prospects, clients and various companies and brands. I am a user advocate, after all, so I get it. Using Twitter, Facebook and various other social platforms to develop mutually beneficial or even just interesting relationships with others is not new. Using these platforms to solicit web traffic, sell a book, product or service or promote yourself as a celebrity or expert of some type is really becoming yesterday’s news, as well. People are jumping onto these platforms by droves to take advantage of the marketing opportunities, and to provide a listening ear or customer support also. There is definitely marketing value, in listening to people and acknowledging what they have to say about your company… it takes finesse sometimes, which savvy social media marketers and community managers have (or anyone tweeting for your company) in order to read the needs and then meet them, for the particular individual you’re dealing with.

But I know there’s more we can do, with all the people, and the easy, instant access, and the short-burst communication and the open api’s and ability to integrate technology online, where it can be accessed from anywhere there’s a computer and internet connection. So much more. Some enterprising local companies are taking orders over Twitter and having food or drink ready for the person when they arrive. Delivery companies are finding ways to use Twitter. Cabs can be ordered and dispatched. Shipments can be tracked. I even had an interaction with a great company called Gourmet Library and they changed their site for me that night, to add a suggested feature. Now THIS, this is a beautiful way to use these unexpected (a few years ago) resources in ways that can benefit our bottom lines and improve our business processes.

Still… people go on and on about engagement and almost can’t stand to have a conversation including social media that doesn’t put the total emphasis on that singular concept. I understand why – lots of companies and business people are on Twitter, but they don’t all do it like we wish they would. Some of them are stiff, not overly chatty or friendly. Some are defensive. Some of them have an account name and don’t even tweet or acknowledge things being said about them at all. Some users/customers/prospects DO choose another company based on the lack of interaction, by the way. Some send out automated, crappy sales solicitations and annoy you. Some just listen – you know they are – using all the real-time streaming as intelligence but they don’t deign to respond. Some intervene too much – maybe you want to vent about your hideous tasting sandwich from a fast food chain, but don’t want to be confronted about it in public. So all the advice and the opinions and feedback about how to develop these relationships online is definitely warranted.

But is “engagement” the ONLY need that people have? I’ve been thinking about this a long, long time. I believe people/users/customers/buyers/employees have needs, and engaging with a company representative in order to meet the need is only one facet of a holistic plan to be implemented.

For you, in your life, what’s the fastest way to go about getting a particular piece of company information? Say you want to know the hours and location of a company you plan to do business with later today. Do you…

  • Ask a friend/spouse/coworker if they know?
  • Look them up in a paper phonebook?
  • Look them up in Google or online?
  • Go to their site and hunt until you find the information on the site?
  • Call phone information and ask for their phone number so you can talk to someone on the phone?
  • Drive by the location to look at a sign on the door?
  • Search for them on Twitter or Facebook, to see if the company is there and you can ask or see the info?
  • Send an email to them to find out?
  • Ask an intern/spouse/assistant or some other person to find out?

Different people will take different approaches, based on how they learn and gather information, and where they are at the time. If I’m driving, I might ask someone else to look it up for me, or I might Google a search at a red light. If I’m on Twitter, I might pop the name into search and see if the company is there, and take the lazy route of asking someone and waiting for the answer. If I want to see the company’s site, I might visit and poke around and eventually get to the info. But I want to be able to do any of these things, and come up with the answer fast… because I have a lot to do and this is kind of like “white noise” in my day – until I get the info I need, I can’t ignore it and so it’s on the mental task list until I can check it off.

110430Emarketer’s latest research offers reasons that people befriend or follow a company using social media. They say social media users are “interested in deeper engagement.” That seems to be somewhat true, but have we helped respondents identify what it is they TRULY need? Two of these categories are too vague (at least as represented in this simple chart.) Do they need a person from Whole Foods, Macy’s or Apple to address them? Or do they need a question answered, a complaint addressed, a suggestion for a feature or product acknowledged, some praise for an employee noted, a request considered, or some other, specific need answered, that may or may not involve “engaging?”

What requires unique answers vs. what could be answered in a FAQ or inventory call? Inquiring about known product availability is different than asking if the company even has a product that meets a particular need, or a service offering. Asking for hours of operation is different than engaging in a conversation about the best person to contact within the company to discuss a potential business deal, or an inquiry about a unique problem with a newly purchased product. Asking a Human Resources representative on Twitter about the most appropriate clothing choices for a new hire, is different than asking if there are job openings. One requires human engagement, the other can be answered by a machine. We don’t refuse to automate business processes inside the enterprise, or factory, or kitchen… wherever they make sense and are affordable. So why do we act as if some automation of information via a social platform is a crime against humanity?

As a user experience designer, I have seen that interactions inside a site or software system (or over a phone system) are also forms of engaging with your company and brand. The increasing popularity of making purchases online is a testament to this. You need to think of interactions and transactions as mechanical engaging, and you’ll see how important they are. People have good, bad and downright horrifying experiences, just like they do with your employees in person. An online experience with a site or ecommerce shopping cart can leave the same good or bad taste in your mouth, resulting in the same good or bad word of mouth sharing. If you have a crappy site, and are hoping your salespeople or customer support will make up for it (or vice versa), you won’t be fooling anyone, really. Customer care is a pervasive, underlying foundation or it’s not, and all aspects of your approach need to deliver on it. Social media is not a silo, your site is not a silo, your blog and community managers are not a silo, your managers, customer support handlers, marketing people, receptionists, retail floorwalkers, the lobby, restrooms and the parking lot are not independently going to carry the brand – it takes all of these pieces – human, tangible and intangible – working in tandem from the same value belief system, to satisfy prospects, buyers, partners and even former customers.

So instead of looking at the world of social media and thinking “Oh my gosh, how can I even go there? Our staff doesn’t have enough time as it is!” I am suggesting that you step back and ask yourself, what do people in your business ecosystem really NEED?

  • What do prospects need?
  • What do people appropriate for our products/services need, that don’t know about us yet?
  • What do existing customers need?
  • What do people with a return or complaint need?
  • What do potential partners need?
  • What do employees need?
  • What do our salespeople need to close deals/do their job?
  • What do company managers need?
  • What do investors/stakeholders need?
  • What do people we owe money to/do business with need?

Then look at your people, business processes and existing technological systems, and pinpoint where you can start to meet these needs. If you can honestly always answer “deeper engagement” for the myriad needs you will come up with, I’d be highly surprised.

We have got to separate true need of specific information (inventory question, process explanation, how to return something, what time a store closes, if something desired is in or out of stock, if a discount is available for bulk purchase, if sales or discounts exist) from ego gratification from need for positive acknowledgment (desire to contribute to brand growth or offer a suggestion) from need for issue acknowledgment (desire to be heard when customer has had a problem or complaint.)

All of us that do marketing consultation and act as social media advisors need to be careful tossing around terms like “deeper engagement.” What does that mean, anyway? I have deep engagement with my closest friends and family – not so much with Freshbooks, though I sure think very highly of them and recommend them often (for example.) It makes people feel good when a company rep or major brand responds to them, but why? Is it because they are perceived as being busy/important/popular and the name-dropping in our direction impresses others (and maybe delights us. It can be fun when someone you admire responds.) But is our ego drive to be acknowledged an unacknowledged driver behind the call for engagement with brands and companies on Twitter? Or do people need access to information, that may sometimes includes a person and sometimes an automated FAQ or inventory tool? What makes interacting with Sally Smith (a random person – like any of us) any different than interacting with Mark Parker (the CEO of Nike)? Do we value a brief interaction with Mark Parker, who we don’t know, more than with a beloved friend who lends us a word of encouragement, or a mate who declares undying love in public for all the world to see, or a boss that gives us an ‘atta boy’ in front of our peers?

If people aren’t accessing Twitter accounts for fast info now, is it because that type of interaction doesn’t much exist today, so there’s no precedent to believe they can do that? Or because they don’t want to? (The classic chicken and egg question.) I would much rather hit Twitter (where let’s face it, I am 75% of the time off and on) and ask a quick question and get the answer now (automatic response) or later (via a nice human) than dig through a company site full of information and FAQ’s or support questions. It might be the height of laziness for me, but it’s the art of providing convenience and engagement (even if automated!) for savvy businesses who have the foresight to see it now, because it WILL come eventually. Our processes for automating certain interactions are more clear inside the company than on these social platforms, I think. We haven’t built them yet, but we can and we should go further than the “social” in social media and include opportunities we have to meet and answer needs in a number of cool ways.

Maybe it’s just me, but…

  • I would greatly prefer to order some of my food and beverages directly via Twitter and then go pick them up (like Coffeegroundz in Houston wisely initiated early on – I was longing for this just the other day from Moe’s in Shawnee, KS)
  • I’d love to be able to sit on my rump in Twitter and ask an Amazon account about a book someone mentioned, and have the link to it sent back to me, instead of going to the site and searching
  • If I have an Apple Mac issue (I have multiple Macs and an iPod), I want to be able to hit a knowledge base with my question from Twitter. It may work or may not, but it seems easier than going and digging up the info at their site. It’s just one more hook, but for me, mentally massively more convenient.
  • Someday I want to ask for hairdresser (lawn care, dry cleaner, nail salon, doctor, air conditioner repair, etc. recommendations and receive a nice link back to a list of known folks reviewed near me (or the city I will be going to.) I don’t want a special, local Kansas City site – I want to ask the world at large, from where I hang out (my site, Twitter, Facebook, etc.)
  • I’d like to be able to tweet a preferred appointment time to my nail lady, doctor’s office, chiropractor, etc. and get an answer back – an automated return of “Yes, that time’s available, would you like to schedule” or “No, I’m sorry, it’s not” is no less valuable coming from a software system than it is a human being. Either way, I get the appointment – engagement and customer care happens with the practitioner I am going to see and the people who take my money at the door, in addition to the software system they set up to meet my needs.
  • If my internet goes out, or the electricity, I want to tweet an account and get a status update back.
  • I want to ping my gym and find out what classes are being taught at 5:30 pm (because I realize that’s when I can go.) Or I want to know when Thom or Martha are teaching, or some other schedule related question.

Ask the question OUT, get the answer back IN is the future of cloud computing. Right now, I have to do a lot of work, despite how much more convenient things are now than they were 5 years ago. I have to know the places to go, or ask people and find out, and then go to the sites, and then do a search, and maybe they have or don’t the info I am looking for in THEIR particular database. If they don’t I have to start over.

But these social platforms have opened a new door – they offer new horizons of people-powered comments, reviews, praise and complaints to work with. With links mentioned, people recommended or disputed, reports posted, analytics tracked – this is incredibly valuable to the humble person overworked, underpaid, and with the ambition to pack as much productivity into a day as they can.

Forrester, who many companies rely on to separate the good from the bad data and information, has recently added a bucket of “conversationalists” to their social media persona ladder. But… I think this needs more work. I’ve added a couple of notes in green:

forrester-ladder-of-sm-users

This chart just doesn’t address people who are seeking information vs. the need to engage, in any of these areas. The RSS feed comment is mildly confusing – I assume they mean these collectors aggregate feeds into a feed reader or something, or maybe mix them, but not sure. “Inactives” may not appear to be doing anything, but we can’t know that – after all, they signed up for some reason… maybe they are self-educating or scouring for deals or seeking specific information.

Why aren’t we building databases based on social queries? Is it because we are so focused on people, and people who need people (LOL!) that we are totally overlooking an entire segment of socialization? Once I asked @WholeFoods if they carried Nutella – someone answered and said no, it does not meet their ingredient quality list. That answer could be popped into a database for a future automated query, so the next time a Nutella addict wants to know it could be answered automatically. The supplements questions alone (if anything like the quantity we got in the store) could result in a big time-savings for the human staffers.

Similar questions as an example: take Cost Plus World Market – do they have a location near me, do they carry Fat Tire Beer (at my location, or nearest?) Does LifeTime Fitness have a tennis center at a gym in Kansas City? (No, automated answer.) Will they ever have one? (Requires human answer with explanation.) Can I tell someone who will listen/respond at LifeTime, how much I wish they would bring Tennis to a KC gym? (Human answer with link to ideas site or direct forward to tennis program director, preferably on Twitter, or Facebook, or wherever I have initiated this conversation.) Do they have any recommendations for tennis in the Kansas City area then, given they are not meeting my need as an existing customer? (This is where the company could go the extra mile in their answer/recommendation, resulting in customer loyalty, user retention or positive WOM benefits.)

I am not saying the people running branded accounts on Twitter aren’t doing a world of good for their companies, customers and brands. I have no idea why, but one day someone mentioned to me she had a big problem with a seatbelt in her Ford. Not knowing how I could help, but having a passing acquaintance with Scott Monty, Ford’s very socially present PR person, I forwarded her issue on to him. He got the right people involved apparently, and a few days later she told me Ford had contacted her and was resolving the problem. Now, while I was glad this was the case, I don’t know why her efforts to reach them on her own had failed. These are the kinds of customer care issues all companies have to examine and correct where they see failures. If there were only automated systems, this would not have been possible, and I am not recommending we replace the people spearheading social media efforts at the groundbreaking companies that are here now, with automated systems. In fact, to know how to deal with people who request things and ask questions of you on Twitter, you need to BE an active Twitter user, so don’t even think about planning automated services without being immersed in the social culture, or you will likely pay for it in negativity.

I’m suggesting we (my company and others who think about technology and integration and business processes non-stop) help these Twittering employees and companies by coming up with new solutions. New ways of approaching the needs. New ways to scale and manage the requests. I hope that’s clear, if you read this far!

I leave you with two things. Tonight I asked the question “If you have recently interacted with a brand/company on Twitter, what was the nature of your interaction? Question/comment/issue?” and I got a lot of neat answers and opinions, which I have starred as favorites. I recommend browsing these comments for insights.

New friend @CariEllison gave me a link to a related article that’s interesting, so you might want to check it out also.

Want to discuss this? Tell me I’m full of smack? Need help with an integration plan or process? Let’s talk about it. I’m curious to know what other folks think of the idea of mixing automation (for utility, aid and response, not marketing – huge, huge difference) with people on social platforms.

Web-based Project Management Tools

lisaAs a project manager, I am often asked to speak on business management tools. A wealth of web-based, simple, and valuable tools exist that can be used in any type of company size and industry. We use many of these applications in our day-to-day business to manage our projects, teams and ourselves.

It is important to remember that a tool should help you facilitate your work… NOT add more work to your day. You need to understand your work flow and identify where you need help prior to application selection. Tools should:

  • help you create, build, and develop projects
  • lead, direct and advise your teams/sponsors/clients
  • assess, measure, and analyze your progress
  • and most important, be simple to use

Project Management Tools

Basecamp

Basecamp – We use this tool to manage our virtual workforce teams and to easily communicate with our clients. We are able to set milestones, assign to-do tasks according to milestones, upload files, and communicate through the forums.You can build templates and customize the tool to match your brand. This tool eliminates our dependency on email and allows 24X7 access to project status.

Smartsheet – This tool was recommended by a colleague. For you spreadsheet lovers out there this tool may be the one for you. In addition to basic project management capabilities, you can produce summary reports and access the tool from your phone through their mobile application. A very interesting aspect to Smartsheet is their on-demand workforce. If you need resources to help with simple tasks (primarily research oriented tasks) they have a virtual workforce to help you (for an hourly rate of course).

@Task – This is an enterprise level tool and can be integrated with a variety of applications such as Oracle, Peoplesoft and Salesforce.com. This tool has very impressive reporting capabilities that can support the most detailed of managers and the highest level of executives. If you have large and complex programs this tool may be the one for you.

freshid-ning

Ning – A lot of people use Ning for communities, but we’ve been experimenting with it for free project management. It’s not quite as robust as Basecamp, but has some similarities, including the ability to create permission-based groups and invite different people to join them. It’s working pretty well, and it’s customized with our brand, which we consider a big benefit.

Administrative Tools

Echosign – I have to say this is my favorite tool lately. Echosign allows you to improve your sales contract cycle time from weeks to hours by allowing online signatures that are in compliance with the ESIGN act making the online signature as powerful as a hand-written one. Red-lining is supported as well as multiple signatures/initials throughout the document. The client/contractor you are requesting to sign does not need to have signed-up for the application and can provide their signature in a matter of seconds. We have had 15 contracts signed in the last month and have yet had anyone experience any issues or confusion… in fact a few of our clients are now using this tool for their business and every time Kristi tweets it out, a lot of people seem thrilled to learn about it. We’ve set up their tweet bot that announces when we signed something or someone has signed a contract with us to help spread the word.

Freshbooks – Contractors love this tool so we love it too! Freshbooks make invoicing super easy and helps you keep track of what is paid vs. outstanding. Reporting is included and the open API supports integration with Quickbooks and Basecamp. If you are looking to improve your billing cycle time then we suggest you take a look at Freshbooks. You might recognize one of the testimonials on the home page.

Outright- is a companion management tool that we use with Freshbooks to track and manage business expenses. Very helpful for tax-time and reports.

Team Management Tools

Dropbox – A backup server that finally doesn’t require you to load the document twice. This application synchronizes with your hard drive automatically! You get 2G of storage free and automatic notification when any file is loaded or changed. A tool that helps you with your current workload, doesn’t require extra work and is so easy grandma can use it.

BackpackBackpack – Also by 37Signals, Backpack is great for capturing thoughts from brainstorming sessions, creating task lists and keeping track of things to do, and share notes, calendars, files and lists among your team. It’s intuitive and easy to use, and for people who don’t need the full-blown project management of Basecamp, might be a better choice.

Self Management Tools

Skype – Yes, many of us online types have been using Skype for awhile but for those new to the “geek” scene this tool is a nice surprise. This VoIP application allows unlimited free domestic calling, video calling and instant messaging with other Skype users. You can also quickly upload files and send resource links during conference calls. The tool integrates with a multitude of address books and allows calls internationally and to non-Skype users for a premium charge.

Remember the Milk – Built with the “Getting Things Done” philosophy this is a great tool to manage all aspects of your life …personal, school and work. They have a variety of mobile app’s to support an on-the-go lifestyle and include map integration that can track where you are to notify you when you are in the vicinity of getting a to-do done. I personally like the tag cloud capability to help me see where my time is being spent and to highlight where I can get two birds with one stone.

Google – The mother of all tools. In addition to gmail, calendar, and google docs we also use google groups, google voice and google reader to help simplify our daily responsibilities. Yes, you do sometimes have a glitch here and there but the flexibility, accessibility and simplicity outweigh any of the bumps you may experience from time to time. What makes us the most excited?? Google Wave came out September 30th and a lot of folks seem to be loving it.

These really only skim the surface of the cloud-based apps we use everyday… Delicious for bookmarks, Evernote for capturing disparate types of info around the web, Twitterface for monitoring twitter keywords, analyics apps, plus our smartphones which let us access many of these apps while mobile are like an engine powering Fresh ID to run.

We are always looking for new and improved ways to operate our business so if you have a killer tool that we didn’t mention here please leave us a comment and let us know about it!

Cheers!
Lisa

The Art of Socialnomics

I received a new book called Socialnomics and am still reading it, so I’ll talk more about that after I’m done. This video created by Erik Qualman, the book’s author, about Social Media ROI examples is such a wonderful, fast overview to this topic I wanted to share it with you. The book and information is a wonderful companion to Olivier Blanchard’s social media ROI content and I’m excited to dig in deeper.

From Facebook to YouTube to Twitter, the opportunities for promotion and the results from using social platforms and simple word-of-mouth sharing can range from a nice addition to a significant difference in your bottom line. Co-Chairman Alex Bogusky of Crispin Porter & Bogusky puts it best when he states:

“You can’t buy attention anymore. Having a huge budget doesn’t mean anything in social media… The old media paradigm was PAY to play. Now you get back what you authentically put in. You’ve got to be willing to PLAY to play.

You’ve got to be willing to play, to play. That should be your mantra if you are currently not using social media for sales and promotion, and are considering getting into this new medium of marketing.

We have entered the Age of Personality. Over the next few months I’ll be talking a lot about what that means in the social media space, and how you can uncover and share your own unique voice and personality in a way that will bring better results when using social media channels to talk to customers and prospects. In the meantime, tell me about your social media successes and what you’ve seen in the numbers if you’ve entered this arena. Share your stories in the comments with us!

A Case for Employee Social Media Training

Companies, listen up. If you’re not already factoring social media training into your human resources list of employee initiation rites, you’re making a huge mistake.

I’m not talking about making a bunch of strict guidelines. You can do as much or as little as you feel you must, given your customers, public or private holding status, your industry, etc. But unfortunately, especially for a lot of younger people, they need guidelines in common sense so they don’t unnecessarily tarnish your brand. And if they deliberately tarnish your brand, I’d show them the door. Too many great, displaced, laid off workers are out there and you can do better.

A link is going around right now to a blog post called Starbucks Employees Publish Inappropriate Pics of Customers Online. Apparently an employee has a Flickr set of personal photos called “87th & Sunset: Life at Starbucks.” It should be noted that these photos are several years old – I think this employee has moved on and left these in his archives. I don’t have any idea whether Starbucks has a training program for all employees in place or not, now. This scenario is a great example to learn from.

While it’s within an employee’s right as a human being with free will to document photos and put such captivating captions on them as “You’ve got to take a few ass shots on unsuspecting hoes, you know?” I question whether a brand like Starbucks should reward this fella with a job. (He was working for them when he posted to this collection regularly.) Starbucks, it’s no secret, is already struggling to survive the economic downturn. They need no help from an uninterested, apathetic employee to tarnish their brand in my opinion. If your employees don’t have your back and you need to make some changes in your approach and culture, listen to them and do it. But you don’t have to put up with providing continuous fodder for people you pay to damage your brand with. Write a final check and cut the documentary photographer free so he can take photos of people doing other things, like job-hunting with him or struggling to pay bills.

I feel horrible for the customers he served at this particular Starbucks. Imagine knowing how bitter the people serving you are, and how little they actually like you? I am not a stranger to this chain – I visit the drive-thru as often as I go inside and have probably hit a Starbucks in every city I’ve ever traveled to. I certainly would feel funny knowing some smartass barista or anyone else who worked there was snapping my picture, making hateful comments about me or laughing and pointing out my many obvious flaws. After all, we go in for a cup of coffee or maybe a snack, not for a blow to our self esteem. I pay way too much for what I get there to put up with that!

The dude, for reasons I can’t imagine, that posted these to Flickr said he had an obscenely long career at Starbucks. Was the manager that out of touch with his attitude about working there? One can sense the disdain for both his employer and his customers in a matter of moments looking through the photo set. This is what happens when you do NOT institute broad-based employee training and ask them to clean up their online act.

It’s unreasonable to expect:

  • Employees not to tweet, post to Facebook, Flickr, YouTube or any other social site
  • Employees not to occasionally have a work gripe that gets aired
  • Employees to turn over the keys to all their social sites so you can monitor them like Big Brother
  • Employees not to want to share/bond with colleagues via pics, funny videos, etc. (not all the pics in the Flickr set used as this bad example are inappropriate or problematic)

It is reasonable to expect:

  • Employees will not deliberately bash your brand on public forums and if they do they run the risk of losing their jobs
  • Employees will make sure their personal artifacts online don’t tarnish your brand and they will clean up what does, if their name is associated with your company
  • Employees will realize they are representatives of your company whether they’re on the clock or not, and behave with some decorum
  • Employees won’t bash, disrespect or call customers names
  • Employees won’t threaten customers
  • Employees won’t do things to deliberately humiliate customers, such as take their picture or video them without permission

There are only 3 months left in this year. If you do NOT have a training program in place, get it in place by 2010. You don’t have time to waste, and it doesn’t have to be hard. You can make improvements as you go along. Start with your managers and make them responsible for ensuring employees do the right thing when it comes to both playing online AND collecting a paycheck from your company.

If you just don’t know where to start, contact me. My team or some of my colleagues can help you get something in place swiftly. No excuses… stop harmful stuff like this dumb Flickr set before it hurts you. These pictures were taken in 2005-2006 and yet they’re making the rounds today, three years later on Twitter. Social media monitoring can make finding online assets easier and quite a few products exist to help you do this.

If you don’t think you need a social media training program, you need to ask yourself this: Is losing one single customer worth not asking an employee to show reasonable restraint online? I don’t think so. I value the people that hire us to do things for them. People doing business with you is an honor – they have choices and other things to spend money on. Make sure every last employee knows and cares about that, or replace them.

Is Your Agile Software Process Handcuffing the User Experience Design?

I’m running across a new problem with a number of clients and wondering if my user experience colleagues are having similar issues. The advent of web applications has resulted in a change for many software providers in the way they release software today.

Agile software development is a method in which software is designed, examined and delivered to the market swiftly, so that end-users can provide feedback and more feature changes can be made and adjusted within a few months time, rather than once or twice a year. For off-the-shelf software, such as Adobe, Apple or Microsoft products, this is not as practical a method as it is for web-based services. I’m not sure if large corporations have employed any Agile methodologies or not. The Wikipedia entry describes my issue perfectly:

Agile chooses to do things in small increments with minimal planning, rather than long-term planning. Iterations are short time frames (known as ‘timeboxes’) which typically last from one to four weeks.

So here’s the problem: I am often called in to redesign an existing product, that was designed primarily by developers and managers, and not by an interface or interaction designer, or with consultation by a user experience design specialist who could point out workflow and related product issues, as well as design a product brand identity. And that’s great – this is one of my favorite things to do. Redesigning a product is sometimes easier for me than designing one from scratch, because I can see the technology working – it’s like a live prototype to play with. To take an unpolished, but great idea, and make it even better for the users it was built for, is a lot of fun for me.

Historically, I come in, look at a product, talk about the business and marketing goals, and craft a “big picture” plan for the product line identity, interface design, workflow, help systems, etc. and then the big picture gets broken down into phases and tasks. But look at the Agile description again: minimal planning, small changes, releases every 1-2 months. That allows for feature by feature adjustments, not a total redesign of the workflow, layout, navigation systems, etc.

What’s a user experience designer with a great idea of how to make this product in front of her better, to do now? I don’t have an answer to this yet. I think when it comes to restructuring the workflow of a product to make it significantly better, executives need to understand there is a time for Agile, and a time to redesign, and redesign efforts take more in the range of 2-6 months to complete, in my experience. It all depends on how much is “surface” redesign, such as moving things around on the pages and creating a nicer look and feel vs. how much the deeper code has to be modified because features need to work completely differently than the developers designed them.

As is our habit in the software industry, we tend to look inward and not outward when creating processes that are supposed to make our business run better. Do we need the internal motivation of a release every 4-6 weeks to make things happen? Customers don’t necessarily demand a release once a month, they just need bugs fixed and problematic features redesigned so they can perform their tasks better. Can we design an Agile process that is flexible enough to allow for large-scale design changes when they’re needed? Why do we have to release something once a month? 

How are you handling this issue, user experience designers? I’d love to hear your advice and stories on how to combine Agile with big picture design or redesign approaches. A List Apart offers a wonderful article on Agile Design (below) but doesn’t really answer the “how” to make it work that I am struggling with. Is persuading executives to give me the time I need with developers to make the software better, the only answer?

More Agile & User-Centered Design Thoughts…