Failures Don’t Plan To Fail, They Fail To Plan

Consumer focussed social media mega stars Twitter, Yelp, Foursquare, YouTube, Facebook and Google have smashed open doors for small businesses over the past 4 years. Arguably two of the most important breakthroughs are:

  1. A leveling of the playing fields – the recent viral success of the Dollar Shave Club launch video is a great example of how a small business, with some creativity and a great product/service, can reach millions in a matter of days and stand alongside an established brand with a significantly larger marketing budget.
  2. A feedback loop – feedback from customers is a great way to improve your products and services. Yelp reviews, for example, give restaurateurs immediate free feedback and provide a previously lost opportunity to turn a negative experience into a positive one.

With these new possibilities more readily available, it’s important for businesses to skill up and understand how to take advantage of them. Successful social campaigns are great to see, however many small businesses I run into locally appear to be either focusing on the wrong measurement of success, such as total followers/likes, or not setting one in the first place.

It’s hard not to bump into a ‘Like’ sign as you go about your day. Now synonymous with Facebook, ‘Like’ bridges the digital divide by establishing a bi-directional throughway between the online and the offline. In doing so, Facebook has successfully branded an everyday verb in an interesting twist on the marketing nirvana of yesteryear which was ironically the exact opposite – to turn a brand into a verb. Notable wins went to FedEx (where FedEx-ing became a substitute for shipping in the US), Google (synonymous with search) and Hoover (where hoovering became a substitute for vacuuming in Europe).
Whether it’s a shopping mall, a restaurant, a clothes shop, you name it – we’re asked to ‘Like’, ‘Follow’, ‘Plus 1’, or ‘Check-in’. Even the lettuce in a grocery store wants to be friends according to the message printed on its cellophane wrapping.

Yet as with any other marketing campaign, a successful social campaign has a goal. It also requires an investment of time and resources and needs to be scalable. Any small business owner will tell you time is precious and ruthless prioritization is paramount to success.

So how do you go about running a successful social campaign? Personally I find it beneficial to look at some examples of best practices – the how to’s, and their opposites – the how not to’s. With this in mind below is a tale of the good, the bad and the not so pretty which looks at 3 businesses and their use of social media.

The Good

If you happened to be in a Sprinkles bakery on Monday and whispered, “Happy birthday Shakespeare” to one of their cupcake associates, chances are you would have received a delicious free vanilla cupcake with sprinkles. If you didn’t know about this you are probably not one of their 346K followers on Facebook or 83K followers on Twitter – both of these social channels are used to propagate a secret phrase every day to the cupcake following. The first 50 people to go into their nearest store that day and mutter the phrase receive the free cup cake offered. It’s a win/win. If I ‘Like’ or ‘Follow’ Sprinkles on Facebook or Twitter, they provide me with free cupcakes – assuming I make it to the store in time. There is a purpose clearly established.

As the cupcakes are handed over to their new owners, the cupcake associates adds a count to their clipboard. The tally, no doubt reported back to corporate along with any sales and basic demographic information, allows cupcake HQ to measure the effectiveness of the social campaign. The secret pass phrase provides a degree of exclusivity and is more of a tactic in the overall campaign objective to drive more foot traffic into stores and ultimately sell more products. Overall the campaign is genius – once you are in the store not only do you feel compelled to buy something – a cupcake for the other half, kids, friend, colleague or yourself, you also get to try a cupcake you might not have typically tried – most of us after all are creatures of habit.

Sprinkles social campaign was proven so successful it continues to be used even after the campaign was scheduled to end. Having established a following, Sprinkles also invites feedback asking connections to vote on their favorite cupcake. The end result, an engaged following, increased social conversation, and revenue funding growth in the form of Cupcake ATMs and 10 stores in North America.

The Bad

The other day I stopped by a local breakfast place for brunch. On the table was a nicely designed flyer asking patrons to, “Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Foursquare.”

As I read this sign the age-old CRM adage, “What’s in it for me?” sprung to mind. There was no reason cited as to why I should ‘follow’ them. There was a QR code taking you to their Facebook page. Perhaps to see nutritional information – that could be a good reason, to access a secret menu or a word of the day for a discount. Yet there was nothing. So why would I pull out my phone and go to their Facebook, Twitter or Foursquare page when I’m in the restaurant having a bite with some friends? Perhaps curiosity was the tactic but it’s a stretch.

What is concerning is the tremendous waste especially given the other demands on a small business owner’s time. Think of the effort to have the promotion sitting their on the table and the lost opportunity cost of perhaps using the space to market patrons a new smoothie, menu item or special which I could buy right there and then. Instead this flyer encouraged me to disconnect from my physical presence for a minute and ‘follow’ the restaurant. Out of curiosity I went to their Facebook and their Twitter pages later in the day and found a daily post demonstrating some effort being put into a social campaign yet also missing the mark. Their .com site on the other hand is packed with great information including nutritional information and sign up to their club, which provides a number of two-for-one style benefits.

What is the cost of printing the flyer, maintaining the social sites, placing the card at each table? What is the opportunity cost? What is the distraction value of taking someone somewhere else when they are in front of you and ready to spend? This company is clearly going through the motions and checking the boxes yet are failing to go the last mile at this time. They have all the costs and none of the return.  I fear this company is measuring success by total followers as opposed to new customers or increased sales, which is all to often the mistake.

And the… (not so pretty)

Picture a local pizza joint. There is a sign on the shop frontage and by the register asking patrons to, “Like us on Facebook.” If you go to their Facebook page and scroll back to the date of joining in 2010 it all started with what appears to be a picture a day. The pictures were a good tactic – a packed restaurant, a heart shaped pizza marking Valentines Day but the cadence of these posts dropped after a few months. Over the last 6 months they average less than 3 per month. It’s a local store, posting a picture of the fresh pizza just out the oven at lunch time is not a bad idea. Certainly worth a try.

Establishing a competitive advantage

The shift in how we both find and consume information yields many opportunities for small businesses to leverage social campaigns and platforms for increased revenue. However with so much choice (Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare, Google+ etc.) not to mention maintaining a website, establishing and building a presence on each of these social sites must feel like the equivilant of carrying 5 or 6 different cell phones at the same time. As an industry we should be able to address this issue and we’re seeing it happen – consolidation through acquisition, the creation of standards, the advancement in tools such as HootsuiteatomkeepSeesmicping.fmtwitterfeed, which allow the management of multiple social profiles or at least the ability to post to multiple profiles, and further innovation. In the mean time, there are some creative examples out there which justify the investment and demonstrate that social is able to provide a distinct competitive advantage.

The key take away – have a plan and work towards a clear goal. As businessman and columist Harvey Mackay once said, “Failures don’t plan to fail, the fail to plan.” Research and discuss techniques and tactics with others including your customers. Adjust your tactics based on your wins. Create a new social experience – something which is unique to your business and resonates with your customers – make the connection. Recognize the advantage over your competitors and know that many will give up. Don’t give up. Solicit feedback from your customers and act on the information accordingly. Data is your friend – remember how Sprinkles is collecting data and sending back to head office. On the tool side both Facebook Insights and Google Social Analytics provide some great dashboards – understanding this data will help you measure engagement along with your own sales information. You can’t manage what you don’t measure.

Image credit: flickr/55His.com

Google+ Hits The Social Sweet Spot

Google+ lit up last week as comments and jokes bounced back and forth regarding the new user interface and the ‘mysterious’ white space to the right of the screen.

Perhaps more poignant in the battle for most Monthly Active Users (MAU) – a key measure of engagement used by social networks – is how Google positioned its social offering. Often tagged as ‘late-to-market’ Google+ has received both positive and negative reviews. Few, if any however, have taken into account Google’s positioning in the heavily desirable and untapped white space that exists between Social networks and Communities. It is this positioning along with the insatiable interest in all things social, which might just provide the key Google needs to unlock the powerful network effects of Facebook.

To explain this better, take a pen and draw a line on a piece of paper. Label one end, ‘Social network’ and the other ‘Community.’ Now start listing various social networks and communities next to the corresponding label. If we’re on the same page you should end up with something like this:

Social Networks are fundamentally different from Communities

Grouping these sites based on their core allows us to quickly visualize and separate the two models. The primary difference is best described as the glue that holds them together.

In a social network for example – a past, present or future relationship is what connects the members. In a community it’s a shared interest that brings people together. Think of a tennis club as an example of an offline community.

Today, with social media being one giant melting pot term, the two models are commonly interchanged and the fact that they are two models (and very different ones at that) is often lost or overlooked.

The large social networks and communities we use today are at the extreme ends of the scale creating an untapped space in the middle – essentially a foothold in both camps. These sites continue to invest considerable time and resources to nudge themselves more towards the center of the line suggesting a level of desirability held by the space – however given the difference in the models expecting this to happen overnight is akin to stopping an oil tanker on a dime.

While it is true that community can form within a social network and visa versa it’s very difficult for a social network to force or facilitate community and for a community to force or facilitate a social network. The reasons for this are based on both internal and external factors. Externally, the primary reason people join each are different, and internally the skills required to be successful are different. For example, community development is often counter-intuitive or at odds with the social networking business model. This could explain why Google allowed YouTube to be a standalone business and Mark Zuckerburg announced last week on his newsfeed, “We’re committed to building and growing Instagram independently.”

To date neither LinkedIn nor Facebook has seen runaway success in their community building efforts:

  • LinkedIn Groups are an attempt to build community however they continue to lack any community feel
  • Facebook Subscribe allows users to ‘follow’ another user based on an interest however they may have no relationship with.
  • Facebook Groups for Schools launched this month attempt to generate community within Facebook’s social network. To soon to tell but definitely worth watching.

Think of social network operators as brokers

The reason for the investment can be found in the words used by the fictional detective Lieutenant Columbo as he looks to solve a homicide, “follow the money.”

Social networks are interested in community as community tends to generate significant amounts of content (All Things Digital reported Instagram users upload more than 5 million photos a day and generate 81 comments per second, as of today the niche programming community site stackoverflow.com has generated 2,947,135 questions or almost 10m pieces of content based on an average of 2.35 answers per question.) As the age old adage goes, ‘content is king.’

The reason content is king is because when combined with demographic and behavioral information it provides unmatched opportunities for targeting based on a users digital body language. Social network and community operators are essentially the brokers between advertisers and consumers. It is at the point these two parties meet that revenue opportunities exist. It is no surprise therefore that the 2 of the largest players in social networking – Google and Facebook obtain the majority of their revenues from advertising and arguably you could include LinkedIn as it obtains 30% from advertising and 45% from recruiting tools – which is essentially doing the same thing – matching users with interested parties (recruiters as opposed to marketers).

Given social networks need communities for continued growth, adoption and engagement they essentially have 3 options to obtain them. We’ve seen all of these in action:

  1. Build – Google+, Facebook Groups for Schools, LinkedIn Groups
  2. Buy – Facebook and Instagram, Google and YouTube
  3. Partner – LinkedIn and Twitter.

Building takes time, buying requires care and diligence not to upset the foundation of community (see Instagram backlash) and partnering has its own risks given the intense competition in the space. Motorola employees may think back to the partnership with Apple after which Apple entered the phone business and almost destroyed Motorola’s handset division.

Google+ a foot in both camps

Google+ is interesting because in being late to the game, Google had the opportunity to assess the market and position itself in the center. Given both LinkedIn and Facebook have been heading in this direction – could this be the sweet spot for social?

Google+ blends both community and social networking together. As a member you can participate based on interest, a relationship or both. This capability is build from the ground up and is the very fabric of the experience – it is a first and certainly not an after thought requiring a re-architecture akin to changing the engine while traveling at 100mph. The intuitive ‘circles’ enables users to manage the relationships and control their overall experience.

Whilst this social sweet spot or ‘networked community’ for want of a better term is unchartered waters, it does provide a myriad of new opportunities and benefits to Google. Combine these with Google’s other well-adopted product lines such as Search, Gmail not forgetting the YouTube community and the possibilities begin to multiply.

As users look for consolidation of their social presence in addition to increased value/return, and advertisers look to increasingly segment and target the pro-sumers, Google+ becomes a very attractive offering.

Will focusing on the upcoming IPO distract Facebook? Will Facebook be able to address concerns regarding the large numbers of its user base switching to a yet to be monetized mobile experience? Will Google and Facebook be able to walk the line between keeping their member base happy and offering value/return to marketers? Will Google be able to exploit its positioning of Google+ as a ‘networked community’ and clarify their offering as a new social experience? Will Google be able to leverage the developer community to bolster its offering? Will Google win over businesses and consumers to help drive a potential network shift? Will Facebook double down and wow us with something insainly brilliant? Will Google’s diversified product portfolio provide the leverage it needs to break the intensely strong network effects of Facebook?

As these two titans battle out for most active users, perhaps LinkedIn will consider bolstering its community offerings with potential acquisition targets such as focus.com or Quora? We’ll find out the answers to these questions in the coming months – it’s going to be an interesting couple of years ahead.

This article was originally published exclusively on socialmediatoday.com and gained ~300 shares in the first 48 hours helping it become the top post on the site that week.

10 Reasons Communities Should Be Core To Your Social Strategy

Thousands of professionals collaborate to solve workplace challenges each and every day in online communities such as focus.com, stackoverflow.com, and toolbox.com. While working at Toolbox.com I had the pleasure of seeing this collaboration in addition to working with many multi-national / global organizations interested in engaging with the community.

In 2011 we experienced a clear shift in the appetite for social driven campaigns over traditional online campaigns as social strategies emerge, take hold and in some cases mature within organizations.

Below is a list of 10 reasons engaging in a professional community should be core to a social strategy:

  1. Shortlists are formed and buying decisions can be made in a community. The 2011 Toolbox.com IT Purchasing survey found >62% of decision makers cited they use best practice communities to support purchasing decisions – see A future for lead generation.
  2. Conversation about products and services take place daily – it was not unusual for a company’s prospects, customers and employees to already be engaged in conversation – yet without social monitoring a company often has no centralized knowledge or visibility of this effort.
  3. Scalable social efforts. Altimeter Group stated this well with the research on 1:1 dialog citing as a model it is not scalable in social media. Leveraging the community (brand advocates, employees, customers) and providing visibility to a centralized social model is a good path to scale.
  4. Communities are a business priority for many engaging in social programs. According to Altimeter research published in December 2010, ‘community platforms’ are a top social business priority for 2011.
  5. Identification of brand advocates and influencers. The 2011 Toolbox.com/PJA Social Media Index survey found that >70% of the members who actively participate in the Toolbox.com community do so to help others. Communities provide a great vehicle to identify brand advocates, potential employees and influencers.
  6. Communities are strong and resilient. Social networks continue to struggle to spawn successful communities. Communities are often formed and held together by an interest in the topic, where a social network is formed and held together by a past, present or future relationship. Whilst they are not mutually exclusive – a social network can form within a community and vice versa for example – Social networks have so far failed to build successful community with valuable dialogue. Communities are very much about social discovery – a topic which is heating up right now. Are social networks the correct or best place to offer thought leadership and support of your products and services? What is the true ROI – are you investing ‘scarce’ resources in the right place? See ‘Can a social network form a successful community?
  7. Communities provide an opportunity to engage (and develop lasting relationships) in every stage of the customer cycle from sales pipeline through to customer support. At Toolbox.com we regularly shared examples internally where a member has been helped by a company and as a result the company has won new or repeat business. Answering questions, addressing concerns or providing thought leadership provides another opportunity to offer an excellence customer experience – whether it is answered by an employee or a brand advocate (as is often the case in a community).
  8. Participating in an established Community removes the overhead of technology. It is very much a service model. Let Toolbox worry about the cost, audience, moderation (to prevent spam and misuse etc.), the platform. Remove the overhead and focus on your prospects and customers. On a recent customer call, a fortune 100 company said, “I’ve stopped counting the number of failed communities we’ve been involved in over the last 5 years.”
  9. Communities provide an excellent source of feedback (product innovation, customer feedback) and reusable content. Both these items which were traditionally costly to source can now be obtained for little to no cost by engagement.
  10. Professional communities are made up of professionals. In the majority of cases professionals are employees of companies. As companies look to leverage / market talented employees, and integrate social engagement into workflows, its often a lot easier than you would think given many employees are already participating.

Share your thoughts in the comments box below.