Friday, January 30, 2009

3 Things My Cats Can Teach You About Brand Engagement

It seems like everyone is writing about using social media to engage your customers with your brand and establish meaningful relationships, so it must be pretty easy, right?

Well, in a way, yes it is— so easy that even my cats can show you how to create deep engagement between your customers and your brand—if you follow these 3 simple guidelines:

1. Establish Relationships, Not Transactions
2. Give Them A Reason To Come In (and recognize them when they do)
3. Do What THEY Want You To Do, Not What YOU Want To Do

My cats (SAM and Cleo) and I have a typical customer-to-brand relationship. I’m the brand. I have goods and services that they want and need; they have payment that I want.

The currency my cats give me is affection, which they show by purring. To me, their purrs are the reason why I’m in the business of having cats.

The cats, of course, don’t purr just because I want them to—I’ve got to provide them food, water, a clean litter box and lots of attention. They’re demanding customers, but their purrs are their way of telling me that they are satisfied customers.
1. Relationships are better than transactions.

As customers and brands, we have a lot of transactions during any given day—I put food in their bowl, turn the water on in the sink for a drink, open the door and let them outside, scratch behind their ears when they have an itch, play with them when they are frisky, clean the litter box, etc.

For each one of those transactions, I get a small payment—I pet the cat and the cat usually gives me a nudge of appreciation in return.

But these are transactions anyone can do. The cat doesn’t really show affection—she isn’t purring, she’s just allowing me to take what I want from her. It’s like ringing up a sale at the cash register—I don’t really want to give you my money, but it’s what it costs to get the goods, so I do it. The cat lets me pet her because that’s what the service cost. There's no meaningful connection.

The real sign of my cats’ happiness comes when they come to me of their own volition, and spend time in my lap with their little purr motor churning away.

When that happens, the cat is saying that I did a LOT of things right that day, and they appreciate the effort.

That’s the sign of a relationship and deep engagement. And it’s a lot more satisfying for both of us than just a quick pet. Are you petting your customers, or are they purring for you?

2. Give Them A Reason To Come In and Recognize Them When They Do.

I want my cats in the house every night. I used to live in Lake Tahoe where bears, coyotes and owls would eat cats that weren’t inside after dark. So I like to take care of my cats (customers) by bringing them in at a regular time, partly to soothe my own fears that they are still there.

How do you do that?

Give them a reason to come in. For a brand, they might come for your blog or discussion forums where they can hang out with friends, a promotion or they come looking information updated daily. Give them a reason to come.

My cats love to eat. I regulate their food intake so they have dry food available all day long but their food dish is usually empty by evening. They’re not starving, but I like to keep them a little hungry so they have a good reason to come home.

Every night at 10 pm, I call for the cats, refill their dry food and give them a treat of canned food. They like being outside chasing bugs and things a LOT...but they like to eat even more. I know I’m motivating my customers with something they really want. I do this consistently, every day.

The result is that they now know how to tell time. My cats can be away all day long, but they still stroll into the house between 9:30 and 10:00 pm. every night on their own accord looking for food.

It’s important that they ALWAYS get food at that time and that I recognize them when they do come home. They don’t always act like it, but the fact is that my cats like it when I make a fuss over them—they appreciate the recognition. A simple “thanks for coming in, SAM" always gets his acknowledgment. If I DON’T say anything, he walks right by me and ignores me.

I always have to remember that the cats don’t come home because I want them to--they come because I give them a reason to. If I stop giving them that reason and recognition for doing so, they will stop coming.

And here’s a cool thing-- if I’m working late and haven’t noticed that it’s past 10 pm, both cats will start raise a ruckus and let me know that it’s time to feed them.

As customers, they are telling me that they fulfilled their part of the deal by showing up and that they are used to a consistent behavior. They remind me to uphold my customer service standards. It’s a good reminder.

3. Do What THEY Want You To Do, Not What YOU Want
To Do

My cats are brother and sister but couldn’t be more different from each other. Cleo is affectionate, doesn’t stray too far from home, curious, loves to be cuddled and always comes when she is called. She’s the loyal customer who always wants to know what your company is up to.

SAM is more aloof, gets annoyed if you pet him when he’s not in the mood, doesn’t like to be picked up, doesn’t like change, tolerates attention and is cautious. He likes to be ‘around’ me, but keeps his distance. EXCEPT...twice a day, without fail, he turns into a loving, affectionate purr machine for around 15 minutes. And then he goes back to being aloof.

Ever have a customer like that? I think MOST of them are like SAM. You’ve got to take advantage of that 15 minutes of affection when HE wants to give it, or it's gone.

Keep in mind that MY objective is to get purrs from the cats, and that it's something that I have to entice them to give. But obviously, I can’t treat them the same way to get purrs—they both like different things and different tactics.

Cleo always greets me when I walk in the door. She knows the sound of my motorcycle and can be in the backyard catching lizards, but when she hears my bike pull up, she runs inside the house and is waiting for me at the front door like a dog.

She’s like an Apple customer whenever there is a new product announcement by Steve Jobs. She wants to be close to me and wouldn’t think of going anywhere else.

SAM is a lot cooler. If he’s in the house, he’ll look at me and give a slight nod of the head, like “it’s okay if you come over if you pet me, but I’m fine if you don’t.” If I try to pick SAM up, he either runs away or howls in protest. He clearly doesn’t enjoy it.

He’s like most of your customers. He wants acknowledgment, but not a lot of attention. He wants to be left alone until he dictates the terms of the interaction. I'm okay with that.

Here’s the thing though—if I give my attention to SAM before acknowledging Cleo, she gets jealous and will cry and paw at me until I pay attention to her instead. I have to pet her before I focus on SAM. If I don't, she goes and sulks for awhile.

The lesson there is: pay attention to your most loyal customers FIRST. They’ve earned it, they want it, and they demand it. Reward their loyalty and they will continue to give it to you.

The point is, of course, that it takes time to observe the different behaviors between different customers (cats) and to learn to respond appropriately. What makes one cat (customer) happy isn’t what makes another one happy.

It takes patience, an ability to listen and a willingness to adapt to each customers needs to develop a rewarding relationship for both sides.

They Want To Purr

Lastly, it’s important to remember that most cats would prefer to have a nice warm lap to cuddle up with, regular food and know that they are going to be cared for—it’s a much better life than an alley cat that has to scramble daily to satisfy its needs.

Your customers are like that too—they WANT to have a good, consistent relationship with your brand—it makes their life easier and more enjoyable.

Follow these 3 simple rules, and you’ll have your customers engaged and purring too.

Am I missing anything? What do your pets teach you?

Add to Technorati Favorites

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Five Lessons, Ten Years After.

I've just recently passed the 10 year mark of working for LiveWorld, which I celebrated with a handful of jelly bellies, a diet coke and a passing nod that time really does fly when you're having fun. It's hard to believe that I've spent ten years working in the practice of developing online and offline communities--I still feel like I have start-up passion, conviction and optimism.

I'm not going to wax philosophical on the strange and curious wonders I've seen in this business--suffice it to say that my general observation is that building communities and brand engagement marketing is pretty much like reporting the news--the names and the tools used to do the job change, but the actual events remain pretty much the same.

I would, however, like to share a few lessons that I've learned that might be helpful both on a personal level in the workplace and for brands wanting to engage with their customers.

1. Listen to what is really being said, not just the words actually spoken.
The words "I hate you" usually mean "I want to love you but something is in the way." Translation: your most vociferous detractors really want to be your biggest fans. Take action on what people actually say...and what they were really trying to tell you.

2. Everybody wants to help.
Feedback, complaints, suggestions, comments--almost everybody wants to help! Regardless of whether you think the input is helpful or not, assume that people's intentions are good and give every suggestion the same consideration as if you had thought of it yourself.

My cat Cleo (pictured above) thinks she's helping me work by sprawling all over my keyboard and demanding attention. There are days when that seems really annoying and I want to push her aside. Those are the days when she is reminding me that taking time to scratch behind her ears will make her purr, and her purring will change my perspective.

Then there are days when I thank her for wanting to help, pick her off my keyboard and place her on the floor and get on with my work. But always acknowledge when someone wants to help and let them, or they will stop offering...and stop purring.

You want to encourage purring.

3. Everyone speaks the truth.
Not all truths are the same, of course. One person can tell you that you're great, and another person can say that you suck...and they are both right. So who do you believe? You get to choose which truths you will accept and will act on, but listen to what everyone is telling you and find the truth in it that you can use. There's something useful in what both sides are saying.

4. Speak the truth, be transparent and do the right thing.
It's a simple concept--don't lie or exaggerate. Just tell the truth. Admit when you make a mistake and when you are successful, don't take credit that isn't yours. People like the truth and we all know hyperbole when we hear it. "First, best, leader, anything ending in -est" is probably not the truth and will make people not trust you.

A corollary to this--give more credit to people around you than you take for yourself. It makes people feel good, encourages them to help even more and they probably deserve it more than you do anyway. Success is always a team effort.

And the right thing. This doesn't need definition--if you have to ask if you're doing the right thing, then you're not. Always go with your gut (and not your head) on that one.

5. Don't be afraid to fail.
We learn more from failures than successes so change the word failure to education. You know that campaign you tried that didn't go over so well? We sure learned a lot from that experience, didn't we?

On the other hand, don't make the same mistake twice. The point IS to succeed and learn. Just remember that if nobody is dying for real, it's not really an emergency or a disaster. We'll come back and do better tomorrow.

Oh yeah...

6. Have Fun and Break a Few Rules Every Now and Then.
100% of the people I know would rather have fun than not have fun. Create an environment and user experience where people can have fun and good results will follow. Joy lightens everything it touches and makes all the hard work worthwhile...and makes people want to come back for more.

As for breaking rules...well... rules are for those who lack creativity and don't trust themselves to the right thing. If you can't trust yourself, who can you trust?

Do you have any rules for success that you'd like to share?

Add to Technorati Favorites

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

What Can't You Do Without?

One of the great things about my job is that I work with some amazing people who are smart, passionate, eloquent, curious, kind, and eclectic. We have interesting conversations on a wide range of topics in the office and overall, we posses a wry sense of humor at LiveWorld.

Sometimes You Can't See The Sky For The Air

For some reason, a few of us were discussing aeronautics the other day and scientifically discounting the commonly-held teaching that the Bernoulli effect is what makes an airplane fly.

One of our engineers, a former officer in the US Air Force, who heretofore had been busy quietly writing code, suddenly raised his head, stopped typing and said non-chalantly, "I know what makes an airplane fly." The rest of us stopped talking, and listened intently. This is a guy with inside information, after all.

"Money," he said. "Money makes airplanes fly. Whenever an airline runs out of money, they stop flying. So Money must be what makes airplanes fly."

And then he went back to writing code.

We laughed, of course, because the logic is irrefutable. Without money, an airplane doesn't fly, and while we were talking about physics theory, Tim was pointing out a practical reality. Sometimes you can look so deeply at a problem that you miss an obvious connection.

Not Failing Is Better Than Not Succeeding

If we extend Tim's observation to online community, it's important to ask "what makes my community fly?" When developing a new community...or even when trying to grow an existing one, we often focus (rightly) on the core question of "what do we want to DO with this community?" We set about creating a plan and outlining the steps that in theory, will lead to success.

We ask...what are the goals and objectives? What benefits are there to be gained for the members? The brand? What's the ROI and the value? Success is elusive, so most of us will ask all of the questions we think we need to find success...but we often DON'T ask...

...what is it that we need in order to not fail?

This is an important question, in my opinion, because if you're not succeeding, you're still in the game and can turn things around. A community that is not succeeding can have an influx of ideas, strategy and tactics that can help it grow, become vital and thrive.

A failed community, however, is dead and cannot be resurrected. You have to start all over again if you fail. And it gets harder to develop a community the second...or third...or fourth time around.

Thus, I think that not failing is more important than succeeding. It's a process...a step along the way.

Without money, the Wright Brothers can't develop an airplane, and an airline doesn't fly. You could also say "fuel" is what makes airplanes fly too, because without it, the plane isn't getting off the ground either. There can be (and probably is) more than one component to "not failing".

Ask Not What You Need, But What Can't You Do Without?

So, what does a community need in order to fly? What can it absolutely not do without? Well, I don't have all the answers, but I think I'd offer this list for starters:
  • People.
  • Purpose--a common reason to be there. (see yesterday's blog entry)
  • Passion--folks have to care enough about the purpose to bother to show up.
Take away any of these three components, and the community probably isn't going to succeed. Thus, these are the most important vital signs of the community that are worth checking on a regular basis. Are you getting enough people into the community? Is the purpose of the community clear? Are you generating sufficient passion to keep visitors engaged?

Keeping your finger on the pulse and checking for these vital signs frequently will help to keep your community flying high. They are the sine quo non of building online community.

If you are interested in HOW to keep these vital signs healthy, just ask in the comments box and I'll happily reply. There's no shortage of tips, tricks and tactics here.

What do you think? Am I missing anything? What do YOU think a community needs in order to keep flying? What can't YOUR community do without?

Add to Technorati Favorites

Monday, January 19, 2009

What's YOUR Higher Purpose?

Today, of course, was Martin Luther King's birthday, a day we celebrate not just the man, but the ethics and noble ideals that he inspired in so many. We honor this man for his selfless dedication and ability to inspire others to commit to a higher purpose of achieving equality and justice for all.

All across America today, many communities participated in a day of service motivated, in part, by President-elect Obama's call to honor Dr. King's example by working for a common good.

President Kennedy's famous inauguration speech--"ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country" has been a guiding principle in my life since childhood. I grew up with the sense of idealism and higher purpose Kennedy speaks of, and thankfully, it has weathered several decades of cynicism.

The Higher Purpose of Community

Today is a good day to remind ourselves that we ALL have a higher purpose, and this concept relates to the practical matter of using social media to develop online communities. Now, I don't want to diminish the magnitude of Dr. King's achievements by linking him with marketing and social media. Rather, I want to show how his inspiration can be applied to some of the common aspects of life too, not just the big things.

I've been musing a lot lately on the definition of 'community.' How do you define it? I'm coming to the belief that every community, in order to be called a community, must possess two core elements: action and higher purpose.

What noble ideal will inspire people to join...and work for this community?

Now, I am a community manager for several well-known brands and many folks might want to know where is the higher purpose in selling something? What's Nike's higher purpose? Exxon's? McDonald's? Can you really build a community around each of these brands? (note: I don't work for any of these companies)

Well, yes, I could. By bringing people together around what these companies either represent or COULD represent as their higher purpose.

What Business Are You Really In?

Nike isn't in the business of selling shoes. Their higher purpose is selling Excellence. Their higher purpose has to do with YOUR self-image--your desire and ability to see yourself as a high performance, healthy person who values Excellence, Discipline and Hard Work. The shoes are just a means to those aspirations.

Can you create a community of people who are motivated to excel and give them the tools and peer support to do so? You betcha. A Nike community is easy to develop.

If I were developing a community for Exxon, I would suggest that their higher purpose is providing the energy that powers our life. (regardless of the lifestyle we choose). McDonald's higher purpose is feeding people inexpensively.

Image Problem? Look in the Mirror.

Each of the companies I've mentioned has an image problem, and yet, each of these companies sells their products to MILLIONS of people around the world. Obviously, they have some fans. If you buy these products or are employed by these companies, YOU are their image. What kind of story do you tell?

Having ordinary people tell their stories of how these brands have a positive influence in their life would go a long way to altering the common public perception.The fact is that Nike, Exxon and McDonalds DO do some good things--we just hardly ever hear about them.

Now, I'm not defending or promoting any of these companies...I'm just pointing out how appealing to a sense of higher purpose is needed to develop a sense of community. If these companies more clearly define their higher purpose and develop a community based on those ideals, then their community will help them...and help direct them towards right, noble actions.

No one would join a community that supports child labor in Third World countries, encourages the pillage of the environment or promotes obesity in children. Nobody is going to join a community about shoes, gasoline or cheap hamburgers, either.

Appeal to the Best in People, not their Fears or Prejudice.

50 years ago, no one would join a community and face jail, beatings and death to support the right of supposedly inferior humans to vote, sit anywhere on the bus or in a restaurant, or have equal access to schools either. It took the inspiration of a higher purpose--the appeal to more noble and loftier notions of Equality and Justice--to bring about that type of change.

Only communities--people acting together with a higher purpose--can deliver that type of change.

So before you build your community, ask yourself--what is your higher purpose? Make it big. What noble ideals are you promoting?

Please share your comments--I'd love to engage in a conversation with you.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

What's A Community Worth Anyway?

The nagging question of 2009 in my line of work is—what’s all this ‘community’ and ‘social networking' stuff worth anyway?

Ask the right question.

I recently had an inquiry from one of our sales folks who asked a seemingly innocent and reasonable question: A prospect was asking “what type of participation can they expect if they added community to their e-commerce site?”

They wanted to know if x number of people visit the ‘main’ site, what y number of people would participate in the community?

I know both the prospect and the sales person were hoping for a neat, succinct answer. Say…10%. It really didn’t matter what the number is, they just wanted a number.

Implied in the question, of course, is the question “what is a community worth?” It’s that ROI issue—if a client invests money in a community site, how will they know if they got an appropriate value in return?

Now, I love our sales folks. They live and breath this stuff too and they have a challenging job. Part of my job is to give them insight/information to help make their job easier.

I hate giving a long answer to a short question, but here is my (edited) email response:

What Does 'Participate' Mean Anyway?“

Not only does community participation vary based on online/offline promotion of the community and how community is integrated on the website, it can also vary by what one calls 'participation'.

Responding to a poll question or clicking to rate something can be totally anonymous and not require any member self-identification with the community. Yet those are acts of participation that provide tremendous value to the community.

Reading a blog entry and gathering information from it is valuable to me, the reader, even if I don’t choose to leave a comment. Did I ‘participate’ in the community by reading the content, or do I only count as participating if I register, login and leave a comment?

Benchmarks, who's got benchmarks?

I know that everyone in the industry wants benchmarks so they can gauge the expected results of their community investment. The problem is that there aren’t any objective criteria to qualify benchmarks, in part because of the number of variables that enter into the equation.

Not only are there varied definitions of what constitutes community participation, but the site implementation and community visibility on the site factors in, as well as any offline promotion given by the client means that any figure we give is truly a wag. Sure, we can say 10-20% of total visitors on some of our sites will click on a ‘community’ link but we (or anyone else, for that matter) don't really have any reliable data to support what type of participation a community can expect.

Thinking in terms of "if we invest x number of dollars, we should get y number of posts, comments, visits, etc," is really the wrong way to think about online community, though. You probably already know that and this might not be what the prospect wants to hear but...

…the value is immeasurable. It has value, or course. We just can’t measure it yet. We need to rephrase the core question.

Value. C'mon, what's it really worth?

Here are a couple of examples of why we need to reshape that customer question/objection of what is essentially "what is the investment worth?"

1. I purchase a lot of stuff off Amazon and I read a lot of ratings and reviews before nearly every purchase. I don't buy things with bad reviews, I do buy things with positive reviews. I personally have never written a review and rarely leave ratings on products I buy on Amazon, yet I am significantly affected by the actions of the community.

There isn't a good way to track the value to me, or from me as a consumer, but I will state categorically that I do not buy ANYTHING without checking out reviews and ratings. I don't actively 'participate' in the community, but without it, I take my purchases elsewhere.

2. Many times on a community site, customers will complain about:
--product defects
--poor customer service
--desired features that are lacking

Even when the forums are NOT specifically customer support boards, what is the value of the ONE post that asks a question/complains about a problem that is resolved by either: a) an official representative of the company or b) a member-generated response?

In either case, you could calculate the saving of a reduction in customer support call, but you don't really know the reach of the one question. The question could be posted once, but read by 100 people and thus saving 100 customer support calls at a cost of z dollars each, or it could have been seen by 1,000 people.

We really don't know since those metrics won't show up as 'participation'. The value is there, but how do you calculate it?

If Something Good Happens and No One Knows About It, Does It Have a Value?

Likewise, how do you calculate the benefit of the ONE feature suggestion that is really good and makes the product better and makes it sell better? I doubt if anyone can really say “wow, member BraNdLuvveR had a great suggestion and sales increased 17% because of that improvement they suggested.” The value exists in being part of the conversation with your customers on what they would like to see to love your product even more, but how do you quantify it?

Or, what is the value of seeing one customer service issue resolved publicly that not only makes THAT customer happy, but also influences other readers of the forum who think "wow, this company is pretty cool and will resolve any issues I might have with them?"

Personally, I DO make purchasing decisions based on input that I get as to how their follow up customer support is likely to be. I bought Bose headphones for a Xmas present this year instead of comparable Shure headphones because I'd read on discussion boards that while both products fail at about the same rate, Bose will supply new headphones with no questions asked, where Shure's policy on returns involves jumping thru a bunch of hoops.

That was a $300 purchasing decision based on whether I thought I would have a *future* good customer service contact with the brand or not.

But how do you track that value?

is the right question?

In sum--as a community manager, I would be very leery of giving out metrics and expectations of performance during the sales process. It's more valuable to get the company involved to CLEARLY state their objectives, and then see how we can move towards that goal, rather than tell them what they might expect.

The more pertinent question, imo, isn't what they can expect to happen...but what do they WANT to happen by developing and connecting with their community?

And then ask them how they would measure that.”

Amazingly, after a response like that to a simple question, my sales folks still talk to me and respond to my emails. I love the people I work with--they tolerate my roundabout responses to their direct questions. :-)

And I'm getting double-duty from an email by getting a blog post out of it too, so I'm maximizing MY roi value from the question.

So my question to you, dear readers, is how DO you measure the value of an online community?

Add to Technorati Favorites