Wednesday, September 30, 2009

New Beginnings

On Oct. 1st I start a new job.

I feel like tomorrow is my first day at a new school. I've mapped out my new commute, packed my lunch, and set out my clothes. And although it's been many years since I actually started a new class I remember the excitement of preparing the night before.

Thankfully, this time the excitement isn't accompanied by creeping anxiety. My old fears of being the only student who can't open my locker. Or worse, picturing the taunting I'd receive after I accidentally walked into the boys bathroom, are a thing of the past. I don't even think about being called on by a teacher and not having the proper response.

Nope, the fear is gone and its replaced by the knowledge that starting something new can bring with it pure joy. Sure, I may get lost on my way to the lunch room. And I'm sure it will take weeks to learn the company's acronym soup. But after years of doing what I love, I have the confidence to know that's all part of the fun of learning.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Engaging People, a Natural Instinct?

What is it about a good sales person that makes you want to buy more? Why do some customer service representatives solve your problem but still leave you unsatisfied? How do your children know exactly what button to push?

At the end of the day, all of these questions can be answered the same way. A good sales person makes you feel special. A bad customer service representative didn't make an emotional connection through the phone, or across the desk. Your children make it their job to know you best - after all, you are the keeper of all things special - that new video game, permission to drink a glass of soda, or say it isn't so -- giver of that embarrassing kiss good-bye in front of their friends.

Why do some people do a good job of making you want to be around them and others seem to have a force that projects you away. For answers to that I look at my own family. I have four boys, each with wonderful special talents, each totally different. With the same genetic inputs and home environment how come my 8 year old Derick has always had a special ability to make strangers fall in love with him? Whether it was another young boy from San Francisco who happened to stay at the same Mexican resort as our family on vacation last summer, or the bus driver who shuffles dozens of kids to school each day, Derick charms virtually everyone he meets on the first visit. Is he more confident than my other children -- for the most part no. Does he have a better sense of humor? No, they all tell a great story and have funny one liners. Is he smarter, faster, more handsome? No, no and no. But he does have a type of radar for knowing what makes you feel special. He instinctively knows what question to ask that will engage you in a conversation that you care about.

I've found that my top performing sales colleagues share that same trait. They not only know who to spend time with, but how to make them engage. My most successful marketing campaigns have achieved the same - a dialogue.

While the skills are clearly natural for some people, can you learn to be a magnet for your target audience? If the answer is yes, there are a few people I'd like to put through "magnetism bootcamp" -- a certain Comcast service representative, the last webcast moderator I sat painfully through and a grumpy crossing guard top my list.

What do you think?

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Before You Talk, Think Like a Listener

Last night I watched President Obama address Congress about health insurance reform. It's a stark contrast to the Woburn Mayoral debate hosted in our local high school earlier in the evening. Yet they both have something important in common. Both forums are putting very personal, emotional issues on the table, trying to solicit support from a wide range of people.

I've long been intrigued by organization change initiatives and while politics is different from running a family, or operating a business, I'm surprised how common the challenges of change are among all groups.

In an attempt to gain a fresh perspective I brought my 11 year old son to the mayoral debate. While we were not able to attend the entire session, it was an enlightening experience. It served to remind me that how you communicate is as important as what you communicate, especially while championing change.

After listening to opening statements and the candidates respond to a few questions I asked Nicholas who he would vote for based on what he knew at the time. To my surprise he answered quickly and definitively, "the man in the brown suit". Perhaps not coincidentally, I would make the same choice, although I had not shared that with Nicholas.

Curious, I asked him why. He responded immediately, "because he's focused on solutions".

Was the man in the brown suit more qualified for the job than the other three candidates? No, most had similar levels of business and political experience. Did he offer solutions that were significantly different from the other candidates? No, in fact they all seemed to provide similar recommendations.

The difference: How he communicated. The "brown suit candidate" was prepared, articulate, and responded to the issues at hand thoughtfully giving a sense of openness. By contrast two of the other candidates were disrespectful of the time allotted to respond, focused on other's weaknesses instead of their own strengths and generally appeared disorganized. The final candidate, the incumbent mayor, was organized, and articulate. But perhaps because he was under attack, or perhaps because of his personal style he focused on past performance, was rigid, and projected a closed persona.

In political debates, in the board room, or sitting at lunch with your friends the lesson holds true -- don't just think about what you want to say, but how you want to say it.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Brands: Please Speak to ME

I've been intrigued by recent articles guiding marketers on the use of social media tools including Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn to market their brand. While the advice is not bad, I generally find it uninspiring, common sense practices. So, I decided to run a very unscientific study of my own.

During the past several months I've followed a series of brands that affect my personal life on Twitter, observed my Facebook friends engage with products, and leveraged LinkedIn to network with recruiters, competitors and old friends. Along the way I've observed some interesting trends and a surprising lack of sophisticated integration among mediums.


Active Listening - I was pleasantly surprised to find that most of the brands I touch are listening. I can tell because they respond to my posted comments. For example, I recently gave a Twitter shout out to Norton for an easy install on my home PC. Within a couple of hours they had responded with a congrats and thank you. It made me feel good that the brand was listening. Similarly, I had complained about my disappointment in Six Flags Twitter posts. I had followed them hoping for discounts and promotional news, but instead received a series of on-site scavenger hunts in cities far away. Within minutes they responded, acknowledged my concern and asked me to be patient. Within a week, they had posted exactly what I was hoping to receive, a great promotion program, and it wasn't just for me. Two very good examples of not just listening, but active listening.

Leveraging community - TDWI is a professional organization for data professionals. It has taken what has historically been a very event driven community, and translated it into an active LinkedIn group. I'm impressed by the interactive discussions that flow on a routine basis. I attribute their success to three factors (1) the community drives the discussion topics with helpful prodding of new content along the way(2) the group shares what is happening with those that are not yet active and (3) the group's values as a vendor-neutral education forum are maintained by publishing guidelines for participation and calling out "spammers".

Being Personal - Thank goodness most organizations are creating personas that are real. People use what has in the past been feared: "the first person" (Insert ominous music here...dum, dum, dum). I've always believed that making people feel you are communicating to them as a person is the most effective way to communicate, be it in an ad, direct mailer or email campaign. Social media now gives us the mandate and authority to lead with a first person voice.

I experienced this first hand with Wilton (a cake & candy making supply company). Wilton recently posted a tweet asking how people started cake decorating. I responded. Not only did they acknowledge my response, they gave me a personal story back that related to my experience. We had a "personal" communication in the first person. Wilton got it right!

(if you don't know what this means, you haven't spent enough time on Twitter)

Finishing the job
For a great example of what not to do, check out this link. It tells the story of a great idea poorly executed. A PR professional looking for a job launched personal ads on the Facebook page of his potential employer. It got the attention of a key executive. But the follow on comment trails took a good idea way off track. Lesson learned - don't just aim to get someone's attention, aim to keep their attention with quality content. First impressions are important, but sustained impressions are what matters.

Get the context right
Clearly many brands are tracking mentions about themselves. A few weeks ago I tweeted about how excited I was for the Cubs championship baseball game. Major league Cubs fan clubs came out of the woodwork to engage me. The problem was, I'm not a Cubs fan. I was talking about my son's little league game. And if you read the whole post it was obvious. Those Cub fan sites forgot that you must do more than just watch for your name to be mentioned, you must read the context by which it is presented.

Spamming: it's not just adult video sites
There are some obvious spam offenders but spam comes in many shapes and sizes.
  • Avoid being known as a full time "self-promoter". Talking about yourself is part of creating a personal brand, but balance it with other content. I've been known to even congratulate a direct competitor on a recent announcement they made. No hidden agenda, just acknowledging good work in our space.
  • Be careful about participating in on-line quizzes - they often auto-generate a post with your results. Did you like the activity enough to tell your friends about it?

  • Don't retweet a link unless you've actually followed it - know what you're passing along
  • If someone uses you to promote a product or service without your permission politely call them out on it, report them as spam and then block them from your network
Hello, is any body out there?
The only people who seem to be soliciting my twitter follow are porn producers and social media "experts" obsessed with follower count. Both misplaced efforts in my regard. On the other hand, I am a member of and yet they have made no attempt to let me know about their twitter presence. Yes, I know it is hard to match email membership with Twitter IDs, but in my case the name is the same. Not to mention the "twitter follow button" couldn't be lower on their home page, and to the best of my knowledge I haven't received any Twitter email promotions (or any that got my attention) in the many, many emails I get from them.
Let's look at another example. I follow Jet Blue on Twitter. They aren't the greatest listeners but I like knowing what discount airfares are available. Why is it that no Jet Blue competitors haven't reached out to me? It's not hard to find out who follows the Jet Blue account.
Don't you recognize me?
I am the same person on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter. Yes, I use the tools to engage my community in different ways, yes I have a different approach to each tool. Yes, there is still a way to weave a thread of connection through all of the ways I communicate. I have the distinct impression that for most brands the individuals engaging in Twitter are different than for Facebook, than for MySpace etc. For example, I have a great dialogue going with the Wilton twitter team. I find them full of tips, responsive and tuned into me. And yet, they have never suggested I join their Facebook fan page. Why does that matter? It matters because my Facebook friends have almost no overlap with my Twitter followers.
While pulling together my thoughts for this post I was struck by how much the brands and people I followed on Twitter told a story about Samantha Stone. A story that every marketer dreams about -- what are my hobbies, whom do I admire or at least listen to, where do I spend my time, what do I look like, how do I describe myself. By now, most marketers should be drooling with possibilities of one to one communication.

Are today's efforts a sign of social marketing immaturity? Perhaps. But in my book it is a missed opportunity for the ultimate dialogue. Maybe instead of organizing by marketing by social tools, companies teams should be organized around the people they are trying to engage. Is that a challenge, heck yes. But imagine the possibilities.