When you’re the product

This weekend’s Wall Street Journal had an interesting article about purported “social-change” website Change.org. If you’re unfamiliar with the site, you can visit and sign your name to a variety of online petitions, attempting to compel anyone from national governments to corporations to adopts or change their stance on a variety of issues.

While all that seems well and good, skeptics claim Change.org is simply some “social conscious” window dressing for a company that aims to gather and sell personal information. Beyond the questionable representation of its product, it’s a great business: Grab someone’s email address, all them rapidly tell you the causes they’re most passionate about, then package all that up and sell it to the highest bigger. Everyone from nonprofits, to political organizations, to consumer products companies are understandably clamoring for this data.

While it might be perceived as sneaky to present your company as tirelessly trying to make the world a better place, then mining and selling the data of those that use your service, it follows what’s quickly becoming the web’s golden rule:

If you’re not paying for it, YOU’RE the product being sold

What is Cloud Computing (video)?

IT BS Watch CBSO (Chief BS Officer) Patrick Gray answers the question “So what exactly is cloud computing” without resorting to technical jargon or marketing puffery. Using plain language targeted towards executives and non-technical viewers, Gray explains why you’re likely already familiar with cloud computing, and probably have already used it. Finally, learn how to determine if cloud is relevant to your organization.

The Most Friended Electric Company in Houston

On a business trip in Houston I saw a billboard for a local electric company, proudly proclaiming it was “The Most Friended Electric Company” in the city. As I’m fond of saying, that and $8 will get you a cup of coffee at your local chain coffeehouse. In short, hoarding friends, followers, likes, tweets, etc. does absolutely nothing for your business unless you can somehow translate that into sales.

I’m a big supporter of social media as one more tool in your marketing toolbox, but when it’s the cornerstone of your marketing strategy, and used to chase artificial metrics that don’t necessarily translate to sales it becomes a waste of time and effort. Obsessing about likes and friends breaks down to a “mine is bigger than yours” schoolyard argument.

Sales should be the ultimate metric for any marketing campaign, and every effort, whether its direct mail or twitter should have that end game in mind. At the end of the day I’d happily remain friendless on the social media platform du jour while cashing a giant check, than have millions of followers and nary a penny to my name.

Social Media Overload

I’ve suffered from social network overload, having followed the advice of the social media “gurus” (often self-appointed) that you must be on all the networks, all the time.

On the personal side, I’ve come to the realization that I really don’t care what that person who sat behind me in elementary school had for lunch this afternoon, or the hourly political insights of a distant relative. On the business side, I’ve started using Twitter, etc. primarily to provide information about my business and services, rather than breathlessly monitoring my number of friends and followers, or wasting time reading banalities from various twitter “celebrities.” In essence, each time I visit these services, I do so with a clear objective that provides some personal or business benefit, rather than letting the service suck away half my day. At the end of the day, I’d rather spend a few moments over coffee with a close friend or colleague, than monitor the trivialities of 1,000 FINOs (Friends In Name Only).

Bring on the Lawyers (for once!)

While I am rarely a fan of laying legislation atop technology, data breeches like the recent hack of Sony’s Playstation Network are one area where this could actually help, especially in terms of consumer protections. Most of us have signed into a fancy online service, from gmail to activating our iPhones, and been presented with 800 pages of “terms and conditions,” most of which legally absolve the provider from any and all responsibility for an incident like this.

Rather than trying to legislate specific technologies, I would advocate legislation that sets standards for what companies must do should they be hacked, similar to the current legislation around credit cards (limitations on consumer liability, etc). Some specific areas where legislation would be appropriate:

  • Minimum standards for the liability a company accepts when hacked. For example in PSN’s case, this legislation might mandate that Sony cover credit monitoring services, and any damages resulting from identity theft due to the hack.
  • Minimum notification standards when hacked. Some companies have tried to bury these types of events, and legislation would prevent that.
  • Security audit standards for companies of a certain size, or with a certain volume of financial data, similar to the current audit rules for public companies financial statements. The PSN hack hopefully will trigger more companies to do this voluntarily.

The Social Media Hype Cycle

Social Media is just another tool for your toolbox, which is unfortunately cresting the "hype cycle" were many see it as the only appropriate game in town. Imagine a carpenter who only used a hammer…

If you were around in the early 90’s the same thing happened with the web. If you could spell "H-T-M-L" your company was going to make a mint as soon as it opened its site, and we were paying techies $300 an hour to create horrible grey sites with bad copy. A few years later, everyone realized online was just another channel and needed good strategy, execution, and implementation. Soon the same will soon happen to social media.

Why Twitter is Useless

I’ve given Twitter an honest effort, and am finally prepared to pass judgment: it’s ineffective for some people, and utterly useless for the preponderance of the population. Here’s why:

Time Suck 2.0

I can hear the cries now: “But there are some real gems posted on Twitter!” Sure there are, but how much detritus did you have to wade through to find those diamonds? For every compelling insight from a business leader or truly witty nugget in Exhibit A, Exhibit B has 7,423 cat-related tweets, 19,743 tweets about what someone ate for breakfast, 954,235 tweets lamenting Monday and/or celebrating Friday, and 6,278 tweets that are so deeply encoded with tweet-speak that no human actually understands them (#RT @patgrayjr #lol #failwhale http://a.b.cd.efg.net.com.is.not.so.gd/hHjh34x).

While you can certainly find an occasional needle in a haystack, I’d rather just pull one from a sewing kit.

The “great man” theory of the Internet

When I started on twitter I followed the Twitter 101 textbook, and listened to all the breathless admonishments that “you simply must follow [Guy Kawasaki/Jeff Pulver/Laura Fitton/Robert Scoble/twitter celeb du jour]!” While I enjoy reading articles and commentary from some of these folks, 160 character insights into every aspect of their life, delivered with an annoying beep or pop-up window every 6.34 seconds gets old really fast. Do I want to read an insightful article about effective presentations from one of these folks? Sure. Do I want to hear about the author’s bowel movements? Not so much.

But your customers are out there!

Most of us have been told our customers are lurking on twitter, dying to interact with the makers of their toothbrushes, autos, and favorite ice cream. “Get on twitter, and you’ll get a great view of your customers,” the pundits say. The problem is that twitter gives you a narrow, self-selected demographic. If the only customers you care about are young, tech-savvy, moderate to high wealth individuals who are obsessive, bored, or deranged enough to interact with you constantly, by all means, do your customer research on twitter. You’ll get a skewed and outlier view (funny how everyone on twitter is really mad, or really excited about nearly everything), but it’s worth about what you paid for it.

Where twitter can be powerful is pushing out promotions, early news about your company and products, or other “broadcast” style communications, but as a tool for market research and customer interaction, realize you’re working with a very narrow base.

If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t retweet at all

In addition to wading through cat tweets, the retweet feature further reduces twitter’s questionable value. Essentially, retweeting is just passing along the work of someone else, creating an electronic echo chamber that soon drowns out any semblance of value.

Why the twitteratti are so interested in making other people look smart eludes me, but in effect, by retweeting someone else’s work that’s all you’re doing. If you don’t have something original or compelling to say, silence may be far more golden than shining the spotlight on others.

So, should I care about twitter at all?

At the risk of sounding like a total curmudgeon, I won’t harp on the other entropy created by twitter, from the (thankfully dying) trend of “live tweeting” meetings and conferences, to that friend who can’t pry themselves away from diddling a digital device rather than participating in a live conversation. So is there any value to twitter?

If you’re shilling products, or what the cool kids call a “content creator,” twitter is one more channel to promote your stuff. Use it to push high-value content, and it may shine up your brand, or perhaps even entice someone to do business with you, but twitter is certainly not a business strategy (unless you’re a “social media consultant” who makes money tweeting all day, trying to convince companies to spend more time on twitter), and shouldn’t consume more than 3% of your day.

It may also fill some deep-rooted void with the illusory “personal connection” of following a famous CEO or celebrity, and if you want a twitter hobby in your spare time, be my guest. Just don’t kid yourself that those 6 hours you spent twiddling are any better than if they had been invested watching The Real Housewives of Peoria.

Now to go tweet about what I had for breakfast…

Don’t Believe the Social Hype

In the zeal to appear “hip” many marketers have jumped on the social bandwagon for products where it is not really relevant. I recall a toothbrush that had a MySpace page early in the web 2.0 craze, and I could only imagine the meeting where some overzealous marketing manager spoke of the millions of friends the page would likely attract. While some portion of toothbrush users are certainly social media mavens (I would imagine that percentage mirrors the total population pretty closely) that does not mean those customers want to actively follow a mundane product like a toothbrush.

Similarly, social media can serve as a distraction even if it is relevant to your customers. The self-appointed gurus will tell you your most passionate customers troll the social media circles, and they are the ones you need to pay the most attention to. While this sounds good in practice, many of those customers are 1%’ers, who will complain endlessly about your products, and demand esoteric features and configurations that 99% of your market does not care about or need.

I recommend approaching social media as you would any other communications channel, and apply the same logic. You probably don’t have a “Print Strategy” and small army of “Social Newspaper Consultants,” and the associated individual media-based strategy.

Some thoughts on SEO

The penny summary? Search Engine Optimization (SEO), the “science” of making your website appear higher in the results of a search engine like Google, is a load of bull, and “consultants” shilling SEO are the modern equivalent of snake oil salesmen.

The slightly longer answer is that if you are attempting to pitch a product or service on the web, generate content that will attract consumers, not strange “keyword clouds” and awkward verbiage that will amuse the robots at Google. It’s easy to get obsessed with SEO, web hits, analytics and other esoteric metrics, but none of that matters if your website isn’t generating sales. At the end of the day, I would rather have one hit a month that generates a million dollar sale, than a million hits each months and a place atop the search engines which results in $0 of sales.

Furthermore, the search engines routinely change their algorithms (the fancy term for the programming behind the search engine), so all that SEO voodoo that gets you to the top of the ranks today may have you on page eight tomorrow. Rather than wasting time on SEO, call five customers and ask them what they like about your website, or pen a compelling new article or product description and put it on your site.

Amazon Kindle and the Tyranny of the Majority

Marketing genius Seth Godin has some comments about the Amazon Kindle, an electronic book reader, in a recent entry on his blog. While many are quite reasonable, I’m a bit shocked by his recommendations for “improving the act of reading a book.” Mr. Godin suggests “social networking” be an integral part of the reading experience, allowing readers’ comments to be shared among Kindle users, and favorite sections to be “voted up.” In my mind, this is the antithesis of the intent of published books, and exemplifies one of the prime dangers of social networking: the tyranny of the majority.

Social networking advocates have trumpeted one of the core benefits of the technology as giving every person a voice. (Note that “every person” is everyone who can afford a shiny new Mac or PC, broadband internet services, has some degree of tech-savvy and disposable time and the inclination to surf the social networking scene). A book however is the opposite. It is one person’s thoughts and prose on a topic or story, and reading is an act of intimacy between author and reader. You pay for the privilege of an unadulterated dose of the author, not the screaming masses providing pithy comments and flashing neon signs pointing to their favorite passage.

Social networking is like a NASCAR race (or football game for our international audience) where thousands shout everything from inanities to waxing philosophic. You have no say as to whether you are within earshot of a sublimely eloquent individual, or the drunk shouting expletives while spilling pilsner on your shoes. A book however is like a poetry reading, where you are alone with the poet’s words and your own thoughts. Imagine the drunken hooligan abruptly standing and loudly adding his “insights” at a poetry reading, to the approval and encouragement of the rest of the audience. Imagine Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech punctuated by some moron patched into the sound system yelling “GO TEAM!”

Both social media and traditional books have their places (as do NASCAR and poetry readings), and despite the trend to view social media as an answer to problems we didn’t even know we had, I’ll keep my books free from the scholia of the masses, thank you very much!