Friday, October 30, 2009

Kraft Celebrates Football Season with Social Media

When I wrote about the Kraft iFoodAssistant widget recently, I realized that Kraft had more going on in social media and resolved to look into it. When you look, you find all the usual blogs pointing out coupon availability, which is ongoing for most CPG brands. It certainly is a new way of distribution though; and therein lies one social media impact.

What you also quickly see is two seasonal promotions for Velveeta cheese. Tis the season for tailgating or football on TV, and snacks made with Velveeta cheese are a seasonal item. The Kitchenistas blogger promotion has been going on since September; here's the microsite. In fact, today is the last day of activity for the five compensated “Mommy bloggers” who have participated in the promotion.
How does this kind of promotion affect sales? Velveeta brand manager Sherina Smith admits they don’t really know:

“It’s hard to say,” Smith says. “What we do know is that this consumer is online looking for ideas for meals. We know she blogs a lot and looks to other bloggers for tips and ideas. The more that we can be where she’s looking for ideas, the more we can be top of mind when she’s grocery shopping.”

All this context seems to create warm fuzzies for the brand, and that may be all we can say at present. I’d love to know the ROI of a low-cost promotion like this, incorporating real people, compared with the ROI of, say a traditional television commercial. Yes, I’d like to know, but what is the dependent variable—brand awareness, favorable brand attitudes, what? We’re back to the difficulties of measuring attitudes and their impact on behavior. Marketers have operated on faith that positive brand associations do matter for a long time, and I don’t think that’s going to change any time soon.

Enter the Big 10 promotion, also for Velveeta and also tied in with football season. Here’s the Big 10 Conference home page for today. Note a banner ad at the top by Rotel with a dish of cheese dip beside it. You probably won’t be surprised when you click through and find that most of the featured recipes feature Velveeta cheese. Rotel is a ConAgra brand with a non-corporate-looking website that pushes recipes and attitude.
Note that on the Big 10 home page there’s a square box pushing a contest for bowl tickets, again featuring Rotel. At the bottom of the page there is another banner that makes the Rotel Velveeta partnership more explicit. It’s all quite integrated—and hard to miss!

Kraft’s website, the iFood Assistant, and one guesses its relationships with bloggers will go on. Promotions for various brands, many of them seasonal, can also be expected to continue. What do you suppose they have on tap for Thanksgiving and Christmas? Stay tuned!

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Inventing A Successful "New" Business Model

Do you have any idea how hard it is to keep a business going year-round in a resort area? I remember reading several years ago that the summer population of the town where I live is 20,000; it goes down to 5,000 for the winter months. If you consider that the peak season is no more than 10 weeks long, with “shoulders” on either side, you begin to understand the problem. Add to that the difficulty of finding housing for seasonal workers, and you have a prescription for small business woes.

Having emphasized with the businesses where I trade for a long time, I was intrigued with one I ran across recently. Two young women have invented a business model that allows them to solve the seasonality problem. The video is about two years old, so the statistics are out of date, but the energy and charm of these two entrepreneurs is much in evidence.

Megan Murphy and Catherine Bean have a single retail location in downtown Hyannis. That’s a high-visibility tourist destination and their store obviously does well in the spring, summer and fall months. Their website supports the retail store, but it does more. They close the shop from December to March, but they don’t cease operations; they just shift to the Internet. They stay fully occupied running online parties and fundraisers. When I
talked to Megan a few weeks ago, they were booked through Christmas. I checked the site and they are now booking for February and March 2010, so they continue to move right along.

How did they invent this business model—one which is different from the usual Bricks & Mortar? As stay at home Moms, they gave product parties in their homes, so moving parties online didn’t seem like too much of a stretch. They found a supportive marketing services supplier, and they were off. From a few email addresses collected in the store, they now have a list of over 20,000 that grows with every party.

What is the moral of this story? Give eparties? While I think virtual events have a great future, it’s more than that.

These two women used their own experience, their own background; they just moved their offline activities online. Think about your last online retail experience. Did the site “suggest” other items to you the minute you put something in your shopping cart? That’s what a good retail salesperson does, just moved online. That’s the moral—move successful offline marketing activities online.

There was a blog post last week by Mack Collier that got a lot of mileage on Twitter. I don’t disagree that we need fewer social media stars and more great social media ideas. My reaction was, “How do you know it’s really a great idea?” And then I thought about Megan and Catherine. Product parties had already worked for them in one context. They moved the same winning idea into another context, one where they could achieve even greater reach.

It’s a great example of not having to reinvent the wheel to develop a winning business model!

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Engagement Lessons from Successful Brands

An interesting customer engagement study has been sitting on my desktop since late summer and it’s long since time to pay attention. The study, by Wetpaint and the Altimeter Group ranks the top 100 brands in terms of customer engagement. You can see the ranking and download the full report here.

Starbucks and Dell are number 1 and 2—no surprise there. They interviewed some other high-ranking sites, SAP at 9 Toyota at 21—about best practices, presumably to get a perspective from different industry sectors. Each of the highly engaging brands has several best practices to suggest and they are worth reading the full report. I picked out one from each that struck me as universally applicable:

Starbucks identifies people throughout the organization to be the liaison with the social media program—to monitor and to take action on customer issues and ideas. At the same time, they maintain tight central control over content and the engagement of individual baristas in their many outlets.

Toyota says you have to be in it for the long haul. No surprise there; social media is an investment of time and energy that will only pay off over time. That’s a disappointment to many who are looking for immediate returns.

SAP makes a practice of engaging in new channels where people already are. That makes it easier to listen and understand; they also encourage employees who are already active on newer channels like Twitter.

Dell points out that you have to be conversational from the start. Again—not a surprise, just really hard to do, especially for newbie brand practitioner.

The Wetpaint/Altimeter group links customer engagement to financial performance and argues that it is a more powerful driver that traditional measures of customer satisfaction. Gallup consulting agrees, and has their own measures of engagement that allow them to group firms by level of engagement. You can read their full report here.

While researching this post, I also ran across a recent article in Forbes that argues for the importance of engaging customers while admitting that engagement is hard to measure. None of this content could be judged as totally unbiased because all the marketing services/consulting firms represented have a stake in creating or measuring engagement.

For me, it’s hard to refute the arguments. You should make your own judgment!

Monday, October 26, 2009

The New CNN - Marriage of Site and Social?

Very early this morning I heard John Roberts and Kiran Chetry introducing the new CNN website on American Morning. Even at the early hour it sounded interesting, so I checked it out.

CNN's web designers seem to have brought as many different types of content to the home page as possible. It has latest news and features -- both headlines and videos, most popular (newspulse), a whole banner of editor’s picks videos in a banner across the middle of the page and topic boxes with links to stories. I think that sounds confusing, but it’s well organized and easy to follow. Take a look for yourself.

It was the personalization and social features that I was most interested in, though. There are more, but here are two that I investigated. I set up a profile, personalized my weather for Boston (easy), tried to upload a picture (didn’t work), and followed some topics, which John and Kiran said was easy. I didn’t find it so, at least initially, but as you can see, I did make it work. I wanted to follow Tech and thought I’d get latest headlines. All the RSS feeds to that macro level of topics are still there, but that wasn’t what I was looking for. What I found was that I had to read an article; at the end there was a Follow This Topic button. Hitting that button usually gave me several keyword-type choices which then showed up on my profile page. The topics are rather micro for my taste, but it will be interesting to follow them for awhile and see what shows up. You can follow up to 12 topics, which on the one hand is enough to keep up with, but on the other hand may not give the reader much of a perspective, given the small scope of most of the topics.

I’m not an iReporter, but I was interested in what’s happening on the citizen journalism front. What was new to me was the concept of “vetted” iReports. These reports have been checked (for correctness, acceptability, they don’t say exactly what) by CNN editors. One assumes that’s an attempt to give credibility to citizen journalism. On the iReport main page they have an Assignment Desk where readers can get story ideas while in search of their 15 minutes of fame. That’s interesting, but I don’t think it’s the real purpose, for CNN or for local news sites. News happens and often reporters aren’t on the scene, but people with their phone cameras are. With that in mind, CNN just launched an iPhone app so people can upload iReports directly from 3GS iPhones. Events and breaking news seem to be the whole point!

As I looked as this I was reminded of a section of last year’s Razorfish FEED report (now hard to find but is on SlideShare). The chapter on usability/Dr. Nielsen is what I was recalling and here is the provocative quote:

The New Building Blocks

Jakob says:
People don’t read your websites; use a different editorial style and make your pages “scannable.”

We say:
Throw away your concept of primarily designing “pages” as building blocks and start designing experiences. (slide 20)

I think that’s what CNN is trying to do. Call it engagement, call it offering experiences, it may be a guidepost on the road to the future of the web. It’s an experiment worth following.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Carefully-Monitored Community for Students and Their Parents

I’ve spent most of my adult life on college campuses and an innovative approach to communicating with a college community always interests me. So I was interested in the Auburn Family site when a colleague sent me the link—thanks, Nancy!

First, let’s be clear about what the problem is. Colleges and universities don’t want parents and alumni to hear or see the raw, unfiltered accounts of what their students are doing; you know, the kinds of things that all-too-frequently show up on MySpace and Facebook. Students have the same problem; they don’t want their parents to know all of what they are doing at school. This problem led to the unceremonious closing of some of the early social networks that schools set up. This is well known in the higher education community, and schools have struggling with a way to give voice to their students—in a way that will not alienate their parents and the alumni of the school, the latter being donors, of course.

Auburn University has come up with a model that has promise. The concept comes from public relations professor Robert French and 30 of his design and management students designed and built it and currently do most of the posting. The site was launched on or about September 20 and at this moment it has 1,386 members. Take a look at the pictures; it appears to be a nice mix of students and parents. While you’re on the site you can hear the Auburn War Eagle fight song and, oh yes, there’s a link to the admissions office.

No secret is made of the fact that the site is under the total control of the students, their professor, and the University. Here is a quote from their site guidelines:

Because Auburn prides itself on its friendliness and thinks of itself as a family, and because this site will attract prospective students and visitors who want to know more about Auburn, photos, comments, and other postings must not be offensive or suggestive in any way. Since the space being utilized is part of the domain, the university reserves the right to remove any postings and content at any time. (this phrase is underlined in the original)
All posts and comments are moderated
on stories and videos posted here. Your posts will be moderated as soon as possible. The site is monitored throughout the day. (underline and bold theirs, not mine!)

They’ve got clear guidelines and people to do the community monitoring. According to the local newspaper, Prof. French:

wants to make sure the site is safe and clean for anyone to join, meaning anytime someone requests approval, there's a vetting process.

As you can see from the site guidelines, that applies to all content, not just to people who wish to sign up for the site. The goal is clearly to keep this a nice, clean site that no alumni donor can reasonably object to! Same goes for parents, especially parents of prospective students!!

Will this site be too controlled, too sanitized, for some Auburn students? Absolutely, it will. They have other places to post their commentary, pictures and videos. They may just be hoping that their parents don’t see those!

This is perhaps an extreme example of community monitoring and control, but I submit that it’s necessary for what Auburn wants to accomplish. What do you think?

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

A Community Manager Dishes

I’ve written about community monitoring several times because it’s key to successful online community. I was interested a couple of weeks ago in a Matt Rhodes Tweet about interviews Fresh Networks had conducted with Shirley Bradley, the community manager at Business Week. The first part of the interview has a lot to say about community management in general; the second is about community management in a publisher setting.

She describes her role as “efforts to include readers and incorporate user-generated content (comments, suggestions, longer form opinion pieces) in BW’s journalism, elevating our readers’ participation on the same level as our journalism.” Some of her specific duties are:
• Managing customer engagement; see the links in part 1 for the many activities involved. One important activity is to solicit reader involvement. In part 2 she talks more about the “crowdsourcing” techniques they use.
• Included in customer engagement is the monitoring of reader comments. Each editor also monitors his/her own blog. Monitoring is one way of gauging reader sentiment. It also includes removing comments that do not meet community guidelines.

Crowdsourcing is not my favorite term; it seems to smack of an unruly mob running amok. In spite of that, I wanted to see what they were doing, so I went to the CrowdSourcing page. You may have to go there yourself to read the explanation at the top of the page; the relevant phrase is “using large, distributed and minimally directed groups to accomplish tasks.” Ok. While you are there, note that there’s a Featured User—nice pr—and a block of Tweets on this topic (the main filter appears to be the term “crowdsourcing”). Well done!

When you look further you find that Crowdsourcing is a page on their Business Exchange site (a community site powered by Ning, as far as I can tell). According to the site, “Business Exchange is a Web site that allows users to create business topics, collaboratively aggregate content from the entire Web and connect with other business focused users around these topics.” It has a mind-blowing number of topics (I checked on “Social Marketing,” surprise, surprise!). I registered using my LinkedIn profile. I’m not sure what that adds; it would have been just as easy to fill out the form. However, I may find that I signed up for something else on LinkedIn! Registered users can save content, create a network, and suggest topics as well as simply adding content.

The main take-away is that there’s a lot going on in Business Week’s social space. It’s probably not a luxury, it’s a necessity for a media vehicle that wants to survive in the changing media world. (On that subject, check out the website for Gourmet magazine before it goes away. The home page clearly focuses on content from their writers and editors. There are discussion forums, but there seems to be no serious effort to bring readers into the editorial process.)

Social media is undoubtedly not the silver bullet for survival for magazines, or any other media, for that matter. The more interesting question is whether a given vehicle can survive without enthusiastic reader participation.

While you’re mulling that question, you can learn a lot about community management (note it’s more than monitoring; see a great post by Dion Hinchcliffe) by reading the interviews with Shirley Bradley. Then stay tuned for my next post. I’ve discovered an interesting new community where content creation and monitoring takes on a whole new meaning—and potentially a whole new series of challenges!

Monday, October 5, 2009

Widgets for Content Distribution

My fascination with widgets has been documented from the early days. About a year ago I wrote about Google gadgets and suggested that marketers check them out and see how they work; they can be DIY. If you search widgets on the blog search bar at the top of the page, you’ll find more widget posts, most about marketing campaigns that have a widget component.

Whatever you call it—and Hubspot’s Inbound Marketing term is one of my favorites—marketers have to get the word out and bring people back to their website (or blog) for information or action. For most websites, search is primary in generating traffic. Another important way to bring traffic to your site is to get content out with links back to your site. Widgets are perfect for that; see the McKinsey widget on the sidebar of this site.

Last week’s post on applications and widgets emphasized some of the large players in the space. Can a small blog/a small website use this technology cost-effectively? The answer is “yes.” “Free” is more difficult.

This aspect of the subject came to mind when I received an email from about a new hosted widget service that’s the brainchild of former Yahoo! social media and software powerhouses. I was interested and checked it out. They have a good explanation of white-labeled widgets. It’s a hosted service, so there are charges. It’s still in Beta, so they are offering free services for personal blogs. I took advantage of their offer, requested and invitation, and took the widgets for a trial run.

The way it works is simple. You provide your blog or website address. They make some connections on the back end and send you a link to your widget page. At present, they have six widget templates from which to choose, as the graphic shows. The “Customize This” link leads you to a page that lets you size the widget and choose background colors. Then it gives you embed code. Even better if you have a blog on a standard platform like Blogger or Typepad, you simply click the button for the platform and it inserts the chosen widget on your blog. Then you configure the sidebar content as you want it. I tried tag cloud and live activity widgets and they showed up on my blog, just as Wowzio said it would. Look at the right sidebar; they are interesting, fun to look at. The content distribution issue is that, if you want to Grab This widget, you can put it on your own blog or website, just like I put the McKinsey widget on mine. Your content has just been made available to readers/visitors of other sites!

I was intrigued, so I asked for an invitation for the natural history blog I edit. It has many beautiful images, so the photo gallery widget was an obvious choice. It’s lovely, but it’s far enough down on the sidebar that it’s below the bottom of some posts, meaning many readers may not see it. I need to work on the sidebar design more and see if I can move it up further without decreasing some of the important subscription and search items—all of which are widgets of one kind or another!

Wowzio enters a space similar to other app platforms like Kick Apps, which has been around for awhile. They have a lot of explanation about how it works and there’s a link for pricing at the bottom of the home page that gives you an idea of what these services run. I don’t see doing this one myself. It really would take a developer, but from what I’ve seen that would be a one-time cost of a few thousand dollars, depending on your location (and how busy free-lance developers are!). Wowzio doesn’t seem to have set a price for small business customers yet, but that will certainly be forthcoming.

The critical question for a small business is whether it’s worth a hosting fee—say $100—each month plus a developer if you need one to create the widget.

I think there’s a pretty simple answer. Do you have content that a clearly-defined target audience would like to include on their own blogs or websites? That would be content that is relevant, engaging and continuously updated.

If you have great content, you may be ready for a widget to distribute it. If you don’t, you need to be working on the content. Great content always comes first!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Is It Now Web Squared?

The O’Reilly Web 2.0 Sumit is coming up later this month. Tim O’Reilly and John Battelle have been talking about their vision of Web Squared—Web Meets World—as they solicited suggestions for conference content at midsummer. The conference program seems to be set and it’s likely to have its usual major impact on thinking about the web and what it means in our life.

Their live webcast is posted on YouTube. It’s almost an hour long but both of them are always worth listening to. This slideshow hits the major points and is well worth paging through.

When you do, you’ll probably also want to download their white paper (note the number of channels they are using in a totally integrated fashion). They point out that Web 2.0 has always been about the Internet as common platform and using it to harnessing collective intelligence. We need to go beyond that to develop new applications, new systems that become better as they are used. That implies a lot of data; they use the term mobile sensors and give some interesting examples, the iPhone You R Here app is one. Their point is that there’s more to this “data cloud” than every item having its own separate identifying chip. There are all sorts of information flows (information shadows) produced by various kinds of machine-to-machine activity and, taken together, it provides a powerful data set. If that frightens you from a privacy standpoint that’s another, but important, topic.

In their overview, they talk about “stuff that matters” and this is their conclusion:

If we are going to solve the world’s most pressing problems, we must put the power of the Web to work – its technologies, its business models, and perhaps most importantly, its philosophies of openness, collective intelligence, and transparency. And to do that, we must take the Web to another level. We can’t afford incremental evolution anymore.

It’s time for the Web to engage the real world. Web meets World – that’s Web Squared.

No quick overview can do justice to the thinking of O’Reilly and Battelle and their collaborators. You should read and mull over some of this material for yourself. It may well be the roadmap to the future of the Internet!