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  • 02:15:31 pm on September 18, 2008 | 0 | # |
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    Large companies are beginning to strongly consider the limits of the consumer survey, and their efforts are nicely laid out in a a recent Ad Age article, which reports on a new series of summits held by the Advertising Research Foundation, which will include companies like Proctor and Gamble, Unilever, ESPN and others.

    “I don’t know if we are going to have a choice but to move away from survey research,” said Donna Goldfarb, VP-consumer and market insights for Unilever Americas, who will headline a Sept. 22 workshop ARF is hosting in New York. “We continue to torture consumers with boring and antiquated search methods.”

    What these companies are proposing instead is the use of what i will call for the purpose of this article “consumer observation” techniques, through which, according to Artie Bulgrin, senior VP-research and sales for ESPN,

    “We can actually improve our [initiative’s] success rate if we just listen a bit more … on a passive basis.”

    Which means that they will be using services which will sniff out conversations around their brand and listen in as a means of gaining insights.  For an example of this methodology, visit this link to see all of the things that have been said on the microblogging service Twitter about Proctor and Gamble.  (you can also search for your own company there as well)

    I would like to suggest a metaphor for the different approaches companies are talking about with respect to their consumer relations.  (note: i am not in any way suggesting that companies ought to treat consumers as monkeys.  heck, i’m one of those monkeys!  ..and heck, i’m looking forward to the day when terms like “consumer” and “user” are replaced by more human terms.)

    Consumer Surveys: Domesticating Consumers
    One way to learn about animals is to put them in a zoo, where you can watch them interact with each other and with the environment.  The problem, however, is that we do get to see them in a real environment, eating their actual food, living their actual lives.  If we were to extrapolate all that we know about animals from the zoo, we would have a very limited knowledge indeed.  ..And animals don’t generally seem suited to this type of treatment, in my opinion.  Consumer surveys and similar methods are similarly limited in the knowledge that they can provide about a real-world consumer.

    Observing Consumers: Understanding them from a Distance
    At the opposite end of the spectrum from domestication, some naturalists prefer to study animals in their natural habitat from a great, objective distance, watching their behaviors through a zoom lens so as to not interfere.  The new approach discussed in the Ad Age article reflects this mindset – and will yield a lot more genuine consumer insights by understanding what we all think and say when the corporate folks aren’t around. While certainly a step ahead of “consumer domestication” in my opinion, there is a third way that needs ongoing consideration:

    Interacting with Consumers: Learning from Each Other
    I would like to suggest a third metaphorical approach to gaining consumer insights which was not mentioned in the article.  It is similar to the approach that famous primatologist Jane Goodall took in understanding primates.  In her work, Jane actually went and lived among primates, interacting with them.  Though her methods have sometimes been criticized for their lack of objectivity, the type of intimate knowledge she gained was far different from methods that sought either to domesticate or to observe from a distance.  The use of social media in business has a great deal of promise in this sort of research.  Companies can now not only observe consumers from a distance, but even interact substantively with them in conversations that will allow each to learn from the other.

    This third metaphor represents a pretty fundamental philosophical shift for companies.  I will write more on my academicky blog in the next few days for those of you interested in a slightly deeper look at this.

  • 04:18:47 am on September 11, 2008 | 2 | # |
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    Let’s face it. For people involved in a brick-and-mortar business (both customers and employees), the concept of participatory social media is at first a little weird. There appear to be two reasons for this:

    1. It’s new. Any brick-and-mortar business’s community has grown accustomed to interacting in-person. The idea of conversing online with people from a physical business is new and at first a little weird.
    2. It goes against 200 years of history. For all of our talk about “transparency” and “social justice,” most of us are still grandchildren of the industrial revolution, which told businesses that customers are pawns to be manipulated and told customers that businesses cannot be trusted.

    And yet social media is clearly an important part of many marketing strategies – even for brick-and-mortar businesses. So to get social media going within a customer community, it is clear that a business must make over-the-top efforts to undo that history. Starbucks is an example of one company that seems to have successfully bridged the gap between their brick-and-mortar business and online social media push with the launch of – which currently has over 55,000 customer-submitted ideas for product, service and company improvements.

    Reaching Out With Abandon
    In March, Starbucks kicked off the campaign to reach out to customers. I wrote about the initial media reaction earlier in the year, but thought it might be interesting to see some of the methods they used to bridge the gap between their in-store customers and a social media site. The important thing to note, in my opinion, is that Starbucks went full steam ahead to overcome 200 years of divided history in order to convince their customers that they were really interested in their feedback by placing banners, suggestion cards, and even signs on the trash barrels – one of which was photographed by a friend of mine. I’ve included the photo here (click on it to see the writing):

    Additionally, they let their employees know that they ought to promote the effort by letting customers know. Now to be clear, at the outset a lot of industry pundits were cynical about the effort, as i presume were customers who were stuck in the industrial revolution mindset. “Is Starbucks really looking for my idea – or is this just some sort of an advertising ploy?” But still the company persevered with their campaign despite the detractors.

    Reporting Back the Results
    Starbucks then began to answer the questions of detractors pretty directly by reporting back the ideas that had been implemented both online and in-store. A photo example of this was captured by , reporting in-store that a community-generated idea for a loyalty card had been implemented. Since then, there have been hints that a number of popular ideas are being considered or are coming soon on the site as well.

    Any business looking to bridge this tough gap can learn a little from the Starbucks approach, i think.

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  • 09:18:49 pm on September 7, 2008 | 0 | # |
    Tags: is only one tool for the business which wants to connect socially with its customers. Many businesses have mastered the art without our help.

    I happened across an article today on about the best 3 Falafel places in Boston. I was half surprised to see Falafel King listed. The surprised half of me rembered that Falafel King is a tiny, dark place in a small food court in Downtown Crossing. Their menu is basic in its scope, and there is no place to sit. The other half of me, on the other hand, remembered their fantastic fresh tahini sauce, clean, efficient kitchen, home-made falafel, and the amazingly social nature of the experience (even at a food court!), as served up by the gregarious owner and his staff, who greeted every single customer in the usually long line with a smile, a friendly “hello” and a free falafel, dipped in hummus and handed over to counter while they waited.

    In those brief moments – 30 seconds here, 30 seconds there – over the course of the 6 months or so that i worked nearby and visited Falafel King, i got to know the owner (a fun, intense, hard-working guy who had come from Iraq to the U.S. in the early 1990’s), and the food (made with fresh ingredients every morning by the owner himself), and even developed a bit of a friendship strong enough that we chatted every now and again aside from his work, and that i am writing about it now years later. All because the owner (i can’t seem to remember his name now, unfortunately) understood that his business – falafels – is about connections with people as much as it is a good product.

    fyi: check out the reviews of Falafel King if you want to see the effectiveness of their “social marketing”

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  • 07:36:18 pm on August 12, 2008 | 0 | # |
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    We’ve today released another iteration of as we work with some great small and midsized businesses to develop new ways for them to engage their communities. Here are some of the highlights:

    • Private Stumps and Think-ups! We had a huge number of requests for the ability to have private ideation sessions with friends or within the walls of a company. On Personal Treetops, only friends will be able to see and participate in private stumps and think-ups. On Organizational Treetops, only team members or admins will be able to read and create private stump or think-up content.
    • Sharing Ideas Now More Prominent. We noticed that, though lots of people have ideas, they were difficult to share on the previous site. Now it’s easy to share an idea on the front page on any treetop.
    • Better Karma Scoring. We thought we’d be more magnanimous and start everyone out with a perfect karma score, then let them work down from there. Karma only goes down when your content is voted to be snipped. Get snipped a lot, get a bad score. No worries, though. It only keeps track of your last 90 days.
    • Promotions. Organizational Treetop profiles now include the ability to highlight a current promotion. Having a sale? Add it in the “manage” section.
    • Email to Friends. Organizational Treetop administrators can now send an admin email to all of their friends from the “manage/people” section.

    These are just a few of the highlights. We’ll be continuing to improve the system over the course of the coming weeks, too, based on the feedback from our users. Have an idea for a feature? Share it with us at

  • 01:12:39 pm on July 18, 2008 | 0 | # |
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    Media (communication) has been for the last 100 years one of the key factors of success for any business. The process seems to go as follows:

    1. Big businesses figure out new uses for media – because they have time and money to hire experts to see what’s coming next, and the resources to really dive into the new media effectively
    2. SMB’s don’t have the time or money to see as far ahead, since they’re too busy running their daily business
    3. SMB’s see big businesses changing to adapt, then feel compelled to compete with big business on their terms, but cannot
    4. SMB’s struggle, and sometimes fail

    To prove my point:

    1970’s – 1990’s Broadcast advertising

    1. Big business figured out that they could drive demand to their local stores/franchises through national advertising campaigns with high production value and massive reach (think Wendy’s “Where’s the Beef?”)
    2. SMB’s tried to do their own local advertising campaigns that were expensive, innefective, and generally were not as clever to an audience used to professional media
    3. Times were tough for local burger joints

    1994-2001 Web 1.0

    1. Big business figured out that, by selling on the internet and by correctly configuring their supply chain, they could sell products to people at lower costs and with greater convenience than most local stores (think,, DELL, BestBuy etc)
    2. SMB’s tried to move to online selling and to competing on cost
    3. Times were tough for local book, computer and electronics stores

    2007-present Web 2.0

    1. Big business has looked ahead and realized that a) customers are increasingly connecting with people and businesses through social media, b) employees are increasingly using social media inside and outside of their jobs and c) with web 2.0 and supply chain improvements, even a big business can plop a small local version (Starbucks, Wal-Mart Neighborhood Markets, Dunkin Donuts) of a store in a local neighborhood and create community and customer loyalty (, Dunkin Donuts YouTube Channel, Dunkin Brands Serving Heroes Site, etc). They are just now trying to figure out how to use this new medium for their advantage.
    2. SMB’s will have to adapt and compete again (ending to be determined)

    What do you think will happen this time around? Will SMB’s be able to jump out ahead of big business?

    As a way of exploring the social media space, please feel free to jump in and brainstorm some creative uses of social media at our “think-up” to finish the sentence: “The craziest/wackiest BUSINESS use of social media I can think of is..” Share your response here.

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  • 03:39:24 pm on July 8, 2008 | 1 | # |
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    “Social Objects” are everywhere, and may be the key to the success of many products and businesses. The theory of “Social Objects”, though based in a lot of great Anthropological study from the 1900’s, and recently laid out nicely by Jyri Engestrom with respect to social media, is perhaps even more relevant today, and can be attributed to the runaway successes of businesses like,, Fantasy Sports, Apple, Starbucks and lots of others.

    Since the main audience for this blog is a bit more results-oriented than semi-geeky academics like myself, i’ll quickly share the common-sense approach to the theory. Here it is, based on 2 premises:

    Premise 1: Humans have a hard time relating directly to one another. Instead, we tend to relate through or around social objects. Most events where 2 or more people are involved occur around a meal, a movie, a sport, a candidate or a location. It is extremely rare that two people will just sit and talk about each other.

    Premise 2: Humans like to share social objects for free. A story about a great (or a lousy) movie, meal, celebrity, product, device or service serves as the “social object” that helps people to relate to one another. It therefore does not usually require (though sometimes that can be useful) a discount, payment or other monetary benefit in order to be shared.

    Here are 4 simple tips (based on Jyri Engestrom’s excellent presentation) on how to turn social objects loose in a business through online and offline channels (which should both be utilized if at all possible).

    1. Be on the lookout for social objects. What are employees or customers talking with each other about in your business? Are people blogging (google your business to find out), commenting (check your suggestion board), twittering (use to search for your business on twitter) about your hamburgers? Your employees? Your excellent customer service? The photos on your website? A recent concert at your venue? These are all social objects, and they’re everywhere if you look hard enough.
    2. Promote community around social objects. Once you’ve identified a few objects, promote community around them. Are people talking to each other about your yoga class? Find a way to allow them to continue those relationships outside of the class through a saturday yoga mini-conference, or a think-up on to get ideas for how to make the class better, or encourage them to post their photos or experiences or thoughts on your blog or through Twitter.
    3. Allow people to share the object. People tend to want to share social objects. Is your fantastic hamburger a social object? Provide them with a way to tell their friends by posting an experience and a photo online, or by giving a printed card to friends inviting them to try it.
    4. Turn invitations into gifts. To make the act of sharing even more fun for the sharer, give them a way to share their social object as a gift. Instead of providing a customer with a discount for telling her friends about your fantastic new coffee blend, find a way that that invite means a discount or a benefit for the friend instead.

    * AP Photo above from Mike Ditka’s Restaurant in Chicago

  • 09:25:45 pm on July 3, 2008 | 2 | # |
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    In March, Starbucks launched – putting itself in the humbling position of maintaining a site where customers could freely share their ideas, griefs and comments about the company very publicly with the world. It was a pretty risky move, to be sure. What if no one shared their ideas? What if all of the ideas and comments were negative? What if competitors – or even worse, employees – jumped into the fray and published scandalous information about the company?

    I’m sure all of this has happened, of course. To make matters worse, though, the popular press panned the idea, initially calling it a “glorified suggestion box,” and a sort of empty publicity stunt. A lot of customers, too, felt that it was just a ploy from a corporate giant to generate advertising buzz. But Starbucks went ahead with the initiative, hiring 40 people to staff the site, and launching a month-long in-store and online campaign with posters, cards, employee education and advertising expressing their apparent desire to involve customers.

    The once-proud Starbucks looked pretty darn bad – humbled – for the entire month of March.

    In April and May, however, something changed. As Starbucks began to make good on their commitments and disprove their detractors, the customers began to trust and to join in, and to do it en masse. At current count (after 4 months), there are approximately 47,000 ideas in the system – with the top idea receiving 95,160 votes. In addition, the popular press has begun to be noticeably more positive.

    After eating humble pie for a month and going with hat-in-hand to their customers to ask for their involvement, MyStarbucksIdea seems to be working.

    Whether Starbucks can or will follow through on what they started by implementing the top ideas is yet to be seen, but one clear lesson for any organization is that,

    though there may be initial apathy/suspicion/negativity toward a genuine effort by a business to involve customers, it needs to take the lead and prove its good intentions, then break through to the the other side where the real loyalty of grateful customers – and perhaps even the breakthrough result of runaway positive word-of-mouth awaits.

  • 02:45:03 am on July 1, 2008 | 1 | # |
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    I’ve spoken with a lot of people about the Internet over the course of the last 10 years, and heard a lot of views about its impact on just about everything – family, democracy, learning, etc etc. A particularly interesting (though frustrating to me) vein of thought, though, has to do with the business-to-consumer relationship, and it goes something like this (paraphrased):

    “These new Internet communities are not real communities. They’re just a bunch of computer geeks and kids with nothing better to do. My business is based on real customers and real employees, so the Internet isn’t really a part of how we need to communicate with our community.”

    Though this may surprise some folks who assume, since i am currently working on a PhD in HCI and starting an internet-based company, that i am one of those computer geeks with nothing better to do, i actually agree with the basic premise of this statement. Of course internet communities are not real communities, any more than hand-written letters from my wife are the actual person, or a cave painting of a deer hunt is the actual deer hunt.

    But that first person who depicted a deer hunt on the wall of a cave discovered something important: Cave paintings were a powerful medium that helped to sustain a real community. You see, through her paintings, that first cave person was able to communicate something to other cave people that enhanced their real relationship, whether or not they were in the same place at the same time. The painting might have told others of her hunting prowess, or of the number of deer that are in the area, or about her family. Her paintings might have spurred later ideas for new hunting methods when other community members looked at it at a later time. The painting also might have served as a reminder to herself the following year of the typical herding patterns of the deer in that area. With this in mind, i would like to dispel the fairly common myth that the Internet is a new fad-like thing whose novelty undermines it actual value, when actually..

    The underlying community value of the Internet is not that new. In fact, it’s much like the community value of cave painting – or of other, older forms of communication!

    Through the internet, real relationships in real business communities are enhanced and extended by allowing people to communicate whether or not they are in the same place at the same time. Through online communities, businesses and customers are able to enhance their real relationships, not replace them, and those relationships, once extended beyond the time and space of a physical, “real” business relationship, can extend the reach, community awareness, and knowledge of a business community – just like that first cave painting did for the cave person.

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  • 02:58:39 pm on June 26, 2008 | 2 | # |
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    Alright, so perhaps the title is a little grandiose, but small businesses and organizations can definitely learn a thing or two by using some of the methods that successful companies like Google have used to get where they are. Here are the important points:

    • Google was once a small business
    • Google has come up with lots of innovative new ideas
    • Many of those ideas have occurred as a result of their “20 percent time” policy, which encourages its engineers to spend one day a week working on their own projects, unrelated to work – including AdSense – one of their most lucrative products, which brings in a large part of their > $1billion in quarterly revenue
    • What could happen in other small businesses if they also paid employees to be creative?

    Now, before small business folks get their hackles up, i am well aware that for most small businesses, allowing their employees to spend 20 percent of their time on things that don’t make immediate money is probably not a wise business decision. Joe’s Sports Bar is not Google – it’s an entirely different business model. But there are some similarities. Both have employees who have some creativity in them – even part-timers. Both organizations must innovate to thrive, and should always be looking out for competitive advantages by creating new products, services or experiences. A big similarity between Google and Joe’s is the need for real commitment to employee innovation and involvement. Here’s why:

    If Google were to have merely hoped that their engineers would produce the next great new Google product nights and weekends, they probably would not have AdSense today. Similarly, if Joe’s Sports Bar merely hopes that its employees will come up with fresh new food, service or entertainment ideas on their off-shifts, they might be missing out on the next great product or service as well.

    Here are some ideas for how small businesses might adapt the Google recipe of commitment to achieve breakthrough results – many of them with the help of, which is designed for the efficient generation and voting of new ideas as a community:

    • Pay employees to spend 15 minutes per week logging in to to share their stories, ideas and votes with the community ($2-5 week?)
    • For businesses without employee computers, put a simple used internet-enabled computer ($200) in the employee break room or office and pay employees post an experience or idea at the end of each shift
    • Give a cash reward, choice of shift or day off to any employee who has their idea implemented in the business
    • Give all employees a small percentage of the profit for a product that they collectively develop and implement

    The obvious upsides to this sort of approach are more involved, happier employees, better products, and a more developed ability to adapt to the market – especially when using a platform like BigTreetop to vet ideas with both customers and employees. There is no downside except for a small investment in the form or employee pay or rewards.  Google seemed to think that was worth it, and it’s worked pretty well for them so far..

    What do you think? Are these ideas feasible? What are some other ways a small business could achieve similar results? Are any of you using good methods now to innovate your small business?

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