Maybe it’s because they’re fighting to survive. Perhaps it’s because they don’t yet have millions of customers. Or it might be that it’s actually part of their culture. But if there’s one thing that separates startups from established companies, at least in my experience, it’s customer service, personal attention and real time response.
Last night at 9:45, after two hours of entering grades and comments into Coursekit, the platform I use for teaching, I hit publish and instead of sending the grades off to my 25 students, Coursekit presented me with a blank page. All my earnest and time consuming efforts gone. I tried to re-enter them from memory figuring I’d at least be close. But when I hit publish for the second time, this batch disappear, too. After a moment of panic — of course I hadn’t saved them anywhere else — I sent Coursekit a public reply on Twitter asking for a follow in order to back channel.
It took a mere 10 minutes for them to reply and even that came with an apology for the delay. They were “in a meeting.” (Funny I’d never believe that from most companies but at 9:45 pm it seemed likely for startup.)
Within another couple of minutes I was on the phone with one of their lead engineers Jim Grandpre. Jim only had a phone with him, but even then he managed to access his servers and summon the second set of grades. He explained that something had gone wrong with the cache at their end and that it wasn’t due to anything I’d done wrong. (+1 for honest admission of fault).
He then promised that he’d recover the original grades as well as the feedback notes in the morning and would either enter them for me or send me a file so I could do so myself.
Sure enough, the next morning I had everything back. Including a very clear explanation that no one had access to my grades or notes other than he and his co-founder CTO and in no case would either of them access it without my permission.
OK, so American Express comes close to that kind of service when you want them to credit you for a charge you didn’t incur. And Zappos (Mullen client) might take equally good care of you over the phone.
But how many other companies can you think of who are that responsive and then deliver. Not Bank of America, that’s for sure.
Coursekit’s product is awesome. I would probably keep using it even without such responsiveness. But the fact that there is a real human with a name and accountability to solve problems like this makes me loyal forever. I just hope that they can make their customer concern part of their culture as they grow and prosper.
What startups are you getting service like this from?
By now everyone has seen or at least heard of Google’s Project Re-Brief. In order to showcase the potential of online advertising – after 18 years we ought to be able to do something better than the ubiquitous banner ad – Google had the brilliant idea of re-creating some of the advertising industry’s most famous ads and making them digital.
In typical Google fashion, they spared no expense or effort. To re-create Coke’s then epic 1971 Hilltop ad – it feels so small now – Google grabbed art director Harvey Gabor out of retirement, brought him to New York and taught him what the Internet – ad servers, HTML5, accelerometers, touch screens, and real-time video – can do.
If you watch the making of film you can see the reverence that Google shows for Harvey and the respect they convey for the “big idea.” They even let Harvey present using foam core. (Anyone other than me, and Harvey, remember what that is?) Granted part of that is the show — after all this is about demonstrating to ad agencies what they could do with Google and its cool tools and toys – but the real point is that a great ad idea is even better when executed to include user participation.
From ads to experiences
The finished experience, while not yet a scalable idea, is very much Nike Chalkbot-like; it connects the user, the web and the physical world in a seamless, magical way. Five Coke machines around the world are tied into Google servers. From a simple online ad that takes advantage of Google’s location services, a laptop video camera and YouTube, it lets a computer (or tablet or phone) user record a message, send the gift of a Coke to the machine of her choice, and include a video greeting. At the receiving end an unsuspecting passerby hears a machine singing the former hit, “I want to teach the world to sing…….I want to buy the world a Coke and keep it company,” as it dispenses the free Coca Cola and the video message from the sender. The recipient can then send a message back and the entire system creates a composite video of the event and uploads it to YouTube. Wow.
Once we had a message, controlled, produced, and delivered by Coke. Now we have an experience enabled by Coke, but created and controlled by consumers. Once Coke said “we’d like to buy the world a Coke.” Now users are actually doing it for each other. Once we had an old fashioned ad. Now we have a new kind of ad.
Change the team, change the process
But of all the changes evident in the above example, the most important one is the composition of the team needed to create it. When Harvey made his TV spot he worked with Bill Backer and a director. But if you take a look at the team in the room to make something like the Re-Brief version of Hilltop, you have IA, UX, tech, engineering and production. And you have more of those kinds of creatives than you have of the old fashioned kind.
Many advertising agencies still start the process with a team of writers and art directors who conceive TV like ideas then ask the digital team to come up with something digital to go with it. If an agency is descended from the likes of Harvey Gabor and Bill Backer it’s in their DNA to work that way. (Let’s face it, none of us would start the kind of agency today that we may currently work for.)
But it’s probably time to embrace a totally opposite approach. Put five technologists and one writer in the room. Or gather four developers and one art director. Or change the qualifications for the title creative director. It’s the only way to create executions – or platforms, or behaviors – this innovative.
My favorite shot in the case study video is the one that says “Engineers build vending machines that connect to display ads,” suggesting that after the creative idea was conceived, the team then told engineering what it needed.
This is the antithesis of the way the world usually works. In the typical sequence R&D comes up with an idea based on what’s possible, engineering builds it, marketing learns what they have to sell, and the ad agency – despite being closer to the market and consumers than most anyone – finally gets handed the product and the story to be communicated. They’re at the end of the line virtually all the time.
Yes, Re-Brief teaches us that old ads can be re-created digitally. And yes, it recognizes the value of an idea. No doubt the traditional advertising holdouts can point their finger at this and say, “See you still need the concept.” Yeah yeah.
But both of those lessons miss the real points.
If we want to build new, interesting, interactive experiences, we need to change the team dramatically. Not simply add a token technologist to the traditional creative team, but perhaps take the opposite approach. Add one traditional creative to a full-blown technical team.
And two, we should put engineering at the end of the process, not the beginning. Rather than build something and then convince a consumer to buy it or use it, maybe should start with the ideal consumer experience then back up and build it.
What are your takeaways from Re-Brief?
To those of you who made it to our over-subscribed SxSW panel, thanks for showing up, for engaging and for expressing so much support. To those of you who got shut out, please accept our apologies. Apparently SxSW did not anticipate the demand for this topic and only gave us room for a few hundred attendees.
I thought I’d share a recap here, as there seems to be no shortage of interest in the interest graph.
Wanting to avoid the pitfall of too many panels – unfocused, rambling conversation — we actually determined our questions in advance, prepared answers and assigned roles. We even used an interest graph platform, Springpad, to share and exchange ideas.
We had point of view that we could all agree on,
- The interest graph is replacing the social graph as the new frontier.
- It offers a better opportunity for brands and marketers to connect and engage with prospects, customers and community.
- Learning to engage, add value, and both learn from and market to the data are the ingredients for success
We then answered eight questions.
How is the interest graph (and with it the expression of intent) going to change how both consumers and brands use social media?
I used a couple of simple examples to answer this. Take my Facebook friend Alison. We share some interests. But if I friend her on Facebook I might find my stream cluttered with updates on shopping trips or cat memes. Those are her interests. However, Alison knows Austin restaurants, business books and social media trends. What if I could follow just those topics? Then Alison would become a true source of knowledge. And I would have greater flexibility to filter and access the content that matters to me.
For my brand example I used the curious case of American Express. I’ve been a card member for 35 years. Yet on Facebook, they offer me coupons to the Cheesecake Factory and discounts on cruises. Look at my purchase history, American Express! I have never done either of those things. What are you thinking?
If AMEX could tap into my interests, rather than my friends, they would send me useful information on hotels and trips to the cycling capitals of the world. (Note, even after a 60 mile ride I don’t plan to eat cheesecake.)
What are the platforms and the difference among them?
We talked about Foursquare’s evolution from check-ins to recommendations, discussed how The Fancy can actually drive purchase, and showed how Polyvore adds value to online shoppers.
No conversation about the interest graph is complete without a nod to Pinterest, which makes it super easy to collect, curate and post inspirational images, so we gave them a pretty good shout out, too. But what remains missing from all of the platforms but Springpad,* are the enhancements and alerts that help convert interest to action.
There’s more, too. Specialised platforms like Get Glue, along with established players like Facebook, all have something to offer. Right now the field is crowded and getting more crowded, so you have to pay attention not only to what’s hot now but also to what might catch on over the next year.
Consumers are jumping on platforms like Pinterest, but do marketers yet understand the opportunity?
Not really. As they tend to do with most new platforms, marketers treat them as another broadcast medium, injecting their content and hoping for traffic. True, brands fit more seamlessly into the interest graph than the social graph. The former is about what we like while the latter is about whom we know. But based on the brand behavior we see on Pinterest marketers have yet to realize that these new digital playgrounds are ideal for engagement and adding value, not simply showing off our wares.
Interestingly, Mullen’s recent Social CMO Research reveals that only 13.6 percent of marketers capture preferences or interests in their social media efforts. So there is a huge opportunity.
How can brands and marketers leverage these platforms?
One of the best lines came from Farrah Bostic. “If all you do is show, all consumers will do is look.” That’s a suggestion that we need to do more than post products and links. At Mullen, we recommend that clients foster discovery, learn to engage, and leverage the data. I won’t elaborate here as all the bullet points are on slides 30, 31 and 32. You may want to check them out.
Are any brands getting it right?
It’s really too soon to say. We don’t have much to go on. But a quick search of brands on Pinterest shows that very few do anything beyond self-promotion. One shout out goes to San Francisco’s ModCloth. Willing to share and post far more than their own catalog, they’re inevitably learning what catches on with their community and offering more reasons to return, pay attention and interact with content.
What could brands be doing?
A lot more. Why not show your expertise in a subject other than what you sell (Burberry on London, Clif Bar on nutrition, Tommee Tippee on baby care) and become a trusted resource. One of the clear takeaways from SxSW is that all brands have to move beyond branded content and become content brands, starting conversations, producing entertainment, and earning attention. Interest graph platforms are the ideal place to do that. After all, people aren’t there to see their friends but to explore and act on the things that matter to them.
What does success look like?
This is not about likes, followers and RT’s. Most of which mean little or nothing. This is about significant traffic and inbound links. All of which are measurable and can be traced back to your content. It’s about deeper engagement that leads to better understanding of your customers. Imagine being able to market to an individual rather than a segment or demographic. And finally, ultimate success consists of outcomes in the form of purchases and other actions. If you become a trusted source of relevant content, engagement and interaction will certainly yield higher conversion.
How do brands get started?
The list is clear. Explore the sites, establish a presence, don’t commit to just one site, learn conversation strategy, measure and track everything, understand the data, create APIs. And something that I’ve learned from all the startups with whom I’ve worked: get to know the product visionaries behind the new services. While they’re still young and small, they’ll be hungry to please, to teach and to co-create with you.
If you have any other thoughts or ideas, please share. And help yourself to the deck.
* Note that in addition to working at Mullen, I am the CMO at Springpad.
I’ve been here a day and half so far, and have only started to make my schedule, but have already had incredible encounters with people I know and others I met for the first time.
It even started on the plane. I don’t think there was a single person on Jet Blue Flight 1263 who wasn’t headed to the nerd convention. In fact most of us knew each other.
I sat next to a young entrepreneur Scott Dubois, co-founder of Pidalia, a software company disguised as an ad agency because if you make stuff for marketers rather than for IT departments it plays a bigger role in a company’s strategy. Interesting to see all the ways that tech is infiltrating marketing and advertising.
In Austin I caught up with Musa Tariq, the global head of Burberry’s social media initiatives. We talked for a couple of hours about the need for better social metrics and an understanding of how to leverage likes and engagement in more effective ways. Burberry uses the new platforms as well as anyone and has mounds of data as you would expect. Further validation that the interest graph platforms are the future.
Over drinks I had the pleasure of meeting Edelman’s Managing Director of Europe, Middle East and Asia Marshall Manson. I got a crash course in how social media does and doesn’t work in different countries around the world.
And finally, this morning Conrad Lisco of Co:Collective invited me to join him for breakfast and a rapid fire discussion of new business models, the future of work, and the role technology will play.
I haven’t even been to a panel and I’m smarter than when I got here. I know more about how to counsel brands and clients on mobile development. I have a more vivid understanding of where analytics has to focus if it’s to help social marketers make better decisions. I have further validation and also a better perspective as to how the interest graph can help brands segment their communities and emerge as trusted experts. And I have a new insights as to how social media differs from one country to the next.
And to think I only came for the parties.
“I strongly believe that consumption is less about reflecting who we are–even though that’s clearly a fundamental dimension of it–as much as it’s about who we wish to be.”
That quote comes from Paul Mullins, a professor at Indiana University-Purdue University and president of the Society for Historical Archaeology. Professor Mullins new book, The Archaeology of Consumer Culture, proposes that the study of remnants from our past may offer us the best insights about who we, as consumers, are today.
In the book, Mullins explores how trends in product purchases – plates and silverware in the late 18th century, or expensive running shoes today – reveal over and over that we buy stuff not just for the utility but for the message it sends about us.
While that’s not new – driving a BMW, drinking Heineken, wearing Burberry – all project something about us. But what Mullins argues is that we are sometimes portraying a persona that we’ve yet to realize, instead declaring that it’s who we want to be.
So what does this have to do with marketing, advertising or social media? Quite a bit if you think about it. We have this new phenomenon going on called the interest graph. Pinterest, The Fancy, Fab, Springpad are all letting us declare our wishes, not necessarily by making a purchase but by displaying how we’d like to be perceived in other ways.
If Mullins is right, and if this same insight informs the kinds of things we see people pin, then there are even more opportunities for marketers. It’s not just about posting content that drives a link, or trying to sell a product or service to someone who has raised her hand. There’s an opportunity for brands to find new ways – content, product, service, imagery, interactions, advice, utility – to actually help consumers and users become what they dream of becoming.
And if a brand can do that, well then, the opportunity for attention, sales and loyalty gets even bigger.