The Lowdown on "Social Media" pt. 4

The Circle of Life

So we’ve come full circle, with technology finally starting to catch up to how we’ve interacted with each other since the dawn of time.

Marketing and sales have always been conversations. There is nothing new about that.

And listening to your customers has always been a good thing. There’s nothing new about that either.

But the one big change is how information can flow today vs. “way back then”.

For most of our recorded history, the flow of information was personal or local, and it was slow. 1000 years ago, for information to travel thousands of miles between nations or civilizations took years if not decades. There were some exceptions though.

map of africa and asiaGathering and sharing – the old fashioned way

During the height of the Islamic empire, 1000 years ago, information used to flow incredibly quickly (by then standards) from Western Africa to China. Every year, thousands, if not tens of thousands of Muslims would travel from their homes to Mecca in what is now Saudi Arabia for the annual Hajj pilgrimage.

And of course, they traveled by land. Along the way from their homes to Mecca, they bought and sold goods and exchanged information. Once in Mecca, they stayed for weeks, if not months, interacting with people from all parts of the Muslim world. Muslims from the Ivory Coast could buy and sell goods with Afghans and Chinese pilgrims. They could learn from each other and exchange information.

Thus information would spread across the Muslim world, across thousands of miles every year. This was unheard of in Europe at the time and was a big factor in how knowledge and technology spread across Africa, the Middle East and Asia, while Europe languished in the “Dark Ages”.

Today, in the physical world, we have conferences where people do basically the same thing: travel from various locations to a common place and share information, stories, experiences, merchandise etc.  There is nothing that can fully replace the value of a live, face-to face conversation.

What’s old is new

But, in the virtual world we have recreated that environment from 1000 years ago on the Web. Except now, the ability to find and transmit information is not measured in months or years, but in minutes and seconds. Assuming we use this new power of social media wisely, it will be very interesting to see how much progress we can make in the next 10 years.

Next, some of the pitfalls of social media.


The Lowdown on Social Media pt. 3

Customer Service. How can we ignore you?

Back in 2000, I was living in California and had a cell phone from Sprint.  I was having a lot of problems with Sprint’s service. Each individual call to their customer service line was received by a polite and friendly agent. But on call after call, I was constantly told that whatever the previous agent had told me was incorrect. The new agent apologized for the errors of the previous agent and then proceeded to give me the “correct” information. This happened numerous times.

Call center managers were rarely available to talk to me, and if I actually got connected to one of them, they would simply parrot back policies and contract clauses, all the while apologizing for any bad service I had received.

Finally, at one point, I said, I wanted the phone number of the corporate complaints department because I needed to escalate the problem. I was told there was no phone number for that department. Keep in mind this was SPRINT — a phone company! OK, no phone number, how about a fax #? Nope. What about an email address? Nope. What about a form on the website? Nope.

What I was given was a Post Office Box located somewhere in Kentucky. That was the only means to communicate with this department. And on top of that, I should expect to wait 4-6 weeks for a response, in writing from them. Yes, that’s right — I’d have to wait at least one month AND they wouldn’t call me back, they’d send a letter.

It was pretty clear to me how interested they actually were in addressing customer concerns. And yet there was little I could do to complain. Contact the FCC? They weren’t violating any laws. There was really nothing I could do but switch to another carrier….after my contract with Sprint expired! Because, guess what? I was just part of a mass market with a voice that was easily silenced.

But that is now changing.

The Rise of “Social Media”

So what exactly is “Social Media”? Most people will refer to Social Media as user generated media or content published publicly and freely on the Web, that represents the thoughts, opinions, perspectives and insights of individuals or groups, AND which is NOT specifically moderated or controlled by larger corporate entities.

By that definition, email is NOT specifically a social medium, but discussion groups and listservs are. Why? While email is a communication medium, AND it is social by nature, it is not typically considered public content. Email is a point to point communication medium, even if there are many people on the receiving end of the email. Discussion groups ARE  considered Social Media as they are public content generated by users. The same holds true for listservs.

I use those two examples (discussion groups and listservs) to illustrate that technically “social media” is not new on the Web. But, it has only been in recent years that large numbers of people (i.e. a significant percentage of the overall population) have joined the online discussions through blogs, podcasts, videos, Facebook, Twitter etc.

Companies no longer have the luxury of delegating customer complaints to PO boxes, or sitting quiet and hoping some bad press from a consumer will go away and be forgotten. Instead of a small but powerful set of “broadcasters” on TV, radio, newspapers and magazines, there are hundreds and thousands of voices who can pick up and forward or repost or retweet any complaint, magnifying it along the way.

Our own little perfect storm

We had our own version of this happen last year with the APC UPS saga. I had originally posted about what I saw as a design issue with a model of APC UPS that I had purchased. Someone then posted a link to this on the APC discussion boards. Someone from APC posted a pretty ridiculous response on the discussion board, which I then rebutted on this blog. It got noticed by some other bloggers, was posted on their blogs and it grew from there.

Eventually an APC Product Manager entered the fray, likely forced to do damage control, but also responding to my concerns about the UPS and why it was designed the way it was. I had not intended the issue to get that much visibility, but once it got some steam behind it, it had a life of it’s own. Had I wanted to get APC’s attention, I doubt I could have gotten such a direct AND public response by any other means.

This kind of thing happens every day on the Web, and companies need to start tracking who is saying what about them on the Web. Software companies are now focusing on specifically managing that for their clients. A good friend of mine works at one such company: DNA13.

So we’ve come full circle, with technology finally starting to catch up to how we’ve interacted with each other since the dawn of time.

So where do we go from here? I’ll talk about that in the next installment.

To be continued….


The Lowdown on "Social Media" pt. 2

The Way Back Machine

To understand Social Media  better, it’s important that our frame of reference start further back then the 1940s. It cannot start with the age of “mass media”, “mass production”, “mass consumption”, “mass marketing” etc.

Think back to what communication was like several hundred or even 1000 years ago. There was no such thing as radio, telephones, even telegraph. There was no instant communication, and there was certainly no mass communication. For the most part, there was individual communication, and to a very limited extent, through printing, a limited form of publishing for broad audiences.

But, if someone wanted to sell you something, they had to talk to you personally, face to face. They had to have a relationship with you in some form. Whether they were a merchant in a market or a snake-oil salesman passing through town, they had to have credibility with you. Do those itaicized words sound familiar?

And if they said something that was false or they mistreated you, you could tell them to their face. Or if you didn’t know them, someone you knew probably did, and they’d warn you if the seller was a fraud. In short, sellers were only as good as their words and their actions. That’s why snake-oil salesman would flee town as quickly as they could after a sale. Markets were all about conversations and relationships between the buyer and the seller. Good relationships meant repeat business.

Once new methods of communication arrived, the relationship between seller and buyer fundamentally changed.

With mass media it became possible to communicate to large numbers of people very easily. The term was “broadcasting”. A fitting description — cast a wide net over all the fish you wanted to reach.  The personal relationship was lost and power in the relationship shifted to the seller. The seller could communicate their message far easier and far louder than the consumer could respond back.

If the seller abused their power in the relationship there was little the consumer could do. Companies set up customer response lines, but for most companies, these were merely lip service to the issue. Even as recently as this decade the problem existed.

To be continued….


The Lowdown on "Social Media" pt. 1

Take a look at the following video, and then read the rest of this blog post.

OK…now read the rest of the post. Don’t cheat. If you didn’t watch the video, you’re cheating!

So the video is a pretty good one, and provides a good history of the last 60 or 70 years of advertising and marketing. It starts with a world around 1940 that offered limited choices to buyers. Decisions were easy and so was marketing and advertising.

The age of mass everything— mass production, mass media, mass marketing and mass consumption — was an age of push down marketing to buyers. There was clearly an asymmetric relationship between the producers and the consumers. And the asymmetry was heavily weighted in favour of the producers. Producers of goods could use mass media to force their message to the masses. Mass media allowed for fast communication. But, while it scaled well, it wasn’t personal. It was basically unidirectional.

This was the status quo for several decades all around the world: limited media channels dominated by advertising from large corporations with few options for consumers to be heard.

Now we live in an age of immense choice, both for products and brands, but also for media. Social Media is all the rage right now. But people are treating it as if it is something completely new and  different. But in many ways, it’s the oldest form of “media” and certainly was around way before the age of “mass everything”. We just have to look a lot further back than the 1940s.


Six Characteristics of Product Managers

After an unintentional and rather protracted break from blogging (a bad flu in February, followed by a really busy work and personal schedule for the last few weeks), I’m returning to my regualar schedule.

I just completed a podcast with Michael Ray Hopkin for his Product Management Pulse blog. In the podcast we discussed my series of articles entitled How to be a GREAT Product Manager.

I cover 6 rules for Product Managers to follow. They are:

  • Don’t just sound smart; act smart and be smart
  • Be technical without becoming a technologist
  • “Spidey-sense” instincts are good; hard data is way better
  • The 4 Cs of Leadership: credibility, commitment, communication and courage
  • Be an integrator, translator and communicator; don’t be a terminator
  • Own the product from conception to completion and beyond

The podcast is available at: