One of the big gotchas of the social web is that what makes it so empowering for individuals is also it’s greatest challenge as a platform for business.
At its core, the web is naturally a platform for people. It highlights each of us in the center of a self-curated world with our popularity equaling our reach and influence.
It is as personally powerful as it is addictive. Remarkably self-centered and surprisingly a great platform for collective groups of individuals, the community.
Lately, the idea is being bandied about as fact that for businesses to be successful on the web, somehow they need to take on a personal persona and exist side by side on an equal plane with you, me, General Electric, our favorite restaurant, our dentist and Walmart.
It just isn’t so. And a dead end marketing strategy.
I’m not a social commerce denier in any way. The opposite actually.
I’ve posted endlessly on how the web has changed not only our lives but also the essence of how we do business. How the customer is squarely the center of the commercial world. And that we are entering the world where marketplaces are the most natural platform for business.
But, companies aren’t people, no matter how humanized. And neither are brands. Business is not a masquerade, a product in an individual’s clothing.
It’s a fascinating dichotomy. The web as an organic platform for people and communications, and businesses’ uncomfortable use of it for commercial purposes.
For people, the web is a frictionless runway. Individual voices, transparent messages, global reach for the clear of intent are not the exception. The web as a platform for connected individuals just works.
For pundits and people doing business as themselves, it’s a dream platform. There is little separation between the brand presented to clients or fans, and the more cleverly you share your quirks, the more somehow this informs the potency of your professionalism.
But as companies or for products we sell that are beyond ourselves, this is simply not the case. It just doesn’t hold true.
Selling stuff and services as a company is where the social continuum appears to splinter. The web doesn’t belong to companies; it belongs to their customers.
This is not to say that commerce doesn’t spring out of community. Nor that conversations across the web don’t indeed sell product. Or that transparency isn’t an essential component of doing business today.
But the idea that companies need to act like as individuals and refabricate themselves to exist on the social web is chasing the wrong rabbit down the wrong hole.
With people, our product is our personality. With companies, our personalities are in the products and services we provide and how we deliver them. The aggregate of that is the brand that our customers bestow on us over time.
Every one of us and every company falls prey to trolling the social web on blogs for comments and connections, on Facebook and social nets for new customers and prospects. We do it cause its there and it’s easy. It’s an incomplete strategy.
Every business and marketing person faces this pull and contradiction daily.
Individually we start each day, checking into our nets to discover products and things to do, connect with friends and plan our lives. We get to our offices; sit in front of our computers and often stare dumbfounded about how to discover and talk to those same customers that look just like ourselves.
This is the social web business dilemma in a nutshell.
Building markets and understanding customer behaviors are neither simple nor trivial tasks. And complicated of course by the newness of the social web itself and its constant state of flux.
For myself, regardless of the market segment or social platform, these guidelines work for me as a marketer:
-Acknowledge that the web is not about your company or product but the customer’s view of them. Cede them control and embrace the messiness of the market if you want to harness it.
-Every product, every community of customers is unique. Crossfitters want to celebrate their personal fortitude while learning how to get more fit. Organic Avenue is as much about what’s in the juice as to how it tastes. SoulCycle, the monster spinning brand,is about instructor heroes, including their SoulPups.
-Don’t try to sell where your customers play. Nobody transacts on Facebook. Trying it again is against the human grain and won’t work.
-Measurement is not the end goal. Understanding customer behavior is. If your takeaway is a number you are not learning enough.
Try these directions on for size and apply them to the specifics of your business and the social platforms you are using.
This is very hard stuff to crack. A combined task of marketing, community management, product development and every external facing connection in your company.
Understanding your customer’s behavior is no less complex and ineffable than your customers themselves and the market they represent. There is certainly no easier way to do this and possibly, in today’s connected world, no other way at all.
Cross posted from theLocalSip blog, a passion project of mine in collaboration with the best wine shops in New York. Community-driven commerce for the wine world built on a global network of neighborhoods is the goal.
I’ve been dreaming for a long time about a marketplace connecting wine lovers with the best wine shops in the country and the most interesting winemakers across the globe.
I’m a passionate lover of how wine enhances our lives and builds friendships. And an unabashed wine shop junkie.
I just love popping into shops all over the city, walking out with a bottle I never heard of and a new connection with a fellow wine aficionado I hadn’t met before.
That great feeling that I get when someone sells me a bottle along with a story of a winemaker making wine in a unique way with some grape I never heard of that will somehow be perfect for my evening.
Vinous serendipity at play.
theLocalSip is live now. In Beta. In its infancy. Actually a neonate with a lifespan so far measured in hours;-)
A platform for a marketplace that will happen between wine lovers and shops. A celebration of a global neighborhood of common interests.
A huge thanks to the participating shops for taking this journey. You rock! We have something special here that will grow and change and work.
An equally big thanks to the some 200 folks who were in the system while I was sleeping and accessed some 3000 pages. And the many email responses with good suggestions and encouragement.
My ask to wine enthusiasts:
Play around with theLocalSip.
Start by doing what I just did.
- Go to Find Tastings
- Select This Week
- Select All Neighborhoods
I see amazing tastings to go to. Two at Frankly Wines. Two, even more, at 67 Wine. A couple at Chambers Street Wines. One at September Wines. One at Natural Wine Company. These are the tastings at a glance for Week One on Day One of theLocalSip. Great wines being poured by passionate and informed people.
I won’t make it to all of the tastings but I will buy wines on line with one click regardless. I’ll build a favorites list and share it to my friends across the city and the country and suggest they buy a few online or wander into the shop if in the neighborhood.
This is Day One of theLocalSip. Shops are applying from every neighborhood in New York. Tastings around the corner from wherever you live.
I’m super excited.
Make this community your own. And have fun with it!
Social commerce was premised on the idea that if you have a community of engaged users on a dynamic enough platform, somehow commerce will happen.
That’s the promise inherent in F Commerce and the culprit behind the ill-conceived notion that somehow every social act is measurable as a pipeline for a sale.
Having a business model that works economically for large engaged communities is one thing. Think Facebook and targeted ads. Old school media with deep social hooks. As these numbers from Ad Age show, it certainly works.
Having an environment where goods and services change hands is another thing altogether.
Facebook, with 800+ million connected people, has remarkably little commerce, if any. Funnels of influence and lead flow, brand building and reputation peddling but seemingly transactionless. I keep asking my networks for examples of commerce on Facebook and keep coming up empty.
The why of this is not obvious.
The social twins, community and commerce, should by nature work together. They certainly do in real life on the street level. Shopping is social by design. Malls as a concept do work.
But the logic of replicating what happens in the real world invariably fails on the social web. We need to think beyond the behavior to commerce itself, and whether a store and a discrete location are still a relevant definition of retail.
Facebook imagined that the pedestrian mall existed at the intersection of personal and fan pages on the social graph. This is the old retail crowd formula that location is everything and if you put up a store where there is qualified foot traffic and brand recognition, sales just happen.
Or so was the thinking.
Community designers know innately that you can’t bolt social loops onto commerce sites and expect them to be reborn as community. Most every legacy business and many start-ups have tried with little success.
It’s clear as well that you can’t bolt commerce onto community and expect a marketplace to materialize. The human dynamic that bonds offline around a sense of place and socialization is misapplied. Thinking about online as a virtual mirror of offline never works.
This doesn’t imply that social and transactions, commerce and community are disconnected. Not at all. Just ill-imagined.
We need to move past this narrow idea of social commerce and think of the web as one economy with funnels of community and commerce around niches of interests and intent.
My friend, Mark Essel and I, have long debated the community commerce dilemma. Communities of interest, no matter how dynamic, reject overt commerce as foreign even though off community commerce between members happens frequently.
With communities of interest, the intent is engagement in a many-to-many model. The open mike, town hall idea with handshakes and deals struck in the parking lot. With marketplaces, commerce is the intent, with a one-to-one model, where socialization and referrals happen outside of the community.
Think about the social design aspect of virtual worlds. It was all about place. We moved from place to place like wanderers through a desert, knocking on niche doors. This was community as a virtual world before a social web inhabited by real people.
Facebook, and AOL before it, define themselves as virtual places. As intact platforms. Gesture and engagement, socialization and commerce, referrals and transactions are all-inclusive.
That’s the wrong turn.
The only platform on the web is the web itself. Not Facebook nor even Disqus as the connector.
There are deep communities of engagement and interest like avc.com. Deep marketplaces like Kickstarter. But the commerce around communities happens elsewhere as does the community around marketplaces.
But both happen. Focused intent to engage around discussions or focused intent to buy are facets of the whole, which spread out like threads between our connected lives. Between an online catalog for the Gap and the approval of our friends on what clothes we buy.
This idea has been crystallizing as I’m reading ‘The Intention Economy’ by Doc Searls. The principal theme of the book, underneath imagining a new future, is that the web is about me. And you. And each of us individually on one platform that we all inhabit.
Products like engag.io attempt to put a moving lens on all of our engagements as we move around the web. They follow us, not us them.
The rash of flash popup sales sites like Shoplocket, are tying transactions to shares, inventing Sharing 2.0 as inclusive of commerce.
This points towards an idea that each of us carries a personalized Point of Sale system as a commercial mirror image to our social or community core.
This bridges not just the community and commerce paradigm but the off and online one as well.
When I think of huge brands like Nike with massive fan bases, both on and offline, I would bet that in the near future their connection to their customers will be just one click away from a sale wherever the fan might be. The store will be wherever the fan is and sharing will carry an embedded transaction.
I’ve believed for some time that community existed in the connecting thread between URLs and web places. In the tissue of the web and society itself.
There is truth to that but the dynamics of the web itself as one ‘place’ is more about community and commerce being wherever we happen to be. Individuals as a gyroscope tilting one way or another and carrying our connected social loops with us.
Technologists think about this as an open sourced web. Community designers think about this unfettered individualism and communities without walls.
Same belief. Different words. Both right on.
Gestures are the body language of the web.
The equivalent of the power of a glance. The roll of an eye. The shrug of a shoulder. The accents to talking and the rhythm to our words.
Facebook understood this early. They built a platform that encapsulated gestures as expressions through liking and sharing. Pure utterances of ‘yes’ around objects, mostly photos. Or cheerleading causes.
Brilliant actually. But their promise was bigger.
They understood the power of gestures as a dataset of engagement itself. As a variant of language.
The act of liking across the sweep of your interests was a funnel for personal information. The data fed the implicit social inference engine that personalized your news feed, hand delivered you ads and recommended people you should meet.
I buy into this idea of an implicitly road-mapped future completely– but it’s gone very stale.
Maybe there’s just too much noise but I think the problem goes deeper. Facebook’s taxonomy of gestures were too light and the data too devoid of context to really matter. The brevity of the expression isn’t the issue, it’s the limitation and core inflexibility of the gestures themselves.
The act of being liked today, to me, feels like a generational secret handshake from the past. Facebook is showing cracks and hints of mortality as the gestures themselves are trivialized and outdated.
My friend William Mougayar (@wmougayar), CEO of Engagio wrote a post this week on gestures as the lighter end of the hierarchy of engagement syntax on the web. It’s a great read. He sees the Facebook Like and a 1000-comment thread as the opposite ends of the engagement scale.
This is true certainly, but what’s true today for gestures may well be different tomorrow. Gestures as the body language of the social web are being reinvented as a key part of language with import, not just exclamations of core emotions.
Our canvas of gestures today, mostly Likes, thumbs up and emoticons, as cute as they are, are just too simple for the complexity of emotions and thoughts we need to express. New gestures are needed.
At a basic level, Disqus’s new Beta software is a step in this direction. The removal of ‘likes’, replacing them with ‘voting up’ comments within a conversation string, addresses this head on. It brings context to the gesture and makes the individual utterance part of a community action to vote rather than simply a back slap. It seems to be working.
Broader, more strategic strokes are looming in at least three areas.
1. Sharing 2.0
Mark Slater, CEO of Getabl talks about ‘Sharing 1.0” as the commoditizing of sharing as a gesture. When it becomes ubiquitous and simply a reflex, it is trivialized. Both less viral and less data viable. This is reality today.
My sense is that Sharing 2.0, will roll action and transactions into shares and links. Gestures, like shared links, will become social objects with transactions embedded. This could be the missing (transactional) link to the idea of social commerce.
It’s easy to imagine a shared commercial object, like an article of clothing from an apparel brand, being transactable wherever it is clicked. A shared gesture as commercial object redefining the idea of what channel means for retail. The store will simply be wherever the object is shared.
2. Gestures as shorthand for a language of engagement
Limited input devices, like mobile, will no longer restrict either the richness of the data captured or the value of the output.
I believe that within a few years, a natural Morse code will surface as a mobile syntax of the future. Just because the input is micro-sized doesn’t mean the conversation or engagement should be lessened.
The idea of big data pools driving implicitly driven lifestyles from a population using mobile devices feels imaginable and concrete.
3. Horizontal networks will stop masquerading as contextual communities
The old truism in marketing is that whenever you go from a general to a specific you usually fail. Those of us who have engineered brand and product line extensions know this to be true.
The dearth of context on the horizontal social graph, the thinness of gesturing as a language and the transactionless nature of Facebook specifically, have pushed the emergence of niche communities of interests and marketplaces like Etsy, Ravelry, even Wattpad. More are coming.
My belief is that as mobile-base gestures are devised, communities that are mobile first, that exist wherever you are will begin to develop.
This is all about technology catching up with human behavior.
In real life, gestures are key to communications.
Great communicators, sales people and performers are as much artists of presentation as of content. Watching a movie without sound or people on the street in a different country tells this story well.
The crux of this stems from the reality that the web is about people. Not people online in some virtual world. Just people with extended behaviors from everyday life.
The more the on and offline borders blur, the more true this becomes. And the more there is a pent up need for companies and apps to crack the gesturing code.
This is not an idea in search of a market. I think very much a market in need of an means of expression.
Some truths bear repeating and this is certainly one. A number of events over the past week inspired me to write this post.
First some context.
Discovering the value chain between customer and company is what successful business people do every day. They fill endless whiteboards, figuring out who they are, what their customers value and how to deepen this connection.
Pre the real-time web, this process was predominantly company centric. The center of the marketing bullseye was the company or product, with circles of distribution, partnerships and campaigns pushing the customer touch points out to the store or marketplace or channel.
This was a loud world of exported interrupt messages. It was difficult and expensive to manage.
The game has changed; so have the rules. The customer, empowered by the breadth of purchasing choices and the power of personal referrals, is at the center of the commercial world and the marketing bullseye. Winning, of course, is still measured the same way, but the path to get there is strikingly new and uncharted.
I’m frequently in discussions around social media and commerce and regardless of context, the crux is always connected to this power shift. Once you acknowledge that the nexus of power has jumped from the company to the customer, all the permutations and the logistical noise around social tools fall into place. Referral-based selling, community dynamics, customer support morphed into sales, and social commerce all stem back to this core shift of control and value.
Realistically, does the customer control the company and dictate pricing?
Not overtly of course but pragmatically and directionally, most certainly. With unlimited access to products though an endless array of channels, the customer has the choice to buy wherever and from whomever they want, to tell their friends to buy or not, and publish their impressions and recommendations to the world. Social nets are the amplifiers for both customer satisfaction and discontent.
If you want to build and grow your business, whether you are a start-up or a global brand, you need to pay attention and pay homage to your customer as key. You need to hand them the microphone. And you need to listen hard.
The benefits embracing this are significant when they work. The best example of doing this right from a customer centric support perspective is Apple.
One of the jokes in the blogs is that Apple makes crappy products but has the best support on the planet. I disagree but it makes a point.
I think Apple makes life changing products but their support in store, on the phone on and online is part of the product experience and unchallenged as the best. We like to buy their products, line up to buy new ones at premium prices. Stopping at the Apple store to resolve an issue and shop is part of life. Apple customers are their marketers, their sales force and their brand ambassadors.
One of the rules of marketing is that you can never stop communicating the most important facts. The realities of a customer-centric world prove this well.
A few examples.
A comment string on AVC.com about the new Gary Vaynerchuk book the other day found me in debate with Phil Sugar, a sharp marketing and business veteran who was quite vehement that companies who cared about their customers always provided a call in number with a human being to talk to.
Yes, it’s great to call the company, not so much if it’s a call center in Asia with an hour wait time and untrained employees. This is not about phones. Nor social tools to communicate. We don’t need to call the company; we need support and a system that respects the consumer pre and post sales.
You need an ecosystem of product and support that starts with a customer-centric premise. With this as the golden rule, not only do product and support exist on the same continuum, but also customer support and the customers themselves become the sales force for the company at their Apple-style best.
Phil and I were agreeing at the core but from different vantage points.
Donna White, a top tier and category-defining executive recruiter on the same comment string, reported that at a tech pitch event in Los Angeles she attended, there were a handful of startups whose disruptive strategy was by “being user/customer-centric”. Who would have thought that viewing the world as customer driven was disruptive? Proves that what you thought everyone understood simply isn’t and still new in many places.
And the next day at Media Summit 2011 in New York , media execs from Verizon, Starz and HBO on a panel argued about whether the pendulum of control in TV today was swinging toward content owners or distribution.
I asked whether the customer wasn’t in control? Whether the population growing up with webTV not cable, who never had a landline and just want to buy and watch what they want whenever they want to didn’t hold the true baton of power?
Their answers were “Yes, but…”. Big media certainly loves their fans and provides them a social playground of Twitter feeds and Facebook pages. But their model is stuck in the past and they can’t see past it. Social, for them, is a campaign, an ameliorator and a pacifier. Eventually this lack of a customer centric strategy will backfire.
The publication of Gary Vaynerchuk’s new book “The Thank You Economy” corresponds perfectly with this idea. Not only is his book a manifesto of the seismic shift—amongst other things–towards a customer-centric society, but Gary himself, his story and his business success is a living, breathing exemplar of this idea.
Business is complex. Understanding the social web is inspiring but dauntingly interconnected and overwhelming at times. And building a communications platform for your customers is non trivial.
But if you push the complexity aside, rise above the tactics and objections and start with the value chain of customer not company as key, things fall into place.
How you communicate. How you sell. How you determine pricing and support. Think customer first and you have a point of view to make decisions against .
There’s no guarantee for business success. Building community. Empowering your customer. All this is hard. Even when everything is perfect, there is luck and magic that can’t be planned for nor bought nor bet on.
But I can’t imagine any successful business starting today that doesn’t embrace this reality of a customer-centric world. Nor any successful company looking for expansion that doesn’t surface their customers themselves as the key to growth. Putting the value on what you provide to your customers and letting them speak for themselves, is no guarantee, but the best bet on the future of your company that you can make.