A core anomaly of online engagement is that discussions that drive the most interesting conversations are invariably a collective answer to a common question.
Yet Q & A as a model works very poorly, if at all.
The idea that we gather around specific topics is actually less true than that we group ourselves first around people we know or want to know, communities that breed trust and the networks we inhabit. What we discuss is important, but less so than the people we discuss it with.
It’s a powerful distinction that engagement, at its core, is less topical than it is contextual.
Andrew Kennedy, CEO of Vintage141, linked me this piece from the New York Times comparing Jelly, the Biz Stone Q & A app, with Need, an under-the-radar competitor.
A perfect case-in-point of how context and content interplay.
I put the apps through their paces with four questions: need a contractor, help with a tech question, best mobile app for wine buying, and searching for a specific niche expert.
A simple test drive.
A few responses popped up, though nothing new and interesting. The respondents were mostly people I knew, and had answered similar questions when I posted on the open web.
I’m not denigrating the apps (although both are seriously impossible to find in the app store). They are inspired and very brand new with uncertain UXs. And besides their differences, neither has figured out what engagement means. Jelly is lighter, more ambitious, image focused, driving short gestures more often. Need felt more conversant, leaner, less arbitrary, with community managers weighing in to juice the search.
The gist of this though is less about the apps and which will win (if either does)–and more about the interplay of context and content.
These Q & A apps are, by design, parasitic to our personal networks.
They don’t build communities, they simply aggregate ours around their single function ask and receive. Their premise is that asking simple questions is a singular behavior and a driver cross new groups.
I’m not a believer.
If I loaded all of my networks with all of my good will and connections, and so did 100,000 others, these apps would certainly have some depth.
People would then friend me within the app, and the molecular magic of extended connections would become viral. This is the end game by design for these apps.
But why would I want to do this?
Does an encapsulated question add anything at all to simply tweeting or posting a need?
I don’t think so.
Life is all about questions and answers, sharing and bantering. The question may be the handshake, but the networks are the participants and the connections, by default, the gestures of approval. It’s not a separate need.
The experiment was interesting though.
We all live intra network and cross community. Across the big ones like Facebook and Twitter, Instagram and our blog communities. Niche groupings. Offline clubs. Work and play.
Groups and flash communities are always forming and reforming, brought together by occasion or need. They are time–not location– based, topical in intent, and contextual as they cut across our networks and recombine in all new groupings.
These apps are premised on the question being the nexus of connection.
I think the key piece that creates structural gravity is never the question or the content, it is each of us as the center of our own gaggle of networks. In this case, it’s the singer more than the song that sets the rhythm.
When we need something, or simply want to share online, it bounces around our interconnected world, down handshakes of connections and into other ecosystems and other’s networks.
A few years ago, this post would have ended with a statement that there was a growing trend to create more niche communities of interest and an organic interconnection of communities connected by something like Disqus.
This feels less right now.
Especially as our attentions gets focused smaller on our mobile screens and more individualistic on what we, as individuals, need at the moment to make our offline lives better.
We all know that the more individual freedom there is within a community, the stronger it becomes as a whole.
My sense is that the more there are tools that let me exercise the same freedom and control, cross network and cross community, in an instant, the broader those connections themselves will become and the more empowered each of us will be as the center of them.
I walked by this storefront in the Meatpacking District late last week.
My first impression, like others on the street was—what? The big gotcha of course is that this is not a storefront at all, but the popup store itself.
It’s an interactive diorama of Kate Spade merchandise. A visualization of a giant mobile commerce site, store sized and street side. Big brand commerce wrapped up as an adult busy box for mobile shopping.
On the left side of the the window are the ‘Saturday’ line of products for sale on pegs. To the right, an over-sized touch screen complete with some funky mechanical sound effects for each action. You sort by item, check sizes and colors, confirm availability and then order.
This is a mobile shopping cart on growth hormones in a store window. It lets you browse, shop and purchase. To transact, you put in your cell number, and they text you a link to their mobile site to complete the sale.
The big difference, of course, is that this is literally driven by walk-by-foot-traffic, and what you buy is delivered to wherever you are in the city in an hour.
Quite cool. Clever certainly and speaks to innovations that are starting to happen on the streets of New York, as shopping enters a mobile renaissance and location based-retail gets turned on its head.
To be clear, this storefront is actually a promotion, jointly developed by Kate Spade, eBay and PayPal. It’s not a channel per se but event marketing launched a month ago to bring attention to the Saturday line of clothes, sold in-store and online.
I don’t know if the promotion is working. And I’m not certain that it it is going to sell many products through the mobile link, but there is something seriously disrupting going on.
There are a number of retail redefining concepts playing out here:
1. The web is not a place
ecommerce is not enough on its own. For all the brilliant plans to interrupt our lives with advertising, engage the enthusiasts with shareable and transactionable social objects, and the science of driving traffic online, there’s a gap between sites on the web and shoppers on the street.
Web sites just sit there. Stores wait for people to come to them. People want to buy products where they happen to be, when they feel like it. For Kate Spade, maybe that is Gansevoort Street. For New Yorkers, one-hour delivery is certainly better than standing in line to pay and schlepping stuff home.
The system of shop and buy, wait in line, pay and carry out, is vestigial behavior en route to extinction.
2. Transactions are the easy part
We’ve perfected taking payments efficiently from our customers. Transactions aren’t the issue. Connecting transactions to inventory and delivery wherever the customer may be is.
Kate Spade, consciously or not, has smashed a hole in the status quo of retail. By taking a mobile site and externalizing it onto the street, she makes it clear that this transaction, this store itself, could be just about anywhere. A wall in the subway station, even on the back of a cargo bike rolling around the neighborhood.
This is a touch screen kiosk fronting for a mobile store tied into local warehousing and delivery through the web.
Kate Spade is selling hand bags and fashion accessories. Next it could be wine or beer maybe, or who knows, a massage package arriving at the park for you with a blended green on the side and a customized I Love NY beach towel.
3. Urban markets are unique unto themselves
Kate Spade in Manhattan and in a mall in Ohio are different animals completely. Behaviorally and culturally distinct.
The most dense population centers demand their own shopping solutions. This popup might make little sense in suburban Illinois but it sure would work in Paris or Singapore. These are a massive market in their own right.
Human density is in itself an inspiration for innovation.
Cities are the perfect sandbox for discovering market proof for mobile solutions. They are quick becoming an open source petri dish for not just mobile, but a mashup of urban life, ubiquitous connectivity, transportation and shopping. Something is brewing on the streets big time.
4. Channels are nothing more than a moving consumer doorway into the supply chain
Depending on where you are and what you buy, channel is mutable to the situation.
Think about the Apple Store early innovation where the people on the floor could provide the product and handle the transaction. Primitive today but groundbreaking then.
Imagine if in store, a mobile app let’s you buy for delivery as you walk around without talking to anyone. Or try it on, get sold, then buy on the subway at a kiosk or online on the way home for delivery when you arrive. This idea of people on a personal map, carrying purchasing and organizational capabilities around with them wherever they are, connected directly into supply and delivery is unquestionably the future, unfolding right in front of us.
This is inevitable. In fact, it’s overdue as the behavior, the technology and market is already there.
5. Brand is the most powerful filter there is
This mashed up popup shop works because of the filtering power of the brand.
Not the Saturday line being introduced, but Kate Spade. Her clothes, her bags, her reputation is what let’s us plonk down dollars without trying the clothes on, seeing how the bag hangs from your shoulder. Video or no video, it’s trust and brand identification. With us giving her the ability to text us transactional links in the personal context of our cell phones.
There’s two other brand driven trends intersecting here:
–>Online brands (like Etsy) using popups to connect more directly with people where they are, not just online. Nothing builds a strong online brand and community like face to face contact in the real world.
–>Hyper local brands known in-neighborhood, moving into new locations with a low cost, highly branded and just easy model and test delivery system. Spot (even moving) distribution like these virtual popups.
These are the building blocks of the future
Mix up mobile ubiquity, transactional efficiency, predictable street traffic, brand recognition and delivery when and where you want it! That is the joint power of mobile, and, in New York’s case, the added power of the bicycle delivery person getting there just in time.
This is a serious shake up of the traditional kiosk signage idea, connected to the mobile web on one side, people on the street delivering to you on the other.
If you live in NYC, check out these popups. The locations are here!
If you live in another dense urban area, do share variations on this theme with us. I’m certain that this is not the first of its kind but it’s the first for New York and I can assure you, many more are coming.
This is the traffic sign at the Chambers Street Subway Station.
Single functioned. Primitive even. Yet a significant game changer for New Yorkers.
Generations of city residents and commuters, up to 3M people a day, have stood dumbly waiting, sweating and broiling in the summer heat for the next subway train. No possible idea when or even which train is coming.
This display, at one level, is a Jetson-quality, sci-fi like glimpse of the future. A great example of big data trickling down to the mass market. This is the digital data runway fitting to the analog needs of our lives.
Of course this is also somewhat laughable and pathetic.
The signs are only in 25% of the stations. They went live in 2011 after 8 years in development. In 2011! — A decade after Google search put information ubiquity and e-commerce at our fingertips. One hundred and eight years after the trains starting running,
As much as I like knowing that an air-conditioned #2 train is approaching on a sweltering day, the sign is actually a techno tease. A drip of useful information in a desert of analog, real-life experiences cut off from the power of useful data and web connections.
As my fellow New Yorker Fred Wilson and I discussed online recently, the entire idea, as wonderful as it is, is woefully inadequate.
Hiding this info inside the pay turnstiles and not at street level is just bad human UX. Not using this data as a mashed up information hub with bus schedules, Hailo and Uber, Citi Bikes and time-to-walk-to-maps, makes it nothing more than a baby step of a solution. We are grateful for the crumbs of relief but impatient for the real thing
This story is a metaphor for the on/offline dichotomy that we are seeing more and more every day—and a well-lit sign pointing to where the market needs to go.
Online, we experience life like some suburban dream–squeaky clean, sanitized, orderly even within the confusion of the social nets. It’s curated, moderated and personalized. But also wildly intoxicating in its power, whether you are sitting in the office or at a park with free WiFi, pounding out a post or organizing your life for the week.
Each of us is the master of our abstracted and matrixed online world.
Offline it’s a disconnected mess.
Things are always broken, people are late. Connectivity is erratic, data incomplete, and the pace is arbitrary at best. There is an uneasy intersection of the transforming power of data, the web and the human touch.
This is not an app gap; it’s a data aggregation gap.
It’s a new way to think about data, the web and usability at the street level of our everyday lives. About human need where data begins to serve us as we move through life, not just as an abstraction of chores that surround our informational needs.
Businesses like Zipcar, Uber, Hailo and Citi Bikes are uniquely disruptive and personally empowering. Transportation at their core, but a bit more. True life changers for urban life.
They are painful to build, as the currency of value is dependent on the people who use the systems to behave responsibly. Logistics as a design element is no easy task. Tech is easy to get right. Human behavior is simply not programmable. .
I’ve been renting, hailing and riding a bit lately. I’m astounded by the power of these solutions and reminded in each case of these common building blocks.
-Mash ups of public and private data
Data from the subways and buses. Data from independent orgs like limo and cab companies. Data from APIs like Foursquare. These are the ingredients for the next generation system that will make the web belong to us on our own terms, on the streets where we live.
It may take another generation to get subway signs that truly deliver. Entrepreneurs, not the cities, may be the solution, curating value into discrete contextual pieces of urban life. The cities with smart leadership and cultural chutzpah will simply let the data out to be used as raw material.
-Human behavior and street level UX
People are messy. We are late. We don’t do what we should. We are the breaking point for every system that touches us and every system that requires us to feed the data pool so it flows smoothly.
It is what breaks for ZipCar using non-owned garages. What may for Hailo organizing third party cars and Citi Bike managing its neighborhood expansions and its inventory of bikes.
Street level design, the intersection of the data visualization, commerce, logistics and customer service wrapped in the culture of the consumer on the go will be the criteria for success. This is more subtle, more interesting, more empowering and considerably more difficult than fixing abandonment rates on a shopping cart.
The new expert architects for these solutions are not coming from web designers; they are using web design to serve these real-time events, grounded not only in space but in time, in the moment itself.
-Cracking the mobile language code
If your Zipcar is late or has a flat tire, their app, while great for ordering, is pretty useless for trouble shooting. You have to walk out of the garage, get a signal and call and wait.
We need a new mobile language. As easy as texting, yet as digitally powerful as a tag. Right now it’s like moving between two systems with a phone size display. No-one has designed this bridge across systems, data types and language. Yet!
Inspiring stuff. Changing not how we just shop or order stuff but how live better, informed, more efficiently.
A few years ago, we were all blogging about how the line between on and offline was blurring. As connectivity became ubiquitous we thought the wall was down.
We were simply wrong. It’s just getting started.
I touched on this in my Trading Places post a few weeks ago. My bet is it’s going to drag the orderliness of the web and reshuffle it into a just-in-time dynamic map of how we navigate our lives.
And just maybe, these early transportation point services will aggregate into platforms where we can share map-like slices of how we experience our days. Reshaping not only how we move around but how we order and organize our world in the moment it is changing.
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.
The give and take between explicit requests and implicitly inferred assumptions is the natural state of how we live.
Offline we don’t really think about this.
Face-to-face with family, friends and tight-knit interest groups we accept that serendipity just happens, more often than we expect. The sum of explicit and implicit requests and assumptions is what make human dynamics what it is.
This dynamic is also the core DNA of community, online and off.
Given the right environment, this interplay of explicit demands providing keys to implicit inferences just surfaces naturally. This is why community works and very much why it matters.
As marketers and business owners, this is key to what we do and why community dynamics are both marketing goals and a gauge of the health of a growing business.
This is a simple and basic truth, yet bears repeating.
Great companies learn from what our customers ask for explicitly and listen hard to what they infer implicitly. This listening is a core competency of marketing and business development, interpersonal and inter-customer communications.
This is true not only of companies built on the ‘network effect’ of spiraling interconnected customer growth, but all business that gather their customers around each other, and themselves, to continually recreate their market dynamics.
Yet, as marketers, we spend a lot of time reconceptualizing the value of community. It’s a never-ending process. A healthy discussion certainly but ultimately a conclusion you need to accept without pure data as proof.
The exploded focus on what is referred to as the ‘implicit graph’ and the power of implicit data over the last few months has by default shined a brightened light on the value of community. What the curation segment and social networks call the implicit graph has no greater proof point than the dynamics of a successful online community.
Community is the sandbox for the power of implicit connections and test bed for how to use that data.
This is what a community platform like Disqus, the socialization around video in Google+ Hangouts, the inference-based connecting power of Foursquare and personalization of Hunch are all getting at.
Community is hard to make happen. But the pieces that marketers move around in social design are the people themselves. We resift the sand in the sandbox till it works.
In social communities online and off, implicit connections are a function of human behaviors, encapsulated in conversations.
On social nets the behavior become data. The networks need to collect and sort through an ever-growing matrix of social data and algorithmically connect implicit input to explicit inferences.
There is a core connection between the gestalt of community and the data driven power of the implicit graph as a tool for social discovery. This started to come together for me last month when I participated in two workshops around “Social Discovery and the Implicit Graph.” Eric Friedman from Foursquare wrote a post on the workshops that is worth a read.
They were group brainstorms organized and led by Disqus, Hunch, Foursquare, StumbleUpon and Tumblr. Each of these companies has a business interest in figuring out how to drive implicit recommendations that are personalized for each individual over time.
Nothing was decided. Much was discussed. The standing room only crowd was inspiring.
The following from the conversation stuck with me:
-People expect the benefits of implicit suggestions on their social nets.
It’s not creepy that Foursquare should suggest things that we want to do when we are somewhere in NYC, it’s what check in-apps should be doing.
Having to explicitly ask for everything we want is both unnatural and boring. It belies the value of connecting and the power of the networks themselves.
People want to get suggestions on what they want without asking for them.
-People expect companies and brands to know them personally and implicitly.
Each of us invests time in sharing our thoughts forward and chronicling our lives as they happen online. This is public information and companies have access to this.
Translated…there is a market for Hunch in my opinion, big time.
-People want implicit discovery as a personal tool.
Search is not enough. Inferred info streams ala Facebook news feeds are not adequate. People want searchable context and companies like Disqus with the implicit data of 50M commenters in their database that can provide enormous value for discovery. The market appears to want it. I certainly do.
When I think about Foursquare in this context, what they are really doing is creating a social, inference-based platform that creates micro-flash communities on demand, one implicitly value-based connection after another, check in by check in.
You can build an analogous map for StumbleUpon, Tumblr and Hunch.
This is very cool stuff. Powerful, heady and just plain hard to do. A bold attempt to build social consciousness into artificial intelligence, code-driven algorithm that spits out time sensitive, personalized implicit suggestions.
I think this is still all about community.
Community works, my bet is that the implicit graph will also.