A few months ago, our company ran a thought experiment with a major media brand to consider new ways to engage readers.
An idea we had was to give readers more agency by putting a porthole in the “Chinese wall,” so to speak, whereby advocacy organizations could enable readers to do something with the information they read in an article by featuring messages on the very same page. GASP!
Before you freak out, hear me out on this.
Is it time for newspapers to adopt this principle?
The key to making this work is to create consistent rules that ensure an objective editorial model. For example. you say: anytime we write on fracking, these orgs — with whom we’ve established a relationship and defined what messages they can put out there to our readers — get to opt to have their pre-determined (read: non-responsive to the article) message played there. That way, there is some transparency and consistency for all parties.
When I’ve floated this idea to friends in journalism, it naturally draws ire. But I stand by it, and have even persuaded a few to admit it has merit.
And, I am not alone.
As Ross Douthat of NYTimes suggests ”the press’ efforts to remain neutral/balanced while also acting as a medium for surfacing underrepresented voices and investigating the powerful actually undermines good coverage of real issues as the two aren’t entirely compatible.”
Indeed, as the industry formerly known as the newspaper business evolves we’re seeing non-traditional editorial models surface that toe this line:
Christian Science Monitor is crafting a strategy that involves “building communities around intention and intentionality.”
Upworthy, a viral media site, is attracting attention for its dedication to social causes.
Still, it’s two steps forward, one back.
Most recently (and perhaps problematically) The Washington Post has launched “Sponsored Views,” a feature that lets organizations pay to have their responses to the Post’s Opinion content prominently displayed.
I think this one oversteps.
The Post’s approach seems like a regressive, pay-for-targeted-access concept, as an editor friend points out, and it implies that the most important communications work is going to come from corporations or associations and not journalists who parse these messages.
The natural pushback is that you can do journalism, or advocacy, or marketing, but trying to shade between them is still basically impossible. The key for these news organizations is to be consistent and transparent for readers and marketing partners.
A new editorial model could actually be empowering, as advertisers are currently demanding just about anything from struggling media organizations, in essence turning them into on-demand ad production houses. Of course, as my editor friend notes, relying on desperate publishers to float your marketing messages is not a long-term strategy.
Crowdfunding is not appropriate for every endeavor. Startups still can’t seek money from non-qualified investors (except for friends and family) until the SEC hammers out new rules for these types of investment to protect investors (largely from themselves) and loosen capital.
But despite the narrow definition of a qualified investor, and the fraught nature of giving and receiving, Kickstarter’s process of letting people validate ideas by asking for support fulfills a crucial part of the business development process.
Businesses and bands should front-load this step; it’s what all startups have to go through, and it’s the process by which you learn how stup[endous/id] the idea is.
Social network analysis tells us that the very best outcome is when a project gets funding from its immediate and extended or once-removed community, since these tiers represent the highest potential audience/customer base and the most likely scenario for “viral” or inter-network reach.
I recently gave to a Kickstarter that hit close to home, though I did not know it. I learned about the After School Project initiated by Old Boy Records — which, as it turns out, is in my real-life social network — from Andrew Zimmern — who is part of my online, loose-tie social network. In other words, my online life surfaced a real-world connection. There is strength in loose ties! (Thanks, Mark Granovetter.)
Art: social network analysis nodes: strong ties and weak ones.
Katya Andresen, who is COO at Network for Good, has this advice on improving communications that applies to your sales efforts as well.
“1. Make your goal action, not education…
…The job of communications isn’t to impart knowledge; it’s to connect. Instead of starting with information to communicate, begin with what’s getting in the way of action. Speak to that and solve for that.
2. Tie your topic to something that already has someone’s attention…
…If you really want to communicate, understand that attention scarcity by either 1) linking to the priorities people do have or 2.) becoming a solution to constraints by showing how your idea saves time or money or effort.
3. Remember they are not you…
…The messages that appeal to us aren’t the ones that necessarily resonate with others. I think it’s easy to forget that every assumption should be suspect until we understand what others do.
4. Be clear in what you’re asking…
… Be sure to be crystal clear what you are asking, how to get started, and what comes next. It may be people want to be on board - but aren’t sure how to climb on.”
For a marketplace to work, there has to be certainty, trust, and quality. This is particularly true in online exchanges.
The ability to meet these criteria is, of course, dependent on the size of the user base and the frequency with which they use your platforms and how companies manage the interactions on it. Creating a critical mass of trust-based exchanges, as Amazon, Etsy, Angie’s List, and eBay have done, requires attraction, valuable information, and trust-building.
Online marketplace Zaarly, pivoted away from a purely pull-based model where people log on to request services or stuff from others. They learned that people need prompting to use the platform because they oftentimes weren’t sure what to ask for. There seemed to be a lack of imagination (?) on the side of customers, and so Zaarly moved to a model where they actively promoted specific businesses/services via storefronts on their app/website, and they report they are seeing more engagement by the user base. This is a good reminder that marketing is more about cultivating a market (or market making) than simply a brand play.
Our team has been thinking a lot about what keeps users coming back as we developed our Gems platform. We are building it into existing (e.g., those developed by universities) and are building information layers (e.g., what’s for dinner at the dining hall; what are the campus risk hot spots). So, providing information that is valuable to people in their everyday lives creates stickiness and higher levels of engagement with an online platform.
Spotify/Facebook reminds us of the importance of integrating messages into the social platforms that people are already using and find valuable as a source of information — this approach ensures that they are getting the greatest value from your online resources.
Social Validation and Trust:
There are a couple common variables that are present in relationships that have a strong degree of trust. Consider building these into your platforms to engender a whole lot more trust between users/customers.
- Open personal profiles (self-declaration of skills)
- Shared conversation, activity stream, searchable (enabling independent verification)
- Recommendations, awards, certifications (independent, third-party opinion)
- Co-action, collaboration (the ability to co-create work products)
- Sharing successes (experiencing demand for work products, or admiration)
Finally, don’t simply focus on building your user base, but build metrics around certainty, trust, and quality and users will come.
There’s no room for profligacy at a startup. (For those of you who haven’t studied for GRE in a few years or read daily papers covering the financial sector — profligacy: the trait of spending extravagantly.)
Our year-old startup 4MeNU (a geo-local note-dropping platform) recently reorganized and refocused our marketing efforts. We looked at our revenue goals, our core strengths, and the realities around sales cycle time, and we determined that we would focus on a few big near-term wins instead of shallow, broad-based marketing efforts. It marked a significant shift in terms of how we view marketing.
If you watch the SV-VC-SXSW-guru startup scene it’s easy to convince yourself that splashy marketing campaigns, people wearing gorilla suits, and throwing around free t-shirts can create hype around your product/platform. The truth is that even groups like students don’t have the time, mental capacity, or energy to be your champions. Bloggers? Well, they want to get paid (in real or human capital), just like everyone else. Truth is, people are generally dragged kicking and screaming into trying something new.
We’re learning that it’s all about integration, not spending. We are thinking about ways to integrate our platform into existing networks, work with communities to help them meet their constituents’ needs. While not a splashy marketing campaign, this approach is actually closer to what marketing is in theory: creating a space in the market for your good and service.
That being said, anyone who wants a 4MeNU t-shirt, ping me. We have plenty of leftovers from our days of profligacy.
The work meeting gets a bad rap, but there are some benefits to sitting down face to face and thinking out loud as a team.
To overcome the droll nature of the traditional “meeting” format, consider a name change. Calling it a huddle, scrum, or jam session can change the feel and the collaborative nature of the interaction.
Whatever you call it, just be sure one person is responsible for creating an agenda, that everyone agrees to, and sets specific goals for the meeting (which can simply be “what we will accomplish today as a team”), and that it the meeting doesn’t run beyond its useful life.
Meetings that no longer make sense should cease, and meetings should be brought to a close as soon as they devolve or the group hits a roadblock or diverts from the set agenda; otherwise, you will find that your huddle becomes more of a muddle, and your scrum becomes glum.
You have a killer app? You’ve built an HTML5 site that will blow their minds to smithereens?
Remember, design is only worthy of praise if it positively changes how we function as an individual, social group, and society.
Largely, what is being designed today are networks or other technologies of connection. And with this in mind, it is worth recalling communications principles. Just two, really
1) The best networks are open and engaging, and yet they are also contained and self-serving. The most successful approach to network activation is to create a safe place for people to share with peers who have complementary skills/expertise/interests. Equivalency creates trust.
By designing a structure that allows for self-defined groups based on experience/interest levels, you can ultimately build a network is more resilient than more open/loosely defined networks. Finally, does the platform allow for new groupings to emerge from older ones? Does it evolve with the group of users/individuals it serves?
2) Networks must be nurtured. There tend to be two approaches to cultivating active networked groups: assigning people who ensure that questions get answers and push relevant materials to people who pose questions for which answers have already been surfaced. Group facilitators can also call out people who are active users and help their peers. This positive reinforcement encourages greater levels of engagement.
We have also seen networks that evolve so that they nurture themselves and self-sustain with leaders emerging who take care that people stay engaged on the network. In the corporate environment, one well-respected oil and gas company I’ve worked with assigned network management to high-performers and rotated them out ever six months.
Social reviews are all the rage. The allegedly extortionist Yelp leads the pack of review sites, generating increased revenues of 5-9% for a one-star improvement by a business (according to Harvard Business School).
But just what are businesses supposed to do when the pendulum swings against them and negative reviews crop up? This, by the way, is bound to happen to every business.
The following advice is excerpted from Entrepreneur’s recent article “How to Handle Negative Online Reviews of Your Business,” and we think it’s spot on.
- “Respond quickly. A quick response is always the best way to diffuse a poor review of your company or product. Don’t wait around for more readers to jump on the bandwagon. Nip the issue in the bud.
- Personalize your response. Introduce yourself by name instead of referring to a faceless organization. Doing so adds a human touch.
- Check your ego at the door. Take gripes to heart and look for common threads. Leave the finger pointing and excuses to your competitors.”
We would add that you should consider pulling reviews onto your own site of Facebook feed so you can more effectively respond to gripes. This can also raise your SEO and bring traffic to your site instead of Yelp’s. Finally, think of in-real-life ways to create a Yelp counterbalance.
Groupon’s various business investments are yielding uneven results. A fact that isn’t terribly surprising with any growing business, but the company’s role in leading the daily deal market offers an interesting view of the evolving marketing and advertising landscape.
The daily deal company’s travel service Getaways is performing best and accounting for 10% to 15% of its North American billings. Its hyperlocal product Now! accounts for 1%, while Goods, which offers discounted products such as electronics, has 5% to 10% of billings, according to recently-published figures.
One thing is clear, the “cool coupon” giant is attempting to move away from daily deals, and fast. That’s likely because there is mounting pressure on the side of the businesses who extend the discounts to lower Groupon’s take. Many business owners are becoming more savvy in their negotiations. Also, the appetite for daily deals by the types of customers many businesses seek to attract has diminished.
We expect the daily deal market will continue to evolve in interesting ways, with prices dropping and more segmentation of the customer base by providers. Read our analysis.
The giants like Groupon and LivingSocial will seek more ways to scalably reach the needs of an elite segment of customers online (leaving some behind to eat their coupons) and opening up more space in the local market for lower-cost marketing approaches.
Read my quick-hit daily deal blogs for a taste.
Paperless Receipts. Yet another item that the Internet will be rendering as detritus, along with newspapers, road maps, music CDs, is the paper receipt.
Major retailers, including Whole Foods Market, Nordstrom, Gap Inc. (which owns Old Navy and Banana Republic), Anthropologie, Patagonia, Sears and Kmart, have begun offering electronic versions of receipts, either e-mailed or uploaded to password-protected Web sites. And more and more customers, the retailers report, are opting for paperless.
Stepwise’s View: Companies have gotten savvier about collecting emails. The usual trick of the sales person asking for one’s email as if they are asking if we’d like paper or plastic strikes us as a bit awkward. Starwood Hotels emails receipts, and right after you provide your email they ask you what you’d like your Starwood rewards password to be and sign you up on the spot. Damn they’re good.