Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Social Media Curmudgeon, Part I - Engagement

If you're reading this blog, chances are you know the Social Media Curmudgeon. The Social Media Curmudgeon hates – and wants nothing to do with – "social media people."

Looking around, it's hard to blame the Curmudgeon. In a space cluttered with "gurus," "ninjas," and "rock stars" spouting sheer idiocy, the competent, thoughtful social media professional risks guilt by association.

It's not just brand-damaging; it's industry-damaging.

I have been writing the Social Media Idiocy series to try to change the thinking and culture from within, as well as dispel some myths. I am now starting this series to try to undo some of the damage the idiots have caused by focusing on the Curmudgeon – who thinks all of this social media stuff is garbage.

I like my steak medium well.

"Medium well" means a minimum of – and ideally no – pink in the middle – but without any charring.

In other words, I like my steak gray.

Not black, not pink, and certainly not red or blue. Gray. Throughout.

Unfortunately, because my preference for medium well seems to be a rare one (pun unintended), lots of chefs don't quite get what "medium well" means – or, worse, they arrogantly refuse to accept that I prefer my steak medium well. Consequently, I have sent back lots of steaks in my time.

Several months ago, when my girlfriend and I were out dining at one of our favorite steakhouses, my steak came to me a very definitive rare.

Surprised and nonplussed (after all, this steakhouse had become my favorite by no accident; I was used to paying a bit extra there for a perfect steak), I summoned the waiter and politely sent my steak back.

No big deal, though. After all, this was my favorite steakhouse. They had earned enough of my confidence to allow for this unique slip-up.

My girlfriend was about halfway through her meal when my steak came back to me – burnt.

I had now moved from nonplussed to severely disappointed. Two chances – two screw-ups.

As I started to pick through my thoroughly charred steak, the house manager came to check on me, unsolicited, and ask about my steak. I admitted, a bit embarrassedly, that it was not to my liking, and asked if I could have a new one. The house manager profusely apologized and agreed to replace my steak with a new one.

Although I was very grateful and glad to get a new steak, disappointment lingered. My girlfriend finished her entrée before I had even gotten to enjoy a bite of mine (leading her disappointment to become more than empathetic on my behalf; this was now affecting her dining experience too). Wondering if the restaurant had a new (and bad) chef since my most recent visit, I was sincerely questioning how frequently – or if – I should return. After all, it was a luxury (and a pricey one at that). If I didn't thoroughly enjoy my experience, what was the point?

Eventually, my new steak came, and it was perfect. That started to make me feel better (although I was still reassessing how frequently I should be visiting the steakhouse).

What cinched the deal, however, was when the house manager came back to check on me. He fell all over himself apologizing and making sure we were happy (not in an unclassy way, but rather in a profusely sincere way). Later, he even offered us a free dessert.

The dessert was just okay, but I was so thrilled and so impressed by the way the steakhouse handled the slip-up that my girlfriend and I left that evening feeling even more positively about the steakhouse than we did when we walked in. The steakhouse had improved its brand by screwing up and then taking care of the screw-up in an extraordinary way.

It remains one of our favorite restaurants.


"I just read this article," said the Newbie. "It was about how Netflix is losing control of its brand because of its failures to engage on social media."

"Netflix isn't the only one," said the Blogger. "Lots of companies – companies you'd think would know better – are not paying any attention to what their customers are saying. It hurts their image."

The Curmudgeon sighed heavily. "I am so tired of the phrase 'social media,'" putting down his whittling to make air quotes, "and the notion that companies need to 'engage' customers." He made the air quotes again, enunciating the word "engage" with all the contempt worthy of a curmudgeon. "Sounds like marketing-speak to me."

"But Curmudgeon," the Blogger said, taking a quick puff off of her cigarette. "When a company angers loyal customers, the backlash festers and spreads when left unchecked. Instead of having any control over the conversation, customers take engagement into their own hands by doing things like tying up customer service lines and directly calling and emailing company executives."

"Now, now, little lady." The Curmudgeon held up his hand to cut the Blogger off. "Listening to customers is important. I admit that. But that doesn't mean that a company should bend to the will or kiss the butt of every whiner that pisses and moans on Twitter with some catchy hashbag."

"Hashtag," corrected the Newbie.

"Same difference," grunted the Curmudgeon, scratching his beard. He went back to his whittling.

The Blogger exhaled a couple of smoke rings and walked away, gripping her arm; she knew that the Curmudgeon considered the subject closed.

The Newbie naïvely pressed on. "Come on," he protested. "Don't you think there's some value to be gained by engaging in the conversation?"

"I engaged in this conversation, didn't I?" said the Curmudgeon, not looking up from his whittling. "Didn't get me a dang thing."

While marketers are fond of using (and misusing) the word, "engagement" is not a marketing term. It is a customer relations term.

Social media are often linked to marketing, and the two can go hand-in-hand, Nonetheless, while some social media campaigns are primarily or solely marketing efforts (Old Spice and Pepsi are two brands that immediately come to mind here – and even those brands have used social media as part of only one aspect of a multimedia marketing campaign), social media and marketing are not inherently the same thing.

Social media are also platforms for PR and customer relations. Public relations and customer relations are not new business functions invented by marketers or the digerati; it's just that the digital age has brought us a new way to perform them – and an essential one at that given current trends. Indeed, these have become the primary uses of social media for many (if not most) businesses.

Good customer relations practice is not merely "[l]istening to customers;" it also includes talking back with those customers and openly and actively engaging with them in some fruitful discussion. This is not a new notion; social media have simply made it more obvious -- and, in some cases, painfully so (e.g., Yelp).

Any good businessperson will tell you that an upset customer is not a problem per se; it's an opportunity – an opportunity to re-instill the customer's confidence in the business (and, in many cases, give the customer even greater confidence than he had before).

In my example above, the house manager successfully took full advantage of this opportunity to make my girlfriend and I feel better about doing business with his restaurant. It worked not because he sucked up to us or bribed us or "ben[t] to [our] will" any such "demeaning" behavior. It worked because he ably demonstrated to us that he and his business takes satisfying us very seriously – that our satisfaction was extremely important to them.

In other words, he made us feel valued.

That's what much of life is about – making the people you interact and associate with feel valued by you. As human beings, we all want to be liked, to be loved, to be appreciated, and to be cherished. Those positive feelings add value for us.

If someone ignores us, however – if someone makes us feel especially small in this great big universe – then we suffer a value-loss (i.e., the opposite of a value-add). If we feel like we will continue to lose value by interacting or associating with someone, we will actively seek to dissociate from them.

So too with business. Customers that feel genuinely appreciated and valued are contented customers. Customers that feel otherwise will not be customers for long.

Earlier this year, I Tweeted to my followers that I was planning on switching banks because of some fees that I should not have been charged. My bank's Twitter team saw the Tweet, immediately contacted me, and put me in touch with a very kind, very efficient escalation executive. She readily refunded my money and remedied the issue for me. More importantly, she sincerely cared about helping me and making me a happy customer.

I am still a customer of that bank – and I let my followers know about it.

Engagement makes the difference between having a customer praise you and having an ex-customer badmouth you. When a company ignores the idea of mutual engagement on social media – when it fails to achieve Conversational Convergence – it loses control of its brand, suffers brand damage, and loses customers.

Every "wrong" that a business commits that causes it to lose business is, ultimately, perceived as a value-loss. If you don't care enough about providing customers with a sufficiently high-quality product or service, you are that much less likely to have customers.

Part of providing a high-quality product or service is making a good effort to discuss your product or service openly and honestly with your customers. Another part of it is a willingness and openness to improving the customer experience. If you can't – or won't – try to make things better, your business will only get worse.

Engagement, therefore, is vital. If you maintain a presence on a social channel, you must engage there – and not simply "talk at" your audience.

That's not marketing-speak. It's reality.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Social Media Idiocy, Part III – Projection

In Part I of this series on Social Media Idiocy, I derided the stupidity of "followback etiquette."

In Part II of the series, I explained that you don't have to follow self-proclaimed experts' rules to achieve social media success -- especially if these so-called rules would interfere with your own personal enjoyment or value-add.

Today, in Part III, I use real-life examples to demonstrate the complete unreasonableness of the proponents of these social media "rules" and "etiquette."

This is where Social Media Idiocy crosses the line into Social Media Psychosis.

From about age seven to seventeen, I had a frenemy whom I shall call "Terence."

My mother nudged me into befriending Terence when I was in second grade. Even though he was sometimes annoying (and even, sometimes, an outright jerk), for some combination of reasons I continued to hang out with him over the course of ten years.

Once, as children, Terence and I were playing in his basement while our moms were in the upstairs kitchen. At some point, Terence and I got into a mild argument, which I was winning.

In the middle of the argument, Terence told me -- quite out of the blue -- "Take off your glasses."

"What?" I said.

"Take off your glasses," he calmly repeated.

Not clear on the relevance to the point I had just made, but being a pretty compliant kid, I said, "Okay..." and took off my glasses.

Terence promptly punched me in the eye.

That's not the punchline, though (pun unintended).

The selfsame instant Terence's fist hit me, Terence immediately yelled, "Oww!" and clapped his hand over his eye.

He then, quickly, ran away upstairs. Moments later, I heard Terence shout, "Mom! Joey punched me in the eye!"

Need to read that again? Don't worry; I'll wait.

(...doo de doo de doo...)


What's the matter? Doesn't make sense?

That's right; Terence had launched a premeditated preemptive strike, blaming me for doing to him what he had actually done to me (i.e., punching).

The effect of Terence's actions was that he got sympathy while I got scolded; not even my own mother believed me when I protested that it was Terence who had punched me -- not the other way around. Terence had immediately changed the conversation from one between the two of us (where I had the upper hand) to one involving our mothers (where he, by virtue of his accusation and whining, had the upper hand).

It was rather brilliant, in a psychotic way.

I would later come to learn that this was an example of what psychologists call extreme projection -- a pathological defense mechanism in which a person denies his own actions, attributes, thoughts, or feelings -- while projecting them onto others.

(A non-extreme, non-psychotic example of this might be when you respond to your significant other's criticisms of your driving by bringing up the time s/he almost got the two of you killed when s/he hesitated on a left turn.)

Like any leopard, Terence did not change his spots. Years later, for instance, when a friend of mine he was dating dumped him because of some lousy thing he did, Terence told people that he had actually dumped her because she had done the lousy thing that he actually did.

It was exactly this kind of ongoing, manipulating behavior that made Terence such a frustrating (to say the least) person to associate with. Unsurprisingly, he was never a popular kid.

But boy, did he know how to get sympathy.

Social Projection

A blog post I recently came across entitled "Three Numbers that Prove You Suck at Empire Avenue" epitomizes almost everything that is wrong with social media.

The blogger argues that, because his engagement and amplification are lower than he expects them to be, everybody else is doing social media wrong. He bases his arrogant arguments on the myth of Twitter Ecology -- that anyone who deigns to not follow him back is making a grievous mistake.

(To be fair, the blogger offers this post specifically in the way of advice related to improving one's numbers on Empire Avenue -- but Empire Avenue is an artificial, fake social media metric anyway.)

Through this blog post, this blogger has become a figurative, social media version of my "friend" Terence -- punching hundreds of people in the face while evangelizing/whining that he alone holds the moral high ground. He has denied whatever social media inadequacies he possesses while projecting them onto all of those who have refused to return his social media attentions.

To top it all off, this blogger is doing exactly what Terence did when he ran upstairs with his hand clapped over his uninjured eye -- whining to an arbiter (in this case, his readers, and the Internet at large) for favorable judgment and sympathy.

This blogger is not alone in his projection tactics; the social media space is full of self-anointed "gurus" and "experts" and "ninjas" who do the substantially the same thing. They criticize, ridicule, and rebuke (for silly things, no less, like sheer follower numbers) those social networkers who patiently focus on organic contributions and value-adds because those are qualities that the gurus/experts/ninjas/whatevers themselves lack.

The upshot is that those ignorant about social media may come to blindly accept the evangelized position of the blogger in question (and those like him): that they should always follow back (and, especially, follow this blogger), because it is the only way to engage social media correctly.

To me, this is a worse social media sin than his tortured logic, because:
  1. There is no single "right" way to do social media, and
  2. Even if there was a single, correct way to do social media, that is certainly not it.
Follows, connections, engagement, and amplification are things that must be earned on social media -- not bought or coerced. Otherwise, the whole thing is an artificial game, devoid of the organic power that social media holds for the patient and engaging.

If you want people to pay attention to you on social media (in a good way), add value. Adding value for others is the best strategy for Empire Avenue, the best strategy for social media, and often the best strategy for life.

Guilting, shaming, whining, denying your own shortcomings, acting like an arrogant jerk -- those strategies yield only short-term victories that go nowhere. They're the kinds of things that Terence would do.

Don't be a Terence.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Interview: Claire McGonigal, Empire Avenue Addict

The social media realm is prone to a lot of hype – and overhype (in case you haven't noticed). One social media site that's receiving a lot of hype right now is Empire Avenue. Empire Avenue is a virtual stock market of social media personalities, where you can buy and sell your social networking friends. Using this model of gamification, the site purports to serve as both a social networking metric (like Klout or PeerIndex) and a social network itself.

Claire McGonigal, a blogger and office manager living in Zurich, Switzerland, writes about Empire Avenue on her blog, Empire Avenue Addict. Claire is one of the few – if not only – Empire Avenue evangelists I have found who can discuss the site with intelligence, depth, and temperance, without sacrificing passion or enthusiasm. Although she is not a public relations specialist, her brand of evangelism could well be model for others.

I recently had the pleasure to interview Claire about Empire Avenue and her experiences with it. Claire's graciously provided insights – both in her conversations with me and in her blog posts – have caused me to rethink and modify my own views of Empire Avenue.

Below, I present excerpts of my interview with Claire, lightly edited.


Joe: Could you tell me about your work [with social media]?

Claire: Actually, my work…is not primarily about social media. I'm [an] office manager[;] I deal with the day-to-day finances…and I dabble in user support and relationship management. A year ago, I was pretty ignorant about social media. I didn't have a Twitter account before I signed up for Empire Avenue. Nowadays I contribute to [my employer's] social media efforts, although I have to say there is much more that needs to be done. Empire Avenue has helped signal that to us as a company.

Joe: What drew you to Empire Avenue initially?

Claire: I was sent an invitation by my husband. He's a typical early adopter[.] I used to roll my eyes when I got yet another email invitation to the "next big thing," but I've come to trust his instincts [–] and I'm glad I did in this case. I like numbers [and] money, so the buying and selling was fun at first, trying to compete with a few friends and acquaintances that were already on the site.

Joe: What made you stay [on Empire Avenue]?

Claire: [F]irstly, the huge learning curve[.] I like a challenge, and it was really addictive trying to find out how the game worked and how to succeed at it, especially because I was pretty new to social media[. S]econdly, a little later on, I started to branch out and meet new people and (it sounds cheesy but it's true) make new friends.

Joe: What do you enjoy most about the site?

Claire: I like the banter with other users, and I love finding interesting or beautiful content – written or visual. A major part of why I play [Empire Avenue] is that I'm constantly learning from it – from people's content [and] also their style – how they engage with others. Of course, sometimes it's also a "what not to do" learning experience[,] but that's useful too.

Joe: What do you enjoy least about the site, or wish would change?

Claire: I guess what I enjoy least is that it's very much "all or nothing[.]" [B]ecause of the daily price changes and trading, if your social media activity drops for more than a day or so, you're in trouble. By that, I mean, your numbers drop, and that just looks bad. You can always recover though.

They could definitely improve their FAQs and "how-to" information. A lot of new users are confused. The flip side of that is that it keeps a lot of discussion going about just how to play the game. There are other niggles, like the ease with which the system can be "gamed" – fake accounts, "buy-me" shoutouts – but I like the way in which established users have reacted to these [tactics] and spoken out against [them].

Joe: Do you use Empire Avenue for your work? If so, how specifically do you use it, and what results [or] ROI have you [or] your employer seen from it?

Claire: I use it to monitor our company's social media activity…as a reminder of what we could or should be doing, even though we don't always have the time or resources to do it. I've also found it very useful to connect with other companies and individuals active in social media within Switzerland. Many of the people who have signed up for [Empire Avenue] are good connectors and networkers. We've also got in touch with people abroad who are interested in working with us on a few projects[;] because we've met them through Empire Avenue, there is an element of trust already established, which helps when entering into a working relationship.

Joe: What is the biggest value you personally get out of Empire Avenue?

Claire: My established ideas are constantly being challenged and I'm inspired to try new things.

Joe: How do you decide whether to "invest" in someone [on Empire Avenue]?

Claire: That depends. Sometimes it's purely numbers – when someone else has given me a stock tip, for example. Other times it's because I've seen a comment or post that I like. Occasionally I buy shares as a thank you – for example, if they've tweeted a blog post or commented on a photo [of mine]. I also [buy users' stock] as a way to support and connect with people from my own area.

Joe: How helpful do you find [the analytics that Empire Avenue offers]?

Claire: I find them very useful. I like the distinction between audience and engagement. For example, my audience on Twitter is about 1,000[, which is s]maller than many other people's follower numbers[,] but my engagement level is pretty high compared to the audience. I'm happy with that, and prefer it to the other way around.

Joe: Have you paid real life money to the site for virtual, on-site benefits? If so, what did you buy, and why?

Claire: When I first joined, we had to pay eaves in order to release 5,000 new shares for sale. That was hard. You either had to sell off about a third of your portfolio or save up for weeks to pay for the upgrade. So a couple of times I spent $10 to buy some eaves and ease the pain[.] When they changed the system, we got partial refunds for that, which I appreciated. I haven't spent any more since and I don't think I will.

Joe: For you, personally, is Empire Avenue mostly a tool or mostly a toy?

Claire: It's really a bit of both. If it was "only a game," I don't think I could justify spending so much time on it. I have definitely benefited from it, and continue to benefit every day, in my professional life. It's been a fantastic year-long training session on social media, networking, marketing and blogging, all rolled into one. I have tremendous fun with it too. I've met, chatted with, [and] laughed with some wonderful people [who I met through Empire Avenue]. I like being an [Empire Avenue] multi-millionaire.

Joe: [A]nything you care to add about your thoughts on…Empire Avenue's utility?

Claire: If you feel you are already an expert on social media, and you know everyone you'll ever want to know, you may well get bored with Empire Avenue quickly. If you go in with an open mind and an engaging attitude, you'll most likely find something in it that you can benefit from. But I think that's true of life generally.