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.


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