Have you played one of the social capital games?

Bruce WilsonI’m reading two books about social media at the moment. One is “Trust Agents” (Chris Brogan / Julien Smith), about which I Tweeted yesterday “Loving Trust Agents! @ChrisBrogan and @Julien are Jim Collinses of relationship dev for networked professionals.”  (More in a future post.)

The other book, which I’m listening to in an audio edition, is very interesting (although I find the name distractingly silly every time I hear it–sorry, I’m just that immature). It’s “The Whuffie Factor,” by Tara Hunt, where the word “Whuffie” is a coined term meaning social capital. In it Tara Hunt provides many interesting and thought provoking examples of companies that engage with wider communities in beneficial ways using social media.

One intriguing topic that the book touches upon is social reality gaming–played offline, not online–that have virtual economies where people get points (not money) for doing good deeds in the real world. And these deeds can get paid forward by the folks on the receiving end, thus creating a happy circle of viral marketing. (I’m particularly interested in this topic because a friend is designing a system for tracking the “intangible” benefits of networking in professional situations which involve services performed without a contract and/or services not explicitly required under an existing contract.)

I haven’t delved into any of these games in detail, but just in case you have time and are curious, here are the three mentioned in The Whuffie Factor:

AkohaAkoha is the world’s first social reality game where you can earn points by playing real-world missions with your friends. Missions might include giving someone your favorite book, inviting a friend for drinks, or buying a friend some chocolate.” Acts of kindness can also be passed forward, thus virally engaging new players.

Cruel 2 B Kind – A game where people score points by performing random acts of kindness in public, which can also virally engage new players by inviting recipients of the kindness to participate.

Mini Motoring Hearts – BMW’s Mini group gives people spendable karma points with which they can purchase “swag” by answering requests for community volunteers and by performing
random acts of kindness.

A couple of months ago TechCrunch also posted this item about “The Whuffie Bank,” a startup which aims to assess the social capital people have acquired online and give them “spendable” points proportionately.

Does anybody who’s tried one of these care to offer your personal endorsement? I’m sorely tempted to try one myself.

Pros and Cons for businesses building on Facebook or Ning

Bruce WilsonYesterday David Spinks and I exchanged blog posts and comments inspired by his post about 6 ways businesses are using Ning as a social network provider for their online communities.

In my post I hinted that a private label / white label social network might be a better choice for a business-0riented online community than a Ning network, even with beautiful customization. And by extension this reasoning could apply to Facebook business pages and applications and other social network providers. In his comment to my post David asked, in part, “Seeing as how Ning is so popular, couldn’t it … be an advantage to have access to their userbase?”

First the pros: businesses can certainly benefit from partnering with a strong social networking brand like Ning or Facebook. This is especially true of Facebook which has extremely high levels of adoption and trust and vast numbers of regular users.

  • When people recognize a trusted network partner they may be more likely to join.
  • Because more people are already participating in the larger network new arrivals are more likely to find friends to interact with.
  • When people are already logging in to Ning, or Facebook, or another service every day or so, its just super easy for them to join, then regularly participate in, new pages or communities.
  • I’m a big fan of the SaaS (“software as a service”) model wherein both writing and hosting of web software is handed over to people who’s job it is to perfect the user interface, maintain security, and keep everything running as smoothly as possible, 24 x 7 x 365. Then the business’s official job is just to administer the site, while the community does it’s thing by populating the network with their interactions.

The cons in my mind are a bit darker and more old-school corporate sounding. The hard question is: who “owns” the relationship from the business side? This has implications for both customer satisfaction, as in “who is responsible for (owns) making sure that the customer experience is positive?” It also has implications for revenue, as in “who benefits from (owns) revenue generated via sales and advertising?”

On the relationship side I can imagine a number of potential problems.

  • User experience: what if a network provider suddenly limits or eliminates a popular feature, as Facebook periodically does, or regularly fails to keep the service up and running, as Twitter is somewhat infamous for?
  • Branding: what if the social network partner is embroiled in a scandal, as Facebook was recently, or starts promoting a competitor of the business through advertising or integrated partnership?
  • Data portability: what if the networking partner goes out of business or is purchased by a competitor?

On the revenue side, a social network partner may restrict access to customer data in ways that a business feels prevents them from generating legitimate new revenue opportunities. For example, Facebook restricts businesses’ ability to hold contests and send event invitations. Or a network partner may superimpose its own revenue opportunities over a business’s own interest, as when Facebook ads and other UI elements draw users away from a business’s own messages and calls to action.

But there are many people who know the world-wide Ning community much better than I do. Do you think the benefit of a Ning partnership usually outweighs the potential downside?

I’m also not all that familiar with the white label / private label alternatives (some of which I mentioned yesterday). Do these overcome, or fall victim to, the same potential pitfalls?

Private Social Networks Are Taking Off

Bruce WilsonThis afternoon I followed a tweet to a beautiful blog post by Scribnia‘s David Sprinks on Mashable.com. David writes succinctly about (and provides lush screen captures illustrating) six visually appealing examples of how companies are using Ning social networks.

Although I want to add a couple of thoughts of my own about businesses building their own social networks, first a shout-out to David for his piece. His examples include a customer community for Seesmic (one of the leading Twitter client applications); a community for the mothers of US Navy sailors; a community for people who own or are otherwise interested in Saturn automobiles; a community for encouraging women to start their own businesses (sponsored by Martha Stewart); a community of travel bloggers; and a community for holiday bakers who want to exchange cookies (sponsored by Hersheys).

Although some of the same social networking functionality can be delivered by Facebook business pages and Twitter-based conversations, David’s piece makes it clear that there is still plenty of room for niche social networking sites.

I’m especially excited to see companies that have gotten so much traction–and customization–at Ning because about three years ago I helped found a startup focused on building a private label online social networking platform. David’s Ning examples, while beautifully and uniquely branded, are not true private label social networks because they still are hosted with Ning URLs, like xxxxxx.ning.com, and people must have a Ning account to participate. Fully white label solutions do exist now, including Social Go, RealityDigital, and Stribe. While at the moment they lack the name recognition of Ning, they appear to have big customers nonetheless.

Although the startup I helped found ultimately failed to get off the ground, a key insight we achieved is that almost every business has a group of loyal customers who could bond or have already bonded around their contact with that company. Examples we examined included:

  • Neighborhood Starbucks (and other cafe) customers identify with their local “third place” and frequently form friendships with fellow regulars. Special events and offers, like coffee tastings and new merchandise, could be organized and advertised via the social network.
  • Retailers with inspired customer bases like Nordstrom–which already has special invitation-only events during hours they are not usually open to reward extra special customers–can use a social network to allow customers to revel in their pride of relationship with that retailer and spread news and photos of products, events, and specials with their friends and family.
  • Health clubs can offer ways for customers to learn of schedule updates, news, special offers, and (between interested customers) opportunities for customer interaction.
  • Motorcycle sellers (and sellers of other high-affinity products, similar to Saturn) can offer not only company and product news but opportunities for riders to set up rides and other events together.
  • Alumni organizations can offer a dedicated school and classmates connection experience, not filtered through an intermediary like Facebook, Classmates, or LinkedIn and optimize it for the mutual goal of supporting the educational institution itself.

If you haven’t already, once again I recommend checking out David’s post, he really has an eye for web design and it’s worth checking out his post just for the graphics alone. Then think about how your business can leverage this approach to improve customer satisfaction and engagement.

Forensic archiving and search of web 2.0 sites

Bruce Wilson

As someone who has worked on a number of web application development projects over the years I understand the challenges of web content management and archiving more than most folks. Thus at LegalTech NY earlier this year I was particularly impressed by a vendor in the web archiving space called Hanzo Archives.

Many of us are familiar with a service called the Internet Archive (more commonly known as “The WayBack Machine”) which offers snapshots of previous versions of thousands of web sites, even small ones. It’s fun, and sometimes useful for information gathering, but hardly rises to the level of detail most of us would hope for in a litigation or compliance scenario.

What Hanzo does is take the idea of archiving web sites to a forensic level by comprehensively recording the content of a web site, including Flash and other non-html content, at frequent intervals. Once recorded, site archives are fully searchable and web content can be “replayed” exactly as it was published on a particular date, all in a manner that can be authenticated in court.

This fall I had the privilege of speaking with Mark Middleton, founder and CEO of Hanzo Archives, to satisfy my curiosity about what his product is capable of and who is using it.

Bruce: Mark, thank you for arranging to speak with me. I think I have a general understanding of what your archives do, but let me start off by asking you for some use cases that illustrate who needs your product and what they need it for.

Mark: Actually we have two products now. We are defining a new product, WebHold, which is a streamlined and simplified derivative of our existing ‘Enterprise’ service. We have advanced so far in the past couple of months that we are now able to collect the most insanely complicated web sites, where by comparison archiving something like financial services sites is simple.

To answer your question, our use cases would include litigation support and brand heritage. The common thread here is that, increasingly, companies are communicating and advertising to their audiences using web technologies. Whereas a company historically has been able to capture their communication in print or broadcast relatively easily, they are unable to do this for their web content and so for the first time in decades they have major communication channels they cannot capture for the future. One of the world’s most successful brands in the Food and Beverage industry has selected Hanzo for this purpose.

Here’s your legal use case. We have a prospect whose target audience for communication and advertising is young people. Our prospect communicates with them in sophisticated ways on the web – videos, games, surveys, and animation. They offer very sophisticated messaging about their products, put it on many websites, in order to communicate their sophisticated brand to their customers. How does one capture that?

At the same time, in their words, they anticipate regular litigation about their products. They’ve got every other avenue covered – print, TV ads, materials provided on premises, but they cannot do web – they cannot rely on the “WayBack Machine” – none of the rich media is recorded there. They can do backups – but how do you recreate a web site from a backup, how do you prove it was the one that was live on a particular date? We can capture their content on a regular basis, save into secure containers, can prove the content in the containers is authentic and original, and can be recreated in our archive system to look exactly as is did when it was live. So companies can enjoy the same level of confidence that they have in their other channels.

Bruce: OK, again I think I understand, but to help explain it to others can you give me some concrete examples?

Mark: Here are a couple of examples from prospects and clients.

One is an investment house with a variety of products. Their website contains a mixture of historic performance data and propositions to entice the investor to buy into their investment product. Traditionally these kinds of offers were made in print prospectus documents, regulators would require this to be filed with the regulator. Specific to the web, the companies are now making this offer in a unique way. People can select an investment product, and pull up a calculator showing what returns you might be able to see. They can see graphs of performance, plus recent opinions of analysts, all on the same site. But because it is a dynamically generated web content, as it is presented to the user, there is no capture of what someone sees anywhere. And so what has happened historically is that people take companies to court saying that the company is “not performing as to expectations as per your offer.” So now, because of this possibility, companies need to capture the web site experience so that they can prove it was reasonable and not misleading.

We’ve also received a lot of interest from pharmaceutical companies. Because of claims about their products and performance – drugs often don’t perform for an individual the way they perform statistically – these companies face potential class actions based on perceived underperformance. Advertisements in magazines and TV can all be captured, but web sites are much more difficult.

Bruce: I’ve worked on sites where the content keeps changing and have some idea of how messy it can be to try to figure out how it was at a earlier date. But how is Hanzo’s solution different from the current state of the art?

Mark: We have spoken with a U.S. pharmaceutical company who had to resurrect product information from their webistes, even though it had been brought down years before. Maybe the judge gave them two months to resurrect it. They had to locate and re-hire former staff, building a team of 30 people to handle the project. Once they found the hard drives that were needed that were stored in a cupboard in a basement somewhere, they then had to rebuild from code on up. That is an extreme case of course. But generally, when relying on backups or information stored in a content management system they have to reconstruct physical server infrastructure, and server software, including licensing, before they can even start with the content. But with Hanzo they don’t need any of that, they archive it independently and it can be reviewed immediately, on demand.

Bruce: OK, so by my way of thinking this is the same issue as disaster recovery—to be efficient you want to have a hot backup, not simply the opportunity to recreate your site from bare metal.

Also on our agenda for this conversation, you mentioned you have a new product? This an SaaS product, did I understand this correctly?

Mark: Yes, we’ve been working on a new product – it’s called WebHold. We still only do web archiving. First, a little background. Most institutions that archive websites rely on software called web crawlers. We’ve used several web crawlers from the open source community and have also developed our own. In the last few years we have done a lot of research and had opportunity to archive some very complex sites, and have developed tech that exceeds existing crawlers. But we still have kept to standard archive files to be consistent with standards, even though now putting multi-media, etc. in them. So what we’ve managed to do is this. With our technology we can capture sites very easily. Particularly for customers who have compliance requirements but are not cash rich, we can offer something effective and great value for money. We have come up with a product that will archive websites on a daily basis on a level of quality that will meet compliance from an archival level. This is something we can offer to FINRA [US]or FSA [UK] regulated companies with a high degree of reliability. It’s fully SaaS. Customers submit their sites, which are crawled, then the results are made available to the customer, and we archive their sites every day.

Bruce: What about archiving inside a firewall?

Mark: The regulatory requirements are to archive public facing websites that present advertising and offers that go to the consumer. For Enterprises it is also possible to archive intranets inside the firewall using Hanzo’s crawlers and access systems. We can do it as a SaaS using either a VPN or as an appliance. Offering our products as an appliance was the result of opportunities we had to capture collaborative web platforms on corporate and government intranets.

Bruce: In an earlier blog entry about disaster recovery I learned that one underpublicized form of disaster is when a third party SaaS business goes under, thus cutting a company off from its data. Apparently this happens in niche verticals every so often. Can Hanzo be rigged up to capture a company’s data on an SaaS, say Salesforce.com? Not that I’m predicting that they’re going away any time soon….

Mark: Hanzo can archive some simple web based apps already. It’s a departure from standard architecture of crawlers. But we can do that collaboratively with a client.

Bruce: How about pulling data out of a third party SaaS for the purposes of eDiscovery?

Mark: Hypothetically speaking, if it was for some reason undesirable or not possible for a third party SaaS provider to produce the data themselves Hanzo could be used to get data for eDiscovery from a SaaS system.

Different people prefer connecting to you via different social media

Bruce WilsonI periodically point out to new customers that just having a blog and/or an email newsletter will inconvenience or even exclude a bunch of folks. Different people prefer to receive information in different formats.

By way of analogy, music used to be published on both LPs (these big grooved vinyl disc thingies, for those too young to remember) and CDs. Now music is (mostly) available via CD as well as download (like the iTunes store) and streaming (like last.fm).

The same multi-format concept applies to publishing marketing messages about your company. Obviously, if you limit yourself to handing out printed brochures at your place of business not many people are going to get your messages.

Back to blogs and email: yes, these are fabulous ways to communicate and very convenient for quite a few recipients. However, many customers (and potential customers) have never heard of RSS (a neat way to subscribe to blogs which for some reason a lot of people have never heard of…as I explained to a frequently tweeting client yesterday). Many don’t bother to bookmark blogs, or won’t visit the bookmark. And plenty don’t want to give out their email address, or wouldn’t read an email newsletter if you sent it to them.

But a good number of these folks will joyfully “subscribe” to your messages on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn, if you give them the opportunity. That’s where they live, that’s where they are comfortable, and they’ll give you permission to post messages to their streams there. To underline the point: 325 million people are now using Facebook. I have reason to believe that some people use Facebook instead of email, as in, they don’t have email and when they want to communicate online, it’s Facebook or nothing. The added benefit of Facebook and Twitter, of course, is that when people respond to your messages (unlike when they reply to your email or comment on their blog) their social circles may hear about it also.

Whatever hailing frequencies you use, the same basic rules apply: Don’t spam the stream, which is to say, keep the frequency of posts reasonable. And don’t sell-sell-sell unless that’s what people want from you (in other words, if you do nothing but pitch your product, they know in advance that they are subscribing to get notified about discounts, new products, etc.).

The good news for companies on a budget is that a legitimate minimalist approach is available. You can simply update the blog, then send out notifications (intro paragraph plus link to blog post) via email (your email newsletter can really be nothing more an email subscription to your blog), Facebook / LinkedIn updates, and a Twitter tweet (same). Is this ideal? Not really. Does it get most of the job done with minimal effort? Yup.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, for the better funded organizations of the world with the budget to pursue the full ROI of social media, you can give your customers your own dedicated software applications for communicating with you. Today I went to a lunch presentation by a company called Perlego that offers technology for quickly branding your organization’s very own smart phone application, including variants for virtually every type of smart phone (iPhone, Blackberry, Android, Symbian, Windows Mobile, etc.). Perlego wants every one of your smart phone wielding customers to carry your company’s application around in their pockets all day, giving them their own personal hotline to your messaging (I envision the US and Soviet Presidents and their “red telephone” hotline to one another). I didn’t see a demo so I don’t know how well Perlego’s applications work, but their concept does illustrate the idea of packaging messages in the format that’s most accessible for your customer.

The bad news for the “send it and forget it” (“SIAFI”) oriented marketing folks out there is that there is a price to be paid for the privilege of having social media as a communications channel. Your company now has to monitor social media for feedback from your customers, then respond when necessary to acknowledge compliments, resolve complaints, etc.

Worse news for the SIAFI crowd is that you can’t get out of your obligation to monitor social media and respond by simply ignoring social media. Your customers (and potential customers) are talking about you whether you are paying attention or not. As of reading this you are now officially on notice that when you aren’t paying attention it’s your bad. (Case in point: I just reached out to a potential customer who is building quite an impressive backlog of complaints on Yelp that they don’t seem to be aware of, yet.)

The good news is that you can easily and inexpensively monitor and respond to your customers using social media. It only takes some time and ongoing attention. So go for it. And let me know if you need any help. I’m always happy to discuss your situation with you even if hiring me isn’t currently one of your budget items. The easiest way to get my attention would be by leaving a comment just below….

Promoting a contest on Facebook? Heads up, new rules!

Bruce WilsonThis morning I learned via AllFacebook.com that Facebook has updated its rules for how businesses can promote contests on Facebook. The new rules are here.

If your business is promoting or planning to promote any kind of contest on Facebook, where contest entrants are selected for a reward either by random chance or because of merit, then this will probably change the way you promote your contest on Facebook. Particularly if you don’t want to have your business’s Facebook page deleted, causing you to lose all accumulated fans.

Although most of the rules seem geared towards companies that are using dedicated Facebook “applications” (specially created interactive offer pages) to manage their contents, and are spending enough money on their promotion that they will be assigned an account manager at Facebook, the rules apply to all types of contests promoted on Facebook. Even small ones.

Here are the three pieces of advice I gave to one small business client that wanted to promote its contest on Facebook without building a relatively expensive Facebook application just for this purpose.

1. Don’t mention the word “Facebook” anywhere when promoting the contest on Facebook. So we’re just saying: here’s our contest, contact us to enter it.

2. Offer an alternative way to sign up for the contest. My client has a physical place of business where most of its interaction with its Facebook fans is happening already. So customers can actually write out an entry and hand a piece of paper to someone working there. (I know, it’s old school, but a surprising number of people still know handwriting and paper is still widely available.) We’re also providing the company’s email address in the Facebook posts that promote the contest as an alternative “online” method of entering.

3. Don’t require people to do anything on Facebook as part of the contest. In other words, people have to be able to enter whether or not they are fans on Facebook and whether or not they post anything about themselves, your company, or the contest on Facebook. (This is easy to remeber if you are already following rule 1, above.)

Another approach: if there’s no reward, there’s no contest, and these rules don’t apply. Or if your deal is set up such that there are no winners and losers, in other words, everybody who signs up gets the reward, then its not a contest.  As far as I know you can still promote non-contests on your Facebook page which ask people to become fans, post something to Facebook, etc. in exchange for a reward. In the case of my client, if we wanted to make it a non-contest we could have eliminated the gift certificates going to the winners, or given everyone who entered something just for entering.

Finally, even if you use a dedicated Facebook application to run your contest, have received permission from your Facebook Account Manager, and otherwise follow all of the rules, please be aware that you are prohibited from rewarding the winners with a “prize or any part of the prize [that] includes alcohol, tobacco, dairy, firearms, or prescription drugs.”

Dairy? You betcha, that’s the rule. That leaves out most Starbucks products as prizes, for starters. OK, I’m taking this as a sign that these rules aren’t fully baked yet–watch this space for further updates (your cue to subscribe to this blog via email, RSS, or Twitter).

Help your business page get found on Facebook

If your business has a Facebook page, or wants to have one to stay in touch with your customers, you should think about how customers are going to find your page when they’re on Facebook.

Many businesses find that their names aren’t as unique as they thought on Facebook. For example, I’m working with a coffee house called El Diablo. Searching for El Diablo in Facebook results in around 100 pages as there are many people and businesses calling themselves “El Diablo.” Unfortunately, becoming one of the top three El Diablo pages in terms of number of fans–thus putting them on the first page of search results–was not an option. The page was already named “El Diablo Coffee Co.,” and quite properly the owner doesn’t want to screw around with her branding. Besides, in order to change the name now the page would have to be deleted (at least under the current Facebook pages rules) and started over with zero fans, which would have been an unhappy surprise to loyal fans.

I did two things to help El Diablo become more findable for its customers.

First, I acquired the Facebook “username” El.Diablo.Coffee for them, which means that both
http://www.facebook.com/el.diablo.coffee and
http://www.facebook.com/eldiablocoffee
now point to El Diablo’s Facebook page.

Signage at El Diablo Coffee
Signage (and Jeff) at El Diablo Coffee

Second, I created a number of inexpensive (color-copier-on-cardstock) table and counter-top signs inviting customers to become Facebook fans and Twitter followers. Signs next to the register and the beverage pickup area also led to conversations with the staff about becoming Facebook fans which have helped educate the staff about the Facebook page and how to help customers become a fan.

Three weeks after acquiring the short name and putting out the signs the number of Facebook fans had tripled over the number added during the prior three months.

Lessons learned:

One: When first creating a Facebook page for your organization choose how to enter your company’s name with care. You may want to choose the “common” name (like El Diablo) rather than the official name (like El Diablo Coffee Company) if it is still unambiguously your company’s name, doesn’t conflict with your brand image, most closely matches what your customers will be searching for, and achieving a number of fans putting you into the top three results seems attainable.

Two: choose an easy to spell, remember, write, and print username.

Three: use signage to show your customers how to find you and show your staff how to help your customers find you.

In subsequent blog posts I’ll discuss how to use your website, blog, and other web properties to promote your Facebook page, and vice versa.

Links:

> Creating a page on Facebook.

> Creating a username for a page on Facebook (click on “Set a username for your Pages” at the bottom).