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Archive for October, 2009

Mind Your StepHonesty is not a policy. Transparency is not a communication strategy. But you’d hardly know this from the number of so-called “community features” appearing across company websites today—all in the spirit of an open and transparent approach that we’re told is so critical to survival in the Web 2.0 world. While it’s true that frank communication is important for credibility, smart companies have the right conversations in the right places.  A forum that publishes unfiltered comments should also include responses from real people in the company, creating a dialog between those who care enough about a product to share their opinions in public. Simply giving customers extra places to complain without monitoring and responding will more likely damage a company’s credibility than improve it.

Take Epson, for example. If you are looking for a new printer and considering Epson, it’s natural enough to go to the company’s website for details on available products. You would expect to find prices and feature lists. But Epson.com also includes customer ratings and comments on their site for each printer. You can actually learn a lot from customer reviews on Epson’s site. For example, you can learn that one printer is so loud it makes the ower jump, and another “makes little circles, like a slinky, in your photos.” Good information for prospective buyers, but not good for Epson.

A better integration of community features can be found on the D’addario company website, where team blogs connect employees with customers. An artist relations manager shares his bouzouki stringing nightmare. A regional sales manager dives into myths about saxophone reeds. These posts demonstrate that D’addario employees are interesting people with passion and expertise to share. If it seems unfair to compare ink jet printers to bouzouki strings, consider how interesting GEICO and Progressive have made the insurance industry. Progressive maintains a Facebook site dedicated to people who want to dress up as Flo, their quirky spokeswoman, for Halloween (check out the fan photos). Even the Washington State Department of Transportation maintains a funny and engaging community presence with an active blog and Twitter account.

The point is, successful Web 2.0 implementations nurture the relationship between a company and its customers. They demonstrate that people in a company are willing to contribute to this relationship by solving problems, recognizing loyal customers, and simply being personable. Ultimately, being earnest in the relationship goes a long way toward building loyalty, and is more important than simply being accurate about issues and challenges. You can be frank without  committing to positive change. But when you are earnest, you are committed.

Oh, and honesty? That’s just personal integrity, plain and simple. Something that seems to be missing from the Epson site, where someone from the company has seeded the customer comments with entries like this: “I found this printer to have exceptional print quality, easy installation and really like the Instant-dry DURABrite® Ultra Ink.”

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Meet Forrest

Used to be you could identify the nutcases in your neighborhood by their gangly ham radio antenna towers and gardens with too much zucchini. These people lived within a system of ever-evolving technology, efficiency, and comfort. But they weren’t quite comfortable. With every step forward in evolution, they were haunted by a sense that something important was being left behind. They wanted more control of the things they consumed, whether it was food, information, or entertainment. Today you won’t see the ham radio towers in your neighborhood, but there are other signs. Cars with biodiesel bumper stickers. Kids almost floating off in UFO-shaped balloons. Chickens walking casually around the yard as if they were tabby cats. 

forrest

Forrest

So confession time. We have joined the ranks of crazy suburbanites with chickens.

We have three hens named by my sister who raised them from eggs in Olympia. There is Gladys the Black, Wilbur the Gray, and Forrest the Brown. Forrest was named after a character in a Winston Groom novel who in turn was named after Nathan Bedford Forrest, Confederate general and first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, which as most people know is an organization of chickens who run around at night instead of day. Forrest in the novel (and subsequent movie) is a simpleton. Forrest the chicken is a simpleton even by chicken standards. Hence the name.

People today need reassurance about their food. Did my beef come from a happy cow? Did my egg come from a chicken free to walk on actual dirt? Did terrorists sneak into the warehouse during a smoke break to poison my food? When you raise your own chickens, you don’t need to fret over these things because you are in control and know all the details. Today, for example, I know that Wilbur ate nasturtiums, pears, and left-over Cheerios. I know Gladys spent her day under the Japanese maple and the Chevy Suburban hiding from rain. And I know that Forrest followed the other chickens around like a hopeless groupie.

Our hens are only a few months old, so we are still eggless in Seattle.  But I can tell you that there is much more to raising chickens than getting fresh eggs every day or an eventual Kung Pao Gladys. We have raised guinea pigs, gerbils, lizards, newts, dogs, cats, two garter snakes, even an orphaned squirrel. Of them all, chickens are the most entertaining to watch. They combine thousands of years of careful domestication with the most primitive of instincts. And when you watch them, you witness both. Chicken life alternates constantly between complacence and panic. Complacence comes from being around familiar company and not having to think.

Chicken panic has three sources:

  1. Another chicken is getting food that should be  mine.
  2. The neighbor dog/cat/toddler is chasing me.
  3. The other chickens have left me behind.

Cats are warm on your lap, and snakes are fascinating when they lunge at a banana slug as if it were really capable of escape. But for sheer entertainment, nothing beats a chicken.  They do stupid things, which is amusing. They coo when you hold them, which is endearing. And they surprise you with their predictability. For now, I watch them and congratulate myself that one day our eggs will come from a pure, natural source, even if the truth is that our eggs still come from a faraway farm, and our hens are living it up without producing anything to pay the rent.

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Not Listening To You

In his later years, British writer Evelyn Waugh carried a Victorian ear trumpet with him which he would raise to his ear while speaking so that he could better hear his own wit. But when others tried to speak to him, he would take it down.

Amazingly, this is the way most businesses today approach social media. In large part, this is because too many marketers treat social media as if it were just another outlet for their newsletter content. They pay close attention to their own communications, scheduling and monitoring posts and tracking click-through rates. But when it comes to listening to what others are saying about their business, they are tuned out.

The need to listen and respond goes well beyond replying to the occasional direct message. Most of what is said about a company—good and bad—is not sent in a direct message. Instead, questions, comments and complaints are usually made openly to the community. If your business maintains an active account within the community, responses are not only acceptable, they are often expected.

And it’s not just about putting out fires. Successful social media marketers contribute to conversations, recognize fans, and learn what matters most to their customers and prospects. While there are a number of good commercial applications for monitoring conversations across blogs and online communities, you don’t have to be a big company with a social media budget to get started. Monitoring the millions of daily posts across Twitter can be as simple as finding the key words that produce the most relevant results for your business on www.search.twitter.com, and then subscribing to the RSS feed for the search query. It’s about as simple as an old ear trumpet, really.

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Butcher Shop CafeIt’s not every year you dress up and bring your candles to the butcher shop. But this isn’t like most years. Money is tight. Jobs are scarce. The future is more than just a little hazy. In other words, it’s time to get creative. So rather than go to one of Seattle’s great restaurants on our night out, we opted to go directly to the butcher that supplies the best of them. The Butcher Shop Cafe on Juanita Drive is not exactly your ordinary butcher. You can order everything from kielbasa to guinea fowl and have the chef prepare it right there. This Saturday we had prime rib, which was outstanding. For side dishes we pretty much ate everything available, including baked corn salad, beans with brisket, and sauteed squash and peppers.  The cafe is more utilitarian than pretty, but for some of us, that is much of the appeal. And what you trade off in elegance you gain in more personal ways. It’s a great place to relax with your best friend, chat with the chef while sampling next week’s menu, and indulge in shamelessly generous portions. And if you happen to wonder where exactly the sirloin cut comes from, why there is a diagram right there behind the counter. It is a working butcher shop, after all. And there are only three tables, so if you plan to go there for dinner, it helps to call ahead. The cafe, butcher, and supplier are all available at 425-485-4658.

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Ultraman Toy Flies“Would you rather breathe under water,” my son began, but I knew where this was going and cut him off. Fly, I said. We were on a boardwalk over Juanita Bay, watching the sunset as a family. “Would you rather,” he started again, but again I interrupted. The answer is always Fly. I tried to explain this as a wise man explains a simple world to a complex child.  But he persisted in the game. Would you rather this? Would you rather that? It was a challenge to him now, but of course nothing compares to Fly.

He is young and clever, so he said, “Would you rather fly if you could not stop and flew to your death?” I am older and still a little clever, so I said, “Fly.  What is life, after all, but a long flight toward death?”

He was quiet for a moment, trying to set up a trap for me. Then he grinned triumphantly: “Would you rather fly or be with Mom?”

My wife looked around to listen for the answer, interested for the first time in this conversation. But I am still a little clever, so I offered, “I would fly into your mother’s arms.”

Sophistry is a perfectly good equation for an incorrect sum. And everyone recognizes this except the marketer, the lawyer, or the man on the boardwalk at sunset. The childish game began to sound like a stark accusation aimed squarely at middle age. Why is Fly always the answer?

But I am still a little clever, so I said: “Would you rather be connected to a Siamese twin who hated you, and sometimes tried to kill you in the night, or fly?”

He picked Fly, and I maintained a narrow lead in the game.

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