Choosing the Right Way to be Transparent

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We hear about transparency every day. We are told that, in a world where everything is exposed in media (mostly social media), it’s far better to be transparent than to try to hide blemishes, problems and defects in the hope that they’ll go away or, at least, not be discovered until we fix them. Marketing blogs and publications are filled with disaster stories about companies that have chosen not to be transparent, and success stories of companies that have chosen transparency.

But just like in our personal lives, we have to choose the right level of transparency, and we have to choose the topics on which we will be transparent.

Here’s a great example:

In November, I wrote about Buffer, a tech start-up that put transparency on top of their values list. Not only do they talk about nearly everything internally (including personal goals, such as education and weight-loss), but they publish many of their results, such as their customer success metrics, externally for the world to see.

Since then, they have become even more transparent, releasing more and more information publicly. Two of the ways they have done this have produced very different outcomes. Let’s take a closer look.

A Transparency Tempest in a Teapot

In December, Buffer decided to make public all the salaries of all their employees, including the formulas they use to determine these salaries.

This produced a small tempest in social media: Some praised their transparency, and others chided them for releasing personal information about their employees, or for creating potential envy and dissatisfaction in their ranks.

The question I asked was this: How does this disclosure benefit the customer (or any other constituent)? The answer is simple: It doesn’t. Granted, it does no harm, but it adds no benefit either.

This is a case of transparency for transparency’s sake. Some have made the argument that disclosing this information is consistent with Buffer’s culture, so it enhances their reputation and brand. I disagree. Disclosure is a choice, and we can always find something they are not telling us (they can’t possibly think of everything!), and this choice does not add value to the most important audience of all: their customers.

A Slippery Slope

Buffer’s chief happiness officer, Carolyn Kopprasch, also publishes a monthly report on their customer success efforts. One element of this report shows how quickly Buffer responds to customer inquiries, tech-support requests and the like (they state that 85% of requests are answered in less than six hours, though they’re not quite there yet).

This does add some value to their customers (including me) in that it shows what I can expect in terms of response to my requests, as well as how well they are doing with all the issues brought to them.

To be clear, I think this disclosure is useful and valuable. But it also creates a potentially slippery slope.

Not long ago, I sent in a tech-support request and waited four days for a response. This is not typical of Buffer support nor of my experience. It left me asking about the distribution of response times. Specifically, Buffer publishes the percentage of responses in one and six hours, but how often does it take a day? Two day? Four days? Was my response in the bottom 10%? 1%? 0.001%?

Which then led to the logical next question: Since we know not all requests are of equal importance or urgency, and Buffer’s resources are limited, how do they make the triage decisions as to which requests get one-hour response times and which get four-day response times?

You can keep going, asking more and more logical questions until their entire operational plan is public.

Let’s say that Buffer chose to disclose the entire response-time distribution and the triage criteria. Where would that lead?

In our interview, Carolyn noted that most customer service and support organizations train customers to get angry. Customers learn that getting angry leads either to faster resolution or to a supervisor who has the power to resolve an issue. This is a version of gaming the system.

Buffer’s disclosure of the triage criteria most likely would cause its customers to game the system. If I knew the criteria, I would certainly try to adjust my request to get a higher position in the queue and get a faster response.

Clearly this doesn’t help Buffer or its customers; it only adds to animosity and frustration.

Let’s say they only disclosed the distribution of response times. That would create frustration on the part of customers who were in the bottom 10%, or worse, the bottom 1%. My assuming my request fell at the bottom is not nearly as bad for my relationship with Buffer as having them tell me exactly how unimportant they deemed me. We are all better off if I don’t know.

This is, then, a choice Buffer has made about how much information to disclose and where to stop disclosure. I think they have made a good choice, in that what they disclose helps customers understand their efforts better without taking away from the relationship and adding to frustration.

Is this two-faced? Yes. But not in a detrimental way.

Buffer values transparency on one hand and says it will keep increasing transparency. But it also makes choices about just how much disclosure meets their transparency value. Being transparent is an aspiration. We have yet to find out how far Buffer will go.

We expect transparency from companies. But we also expect there are boundaries, just like there are in our personal lives.

How do You Decide?

You make decisions every day on what to disclose to whom. Do we tell our customers this fact? Do we tell the world that policy?

How should you decide?

I propose there is one simple standard, embodied in these two questions: Does the disclosure add value? And if so, to whom? If it adds value for your customer, disclose.

Tell us how you’ve made your difficult disclosure decisions in the comments.


Happy New Year! A Thought for 2012: Build Your Relationships

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Happy new year! I hope that your celebrations were fun and that your 2012 is not only happy, healthy and prosperous, but also is everything you hope it will be.

I’m back to blogging after a rather long hiatus (at least that’s one of my goals for 2012 – it’ll be obvious to you if I keep that promise). Like all of the things we all hope 2012 will bring, this won’t happen just for new year’s day or a few weeks after. To keep that promise, I will have to keep working at it for the whole year.

Which brings me to the topic of the day: Relationships. This year DS3 will increase our focus on helping our clients build, improve and maximize the value of relationships with their customers, partners, suppliers and other key constituencies.

Just like with personal relationships, I believe that real value for businesses is created through relationships. Relationships hold the key to revenue and business growth, but maybe more importantly, they hold the seeds of market disruption and dominance. The stronger and broader your customer relationships, the better you will be at becoming disruptive in your market, or defending against being disruptive.

Your customer, partner and supplier relationships are a source (sometimes the only source) of competitive advantage. Your competitors will have a hard time taking customers who value your business and the value you provide.

We will be helping companies understand the range of sources – many hidden – of value in these relationships and help identify the typically unseen opportunities that can help your business make disruptive progress in your market.

But just like personal relationships, we all know business relationships take time and effort to build and maintain. And they require that all parties find compatible interest and value. We look forward to helping you understand what creates that common value, and how you can better use your resources to maximize the relationships and opportunities that make the most sense for your business.

So check back here for tips and tricks to help improve your relationships, and a few rants on what some are doing wrong (and how to avoid it).

And if you want to create disruptive opportunities by maximizing the value of your business relationships, contact us.

Start the conversation: how have your customer relationships helped you create disruptive opportunities? Chime in!


Long-Distance Romance

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If a marketer’s dream is to have an intimate relationship with and knowledge of his or her customer, then that marketer’s worst nightmare must be to know nothing about the customers who they so fervently hope will buy whatever it is they are selling.

In what I consider an inconsistent, if not surprising move, the FCC announced recently (via BusinessWeek) that it was going to look into what is becoming a fairly common marketing practice: tracking potential buyers’ web browsing behaviors and patterns.

How is this inconsistent? This administration prides itself on populism, and more specifically, enabling people to take power and control over themselves and allow opportunities to create all kinds of value. (I feel an argument coming on here…maybe next post? or in the comments if you like). This moves stops them. It simply puts up an artificial barrier that says “what I do, how I act and what I create on-line cannot be shared.”

Huh? Isn’t the populist, Web2.0 world of the internet all about creating shared value? What ever happened to the pro-sumer? and since when do my browsing patterns, along with what I create from them, not my “production?” (could you even go so far as to argue that link streams – mine here – are a proud publication of at least some of where I’ve been? and could be considered a lite version of a browser tracker? maybe).

But the point isn’t the politics. It’s the marketing.

For generations, companies have marketed to demographic, ethnographic, psychographic segments (and more…) trying to find the common behaviors of their potential buyers (in my now-distant youth, I recall ads for Cheerios in racquet clubs…clearly assuming a connection between racquet sports and a desire to eat healthy). Cross-marketing campaigns, partnerships, and so forth have been a staple of good marketing as long as there has been good marketing.

With the proper cautions, warning and knowledge (and willing participation of the potential buyer), tracking web browsing habit is no different. It tells us as marketers what our potential customers might be interested in, what they are looking at, and ultimately, where we should focus our efforts and with whom we should team up to best find and engage our potential buyer.

Wait -Â I know you’re about to argue for the right to privacy. Yes, obviously. None of this should be done surreptitiously. It probably should have the same level of user control and awareness as cookies do now. It feels about the same. Chime in if you like on the privacy controls needed.

Here’s where the nightmare begins:

Consumers, and for the most part business buyers, are on-line. They are browsing, searching, shopping and so forth. We all know the social media adage “The conversation is out there, are you?” The same applies to your potential customer. They are on-line. Are you looking for them?

If consumer behavior in the mass-market society could be done with cross-marketing campaigns and consumer habits determined (at least in aggregate) by survey, then consumer behavior in the social market must be determined by where your potential market (of one person) is going, who they are associating with, etc.

As a marketer, you cannot even begin to know your potential customer without knowing these things (and there’s so much more).

If you were not allowed to find ways to trace the patterns of an individual’s behavior on-line, you cannot know that person in the way you need to in order to make relevant and useful products available.

You would be relegated to doing nothing more than shooting the proverbial arrow in the dark. And that’s any marketer’s nightmare.

So what about the potential customer?

No, I would not want the feeling of being watched. But I do like to share what I’m doing and what I see. (e.g. this blog, my LinkStream, my tweets, etc.) But I also hate all that useless advertising I see.

So what if I set my browser to allow some set of marketing companies to see some set of information about my browsing habits (say, purchases, shopping, searches, abandoned shopping carts, etc.)? I’d get useful information (with, I hope relevant ads). I’d be able to see more of what I care about, even if it is promotional.

I would appreciate those companies that took the time to invest in thinking about me and what I do and like before they came to me and made me an offer. I’d be much more likely to buy.

I would be creating opportunities for me to find, discover and learn, and, yes, buy. And I’d be much more inclined to join the brand that did all of this.

This unusual move would, in one fell swoop, take a significant bite out of the rapidly evolving buyer-seller relationship, and drastically change the course of the new developing social marketplace.

As a consumer, and as a marketer, I seek out opportunities to create and strengthen relationships with those I buy from and those I sell to. I hope the FTC doesn’t send me back to the industrial age of the mass blast and the 1.5% return.


Not Just Hammers

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A journey of a thousand miles may begin with a single step, but you don’t get very far unless you take the second step (and then the third, and the fourth and so on…)

Not long ago I was having dinner with a friend who also spends time supporting not-for-profits and we were lamenting how hard it can be to get people in general (the general public, mass audiences, whatever you want to call it) to do the (sometimes simple) things it takes to make a big difference in the world, whether in human services, environmental protection or any number of other fields.

Which is the same challenge marketers face every day – how to get people to act, or specifically, express interest and buy.

How is this the same thing? When we talk about lead generation, demand generation, the marketing funnel, prospect and customer engagement and any number of other terms we use to describe the parts of the journey from first prospect contact to closed sale and beyond, we are really describing a journey of increasing commitment by the buyer to the seller (and, I hope by both to the on-going relationship)

Let me offer this as a way to think about the development of the buyer-seller relationship:

Start with Awareness. Someone in the market becomes aware that we offer a product or service that he or she may need. From the seller’s point-of-view, we become aware that there is a group of potential buyers in a target audience. One example of how we make this happen is advertising.

Then we move to Interest. That same prospect has determined that there is a potential that our offerings may meet some needs and is willing to explore further. We see positive response to our communication (regardless of vehicle) and become interested in pursuing the potential buyer. We provide information, marketing offers and other ways to engage and get this information.

Next is Motivation. Now the prospect has determined that she has a motivating need and that our offering can help. He or she now actively wants to pursue a purchase. And we see the possibility of turning the developing relationship into a source of revenue. We might offer a sales call.

And then comes Action. The prospect buys. We sell. We deliver.

Finally, at that point we have a developed Relationship. The customer wants to succeed with our offering, we want the same. We provide help and support to make that happen and cultivate on-going sales and other offers as we learn about more needs.

Granted, there’s a bit more complexity here and we all know it’s never that linear. And you probably label your process and funnel stages quite differently, but I have not found many people who’d disagree that Motivation precedes Action, that Interest precedes Motivation or that Awareness precedes Interest. It might all happen in an instant (think about the last time you bought a candy bar at a grocery store register display – “there’s chocolate”, “I like that”, “I’m hungry/craving”, “I’ll buy one”, granted not much of an on-going relationship there if you don’t count, as Ms. Morgenstern would have called it, the relationship between the chocolate and your hips!)

So, now back to the problem.

The problem, remember, is getting people to take the actions they might know are right, beneficial or helpful. For example, we know that recycling is good for the environment, but most of us don’t recycle much of what we could. The same can be said about the other small shifts we can all take to improve the environment, better support the not-for-profits we choose and act in a number of other ways that seems obvious to us (side note: I now see that this is true of preventative healthcare as much as sustainability)

I’ll spare this rant, but please consider there to be a long set of paragraphs aiming to debunk the economic view of people as rational beings and that all of this is a result of utility maximization. Suffice to say, it’s not.

Let’s look at how we convince people to do green acts, and participate in (volunteer, donate) not-for-profits.

Many not-for-profits (this is particularly true with ones focused on diseases and serving the under-privileged) try to generate Awareness. They want people to know about the cause or problem.

That’s an admirable goal, and an important step. But not nearly enough.

Once I know about your cause, why you think it’s important and how big the problem is (usually what I hear from these organizations), now I need a reason to move to interest. At this point, I am more likely than not to say something on the order of “that’s nice, I hope you solve that problem” and move on.

What we leave to chance is Interest, Motivation and Action.

So why don’t many organizations succeed at these steps? Mostly from not having built tools. Often, the question is asked “OK, I’m ready and willing – what do I do?” and without the tools in place, action is not possible

No sales organization would consider trying to get a prospect emotionally charged about their offering then just sit back and expect the prospect to show up with a contract, check, cash, whatever, in hand. There’s a process, there are tools there are specific actions every sales rep takes and tools they use to give their prospects as many tools as possible to close the deal.

Not-for-profits can learn a lot from their commercial counterparts.

And dare I say, many of those commercial counterparts can learn a lot about where their marketing is missing a step just by looking at their customer’s journey and on what parts they are not partnering.

I know from my work in sustainability and not-for-profits that we have lots of problems that need to be solved. Now.

I also know most of them don’t look like nails. But let me suggest that we at least start showing people how to get hammers. And whatever other tools they need.


Just Ask

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At this morning’s Social Media Breakfast (great discussion with Anneke Seley, author of Sales 2.0 on using social media in sales), I was talking with Sue of KITList and Clare about how to improve the conversation and engagement of the thousands and thousands of KITList members. The three of us wrestled with updating the blog, creating an e-mail discussion list, maybe a social media service presence (Facebook, Twitter?), but we weren’t really sure what would engage the large and very diverse group that is the KITList membership. Then came the “a-ha” moment:

Clare said “Why don’t you ask your members?”

Which is, of course, applying the basic social media principle to figuring out social media.

Marketers are always working hard to understand customers, prospects and future prospects better. We think we’re pretty good at asking people in our market what they think, want and need. We also think we’re pretty good at translating often disparate answers into a coherent theme that then, we hope, guides our strategy.

Where this morning’s conversation started was in the “market research” mode of asking a few people. Sue asked me and Clare, and told us she had asked a few others, but still had no good answers. So a few hours later, she wrote a blog post (and sent an e-mail) to the members and asked everyone.

A few hours later, I saw the news that Facebook, after the recent debacle, has now decided that changes to their terms of service will be open to discussion by all members and subject to vote of the membership (Can’t you hear the lawyers cringing?). A social media icon now adopts real social media practices in a way that much of the technology industry is proverbially famous for not doing for so many years. This means no more misunderstandings (we hope) and terms of service that the community of Facebook members actually wants to abide by (I’ll refrain from a rant on the use of self-interest as a motivator being better than the threat of lawsuit). Facebook is actually asking everyone, and the result is almost certain to be a service that’s more appealing to its members.

Not everyone will answer. But I can’t think of a better example of how to learn what your whole market thinks, and not just the select few you’ve chosen for research. This is not quite crowdsourcing, but it’s close, and it uses some of the same ideas about collecting opinions from many, many individuals.

So when you want to know what your customers, prospects and market really want and need (and I hope you always want to know), do you let a select few speak for everyone? or do you really ask – everyone?


Reading Your Spirograph

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I’ve been reading a lot over the past few weeks on the explosion of social networks. It’s hard to read marketing blogs and not read about Twitter or Facebook, and how they relate to Pownce and LinkedIn and all the other options. Oddly, I don’t find myself at all confused. I’m on LinkedIn and Facebook, Twitter and Pownce (and more). There’s crossover among the people, but from my perspective I know intuitively what (and who) goes on Facebook and what (and who) goes on LinkedIn.

Why? I have circles – more than one. People who find me to be a worthwhile business contact gather around me in that context and form my community of business associates. People who find me interesting as a friend gather around me and form my social community (as is social life). Some people are in both. There are more circles than that, some very closely related, some not, some entirely within others (my friends from school is a subset of all my friends). If I tried to draw it, it might look something like an unbalanced spirograph.

Marketing perspective 1: Your market looks just like this. Your customers, your prospective customers, people who might one day be customers all create the community which gathers around you (because they find what you are saying and the experience you offer interesting – but that’s a whole conversation in itself – look for more posts soon). But they have different reasons. Some like the lifestyle implications of being your customer, some like the way you care for them (I hope), and there are so many more. Knowing what these are, and what they can become means you can understand the kinds of experiences you must offer to engage the various communities.

Marketing perspective 2: In each of these circles – the communities in which you survive as a producer of experiences (note: not “business,” not “goods and services”) some of the community members are very close to you (maybe your most loyal customers) and some are on the edge, maybe moving in and out of your community as it suits them. Knowing who is where and why is critical to knowing your market, and being able to engage them in conversation and deliver a relevant engaging experience.

Reading the unbalanced spirograph that is your community, knowing its shape, knowing its distribution means being able to serve it well.

Knowing how it might change means being able to change with it.

Being able to create new circles (where neither you nor your competitors are delivering relevant experiences today) means being able to create disruption.

What does your spirograph look like?


What if your navel stared back?

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From Mashable:

Bloggers! Here Comes Navel Gaze Sunday
A trend: sometime every Saturday afternoon Eastern Time (now), tech bloggers run low on real news, and a story about bloggers themselves gets an unnecessary amount of airtime. On Sunday, it rises to a rabble before dying down as the Monday news starts coming in – call it Navel Gaze Sunday if you like

No, there’s nothing really disruptive about this at all. But it does lead me to ask whether bloggers (in general) are creating communities around themselves, or are the collective “they” just one community?

If you choose to start or use a blog to promote yourself, your company, your book or whatever ideas you want to put out into the market, while you are working to make it less promotional and more a part of the so-called blogosphere, you also have to remember that it needs to appeal to YOUR community, and not the community of bloggers.

You tell me: By talking about bloggers talking about bloggers on my blog on Sunday, have I participated in the tradition I just tried to warn against? Would it have been possible not to?


Circle of Conversation

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This image was not created to represent a market. But it does. And it shows a dimension of a market that’s often overlooked.

I found this on FaceBook, it’s an application called FriendWheel. You are at the center of the circle (this is a sample by the author of the application) with all of your friends around you. The lines represent the connections among your friends. If you were in high-school, it might show the potential for people gossiping about you.

But, a market? YES!

Your market – the collection of people (businesses – or actually the people in them) who buy from you, who want to buy from you, who have bought from you and might again (or might not) – is not a straight-line list (though that’s how we often think of our customers and prospects – as just a list). Your market is the group of people who have gathered around your company and your products because they find you interesting and engaging (the same reason your friends hang around you). And you (your company and all the people in it) are at the center of that crowd.

But the conversation is not just bi-directional (you’re doing pretty well if you are truly having a bi-directional conversation). There are conversations happening in all directions around you. Most don’t include you, but if they are happening around you, they are, more than likely, about you.

Your brand (the total experience and impression of you in the collective minds of the market) is being defined in these conversations. So look carefully at those lines that connect the members of your market community to one another. They show you how closely your market participants are connected, and how they are connected. They’ll help you understand where the conversation is taking place and how you can get closer to it.

Why? Because the conversation that defines your brand – and your success – is happening. And when your market is about to be disrupted, it is in these conversations that you’ll learn about it. Are you listening?


Being in the conversation

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The phrase I hear in the marketing world almost every day is “the conversation is happening whether or not you are part of it.” This is usually followed by an admonishment to the marketing authority to become part of the conversation in some way, usually by trying to bring it to your own site/territory.

It’s good advice. All-too-often followed by not-so-useful action. It’s not as easy, nor as obvious, as it seems (especially for traditional marketers) to find the conversation, not to mention take part. And if you haven’t heard it enough, taking part not only means saying something, but also saying something useful and interesting, saying something authentically “you” and not saying something that is just a bunch of marketing-speak positioning words.

This posting is unconfirmed (as far as I know), but look at this response from the folks at Second Life. This gets at the heart of participation. The project owner is going to parody Second Life. And use some variations on the logo, etc. They accept reality and explicitly agree. They win points, buzz and goodwill all at once.

Most importantly, they further their reputation as cool people with something useful to say, and enhance their unique differentiation that makes Second Life the “place to be” in the virtual world.

Just like people will be talking about your company and your products/services. When you comment or respond, what will you be saying? Will it win you goodwill?

And most importantly, will it contribute to what makes you different and unique?