Alright, I’ll admit it, I was never a gamer. I was too busy sailing or running or cooking or biking or doing most anything physical (I have a hard time sitting still). As I got a bit (dare I say it?) older, I was very busy with my job. I was so busy doing things that gaming was never part of my life the way it was for my nephews, Ben and Rich. These guys were hard core World of Warcraft dudes with sexy avatars and a language that appeared rather foreign to me. I watched them play their games with zeal and energy. They wore the t-shirts, bobbed to their i-pods and did battle while they texted and IM’ed each other from across the room. It was an illuminating moment for me when Rich, then 15, complained with great disdain that one of his friends was taking too long to answer him the “old fashioned” way (via email). Gave me pause – I thought to myself, am I that ancient? Can you imagine?

I absolutely adore my nephews – they are really great guys. As an aunt, I have had the privilege of their company long after they stopped hanging with other adults. Aunt-status makes me cooler longer I suppose. It also gives me sway with teenagers reluctant to be seen in public with other adults of a parental nature. My nephews have allowed me to accompany them to concerts (Ben and I spent one night in a mosh pit together), they have followed me up mountains, sailed out on blue water and on and on and on. I have made them eat weird foods, go to museums, travel to new places and try new stuff and in exchange they shared their world with me. But in the end, watching them game was different than participating and it’s the participation that helped them tremendously in so many ways. As a result, their relationship with computers and other technical gadgets, and their communication channels were much, much different – much more intimate and faster-paced – than mine.

You may be wondering why the confession, what does this have to do with collaboration and social media. And while I am not advocating for “gaming” vs. physical exercise per se (I think you need both for a healthy life), I see the clear fluency my nephews have acquired in the virtual space and I am glad for them. I’ve always loved technology. Computers have made my life easier and the potential business uses have always appealed to me. But much of my orientation has been business-based and more clinical. There was a clear separation between my business dealings and my personal stuff, an unspoken demarcation line between the two. That was my orientation and that’s where I played. And while I was fascinated with the cool new tools, I was still more comfortable “listening” on Twitter and Facebook. The privacy/transparency thing freaked me out a bit. It seemed too personal.

And I don’t think I’m unique among the 40+ set. I talk to friends, colleagues and business people and they struggle with the same concerns. Leaving a digital trace is associated with visibility aka vulnerability to unseen (naturally untrusted) sources. (What do you mean @DaronBabin is following me, who the heck is that guy???) They also associate these tools with the trivial because they can’t decipher the code or see the immediate value. What a nimble user sees as opportunity, an unschooled observer sees as a waste of time.

LinkedIn seems to be the exception for this group. Driven by high unemployment, a job-less recovery and the radical changes in the employment process, membership has grown exponentially (http://www.crunchbase.com/company/linkedin). LinkedIn, in financial trouble in 2007, is now a highly profitable service providing a vital, “bridge” to people of a “certain age”. The very formal, business-like nature of the tool provides a bit of a security blanket for a huge number of newbies to the social networking space. Of course, you can’t convert everyone. Even in this buttoned-up arena there are whole pools of people who still can’t make the leap; who deny invitations, close down their networks and refuse to play.

Ironically, as conservative as it is, in my view, LinkedIn is actually performing a more interesting function. It brings the business generations together and allows for a broader, more diverse conversation. It’s an unlikely leveler that seems more professional than Twitter. Even as younger, savvier social media folks pooh pooh LinkedIn, the access to business contacts is alluring and serious social media practitioners are smart to establish a presence. What’s the down side? And just as I have taught my nephews the importance of a good business handshake and how to be polite in public, I have also counseled them on the need to establish a professional digital footprint to prepare them for the work world they will join in the near future. We’ll be setting up their LinkedIn profiles very soon as I continue to chat with them on Facebook and Twitter. Meanwhile, we still climb mountains and keep each other posted on the latest coolest trends and because I am always striving to maintain my “cool” aunt status, I am always willing to learn!

I attended a fascinating event in Foxboro, MA last week called the Inbound Marketing Summit. Hosted by a company called New Marketing Labs (http://newmarketinglabs.com/), a self-professed team of new media “evangelists” who are nimble, proficient users, this group hosts events around the country to educate business people on effective ways to use social media for profit.

Talk about content overload –70+ presenters, plus the vendor displays, plus the after hour get-togethers and the regular networking….turn on the fire hose and brace yourself….I confess, by the end I was really, really tired.

But this stuff is really exciting and it makes me pretty motivated to share. I broke it out into a few initial thoughts as I start to digest this mountain of data.
1. Here’s a venue that rewards business people who have the ability to build relationships of substance. There’s a lot of talk about” authenticity” here…the intangible, unjaded quality that indicates you are really interested in someone, that the relationship is fundamental and a positive business outcome is a bi-product of the trust that exists between us. It is the people who have this quality who should own and manage your social media efforts for your company, people who embody your brand and will present a genuinely caring face to your customer. Case in point – Paula Berg from Southwest Airlines and Jenny Cisney from Kodak have become the social media “face” for their brands – they are synonymous with a commitment to customer service that connects with their clientele on a deeply emotional level and builds a great deal of brand loyalty. You may not always feel good about a corporation, but Paula and Jenny are easy to trust because they are really nice people.
2. Building your personal brand so people trust you is worth a lot in social media. It’s really nothing new – people who trust you, listen to you. In this venue, personal recommendations and personal endorsements work the same way; however, everything here is on steroids – you can create celebrity status here and that translates to ”trusted” endorsement power connected to a potentially global audience . By creating a trusted “brand” presence you earn currency that you can use to move opinion, promote awareness, garner feedback, sell stuff; the possibilities are pretty compelling. Downside, trust takes lots of time and effort to build and is a very fragile thing to maintain (and must be done so with a great deal of vigilance). This is not a place to be entered into lightly…you definitely don’t want to be “that guy/gal” that everyone talks about for the wrong reasons. If you get a bad reputation by betraying trust, you’re screwed.
3. While the old rules are still relevant, you need to adjust them to fit the new context. A wise person once told me that nothing learned is ever wasted as long as you understand and adjust to suit the current context. Same thing with social media. Respecting people, acting with integrity, treating people well, having high standards, delivering quality – it all still applies, but now apply it to an anonymous, global audience with LOTS of opinions. This means your actions are always potentially on view – so applying these values, these tenets authentically all the time has to be who you are and how you operate naturally because someone will eventually catch you if you aren’t….
4. Traditional crisis management doesn’t work in this venue; you must have an established presence to play effectively. Dissuade yourself of the notion that you can ignore this whole thing until it goes away. It’s not going away. While social media is still young and will, no doubt, transform itself as it matures, there are too many compelling business reasons to stay out of the game If you are in business today and you want to increase your chances of viability in the future, you would be foolish not to learn about this now. If you do nothing more than listen and learn how things work, you are already ahead of your competition sitting on the sidelines. Also, if you are caught in a bad reputational slam, you can’t use this medium for instant spin. If you aren’t out there already and you try to leverage this platform for crisis control, you will come off looking foolish and you could make things even worse.
5. Trying to “game” the system? Watch out. This is a venue that requires consistent honesty. Watch yourself and stay humble, as even capable practitioners can have missteps. Case in point, Whole Foods CEO, John Mackey, a savvy proponent of social media, took a hit when it leaked he tried to drive down the stock price of his smaller rival Wild Oats by leaving unflattering pseudononymous comments on online investor forums. This is the stuff of legends and Web 2.0 is pretty unforgiving – once it’s out there it never goes away.
6. The tools really don’t matter. Social media encompasses lots of different tools, but is really more about a new cultural framework for doing business. This medium has its own social norms, driven by an internet savvy generation that is quite comfortable with online sharing and extended privacy boundaries. While many of the old rules of social etiquette still apply and playing respectfully may eventually get you invited to the party, you still need to learn how to interact productively in this new world. Like any system, it has levers and drivers that can be utilized to create influence and as with all things, it takes patience and practice to get good at it. But learning about this framework is fascinating stuff and I for one, am ready to dive in and get to know it better.

Totally plugged in

October 5, 2009

Maintaining a social media presence or collaborating online takes a lot of work.  It is also very seductive.  If you hate being alone, this is the place for you – with a global user base of millions you are sure to find someone to talk to (or listen to) at any moment in time so you never have to be alone.  Now take out the social aspects and look at it through a business lens.   From a retail perspective, this translates to round the clock access to potential customers (better than late night TV) and for global businesses working with global teams, it translates to virtual work spaces where the productivity potential is endless.  The whole premise of offshoring and creating global companies was the power of the 24-hour clock and unlimited access to the world markets. These technologies provide the platform to help businesses leverage the potential for real business gain.

In today’s working world where speed is of the essence and everyone wants it now, leveraging this trend is a business necessity.  Virtual communities can be formed very quickly with very specific business objectives.  A business need can be addressed on an accelerated time schedule.  Want help innovating?  Form a specific community around your innovation topic and your pool of talent potential is endless.  Want to hear what your customers or your employees really think?  Form a virtual focus group and plug into people’s thoughts.  Pick your business “pain” point – sluggish sales, new product launches, new market penetration, new regulatory requirements, market metrics, changing business climate, poor employee morale, high turnover, and the list goes on and on and on….   And then there is the data collection.  For better or worse, when we committed to connect virtually, we committed to data sharing.  As everything done virtually leaves a data trail, many businesses are working hard to use the data for their business advantage.

But this new media world is also the world of entrepreneurs.  As is the history in the technology sector, everyone works to produce the next big thing.  This is a group with a pretty high risk tolerance historically, so it should surprise no one that many new businesses are sprouting up to support, develop and enhance these platforms.  Take a look at Scott Kirsner’s article on the types of businesses developing around Twitter (http://is.gd/3Xug5).  The same thing has happened with Microsoft’s SharePoint (MOSS) – I have many friends making their living building business solutions on this platform (http://www.jornata.com/ and http://www.sympraxisconsulting.com/default.aspx ).  These folks are literally writing the books (and blogs) on the best business uses for these tools.  They are pushing the functional limits for their own business gains.

In a market where traditional employment is pretty challenging, these new entrepreneurs are thriving and gathering together en mass.  Just last week, the Web Innovators Group met in Cambridge, MA attracting over 1,000 attendees.  Hosted by David Beisel of Venrock (a well-established venture capital firm) in partnership with Microsoft, this fascinating networking event allows all participants in this innovative market place to gather together and do business.  It is also an amazing place to learn about the business future and the practical maturation of social media and collaboration.  Check it out; the next sessions is scheduled on December 7th – but prepare yourself, bring lots of business cards and practice your pitch – virtual players are real here and face-to-face contact is a requirement!

P.S. If you would like to attend the next event, it’s not posted yet, but it’s coming soon – so keep an eye out at http://www.eventbrite.com/org/36534967?s=1273555

It’s really hard to listen to the news these days and maintain an optimistic outlook.  Times are really tough.  Fear is so de-motivating.  It sucks up your positive energy and can leave you feeling so helpless.  But I sustain myself by understanding that life’s trials can lead to triumphs.   If I maintain a view that the future is not yet written, so a positive outcome is possible.  This doesn’t make things better all the time, even the biggest optimists have bad moments.  So call me a “realistic” optimist or just plain pragmatic.  I know I will have bad days, but I chose to not dwell on them.  I know things are difficult right now, but I chose to see the possibilities.  It really is a conscious choice – one could say a leap of faith – to believe that there is always hope for the future.

So much of any situation is determined by the way we view it – the glass is half full or the glass is half empty.  That’s the strange little secret about consumer confidence, successful marketing and effective communications – if the vast majority believes things are good, they are good.  Witness the giddy euphoria that struck investors both in the US and abroad during the major market booms in the ‘80’s, 90’s and beyond.  We truly believed in the possibility of our own wealth even though it was built on an unsustainable foundation.  Conversely, if the vast majority believes things are bad, the downward spiral accelerates.  It’s so hard to know how much of the current crisis was impacted by falling consumer confidence.  It’s a chicken and the egg problem.  What comes first?   Too much consumer confidence and people feel invincible.  Too little confidence and people despair.  It’s schizophrenic – driving the economy way, way up and way, way down at lightning quick speed.

And it’s even more complicated than ever before. The world we live in today is so integrated that the majority is now a global majority.  America might be at the head of the line (at the moment) in setting the direction for the majority opinion, but that can certainly change as other countries gain confidence and continue to develop.  News gets around fast, information is everywhere and it moves at virtual speed.  Going forward collaboration, communication and business will continue to have a global, culturally diverse face.  Innovation, competitiveness, managing risk and adopting change will be done in a global arena and it’s going to happen rapidly.  It’s a fascinating business problem to manage and a huge opportunity for executive leaders who have good future vision.  Isolationist thinking, while somewhat understandable given the current market uncertainty, is an unsustainable business position unless we are willing to drastically reduce our market potential.

So what does the future hold?  It’s anyone’s guess at this point.  But Pandora’s Box is open wide and shutting down the flow of global information is hardly an option.  In fact, “clouds” are available to businesses everywhere.  Changes are definitely on the way.  Whatever they may be, ever the “realistic” optimist, I continue to hope for the future.

If you are struggling with the whole social media trend, you aren’t alone, but you might be dating yourself. While many people I talk to lament the passing of “old” ways of communicating (letter writing, the telephone call), others eat, breathe and speak all things virtual. For me, there is always a middle ground. Call me pragmatic or call me crazy, but I believe that business people (with very few exceptions) who wish to maintain their professional vitality long term need to keep an eye on social media. These on-line focus groups, opinion drivers, global connectors present amazing opportunities for creating fascinating networks that level the playing field for small and mid-size companies who don’t have the budget resources of larger corporations. Even large corporations seeking to speed up innovation can avoid the damages of “group-think” by utilizing a larger pool of talent (inside and outside their companies) to spur creativity and maintain their competitive edge.

The tricky challenge – some of the rules in this new space are pretty different than the current business protocol – you have to share things to get things. Transparency is a dirty word in business – it’s scary. With social media, privacy is re-defined and authenticity, collaboration, knowledge sharing are valued attributes – all reasons for business traditionalists to run for the hills and seek cover. But ironically, so much of this new place is built on age-old principles. Integrity is still integrity and betrayal is still betrayal even if it is virtual. In the end, it’s all about relationships. While it may have been professional organizations, rotary, a sporting event, a drink after work or lots and lots of lunches (all still in existence by the way), good networking has always kept business running. The social media space is no different. It’s still all about building meaningful connections with each other, but now you might choose to connect with someone who lives half way around the globe.

For some this new world seems less personal. I think it simply requires a bit of creativity and a sincere desire to connect. And there are still lots of opportunities to meet people and look them in the eye if that’s your choice. Of course, if you have trouble making friends face-to-face, if physical events intimidate you, you may find it less stressful to create a network virtually; less face time might be a good thing. But don’t be fooled, just because you choose to network virtually doesn’t mean it’s any less work.

Building relationship has always been a challenge – they require time and once they are established, proper care and feeding. They also work best when you maintain an open mind. Virtual networking is no different than traditional networking. You can’t neglect a relationship or treat someone poorly and expect things to flourish. It’s pretty hard to succeed all by yourself. But this is no different than it’s ever been; business is more productive if you have a good resource network. Social media simply offers you a larger talent pool. Or you could avoid the whole social media thing, but be prepared, someone younger than you will probably roll their eyes at you if you do.

I have a pretty high risk tolerance. For me, change is interesting and (dare I say it) fun. But in my years as a change agent and a skilled change management practitioner, I have come to appreciate each organization has a unique tolerance level that’s tied to its culture, its leadership and its history. Any wise business leader considering a major effort should examine their organization carefully and factor this reality into their planning process, particularly if they wish their efforts to be successful.

I thought about tolerance levels a lot this week. I am advising a non-profit considering a major organization re-design. And what started as full transformation has gradually re-shaped into an incremental staff development effort that is much more appropriate given the culture of this group. While this may seem like a bit less ambitious, in this case, even this incremental adjustment is monumental given the organization’s history. It also positions the organization for further meaningful changes in the future if the leadership chooses to continue.

Change has such ripple effects. Some of these ripples are quite small, but some may turn out to be unexpected show stoppers. Change a process, which changes someone’s job, which requires training, which requires a new tool, which needs new data, which comes from different sources and so on and so on. It’s quite exhausting and generally makes people pretty grumpy. And all you wanted to do was update a simple process to save money and make things easier for everyone. Sometimes it hardly seems worth the trouble and heartache.

Ultimately; however, nothing is forever – change is inevitable. Sometimes it’s forced, sometimes it’s not, but it’s always harder than you anticipate. If you need to make a change in your organization, do your business and your employees a favor – step back and think it through before you jump in headlong. Objectivity is a key component in good planning. And if you are too close to be objective, bring in a good change expert to help. Sometimes you may find that what you think you need may cost you more in time, morale and decreased productivity than you are willing to pay.

My father got my announcement about our new website the other day – http://www.sophiathinkconsulting.com and he immediately shot back a link
http://www.marketwatch.com/story/join-my-im-bitter-about-twitter-club-2009-07-29?siteid=nwtpm to indicate his opinion of social media. And while I appreciate the blog topic which contends that investing financially in Twitter at this time is risky business, I think my father is missing the point.

Tools aside, the social media industry’s overriding mission – to create mechanisms to build virtual communities of like-minded neighbors has legs. It’s here to stay. Anyone focused solely on the tools (be it Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn or the myriad of other venues) is missing the point. I realize learning to navigate in this new arena can be daunting, but show me one smart executive that isn’t interested in cost-effective ways to connect with their market demographic.

Business leaders spend lots of time and money wracking their brains (and urging their employees) to seek effective methods to determine what their customers are thinking. Social media, for all its faults, provides a bird’s eye view into the thoughts of millions. The challenge for business leaders is pretty clear. They have to figure out how to listen to the participants by sifting through the ocean of data points so they get to the relevant messages. Not an easy task and particularly daunting in a venue that has proved impervious to short cuts….it takes time, consistency and authenticity (an elusive commodity) to cultivate a successful online presence.

Whether Twitter is a success story or goes the way of so many other technologies remains to be seen. But in a world enamored of the next big thing and addicted to spilling its guts with abandon, you can be sure there will be plenty of new options ready to step up and take its place.