Category Archives: Content

CopenhagenPlatform

Social Media: The community IS the platform

I’m going to get right to the point. Platforms don’t define communities, communities define platforms. And when platforms try to define a community, they almost always alienate the community, which, in turn, finds another venue on which to communicate. Simple? Yes. But, unfortunately, most social media “platforms” have yet to grasp this concept.

SOCIAL MEDIA PLATFORMS AREN’T REALLY PLATFORMS

My colleague, Alan Berkson, recently wrote an excellent piece about Twitter and their disconnected view of themselves as a platform, questioning whether they really know what business there are in. He speculated that they don’t, and I tend to agree.

Twitter doesn’t understand the value of their own business. To paraphrase what Alan Berkson said in his post:

Sipping from the stream can be both enlightening and refreshing. But Twitter doesn’t have to own the entire stream.”

Rather than realize that they are an enabler at the epicenter of one of the greatest ecosystems ever (See Nigel Cameron’s 10 Amazing Facts about Twitter), Twitter has instead focused on dominating and owning the ecosystem that made them what they are today. In doing so, they’ve limited the choices of their user community and consistently restricted the availability/utility of some amazing 3rd party “interface” and “partner” applications – a move that may be beneficial in the short-term, but will prove to be limiting in the long-term.

If I’m a member of Twitter’s ecosystem, I’m seriously rethinking my reliance on Twitter for my bread-and-butter money.

YOU DON’T OWN COMMUNITIES… THEY MERELY RENT YOUR SPACE

What many social media businesses haven’t yet grasped is that it isn’t about their venue, it’s about the communities that support them. I live in many different social venues, covering a wide range of topics, such as global events, business trends, government and law, science and technology and social advocacy. These, and many other collective communities, not only define the platforms they exist on, they ultimately become the basis for applications and value to exist.

Social media is like a buffet. People don’t want to see the same food at every station.”

More importantly, communities often cross traditional “platforms” with ease. I belong to many groups who regularly communicate via multiple mediums, based on the type of discussions that are taking place. Part of the discussion may be held on Twitter, while other parts of it may take place on Facebook, Skype or Google Hangouts.  Each venue has its own value proposition, and none of them can emulate all others and still add targeted value.

DICTATE YOUR PLATFORM AND COMMUNITIES WILL MOVE ON

The beauty of social media is the variety it places in front of us. It can be a phenomenal research and discover tool, as well as a tremendous outreach, mobilization and engagement tool. But we always need to remember:

  • No single venue can offer a one-stop package (and I wouldn’t want there to ever be just one choice),
  • The best social media venues are those that recognize the value of the community, and match the technology to the community’s needs in a unique fashion, and
  • If you really want me to use your social venue, you need to demonstrate to me that you value the ecosystem around the venue you have built – after all, individuals users are just as much a part of that ecosystem as corporate partners. If you disrespect your partners, or are unwilling to accept their value, what does that say about the ecosystem role you are offering to me, and the members of my various communities?

Image (Kongelundsfortet Platform) courtesy of EuroMagic, licensed under Creative Commons

demrepDonkeyHotey

Have we created an online VETO button?

Obamacare, SCOTUS and the Online Veto Button: We all know the power of the “veto” – the ability to simply over-rule all others and say “no” to a particular situation. We see it in many aspects of our lives, from the United Nations Security Council (where it is often used as a political tool) to our own households (where it is often used as a parenting tool). Increasingly, however, we are witnessing a new form of veto in the online/social space, a result of two trends: the Proliferation of Pervasive Communications (#PervasiveComms) and the Rise of Online Activism.

POLITICS AS UNUSUAL

In early 2012, my colleague Alan Berkson and I wrote about the online anti-SOPA/PIPA protests (Stop Online Privacy Act & Protect Online IP bills). In that case, we witnessed a well orchestrated “grass roots” online campaign to stop (preemptively veto?) two pieces of legislation in the US Congress – legislation that very few in Congress had actually read (ironically, the overwhelming majority of the online protestors had not read the legislation either – they were following the lead of a few that they trusted, and ultimately the lead of the movement itself).

I had the opportunity again to dig into an online campaign issue, this time in the form of participating in a Huffington Post Live discussion addressing President Obama’s Affordable Care Act (affectionately known as Obamacare) and the pending decision by the US Supreme Court (SCOTUS) on the Act’s constitutionality (primarily with regard to Interstate Commerce regulations and the Act’s individual health-insurance mandate).  While much of the debate about this issue is playing out in traditional media, a series of increasingly vocal debates and online communities have emerged to “rally the troops” in favor of, or against, the Act (side note, both political campaigns have “digital czars” in place).

Here’s the video:

What we are presently witnessing is the development of a massive series of online awareness campaigns designed to coalesce networks of online activists. The main difference today, in contrast to the SOPA/PIPA protests, is that it is two equally strong forces (Republican backers/Democratic backers) who are leading the charge.

While I believe that their ultimate goal is to shape the post-SCOTUS debate (leading up to the election), their message today is one of rallying people to shape the opinions of politicians (likely), the broader public (extremely likely) and the Court itself (incredibly unlikely).

THE VETO IN THE BUSINESS WORLD

In the business world, we’ve seen similar events, the issue of “Net-Neutrality” (that continues to play out in both the public forum and political back offices) being a good example of corporations trying to harness the power of the Web to rally support for their side of the argument.

We’ve also seen individual companies, such as Facebook, Google and BP, become the target of online activist/awareness campaigns – something increasingly being used to shape how, and where, a company does business, from the board-room to Wall Street and beyond.

Toss all this together, with an increasingly sophisticated understanding of how to “mobilize” an online community and leverage the power of “conformity“, and you have the perfect recipe for a crowdsourced online VETO button. The power of the “social” masses to now change the course of politics and business is greater than it has ever been (and will only increase as both politics and business continue to shift from brick-and-mortar/in-person activities to online engagement).

Looking back at HP, and their turmoil over the past year, I can easily see how many of their investors, distributors and consumers would have delighted in the ability to activate an online veto button over the actions of HP’s Board of Directors.

ARE THESE THE RIGHT QUESTIONS?

Some questions to consider:

  • Have we actually reached the state of an online VETO button? Is this a good or a bad thing?
  • Is it possible to tell the difference between a “manipulated” and “grass roots” information campaign? 
  • Should politicians and businesses be swayed by online campaigns that may be more “manipulated” than “grass roots”?
  • How can misinformation campaigns (that may attempt to influence by false or misleading, but seemingly true, information) be countered?

There are some serious issues that we face as we integrate our digital, online, lives deeper into our offline lives, and there are no easy answers to the questions above (are we even asking the right questions here?). More importantly, does online activism risk getting diluted by non-authentic conformity and a false sense of anonymity?

Image courtesy of DonkeyHotey Licensed via Creative Commons

starlings murmuration

Crowds, Individuals and Conformity

I’ve always been fascinated by crowds — how they form, why they form, what influences them, and what, in turn, they have the ability to influence. I’ve also always tried to differentiate between crowds and communities, the latter being a more “refined” version of a crowd. Communities have purpose, and common bonds that bind the individuals together. So when I came across a couple of choice documentaries recently, that explored the nature, and science, of crowd/community behavior (and what it means as an individual within a crowd or community) the questions started flying. Fast.

STARLINGS and MURMURATIONS

I came across a brilliant documentary by Marcus du Sautoy, part of the BBC’s “The Code” series, in which he mathematically explains the amazing”Black Sun” murmurations that starlings form every year on their annual migration. Watching tens of thousands, perhaps a hundred thousand or more, fly in seemingly random, yet fluid, ever-changing pattern was both amazing to watch, but it also begged the question “how”? It turns out, as Marcus, explains, that you can mathematically recreate a murmuration of starlings with three basic rules: all birds should fly at approximately the same speed, they should stay close to their neighbors, and they should avoid predators (danger).


If you follow these three simple rules, it turns out that each starling need only keep track of (be influenced by) their seven closest neighbors. And those seven neighbors are constantly changing as the murmuration morphs in flight.

Might not the same basic rules apply to human behavior and individuals within a community or crowd?

INDIVIDUALS and CONFORMITY

After watching the BBC documentary, I stumbled across a great show on the Discovery Channel – Head Games. In this particular episode, they were delving into the nature of human conformity – could they make people conform to a belief or behavior that they inherently knew was wrong or incorrect?

During their experiments, they were able to convince a group of individuals that a snake was sitting high up in a tree — so much so that these individuals went on to convince others that there was indeed a snake in the tree. They described its shape, its color, its movements. But there was no snake.

During a second test, they were able to get a group of people to follow a red line through a museum — even though the red line took them away from the main exhibits (at one point having them actually walk in a circle around a pole).

After digging a bit deeper, I came across a study referenced in Science Daily that demonstrated an innate predisposition in humans to need to conform, as well as a predisposition in certain people (based on the size of certain regions of the brain) to have a higher-than-normal tendency to need to conform. To belong. To be safe. In other words, to not stand out or put themselves at risk.

THE QUESTIONS

After viewing the videos, digging deeper into the “conformity predisposition” and tossing the ideas about, a series of questions began to take shape…

  • At what point, if ever, does a group of individuals become a crowd (with collective influence and behavior)?
  • Can a group influence you in the same way that an individual does? (Can they be one of your “7”)?
  • At what point does conformity override our individual opinions and actions?
  • At what point does a crowd attain the characteristics, and influence, of an individual (if ever)?
  • Does conformity result in a faster shift in our opinions? Or do we still focus on our closest friends to define our behavior?

If you have any answers, I’d love to hear them. Let’s compare some notes. I’m far from done with this subject.

Werner Heisenberg

Mr. Heisenberg meets #BigData?

1927 was a very good year for Werner Heisenberg, and, in an odd twist, those wrestling with Big Data and the identification of global events and trends that are shaping our future, a mere 85 years later.

Heisenberg was a brilliant physicist, yet his work on Quantum Theory and the Uncertainty Principle may help us shape how we look at many of the issues that we face today in the non-Brilliant-Scientist realm.

“One can never know with perfect accuracy both of those two important factors which determine the movement of one of the smallest particles—its position and its velocity. It is impossible to determine accurately both the position and the direction and speed of a particle at the same instant.” ~ Werner Heisenberg

Heisenberg’s statement has been quoted, mis-quoted, adapted and modified to suit any number of ideas over the decades, so excuse me if I twist it myself to make a point.

In 1926 and 1927, when Heisenberg was laying the foundation for, and publishing, the Uncertainty Principle, we were in a world where Big Data didn’t exist as we know it today. We were also far from being globally hyper-connected, and the idea of Pervasive Communications was a dream of the future.

TAKE A QUANTUM LEAP

I was recently having an interesting, and ongoing, Twitter discussion about Big Data and the value of Curation with some friends (Alan Berkson, Colin Hope-Murray, Peter Bordes and Robert Moore). In response to a question about the value of too much data, or data that was too old, I tweeted “old info doesn’t die, it reveals long-term trends”.

As I looked at what I had written, Heisenberg (oddly, also part of the ongoing discussion) kept coming to mind, ultimately prompting the question “How do we determine the long-term value of an event or data point, and ultimately the value of a trend if it lacks the right context?” This question became all the more important as the different perspectives that frame “context” began to come to light. No two people see the same particle or event from exactly the same personal perspective.

THE RIGHT STUFF

It became increasingly apparent that our discussion of “too much” Big Data was really about having the “right data”. But how do you determine the right data? In many cases, you can’t. We’ve plugged ourselves into this giant fire-hose of Social Media and can’t digest it all.

In the end, most of us can only “sample” off the feed. But in sampling, we get a very accurate description of what is happening at that particular moment, but we can’t tell where what we are sampling fits into the bigger picture. Is this data “byte” the beginning of a trend? Is it supporting a trend that already exists? Or is it perhaps signaling the evolution, or end, of a trend? Is it possible that we can’t answer these questions unless we are continuously sampling from the buffet that is available courtesy of Pervasive Communications and our always-on data feed?

THE MEANING OF LIFE

As we talked a bit about this issue offline (if you consider a couple of hours on a Skype video call “offline”), I came back around to the tweet about the value of old data revealing trends. Perhaps we’re looking at Big Data and the online fire-hose in the wrong way. Too often we think we already know the questions, or we already know the trends, and we look at data points as a way to support our pre-existing notions (numerologists often have a particular knack for this – you can find anything if you look hard enough in the wrong direction).

So rather than always trying to consume information to answer questions, what if we just taste the data, and let it help us form the right questions, regardless of the sector, the market or even what the data was originally supposed to represent? Why not let information from the Transportation sector be co-mingled with information from Politics, or Economics, or Energy. By doing so, we’re helping to erase preconceived notions about the value of the data, and the answers we expect to get.

Ultimately, that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? As Alan pointed out in his recent post Big Data: Is The Answer 42?, answers are meaningless if you don’t understand the question, and with today’s glut of data, events and trends, figuring out the right question, and understanding why it’s the right question, is more difficult than ever.

FINDING THE INFLUENCE OF UNCERTAINTY

Heisenberg talked about particles, their position and their velocity. I’m talking about events, their impact and their influence (their ability to form trends). In either case, the more certain we are of something, the less certain we are of something else. To me, that raises the question of value in being uncertain, to an extent.

Knowing the present state of an event or data-point is extremely valuable, as is knowing the direction it is heading. But equally important is the value of knowing why it is where it is at a particular moment and why it is heading in a particular direction (what influenced it, what shaped it). Following that lead, it’s also important to know where it is heading and what it is going to hit (how will it influence something else).

“Why a trend exists is just as important a question as asking what impact will result from the trend. It’s all about context.”

As the data reveals more potential trends, so too does it raise more interesting questions:

  • What value do individual events have, either as singular events or as part of a larger data set?
  • How important are multiple layers of context and different perspectives?
  • How do you anticipate when or how trends may collide or intersect?

The next time you sift through the data, as you swim through the stream, try squinting your eyes a bit. Don’t focus so much on what you see, but rather let some uncertainty creep in, and see what patterns emerge when you see things just a bit “fuzzy”.

In the end, you might be surprised at what you do see, and the questions you start to ask.

ZeroKlout2

Klout, Big Data and the Meaning of “Opt Out”

Is it possible to have a Klout Score of Zero (K = 0)?

Why, you might ask, would anybody want to have such a score in the gamified realm of influence measurement, where higher scores indicate a higher level of perceived online influence?

The answer may lie in the way that Klout profiles you, branding you a Specialist, an Observer, or a Broadcaster. The answer may also lie in how people relate to Big Data, vaguely defined ranking algorithms, and the increased tendency of offline organizations to make some big, and potentially misleading, assumptions about the role of online influence in an offline world.

“Klout calculates billions of data points across over 100 million influencers every day.” ~ Klout.com

Whatever the reason, there are people who simply want out.  But opting out, and driving your score to a meaningless Zero, is apparently a bit more difficult in the Klout dimension than one might imagine.

I PRESENT TO YOU MR. SAM FIORELLA

Mr. Fiorella was recently referenced in a Wired.com article (What your Klout Score really means) that delved into an experience he had a while back with a potential employer, who eliminated Sam (and possibly others) from the list of candidates based on his perceived “sub-par” Klout Score. As listed on the Klout.com website…

It’s not the first time something in the online world has impacted a decision in the offline world, and it definitely won’t be the last (see Jeremiah Owyang’s post “How ‘Social Profiling’ Will Work In The Real World“).

Sam ultimately did improve his Klout Score (into the 70’s) but was never happy with the idea of being ranked (or branded) by an algorithm for online OR offline purposes. So when Klout offered an “opt out” option at the beginning of November, 2011, he promptly did just that. He opted out and initiated the deletion of his Klout profile, per the language on the Klout site:

Klout Opt Out

As far as Sam was concerned, he was satisfied that after opting out nobody would be able to view his Klout Score moving forward and that only trace data would remain in the system (for 180 days, after which it would be removed).

He also understood that Klout would continue track his activities on the public broadcast social site Twitter. 

Note: I wouldn’t be surprised if Klout NEEDS to track Sam privately in order to accurately determine the Klout Scores of others within his Twitter social graph. In essence, influencers who are not tracked become dark matter, or invisible thought leaders. They mess with what we perceive by influencing behavior in unseen ways. 

But there was also a level of expectation that the information gathered on Twitter (and his resulting private Klout Score) would to be kept private and OFF the Klout.com site.

Unfortunately, it didn’t work out that way.

I PRESENT TO YOU MR. SAM FIORELLA’S GHOST

In the name of full disclosure, I know Sam personally and I am a registered Klout user. I was also aware when he, and others, opted out of Klout last year. So when I read the Wired article, and the various other articles and posts that it spawned, the analyst in me was just a bit curious to see if Sam had in fact been removed from the site. So I search Klout.com and found no public profile or information on him.

But I did come across the profile of a friend of mine, and attached to that profile, in their Influencers list, was the smiling face of Sam Fiorella. On the site, exactly where it should not have been.

Apparently, the phrase “you will be removed from Klout.com within 24-48 hours” – as mentioned in the Klout opt out statement – may not mean what you think it means.

Sam opted out from Klout almost 6 months ago. Could this possibly be the “trace data” mentioned in the Klout “opt out” statement?  I don’t believe so, as his current Twitter avatar is on display along with an assumingly current Klout Score of 52 (which sounds plausible since Klout appears to be pulling his data only from Twitter, not the complete list of social sites that Sam previously had linked to his Klout account, and it increased to 53 last night).

But wait, there’s more (thank you Ron Popeil). While I did pass on the option to invite Sam back to Klout (he wouldn’t have accepted anyway), I couldn’t resist the chance to test the software and see if it would allow me to give him a +K in Blogging. It did:

I’m not sure the +K stuck (even though it does now show me a greyed out +K button for Sam and Blogging, it apparently didn’t decrement my +K counter).

But the mere fact that it allowed me to go through the action, give me a success notification and offer the option to Tweet the +K out, was more than just a bit interesting – it was a challenge to figure out what had gone wrong, how it might be corrected and to think strategically a bit about some of the larger (beyond Klout) implications it might have.

FOR YOUR CONSIDERATION

From a social perspective, you cannot deny that influence exists – marketing, advertising and sales people have been trying to identify and target influential consumers for years. Nor can we deny that our online and offline lives are colliding extremely fast, and influence in one medium can, and will, transcend to another.

From an online influence measurement perspective, there is a defined need to look for insights in online behavior (served by Klout and other firms such as PeerIndex, Twitalyzer, TweetLevel, etc.), and the people at Klout have been very honest and open with me, and others, about how and why they are undertaking this task. 

But there is a disconnect when a phrase like “removed” appears to mean “erased a bit” – not quite how I would interpret it.

CAN WE ACHIEVE ZERO?

When Sam opted out of Klout, he assumed that he would still have a Klout Score, but that his information would no longer be shared or visible to others – in essence giving him a public null Klout Score (K = 0) that he sought. While the data would still exist, and be interpreted by Klout, they would not share their interpretations with others.

So why is Sam Fiorella still appearing on Klout? Perhaps there is an issue that weaves around Klout’s interpretation of words, and the managing of expectations from a contractual Terms of Service (TOS) perspective. Or perhaps it has to do with the massive amounts of Big Data that we are crunching on an ongoing basis, with technology evolving at such a rapid pace that glitches and ghosts, while unacceptable, are going to occur. Either way, there is a flaw somewhere in the system, and Mr. Fiorella has become its poster child.

PRIVACY AND PERVASIVE COMMUNICATIONS

Sam’s issue with Klout is bigger than either Sam or Klout. Not to diminish what Sam is going through, neither Sam nor Klout are alone in facing issues regarding personal data, big data, privacy or changing technology. If anything, his dilemma is indicative of a much larger series of questions and issues that we face.

We live in an age of technology-enabled Pervasive Communications. Our ability to communicate with almost anyone, anywhere at any time, over a multitude of communications channels, is allowing us to unleash our DNA-driven need to create, share and consume content and information with others.

As we do this, our public actions are increasingly tracked, tagged, shared and mined by people and companies that we’ve never met. They’re sifting through piles of Big Data looking for patterns, for trends, for clues regarding what influences our decisions, and how our decisions influence – if at all – the decisions of others. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but when this activity lacks true transparency of both intent and use, the user is increasingly, and unknowingly, giving away far more than they are receiving in return.

“There is nothing in the dark that isn’t there when the lights are on.”

~ Rod Serling

The data is out there and it’s not going away. It may lose some of its relevance, but it will still be out there and is increasingly being linked with other data to create “new” data. The questions of who really owns our data (both pre and post-processing), how and when it can be shared and reused, and how much light (transparency) should be shined upon it, will likely be argued (and should be) for many years to come.

While many individuals may argue that they want their data out there (in an effort to achieve a richer, more engaging online experience), I do believe that there are different times and places for private and public, and, as individuals, businesses and governments, we need to continually ask ourselves:

  • What should the ground-rules be for how Terms of Service and ownership of data are defined?
  • How will we let these definitions and rules evolve and adapt to technology and human behavior patterns that don’t yet exist or have yet to be defined?
  • How can we provide true transparency (in simple terms) to online users regarding their data and its linkages with other data (there’s a business out there if you can create that infograph, BTW)? And,
  • How we are going play together in an ever shrinking sandbox where transparency has become a buzz-word and personal privacy continues to become increasingly elusive?

I also believe that when an “opt out” option is offered, as it was with Klout, it should be just that – a way for you to take yourself, and your data, OUT of the system. If not for your actions, the data wouldn’t exist in the first place.

 Note: Images adapted from Klout.com

Disruption and (non) Innovation, Part II

Explosive Hits Disruption and InnovationThe words “Disruption” and “Innovation” have become lexicons of our current business vocabulary. But while they are closely linked, they are (as mentioned in my post Disruption and Innovation, Part I) two very different beasts.

Not surprisingly, I increasingly hear people speak of their organizations as being disruptive in a market, of having a disruptive strategy (that is often further described as being “innovative”).  

Granted, there are some strategies that are, in and of themselves, true innovations that lead to the disruption of existing markets and the creation of new markets. For example, Ron Popeil’s televised take on the “But wait, there’s more!” product marketing strategy was arguably an innovation that created new markets, created market value that previously didn’t exist, and was ultimately disruptive to others.

Disruption creates chaos. Chaos cannot be controlled.

By definition, a strategy is not the same as an innovation. But a strategy can be innovative, and it can also be disruptive, and there are no shortage of organizations out there today that love to talk about their disruptive strategies.

But is being disruptive in a market, or towards a competitor, a viable strategy? Is it sustainable? Or is it merely something that is best used in an opportunistic manner?

Chaos cannot be controlled, but it can be leveraged.

Personally, while I almost always caution clients against relying upon disrupting their competition, or a market, as a business strategy, there is a part of me that understands the value of leveraging an opportunity to disrupt the flow of a competitor.

THE SEVEN DISRUPTIVE SINS

How an organization attempts to disrupt its competition is often tempered by the depth of their pockets, the desperate nature of their situation or their willingness to push (or even outright cross) the lines of the law. But, putting aside graft and corruption, most organizations tend to gravitate to the same Seven Disruptive Sins when it comes to disrupting their competition.

I call them sins, for while they may have their virtues or desired effect, they may also come back to bite you. Hard

To every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction.

~ Sir Isaac Newton

So let’s take a look at the most common strategies I see used, misused and abused by organizations to disrupt their competition…

1. Talent Acquisition: pulling key personnel away from a competitor, in an attempt to limit their competitiveness.

Pro: Acquiring great talent in any area of your business is always a good idea (top sales reps, developers, executives, support staff, etc.). And when pulled from your competitor, can limit, or at least disrupt their footing for a period of time.

Con: Pulling top staff from a competitor usually means offering a sweeter, more costly deal. It also opens the door for your competitor to potentially find a new, more creative or hungrier, replacement. Add in non-compete agreements (especially where customers or IP are concerned) and ultimately you may have just overpaid for talent AND given your competitor an opportunity to lower their own operating costs.

2. IP Acquisition: buying patents, or even entire companies, in an effort to keep (or take) the technology away from competitors. For example, during the dot-com boom, larger firms were buying up smaller firms left and right – not just because they needed the technology but to take it out of the market (a great example today would be the recent sell off of Nortel patents, or the likely interest a sell-off of RIM patents would generate).

Pro: By locking up a piece of technology that your competitor may rely upon or leverage in the future (a good example would be buying a smaller firm that resells product through a competitor), you can take away portions of their product/services portfolio.

Con: Buying anything costs money. And who isn’t to say that your competition will, as a result of your action, be forced to rethink their product/service strategy and develop a new one that isn’t more in touch with customer demand? More importantly, companies need to be nimble in today’s market. Technologies change fast, and you don’t want to be left holding outdated product.

3. Flooding the Market: selling products or services well below market price in an effort to take away customers and revenue from your competition (something we see often at the international trade level). Interestingly (thanks to Alan Berkson for this example), we see this all the time in the Cable TV and Mobile sectors, where vendors undercut their competition (through special contract pricing) to win customers that they know they will lose after their 12/24 month contract is up.

Pro: You can’t argue with the value of taking away market share from your competition.

Con: Every time you underprice your product, or give away an extra service, you are taking profit out of your pocket – something that few firms can afford to sustain for any period of time.

4. Supplier Acquisition: controlling the supply of parts, either through exclusive deals or acquisition, to restrict competitor’s access. If everybody in a market relies upon Company X for certain technology, bringing that supplier under your umbrella can force competitors to shift their own strategies (note: this is not the same as developing your own in-house alternatives to parts/components that are universally used within a market, such as Apple building their own chip fabrication facility).

Pro: Controlling the supply of commonly used products in a market can certainly be a competitive strength (imagine if Apple bought Intel…). It can provide (after the cost of acquisition is recouped) lower cost of goods sold.

Con: You buy it, you’re stuck with it. Take something away from somebody and they’ll find a way to engineer something better. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, so do markets. Pull a key component out of a market and somebody will find a way to replace it (with something faster, better, cheaper). Lesson: don’t force your competition to become innovative.

5. Distribution Acquisition: controlling the distribution channels for your product – a great example being the exclusivity agreements that restricted food chains from selling both Coke and Pepsi products.

Pro: If you can prevent your competitor’s product from ever appearing on the shelf, you’ve clearly got an advantage.

Con: Linking yourself to a particular distribution channel is great, until that distribution channel falls to deliver, or has competitive challenges of their own (think McDonalds/Burger King and Coke vs Pepsi).

6. Legislation/Regulation: pushing the enactment of laws and regulations that favor you, or restrict your competition is a practice as old a government and provides for a thriving lobby economy at the state and federal level. A similar example is the tactic that government contractors employ to “shape” government procurements in such a way that the specifications of the requirement can only be met by their product or service.

Pro: If you can control the playing field, you can control the game. By enacting legislation (or bid specifications) in such a way as to preclude your competition, you’ve given yourself home-field advantage.

Con: Putting aside the issues of potential corruption, laws and regulations are usually enacted in a particular context to address a specific requirement. But laws and regulations rarely go off the books, and all too often they are applied in ways totally unintended. For a great example, check out Wickard v. Filburn and the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1938 which was intended to stabilize US wheat prices but is now being used to restrict a variety of activities, including the personal growth of medicinal marijuana in states where such use is allowed.

7. Creative Marketing: taking a bit of poetic license when talking about a competitor’s product. In politics, we’d call this a smear campaign.

Pro: Highlighting weaknesses, or shortcomings – especially when documented by others – can be a great way to position your competitor’s product in a dim light.

Con: Nobody likes to be misled or fed partial information, and while spreading Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt is a mainstay part of both business and political culture, in the age of Pervasive Communications, fact checking is available 247. Even if your data about a competitor is true, ultimately, the continued use of this approach will be viewed as “dirty politics” and reflect poorly on you, not your competition.

SOME THOUGHTS

Disruption is a part of nature, and it is no surprise that we see it often in markets. But intentionally trying to create a disruptive strategy carries its share of risk and can take away from the value proposition of a company’s own product and services. In the end, if a company doesn’t focus on their own products and services first, disrupting a competitor won’t add any value as they won’t be in a position to leverage the (often temporary) disruption to their advantage.


Photo of EMI Album by Hans Thijs, Licensed under Creative Commons

brokenbulb2

Disruption and Innovation, Part I

Over the years, as an analyst, advisor and even as an entrepreneur, I’ve heard the phrase “Our strategy is to disrupt ” far too often. It’s a bit disheartening at times, because what I really want to hear is how your strategy is going to “innovate” rather than disrupt.

Why? I’ve always believed that the fastest way to success is to avoid trying to knock somebody off the ladder and, instead, build your own ladder. You control your future. You shape the market. You let the people on the other ladder pursue their evolutionary strategies while you quietly create a revolutionary strategy.

THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN DISRUPTION AND INNOVATION

To be clear, there is a definite relationship between “disruption” and “innovation” not to be confused with Clay Christensen’s “Disruptive Innovation”. Often, they feed off of each other – one leading to the other (or at least providing an opportunity for the other to take hold).

Innovations within a market can ultimately lead to the disruption (or devastation) of an existing or adjacent (but different) market (example: iPhone’s App store devastating video games, wrist watches, cameras). Note that true innovations don’t just offer better versions of existing products, but offer better alternatives to existing products – they ultimately replace them.

Similarly, disruptions within a market (or a vendor if they dominate that market) can often provide an enhanced opportunity for new and innovative vendors and products. The more disruptive a market has become, the greater the opportunity for innovation to create a new, better alternative market. But there are differences.

And far from being singular events, disruptions and innovations can often be associated with long-term evolutionary trends, rather than singular events (Pervasive Communications is a great example of two trends (technology and human behavior) leading to a disruption of both social structures, technologies and global markets (check out Alan Berkson’s framing of Pervasive Communications and a video chat with Brian Reich on the global implications of Pervasive Communications).

DISRUPTION

Disruption, like the stuff that hits the fans, often just happens. It can be caused by any number of different conditions. Disruptions to supply chains. Technological advances. Corporate mismanagement. Natural disasters. All can result in a market (and its vendors) being disrupted. In the extreme, the disruption devolves into a state of chaos – and chaos (while it may offer opportunity for those able to restore order) is usually not a characteristic of a market you want to enter.

To this last point, the notion of “disrupting” a market of a vendor to gain a competitive advantage is more often than not simply the wrong approach (a great example being the often asked question in the analytical/advisory space: “Why hasn’t anybody been able to disrupt Gartner’s business model”). To disrupt an entrenched vendor’s business model means to disrupt their market, which may be extremely difficult/impossible to achieve without disrupting your own chances of stepping in to take advantage of the opportunity (an issue we’ll discuss in Part II).

INNOVATION

Innovation, on the other hand, is more often the result of a “spark” or idea that transcends the products, services and strategies of an existing vendor or market. It creates something new: its own ladder. Rather than competing head to head against an existing market or vendor, it offers an alternative that, if done correctly, is often unnoticed by other vendors. It doesn’t (initially) compete for the same budget, nor does it require a “magic quadrant” or an “us vs them” comparison.

A true innovation stands alone – it is its own product and market replacing the need for existing products and markets. It obsoletes prior structures (an issue we’ll discuss in Part III) and represents – in both the short- and long-term – a new market opportunity.

While a new innovation may ultimately compete for overall corporate/consumer dollars, it is often differentiated enough that it can initially sit along-side existing products and simply blend into the landscape. In fact, the best innovations are the ones that existing market players don’t deem as viable – very different from a product evolution that may be considered cannibalistic if they were to implement it themselves.

Taking it deeper, a true innovation will ultimately replace the need for existing products, vendors and even markets. All though not common, the “existing products” *may* not actually exist (although the need for them may – the case of the impractical market), or if they do exist, they *may* under-perform or not currently meet market demand (something that may not be obvious or intuitive to either consumers or vendors).

Take, for example, the iPhone (introduced only five years ago in 2007). In and of itself, it wasn’t a true innovative product, but rather an evolutionary extension of existing multi-media phones (like the Blackberry). But the Apple App Store – when combined with the iPhone (in 2008) – was a true innovation. It created a new market, obsoleted others and forever changed the way that hundreds of different products (as applications) were brought to market.

MOVING FORWARD

In the next few posts we’ll discuss the different types of disruptions and innovations that commonly occur, and the risks and rewards that accompany each (here’s a thought to ponder: most disruptions – especially man-made – offer more risk than reward, while most innovations offer tremendous reward with very little risk).

Have a different perspective? Toss it out. There are plenty of opinions on this subject and I’m looking forward to the debate.

“Oops!” Broken Lightbulb photo courtesy of Kyle May licensed under Creative Commons

Note: Post updated to highlight and clarify distinction between “disruption and innovation” and “Disruptive Innovation”

Kony 2012

The unintended consequences of going #viral

Kony 2012When you craft a message, you generally have a target, or audience, in mind. You probably also have an agenda, or goal, that you wish to achieve, such as awareness, education or a call to action. And both the message and the agenda are typically driven by both your own ideas and those embraced by your target audience. Your message must match your audience, or it’s difficult for them to embrace it.

If all works well, your message is received by your audience and your agenda and goals met by their actions and response. But we live in the age of pervasive communications where your message has the ability to go viral, to spread like wildfire around the globe – not just through one medium, but through many. It may be shared on dozens of different “new media” social networking sites, it may be emailed around the world, it may even be featured (or the viral spread of it) in traditional media (broadcast, print) or their online hybrid counterparts (tra-digital media).

Reaching an audience beyond your intended audience has consequences

In the end, your carefully crafted message goes well beyond your target market and reaches a much larger group of people that you never intended to be part of your audience. If you are trying to build/energize a community, you may find yourself with a mob, on a global scale.

#KONY2012

Take the case of the Kony 2012 campaign. It’s a documentary film about Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Liberation Army (if you haven’t seen it, you should). Starting in Northern Uganda, Kony (a man  indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Court) has, over a period close to 30 years, maimed, killed and enslaved children (some put the estimate at 66,000) into military service to support his cause. His reign of terror has moved well beyond the Ugandan borders into the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Central African Republic, and the South Sudan.

The documentary was created by the Invisible Children organization with what appears to be all the right intent, including a humanitarian agenda, a desire to raise awareness of, and funding for, those who suffered at Kony’s hands, and to ensure (from the Kony 2012 website):

  • “That Joseph Kony is known as the World’s Worst War Criminal” and
  • “That U.S. and international efforts to stop Kony are bolstered with a more comprehensive strategy for disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration (DDR).”

The target audience of the documentary, as evidenced by both the narrative and the logo (featuring the U.S. Republican and Democrat symbols), are centered in the U.S. and the political arena. And within that target, it had its desired result. But it didn’t end there.

IT’S CALLED VIRAL FOR A REASON

This documentary, and the horrific crimes it highlighted, hit such a sensitive nerve with people (within its intended audience) that they leveraged pervasive communications to do what humans have always done since the beginning of time: THEY SHARED!

What started as a focused, but relatively unknown movement, went viral as the Kony 2012 documentary began to spread throughout the U.S. and the world. The Twitter hashtag #kony2012, for example, became a top trending item on Twitter at the peak of the viral distribution while Facebook showed an equally amazing number of shares and likes for the documentary (not to mention the publicity and momentum it gathered when national and international traditional media outlets began reporting on the viral spread of the documentary). In the process, it gained a level of global fame well beyond the producer’s original expectation as well as a global audience that didn’t fit the “target profile” of its original audience.

The result? A response that the producers were unprepared to handle (or at least well beyond what they expected to have to deal with). With increased awareness came both massive support (good) and increased scrutiny and negative pressure (bad). They also faced a global audience that was viewing a documentary film that wasn’t intended for them in the first place (including those in Northern Uganda). Yes, it was intended to help them, but culturally, it wasn’t intended for them to consume.

 WHEN MESSAGES MEET THE WRONG PEOPLE

The western-oriented message simply didn’t fit the various non-western cultures that had access to the Kony 2012 campaign through its viral spread. While it has done a tremendous job at raising both awareness and funds to help Kony/LRA victims, it also became, for many, the wrong message for the wrong people, leading to questions about intent, accuracy and a resulting impact that was very different from the original, anticipated goal.300px-Ugandan_districts_affected_by_Lords_Resistance_Army

What started as a unified U.S. base of positive support has also led (through increased scrutiny) to those (and it is their right) who claim it oversimplifies a very complex issue, and takes mind-share away from other, more pressing problems that Ugandans, and others in Africa, face today, such as the debilitating nodding disease that is striking an alarming number of children in Uganda and the ongoing slave trade in Mauritania.  

It has also had a direct, non-desirable, impact, and intrusion, into the personal lives of those involved in the creation of the documentary.

THE IMPACT OF PERVASIVE COMMUNICATIONS

This phenomenon will likely become increasingly common – especially when the primary means of distribution is social media – a content distribution & sharing medium that by its definition and role in pervasive communications knows no borders. None.

Content no longer knows or respects borders

If an idea, a documentary, or a story has the ability to generate a massive emotional response (either positive or negative), pervasive communications allows it to spread – to go viral -and there isn’t any way to stop it (again, this includes traditional mainstream media, digital/social media and tra-digital media). If the consequences of this viral spread are unanticipated, what begins as a proactive messaging activity can quickly become a reactive damage control operation.

What does this mean for cause-based content in the future? Ultimately, it places a much greater responsibility on choosing the “right” channel(s) within our pervasive communications network, as well as crafting messages that are either by their nature self-limiting or have universal appeal. The case could also be made for non-cause (i.e., commercial) content as well – pervasive communications doesn’t discriminate in its ability to impact a message, regardless of media.

Either way, what the Kony 2012 phenomenon has shown us is that the rules of content distribution that applied only a few short years ago no longer apply. It is a different world that we live in today, and we’re only just now beginning to understand the rules.

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Community

5 Elements of a True Community

CommunityEarlier this week, my good friend Margie Clayman wrote an excellent post titled “Myth: Community makes the world go round” – it’s well worth the read as she raises some interesting points regarding the real value of a business-built community, and its failures if it doesn’t lead to community members actually driving revenue for the business. There is a difference between a business “community” and a “loyal customer base”.

In her post, Margie asked a really good set of questions that got my interest:

What are your thoughts about community?

How do you define this word in regards to the online space?

I love the word community, although it gets tossed around almost as much as “engage” (a word that should only be used when discussing marriage, battle or a warp-drive command). But as I thought about Margie’s question, I realized that most people (there are some good exceptions) really can’t consider their online followers a community, rather they are mostly acquaintances with a few true friends tossed in for good measure.

More importantly…

I suspect that a relatively small % of a user’s follower base actually interact with each other

…something that I consider a core requirement for a community (interaction between the members).

Equally important, if most of the interaction in your online follower based is between YOU and your followers, what you have really created is an audience, not a community (not necessarily a bad thing, but definitely not a community).

The same is true for businesses – I don’t consider a group of loyal customers to be a community (no disrespect to people who create loyal consumers, but I use a Mac but don’t go out of my way to hang out with other Mac users or Apple employees – that said, there have been some phenomenal Jeep and Harley tribes that have formed on their own).

WHAT IS AN ONLINE COMMUNITY?

To me, an online community requires several key components:

  1. It needs to be generally self-forming and self-moderating,
  2. Its members must have a common interest(s) or cause(s) that ties them together (and be able to evolve as those interests and causes change over time),
  3. The overall community must have both a critical mass required to be effective yet not too many members that the size distracts from the operation or purpose of the community (which is one reason why you see solid communities often built as a collection of smaller tribes that interact),
  4. It has to be able to add/delete members as needed, and (most importantly)
  5. It has to generate something of perceived value to its members (which can also bring value to those outside of the community).

Within an online community, there are leaders and there are followers. There are those who are more influential than others, some in their ideas and leadership and some that provide the constant “spark of energy” to keep others engaged (both are equally important in a community).

ARE ONLINE AND OFFLINE COMMUNITIES REALLY THAT DIFFERENT?

Not surprisingly, this type of community isn’t unique and thrives in the offline world. Let me use my neighborhood as an example.

  • We all have a (mostly) common goal — living together, raising our families in a safe place, enjoying the company of others outside on a summer day — and we produce value for both ourselves and our children.
  • We “politely” speak to neighbors who step out of line now and then, and when a family moves away, we welcome in another. Over time, as our kids age, our interactions and goals will change/adapt as well.
  • Interestingly, as you move from our street down several blocks, the sense of community is a bit diminished (but only from our perspective) and there are certainly “tribes” within the community (that are sometimes location-based or friendship-based) but have significant areas of overlap and reinforce the feeling of community I have with neighbors who live several blocks away.
  • We have members within our community that help oversee our homeowners association, exerting one form of influence, and we have those that are always ready to help organize a neighborhood or community event, exerting a different aspect of influence.

In both the online and offline worlds, communities can exist within larger organizations, just as tribes can exist within larger communities. In business, communities can also exist within groups of loyal customers (think Apple). But it is very difficult in the business world to build a true community – that sense of purpose and self-determination typically can’t be created. Inspired? Yes. But created? No.

QUESTIONS FOR YOU

Do you think my definition of a community is valid? Or are there areas that you think I’ve missed or included that don’t really need to be there?

Do you think that the definition of community changes by industry or market sector?

What are some examples of successes AND failures that you’ve seen in businesses and the creation of communities?

Dealing with Corporate Chaos – The value of the right strategy

I like structure, order and consistency. I also like chaos. One provides stability, the other a challenge. In the corporate business world, we often see both: longer periods of relative stability and continuity with brief interjections of chaotic episodes that help make the business world a bit more of a challenge, a bit more fun, especially from a communications perspective.

Businesses need to communicate, and there are no shortage of groups within most organizations that can be leveraged, including Public Relations, Analyst Relations, Marketing, Sales, etc. I typically view corporate communications as falling into one of three categories:

  • Corporate-Focused messaging, where the company is focused on corporate stability, overall market direction (and domination) and the ability to be a long-term, reliable brand,
  • Product/Service-Focused messaging, designed to promote the merits and/or value of a particular product or service, and
  • Feel-good messaging, where the company is trying to promote the overall business, or the “brand” – often through a hybrid combination of Corporate and Product/Service messaging, and typically through cause-based efforts (“we’re so committed to this cause, that we’ll donate $$$ for every product you buy…”).

In a period of stability and order, this system works fairly well. In fact, many companies just assume that things will always be quiet and calm and plan their “market influence” strategies accordingly. But things never stay calm, do they.

Chaos has its own unique way of being an extremely efficient disruptor of corporate communications, and can strike from any source. A rogue employee (even in the C-suite). A dysfunctional Board of Directors. A product that didn’t perform quite the way it was designed to, or even a product that has been tampered with or sabotaged.

The list of possible sources of chaos is essentially limitless, as is the type and list of companies that it strikes. Want some good examples? Tylenol, which faced a product tampering crisis, Netflix, and their botched announcement of Qwikster (and its subsequent disappearance), HP, and their ongoing Board of Director’s turf battle, and Bank of America, trying to put a positive spin on a $5/month debit card fee, then backing off, then clarifying (almost like a politician).

When evaluating the strength of an organization or company, I like to look at how they react to these periods of chaos. It shows me several key elements:

  • Have they anticipated probable or likely disruptive events?
  • Do they have contingency plans in place to make sure the right message gets out, to the right audience through the right vehicle?
  • Are they monitoring what their customers are saying about them (in all of the various mediums) and are they tailoring their message accordingly?
  • Do they have the ability to bounce back from a chaotic episode without scars and a damaged reputation?

More importantly, I look for how quickly they can adapt to the crisis at hand, and make sure that the right type of communications (Corporate, Product, Feel-good), or combination thereof, is being used in the right manner that helps diffuse the crisis as quickly as possible.

So the next time you are looking at a company, and trying to determine their real strength in a market, don’t just evaluate their ability to operate in a stable, predictable manner, but look at how they react, and counter, disruptive chaotic events. That’s where the real corporate culture comes out.