Tag Archives: business

Long Beach Brands and Broken Narratives

Of Brands and Broken Narratives

An organization’s brand is defined by the totality of everything they do and say. Enduring brands are built on solid corporate narratives that serve as a beacon of trust and yield positive public perception.


This article was originally published on “Sensei Blogs – A Business Blog with a Point of View” and is reprinted here with permission.

A colleague recently asked me to take a quick look at a firm he had run across. Let’s call them BizCo. They had been around for years, many of them as a strong market leader. But they now faced a fundamentally different market than they had previously, and they were struggling. New competitors, technologies and pervasive media were also rapidly redefining their market and consumer needs.

Long Beach Brands and Broken Narratives

A COMPELLING ORIGIN

BizCo had both history and a compelling story. Their origins came out of a very basic human need, and the founder’s goal to help enrich the lives of others came through very clear in every aspect of the firm.  This “essence” had helped shape a strong corporate narrative. Or at least it once did.

A BROKEN NARRATIVE

A firm’s corporate narrative is the totality of everything they do and say, all their actions in both analog and digital worlds. This includes marketing, public relations, customer relations, and even their corporate actions, human resources, products and services. All are individual messages of a sort that when combined form a greater narrative that tells the story of the firm.

Unfortunately for BizCo, their individual messages now appeared disjointed, opportunistic and somewhat less than compelling. They were mostly advertising products in a one-off fashion with limited continuity that rarely hinted at the original ideals that shaped its founders vision. Their outward message was wandering, and their corporate narrative broken. Fixable, but broken.

FROM WELCOME TO DISTRESS

Messages that are random, disjointed or unclear can easily be misinterpreted either individually or collectively if they lack context or order.  In an age of pervasive media, even well planned messages can fall victim. We may hear individual concepts, but not be able to put them together in a meaningful way. We get confused. And confusion is never good for a brand.

With BizCo, individual messages were targeted but did not reflect the essence of the firm. The result was not a welcoming message as intended but rather a perceived message of disorganization or distress. And from a consumer perspective, messages of distress are often perceived as warnings: Stay away.

WHAT IS YOUR MESSAGE

As your business evolves over time it’s only natural for the narrative to change along with product and customer needs. But if you only write random chapters, or chapters that simply don’t fit, you’re not enriching or extending your narrative. What you think may be positive steps could translate into a message of distress, and very few people are willing to buy from a firm in distress.

Is your message one of welcome or one of distress and danger?

When you look at your own company, are you writing a long-term story, or a series of short-form articles? Are you letting your inner essence focus your business decisions, or are you looking for opportunistic quick hits? Do your various messages across different mediums have a consistent theme, and are they true to the vision of your firm?

If you are unsure of your answers, take a moment to reflect and reconnect with your inner essence. Your corporate narrative will thank you.

Image “Long Beach 1933” by California Watch, Licensed under Creative Commons

Competitive Lens

12 Most Basic Strategies to Know Your Competition

[Originally posted on 12Most.com] We live in a world where competition is part of the fabric of life. Survival of the fittest, and all that stuff. The business world is no different. Being about to not only know your competition, but to outsmart them, is just another aspect of the game.

Here are some relatively basic steps you can take to win the competition game. Are they a bit difficult to pull off? Some of them. But if you can get your hands around even a few, you’ll find yourself in a better competitive position:

1. Know yourself better than anybody else
If you really want to evaluate your competition, you have to first understand what YOU have to offer. This will help you define WHO your competition is. If you do this right — and look at your core competencies, you might find that your ultimate competition isn’t exactly who you think it is.

2. Execute your business first
Going back to point 1, if your business isn’t being executed to its fullest, you may like to think that you are competing against top-tier companies, but the reality is that you may be competing against the middle of the pack, and trying to best “the best” is simply never going to work.

3. Listen to their financial calls
You’d be amazed at the information that comes out of financial calls from public companies. And no, you don’t need to be a financial analyst to participate. Sure, you can read about their call the next day, but short of being in the room with them, listening can give you a sense of excitement or tension that you might not get in print.

4. Read voraciously
From public SEC filings to blogs to articles (and even support forums), the amount of information out there that can prove valuable is immense. How are they perceived? What are their customers openly complaining about? Where is YOUR opportunity?

5. Talk to their customers
If you are not talking to your competition’s customers, you might as well pretend you’re in a business that has no competition. Not only can you gain a good bit of information about your competition, but also about their sales cycles, new products that have been promised — even who their sales reps are (rep churn is very valuable information). Who knows, you may even land a customer yourself.

6. Follow their customers on social media
Customers say the most amazing things on social media. Sure, some of it may be slightly anonymous, or a bit questionable. But when you see a trend of #FAIL hashtags at the end of messages about a competitor’s new product, it’s probably worth looking into. And please, don’t just stop there. Some clever searching can reveal a great bit of information about former customers as well (and open up new prospects at the same time).

7. Talk to (or follow) their suppliers
By our very nature, we tend to look forward — to be customer focused. But what about the people supplying product to your competitors? Did they have a good quarter? Did they have a bad quarter? Could it be that their shipment levels (or margins) are tied to your competitor? Absolutely.

8. Follow their employees on social media
Gaining insight into customer sentiment is incredibly valuable. But gaining insight in employee sentiment is even better. When a social media user’s profile states “I work for XYZ Corp, but my posts are my own”, remember that is usually not the case. People talk, and they talk about work. How busy they are, how late they had to stay at work, how high/low their job satisfaction level is… get my point?

9. Visit Q&A sites
With sites like Focus.com, Quora.com, G+ (no, not the Google version) and LinkedIn Answers, it is becoming increasingly easy to find out what questions users are asking about your competitors products, and the type of responses they are getting to their questions. Are they asking about how to configure a product (perhaps a sign of poor technical support)? Are they asking for alternative products (displeasure with their existing product)? Or are they asking the best places to buy a competitor’s product (a sign of positive sentiment)?

10. Listen to their corporate or customer support social feeds
You’d be surprised how much information you can gather my monitoring a company’s “support” feed on Twitter or Facebook (and soon Google+). Sure, they try to move the customer support issues offline as quickly as possible, but there is still enough activity to gain some insight (and social media is fast becoming a way to quickly spot trends in advance of mainstream awareness).

11. Understand their/your market
In a world where change is now measured in days or months, not years or decades, keeping apace of emerging market trends is just as important as understanding your competition and their products/services. Learn to anticipate what changes will disrupt their (or potentially your) business and be aggressive/proactive. Don’t let them dictate your move, rather seek to influence theirs!

12. Buy one of their products
Unless you are talking about a product made from unobtainium (or a service), it is probably worth getting your hands on one of their products. Buy it used. Buy it damaged. Just get it, and figure out how it works and what it is really capable of performing. You’d be surprised how often that slick-looking data sheet doesn’t quite match up to the real deal. And even if the product is a year old, it can still yield some interesting insights into their design process. To be fair, I’m not advocating you break or even bend any laws or copy any intellectual property (be very careful here – designers should be locked in a different room!). But nothing beats actually having something in front of you to figure out how it works and how you can sell against it.

So there you have it — just a few ways that you can get a leg up on your competition. But remember, it all starts with items 1 and 2 — getting your house in order first.


Featured image courtesy of claudiaveja via Creative Commons.

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

Influence Direct and Indirect

5 Questions: The Value of Direct vs Indirect Influence

Influence Direct and Indirect

Almost every action, choice or decision we make is the result of “influence” in some particular way. Even our personal preferences are shaped by influence, perhaps through the actions of others (“hey, you should really try this out”) or perhaps through our own past experiences (“I don’t care what you say, I’ve tried the bagels at that deli and they just don’t cut it for me”). Peer-pressure, marketing, advertising or even a desire to try something different based on past experiences are all forms of influence that shape our lives.

DIRECT vs INDIRECT INFLUENCE

Nowhere is the impact and value of influence more evident than in the world of business, as businesses are continuously trying to influence their target audience (customers) and partners to their benefit. When it comes to business, there are two different ways that a business or an organization can reach or influence its target audience – direct and indirect. Direct influence is when a business specifically targets or touches their target audience – it is a direct “us to you” type of interaction and gives the business the most control over their message (it’s a one-step connection).

The difference between direct vs indirect influence is like the campfire game – what you tell one person may not be what they tell the next…

Indirect influence, on the other hand, is a bit more of a challenge as it involves a third-party (and intermediary influencer of sorts) that the business needs to influence in the hopes that the third-party will in turn influence their target audience.

UNDERSTANDING WHO INFLUENCES, AND HOW

If we take a look at the different organizations within a typical corporation, we can see how they influence the organization’s customer base.

Direct Influence Groups

  • Sales directly touches the customer through personal 1:1 interaction. This is the front line, where the influence of a sales strategy & pitch (or even an individual sales rep) can be the most directly measured.
  • Marketing touches the customer base en masse (although sub-segmentation usually occurs to a great extent). Their goal is to directly convey a corporate or product image, create demand and literally influence a customer to think about their product or service. Measuring the success, or influence, of a marketing campaign is possible, but not quite as easily as the direct 1:1 interaction of a sales rep.
  • Business Development touches organizational partners. When it comes to building partnerships and team-oriented strategies, business development is the functional equivalent of sales – it is almost always a 1:1 pitch and its effect can be immediately measured.
  • Customer Service touches existing customers. When the customer has a problem, customer service can not only help resolve issues and answer questions, but can, on a 1:1 basis, help influence how a customer uses a product/service, how they perceive the company in general and, potentially, influence future sales.

Indirect Influence Groups

  • Analyst Relations (AR) involves the process of interacting with, and influencing, industry analysts, who in turn have the ability to influence their clients and followers (your target audience). Measurement of this influence can be difficult.
  • Public Relations (PR) targets the press and media (print, online, bloggers, etc.) with the goal of influencing these groups and individuals to share information with, and thus influence, their readers (your target audience). The influence of PR campaigns is often measured by the number of “mentions” a firm has, or by a post-campaign outreach to measure public (potential customer) awareness, or (if the PR campaign is designed to improve the value of a tarnished brand) consumer sentiment.
  • Investor Relations (IR) has a similar role to AR, in this case dealing with financial analysts and investment firms with the hopes of shaping a positive image and value proposition about your firm, which they hopefully will share with their clients, resulting in a healthy stock price. Measurement of IR value often (and somewhat unfairly) is measured by stock price or analyst recommendations alone, and not by increases in consumer sentiment or sales (while the financial analysts and investment firms may not directly interact with your target audience, it is hard not to connect the dots between a poor/falling stock price and the reluctance of consumers to purchase your product – nobody today wants to buy from a business that is viewed as financially at risk).

The Wild-Cards

  • The C-Suite, who has the ability to make or break a deal, to influence their entire customer base or investor community with a single sentence (think of the power and influence that Steve Jobs has by merely showing up at an event!).
  • The Customer – perhaps the most influential group of all, even if they are outside the core corporate structure (a perspective, by the way, that I think is slightly off-base: the customer should *always* be considered part of the complete business organization). Their ability to drive your business should be both welcomed and never underestimated.

ALL ANIMALS ARE EQUAL…

As George Orwell said, “All animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.” Perhaps the same can be said for influence as well. You could put forth a very interesting argument that certain forms of corporate influence are more important than others, perhaps even more effective than others, and certainly more cost-effective (in terms of bringing new customers to the table, and retaining them over the long term, converting them from customers to clients).

All influencers are equal but some influencers are more equal than others…

So let me pose a few questions – knowing full well that the answers will vary between industries, markets and economic business cycles…

  1. Are all business groups equal when it comes to the value of their influence?
  2. Are certain types of corporate influence more effective in *gaining* new customers?
  3. Are certain types of corporate influence more effective in *retaining* existing customers?
  4. With a limited budget, where would you focus your resources in building a strong corporate influence strategy?
  5. Is it possible for all of the different business groups to effectively work together to form a culture of “fluid corporate influence” that operates as a continuous feedback loop, or are there just too many barriers and silos for this to take place (Bonus points if you can give me an example of a firm that does this today!)?

So there you have it. Five simple questions about influence. I’m curious to know how YOU view the value and role of influence in your organization, and how you think it might change as your business changes and evolves over time (hint: the value of influence varies in both time and place).

ManOnBenchbyTravisNepSmith

Are We Ready to Add Cause to Social Check-Ins?

There was a time when the phrase “check-in” was associated with things like the front desk of a hotel, the ticket counter at an airport or the main entrance to a conference center (“gotta go check-in and pickup up my badge to show that I’m a speaker and didn’t actually have to pay to get in like everyone else…”).

But with the advent of social media and location-aware applications, the phrase “check-in” took on a totally new, and much simpler meaning: “I’m here”. And now, I believe, it’s meaning might be about to change yet again, from “I’m here” to “here’s why”.

The evolution of the social check-in

The social check-in has been around since before the days of the pony express – we used the available media to tell our friends and loved ones that we had arrived at a particular destination. We were not only there, but we wanted them to know we were safe. It was a basic, and necessary, part of life as the world expanded around us. But with the arrival of social media, businesses began to realize that the check-in could be something more – it could be entertaining, it could be fun, it could be competitive and it could drive business.

Companies like Foursquare, Shopkick and Facebook gamified it, made it competitive and engaging, turning it into something that they hoped would drive their business, or the business of others (check out my post on Gamification and the Gaming of Foursquare for some background on that topic). And to an extent, they were right. Checking-in was Fun! You could check-in to your favorite coffee shop, broadcast it to the world and even get points, perhaps a discount on a cup of coffee or become the Mayor of Anywhere.

But what really is the value of being the Mayor of some local hangout? Not much, except perhaps the bragging rights within your own social graph (example: I have a couple of friends who are on a mission to see who can check-in to the most Starbucks).

I’m not sure people care about social check-in points or likes as much as they used to.

Most of the people I know check-in to engage with their friends, or to simply let them know what they are doing or where they can be found. Businesses assume that a check-in to their location is an endorsement, that they’ve captured another “potential customer” (a concept that my friend Alan Berkson, @berkson0 of the Intelligist Group, would argue is “so last century”).

In fact, I’ve seen more than a few people check-in with comments like “worst service ever” – so perhaps that endorsement isn’t quite as real as many people think (ironically, with Foursquare you can check-in, add a negative comment and still get your points – an interesting way of making YOUR point, especially if you rebroadcast that check-in through other, much larger, social media networks).

And it is here, where people are starting to use the social check-in as a statement, as a way to question what they see around them, that I think we are approaching the point where the check-in can become so much more than it is today.

The 4 components of the new social check-in

The emerging social check-in has four basic components (let’s toss aside points, likes, mayorships, etc. for a moment). They are:

  1. The personal check-in itself (somebody deciding that they want to check-in to a particular place/event/etc. and share it with their friends),
  2. The place/event/etc. where the check-in occurs (which could be a fixed location or a time-sensitive event),
  3. The people within (or in some cases peripheral to) the social graph of the person who will see the check-in, and (most importantly)
  4. The statement or comment that the check-in conveys to those who see it (the *influence factor* of the check-in).

With those four points in mind, let’s consider two different check-ins:

“It’s about me”

The all-too-common “Hanging with my friends at the Corner Bistro” – simple, to the point and letting people know not only who you are with but where you can be found. It’s an invitation (and yes, I made this one up).

“It’s about the world”

Now let’s consider another, this one via Twitter/Foursquare (that was an actual Foursquare check-in by a friend): “He’s here everyday not begging, just …dying? What do to? (@ Old Guy In bench)” – this isn’t a here I am, come find me check-in, it’s an observation, i t’s a social comment, it’s non-judgmental and it has both a purpose and meaning far deeper than Foursquare ever envisioned. This is what I consider a social check-in “with cause.”

Let’s check-in to social causes

A couple of months ago, I had the opportunity to chat with a few people inside the social check-in space. It was an informal chat that got me thinking about the value of being able to check-in to “social events”, not just businesses. When I came across the “Old Guy” Foursquare check-in, it sparked an interesting thought – we have the opportunity put real meaning behind check-ins. Consider the following:

  • Checking into “certified” Social Events would be a good thing. With most check-in tools, you can create your own locations, so setting up a location for a charity event is possible, but it isn’t necessarily time sensitive and doesn’t necessarily mean that the event is an actual charity (social good) event. I think we can improve on this.
  • Checking into a Social Event *remotely* (to show support for the cause) would be an even better thing. Call it a “like” or a “support” – but letting people express their backing for an event – while it is taking place – is something I consider worthwhile.
  • Checking into a Social Event (either on site or remotely) and being able to *donate via PayPal* would be a great thing. You’ve got my attention, you’ve got my support, why not give me the opportunity to contribute?

The ramifications of such a strategy could be a great boost for both charitable causes/events as well as business sponsors, looking to both give back to the social community and improve their image/position within their consumer community. In this light, the check-in could become a powerful tool of influence.

Can this be done? I believe so. But I’m just one voice. What do you think?

Would you as a business representative support or find value in supporting or sponsoring such a program? Would you as a consumer or individual be willing to check-in to show your support or give a donation to a cause or an event?

I know I would.

For an out-of-the-box insight on the whole notion of generational check-ins and the impact of pervasive social connectivity, check out Alan Berkson’s excellent post Turn On, Check In, Hang Out!

Photo courtesy of Travis Nep Smith

5 Trends Influencing Business Today

The world is presently in the midst of a wave of revolutions, spanning from massive changes in global politics to the ever-exploding presence of social media and online technology into our everyday lives. Through all of this, however, business must go on, but it isn’t business as usual. I recently wrote a short post on who might be influencing your next business deal.

After delving a bit deeper, and surviving some great brainstorm sessions (if you don’t have a group of trusted advisors, get one), I started to take a look at the bigger picture – not just “who” might be influencing business deals, but what are some of the major trends that are helping to redefine how we do business while the world around us transitions from the past of the 20th century to the new realities of the 21st.

Here are 5 trends that I think are worth watching:

1) The Importance of the Customer

The phrase “customer-centric” has never been more important than it is today. With the arrival of the “information age”, consumers world-wide know what is available, what everyone else is buying and how to find it online at the lowest cost. With this power has come the ability to shape markets, and define the products that they want. Manufacturers no longer have the power to define a market in their own closed space. The phrase “build it and they will come” no longer applies – you must know what the customer wants in advance if you want any chance of survival. And once you have delivered what the customer wants, your product and your customer support must both be perfect, because in this age, word-of-mouth doesn’t just reach family and friends, it reaches the world.

Place the customer first. Listen to them before you build your product and they’ll tell you what to make. Listen to them after they buy your product and they’ll tell you how to keep them as repeat customers (and brand advocates).

2) The Rise of Search

Search has changed everything. Anybody with a laptop, tablet or even a phone can find any piece of information they need. They can find just about everything regarding both a product and the company that makes it, including the opinions of others. But more importantly, search is becoming personal, and that is having a dramatic impact on both the consumption of information and the consumption of product and services. Search is no  longer “your father’s SEO”.

To drive revenue & growth, Google, Bing/Yahoo, etc. have always tried to present the most “relevant” search results (and advertisements) on your search page. Relevancy = dollars. But we’ve moved into a stage of technology, and “business to business” information sharing, where this refinement has evolved to where not just ads but content (search results) are now unique to individuals, based on their past search history, sites they frequent, their geographic regions, social/economic groups, etc. For example, Google uses 57 different “signals” to track who you are and what content is most appropriate specifically for you. Couple those 57 signals with information that they can obtain about you (either directly or through other “information partners”) and you have a powerful tool.

Businesses need to recognize the importance of personalized search, how it impacts their own online strategy and figure out the best way to leverage it to their advantage.

3) The Globalization of “Message”

There was a time when a brand’s “message” was local. Even corporations that had a global footprint (General Motors, SONY, Coke/Pepsi, etc.) still had customized messages that were appropriate (and targeted) at the local, or at least regional, level. And they stayed there.

Today, that world is gone. With the rise of the Internet and a population that increasingly views world travel as just another part of life, messages and brand images no longer stay where you put them. Instead, they go viral. They get picked up on YouTube. They’re seen by travelers. They’re found on the Internet (occasionally in a blog with a title like “the 10 worst marketing translations”). They are everywhere. Moving forward, the “message” that a corporation presents must be global in nature, or at the least, local and regional messages must be cultivated in such a way as to work on a global scale. From a business perspective, this isn’t a bad thing at all. In fact, get creative with your international message and perhaps you’ll get lucky and it will go viral.

4) The Power of “Same”

Not only can you buy the same thing anywhere, people have grown to expect the same thing everywhere! While we still pride ourselves in finding that unique place or product, the reality is that the world is becoming one giant franchise. The “bland effect” (the ability to eat at a McDonald’s or Burger King in just about every country in the world) has moved into most major industries, from automotive to online, and shows no signs of slowing.

Perhaps the greatest example is the global domination of major online firms (Google, Facebook, Amazon, eBay, etc.) who have created wildly successful brands that require little or no customization to reach into any country. And if a business can’t get there themselves, the clones will. Here’s a great column from Shane Farley at Business Insider on how Sina Weibo (a Chinese version of Twitter) is outpacing Twitter’s own growth curve. If you are bringing a major product or brand to market, you must expect and drive global demand.

5) The Fall of Nations

What is more important in the world today: nations or businesses? I’d argue businesses. Who has more influence today: nations or businesses? Again, I’d argue for businesses. The globalization of brands, and the ability of consumer demand to occur on a world-wide scale, are tipping the balance of power. Commerce and trade, and consumer demand, doesn’t respect political borders. In fact, it makes them less relevant as, in this information age, we become a globe of increasingly “similar” consumers. Nations, of course, will push back and continue to try to regulate international commerce and trade. But in the long run, power is increasingly in the hands of the consumer, and the businesses that meet their needs.

What are the trends that YOU are seeing?

These 5 trends are a few of the trends that I see shaping and influencing the world of business today. What trends are shaping your business, and how are you adapting?

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Influence and the Value of the Introduction

INFLUENCE. Sometimes a simple introduction and handshake is all you need.

Influence is all around us, present in almost every aspect of our lives. We live through it in school, through our teachers, mentors and friends. We see it in our family lives, as our children are influenced by our own behavior and morals. We especially see it in the broader society where people are often influenced by their favorite stars, idols or athletes – perhaps even going so far as to emulate their behavior in the misguided belief that if their idols are cool and liked, they can be cool and liked if they adopt the same behaviors or lifestyles (and no, it doesn’t work that way in real life).

INFLUENCE AS WE TYPICALLY SEE IT

In all of the situations mentioned above, we are dealing with influence from the perspective of a direct cause-effect relationship that involves an influencer and an influencee. Most commonly, we see personal influence where a person, or group of people, has direct influence over another person, or group of people (classic examples involve politics and peer-pressure).

We also often see influence in business and marketing, with companies striving to sway entire markets to purchase their products, often through educational campaigns (providing the consumer with the advantages of their product, its features and why it is a better option than rival products). In other cases, they may lean towards more subtle neuromarketing strategies, while others simply resort to blatant “value by association” techniques (if my favorite movie star uses that product, it’s probably a good product…).

We can even take a more observational view with regard to events and actions, tracking the influence that a particular event (or group of events) today, or in the past, may have on future events (witness the history of political upheaval in one nation helping to influence, or even drive, similar upheavals in other nations suffering from similar internal or regional issues).

“Influence is much more than just changing or causing a behavior”

But there is another type of influence that is more subtle, less direct, yet often more effective at achieving a long lasting impact – and all it takes is an introduction.

THE VALUE OF INFLUENCE BY INTRODUCTION

When we talk about introduction-based influence, we are referring to the bringing together of two or more people (or groups) that have the ability to complement each other for mutual benefit. In this case, there is no typical influencer – influencee relationship. Rather, the influencer is acting as more of a facilitator – an enabler of sorts – using the introduction as a way of creating an environment where ideas and collaboration can be fostered between the groups being introduced.

“Influence by introduction can produce some great, and unexpected, results”

Influence by introduction does not work well when there is a fixed outcome that the influencer is hoping to achieve (i.e., a specific course of action). Where it does work, however, is where the outcome that the influencer is hoping to achieve is less for their benefit and more for the benefit of the parties being introduced, or in situations where the desired outcome isn’t a particular action but rather a type, or level, of action.

Perhaps the parties being introduced are an analyst and a vendor – each looking for information and insight from the other. Or perhaps the parties being introduced each bring a particular strength or talent that, when combined, can create a powerful, collaborative working group,  perhaps even identifying and developing solutions to problems that none of us, myself included, may have thought about on our own. It’s all about opening up new opportunities.

“Any business can benefit from influencial introductions”

From my perspective, successful introductions are definitely a form of influence. Positive influence, like leadership, is based on trust, and introductions only work well if all parties trust, and respect, the person making the introduction. Who doesn’t like to hear from a friend or advisor: “I think you two both have some great ideas and skills – you should definitely get to know each other“?

It’s more than just a pat on the back, it conveys a sense of value, potential and belonging to the people being introduced. They may not even recognize that there is a subtle form of influence at play.

So how do you or your company view influence? Most view influence as a means to drive an outcome with a specific goal in mind, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But have you taken the next step?

Are you willing to use your influence, with your name on the line, to make that introduction, acting as the catalyst to allow others to create value on their own, where the outcome is far less certain, but perhaps with the potential to benefit us all?

I value your opinion, and all comments are greatly appreciated. You can also subscribe to my posts via Email or RSS.  Thanks for being part of the discussion – Fred.


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Gamification and the Gaming of Foursquare

GAMIFICATION. I just love that word. Maybe it’s the similarity to the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s song “Californication”. Or maybe it’s the fact that while it isn’t one of the Seven Deadly Sins, it sure sounds like it belongs – especially the way it has become such a part of mainstream business culture today.

Unfortunately, as more and more businesses rely upon gaming models to drive up their user base and increase their revenue potential (leveraging social media, increased social collaboration and the proliferation of mobile devices), there is also a growing risk of these game-based business models being gamed themselves.

Let’s take a look at Foursquare as an example – how does somebody “game” a business model that is essentially built as a game? This question touches on two critical, yet very different, aspects of business gaming: gamification (the creation of a game) to drive business, and the devising of a way to “game” (or cheat) the game. And when I say cheat, we’re talking more than just counting cards in blackjack, a favorite game of mine, we’re talking aces up the sleeve at the poker table.

GAME-BASED BUSINESS STRATEGIES

Foursquare is a social media company designed to help drive consumers (Foursquare users) to merchants (Foursquare business partners). In this way, Foursquare can be considered a social media alternative to mainstream advertising.

To encourage people to use Foursquare (and thus achieve the consumer-merchant connection), the company uses a process called gamification. Gamification is the application of a competitive game-like environment to a non-game business model that is competitive and offers rewards for those who play the game regularly.

“Gamification is a means to an end for a business, but often just a game for its users”

In this case, the Foursquare game is played by users, via a cell phone application, who “check in” to various merchants that they frequent, with the hopes of gaining discounts and special deals from the merchants. To make the game interesting and competitive, Foursquare allows game players to earn badges and points for frequenting both new and previously visited merchants, locate/follow friends, broadcast their own check in locations and boast of achievements to their friends via social media (“I am the Mayor of Starbucks!”).

That is the gamification of Foursquare – leveraging a game-like system as a way for Foursquare, and their merchant partners, to drive business in a “fun” way.

“GAMING” THE GAME

Now to the issue of “gaming” Foursquare. When we talk of “gaming” a game (like Foursquare), we are essentially talking of a way to beat (or cheat) the system. People who “game” Foursquare are looking for ways to “win” without having to actually play the game on a competitive level with other players. The easiest way to do this is through checking in to merchant locations without actually physically being at the merchant location (they currently restrict check-ins to one per day per location, so sitting in a coffee shop and checking in every 5 minutes won’t get you any Foursquare points).

“Gaming the game is nothing more than cheating.”

Checking in to a remote location is fairly easy, especially if the user is using a cell phone with limited geo-location awareness – a critical point since Foursquare uses your cell phone’s “reported” location (a Location Based Service feature), via either GPS or cell-tower triangulation depending upon the phone, to find you and suggest nearby merchants. I stress the word reported since the accuracy of geo-location depends highly on both the cell phone manufacturer (who may restrict GPS usage to save battery life) or the service provider (who may not be able to accurately pinpoint a phone’s exact location due to cell tower locations).

Note: For an interesting take on Location Based Services, check out my friend Ray Wang’s excellent post on why he is checking out of location-based-services based on some serious privacy concerns. You can also check out some amazing statistics that Foursquare has gathered on its user base.

In the early days of Foursquare (yes, 2009 counts as the “early” days when they only had coverage in about a hundred cities), many cell phones had limited or no accurate geo-location system, making gaming the system much easier, since it was more difficult for Foursquare to accurately pinpoint your exact location.

NOTE: On a purely anecdotal note, I have a friend who pointed out that at one point during 2010, the “Mayorship” of their local coffee shop was suddenly dominated by a group of individuals that not only didn’t appear to be frequenting the shop, but based on their profiles appeared to be living in a different country at the time.

It wasn’t until the beginning of 2010 that Foursquare opened up the ability to check in anywhere on the globe and began to actively sign on big-name “partner” merchants (you can even create your own locations if they aren’t already mapped, with certain Foursquare “super users” having the ability to edit locations and self-correct/moderate the system).

“Want to check into a flight? Try Foursquare…”

But back to the “gaming issue: From my own personal experience, Foursquare (through my iPhone app) routinely offers up check in locations from over 20,000 meters away (~12.5 miles), including, interestingly, airline flights (with point credit!) both inside and outside the range of my local airport (I’m thinking “vertical” here?). With a 12.5 mile radius, I can check into almost anywhere in northern Virginia without getting up from my desk, and that is exactly what some people do.

So if you want to get kicked out of Foursquare (and be the Mayor of Nowhere), that is how you “game” the game of Foursquare.

FOURSQUARE ISN’T ALONE

Unfortunately, Foursquare isn’t alone in this situation. As I’ve delved deeper into gamification strategies and ways to leverage gaming to improve business models, I’ve come across some other potential cases of abuse. In one situation, I found what appeared to be a group of individuals collectively “upping their ranking” on a popular “Question & Answer” site – they (as a collective group) seemed to be voting up/down particular users or answers to questions – their own particular way of attempting to ensure that certain individuals “rise to the top” in terms of points, expertise, influence, clout, etc.

In theory, a group of people could create a multitude of alias accounts and very quickly game themselves to the elite list of community members. This would not be that difficult in an open social network where anybody can join and the business model requires that the number of users continues to rise to remain viable or profitable (perhaps an interesting comment on the value of focused or selected user groups?).

Interestingly, I’ve run into more than a few people (especially in the case of Foursquare) who say they aren’t “gaming” the system, they are just pushing the boundaries of the rules (or technical limitations) put in place by Foursquare. Their opinion is that if Foursquare wants to stop this type of abuse, change the system to actually require a person to physically check in (perhaps via Bluetooth?) to a device at the merchant location (while possible, this would be a financial disaster for Foursquare).

“For me, gaming the game to fix it is more fun than the game itself.”

None of this is to say that the use of gaming in business strategies is bad, or that there isn’t phenomenal value to adding a gaming component to areas such as marketing, consumer retention, or even collaborative problem solving (an area of personal interest). But what I do believe is that as we move into this area – fueled by the incredible development of technology and the willingness of consumers/users to participate in social games, we need to be diligent in making sure that the very gamification systems that we deploy aren’t being gamed themselves. That means devising gamification systems in such a way as to anticipate, and preclude (as much as possible), abuse of the system.

If you’ve seen this in your own experience, or have a thought on how to help improve the application of gaming into business models, drop a comment below and share it. Gamification has been around for years (just like the McDonald’s Monopoly Game), and isn’t likely to ever go away. The more we discuss this topic, the better prepared we will all be to leverage it for success.


To keep up with all my posts, you can subscribe to my Email feed or RSS feed.  If you found some value here, or have an opinion, leave me a comment or share this post with your friends and colleagues.

I appreciate your feedback, and thanks for reading – Fred.