Using the Network for Business Success

I.  My, How Things Have Changed

When I came to Australia six years ago, to seek my fame and fortune, business communications had remained largely unchanged for nearly a century.  You could engage in face-to-face conversation – something humans have been doing since we learned to speak, countless thousands of years ago – or, if distance made that impossible, you could drop a letter into the post.  Australia Post is an excellent organization, and seems to get all of the mail delivered within a day or two – quite an accomplishment in a country as dispersed and diffuse as ours.

In the twentieth century, the telephone became the dominant form of business communication; Australia Post wired the nation up, and let us talk to one another.  Conversation, mediated by the telephone, became the dominant mode of communication.  About twenty years ago the facsimile machine dropped in price dramatically, and we could now send images over phone lines.

The facsimile translates images into data and back into images again.  That’s when the critical threshold was crossed: from that point on, our communications have always centered on data.  The Internet arrived in 1995, and broadband in 2001.  In the first years of Internet usage, electronic mail was both the ‘killer app’ and the thing that began to supplant the telephone for business correspondence.  Electronic mail is asynchronous – you can always pick it up later.  Email is non-local, particularly when used through a service such as Hotmail or Gmail – you can get it anywhere.  Until mobiles started to become pervasive for business uses, the telephone was always a hit-or-miss affair.  Electronic mail is a hit, every time.

Such was the business landscape when I arrived in Australia.  The Web had arrived, and businesses eagerly used it as a publishing medium – a cheap way of getting information to their clients and customers.  But the Web was changing.  It had taken nearly a decade of working with the Web, day-to-day, before we discovered that the Web could become a fully-fledged two-way medium: the Web could listen as well as talk.  That insight changed everything.  The Web morphed into a new beast, christened ‘Web 2.0’, and everywhere the Web invited us to interact, to share, to respond, to play, to become involved.  This transition has fundamentally changed business communication, and it’s my goal this morning to outline the dimensions of that transformation.

This transformation unfolds in several dimensions.  The first of these – and arguably the most noticeable – is how well-connected we are these days.  So long as we’re in range of a cellular radio signal, we can be reached.  The number of ways we can be reached is growing almost geometrically.  Five years ago we might have had a single email address.  Now we have several – certainly one for business, and one for personal use – together with an account on Facebook (nearly eight million of the 22 million Australians have Facebook accounts), perhaps another account on MySpace, another on Twitter, another on YouTube, another on Flickr.  We can get a message or maintain contact with someone through any of these connections.  Some individuals have migrated to Facebook for the majority of their communications – there’s no spam, and they’re assured the message will be delivered.  Among under-25s, electronic mail is seen as a technology of the ‘older generation’, something that one might use for work, but has no other practical value.  Text messaging and messaging-via-Facebook have replaced electronic mail.

This increased connectivity hasn’t come for free.  Each of us are now under a burden to maintain all of the various connections we’ve opened.  At the most basic level, we must at least monitor all of these channels for incoming messages.  That can easily get overwhelming, as each channel clamors for attention.

But wait.  We’ve dropped Facebook and Twitter into the conversation before I even explained what they are and how they work.  We just take them as a fact of life these days, but they’re brand new.  Facebook was unknown just three years ago, and Twitter didn’t zoom into prominence until eighteen months ago.  Let’s step back and take a look at what social networks are.  In a very real way, we’ve always known exactly what a social network is: since we were very small we’ve been reaching out to other people and establishing social relationships with them.  In the beginning that meant our mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers.  As we grew older that list might grow to include some of the kids in the neighborhood, or at pre-kindy, and then our school friends.  By the time we make it to university, that list of social relationships is actually quite long.  But our brains have limited space to store all those relationships – it’s actually the most difficult thing we do, the most cognitively all-encompassing task.  Forget physics – relationship are harder, and take more brainpower.

Nature has set a limit of about one hundred and fifty on the social relationships we can manage in our heads.  That’s not a static number – it’s not as though as soon as you reach 150, you’re done, full.  Rather, it’s a sign of how many relationships of importance you can manage at any one time.  None of us, not even the most socially adept, can go very much beyond that number.  We just don’t have the grey matter for it.

Hence, fifty years ago mankind invented the Rolodex – a way of keeping track of all the information we really should remember but can’t possibly begin to absorb.  A real, living Rolodex (and there are few of them, these days) are a wonder to behold, with notes scribbled in the margins, business cards stapled to the backs of the Rolodex cards, and a glorious mess of information, all alphabetically organized.  The Rolodex was mankind’s first real version of the modern, digital, social network.  But a Rolodex doesn’t think for itself; a Rolodex can not draw out the connections between the different cards.  A Rolodex does not make explicit what we know – we live in a very interconnected world, and many of our friends and associates are also friends and associates with our friends and associates.

That is precisely what Facebook gives us.  It makes those implicit connections explicit.  It allows those connections to become conduits for ever-greater-levels of connection.  Once those connections are made, once they become a regular feature of our life, we can grow beyond the natural limit of 150.  That doesn’t mean you can manage any of these relationships well – far from it.  But it does mean that you can keep the channels of communication open.  That’s really what all of these social networks are: turbocharged Rolodexes, which allow you to maintain far more relationships than ever before possible.

Once these relationships are established, something beings to happen quite naturally: people begin to share.  What they share is often driven by the nature of the relationship – though we’ve all seen examples where individuals ‘over-share’ inappropriately, confusing business and social channels of communication.  That sort of thing is very easy to do with social networks such as Facebook, because it doesn’t provide an easy method to send messages out to different groups of friends.  We might want a social network where business friends might get something very formal, while close friends might that that photo of you doing tequila shots at last weekend’s birthday party.  It’s a great idea, isn’t it?  But it can’t be done.  Not on Facebook, not on Twitter.  Your friends are all lumped together into one undifferentiated whole.  That’s one way that those social networks are very different from the ones inside our heads.  And it’s something to be constantly aware of when sharing through social networks.

That said, this social sharing has become an incredibly potent force.  More videos are uploaded to YouTube every day than all television networks all over the world produce in a year.  It may not be material of the same quality, but that doesn’t matter – most of those videos are only meant to be seen among a small group of family or friends.  We send pictures around, we send links around, we send music around (though that’s been cause for a bit of trouble), we share things because we care about them, and because we care about the people we’re sharing with.  Every act of sharing, business or personal, brings the sharer and the recipient closer together.  It truly is better to give than receive.  On the other hand, we’re also drowning in shared material.  There’s so much, coming from every corner, through every one of these social networks, there’s no possible way to keep up.  So, most of us don’t.  We cherry-pick, listening to our closest friends and associates: the things they share with us are the most meaningful.  We filter the noise and hope that we’re not missing anything very important.  (We usually are.)

In certain very specific situations, sharing can produce something greater than the sum of its parts.  A community can get together and decide to pool what it knows about a particular domain of knowledge, can ‘wise up’ by sharing freely.  This idea of ‘collective intelligence’ producing a shared storehouse of knowledge is the engine that drives sites like Wikipedia.  We all know Wikipedia, we all know how it works – anyone can edit anything in any article within it – but the wonder of Wikipedia is that it works so well.  It’s not perfectly accurate – nothing ever is  – but it is good enough to be useful nearly all the time.  Here’s the thing: you can come to Wikipedia ignorant and leave it knowing something.  You can put that knowledge to work to make better decisions than you would have in your state of ignorance.  Wikipedia can help you wise up.

Wikipedia isn’t the only example of shared knowledge.  A decade ago a site named TeacherRatings.com went online, inviting university students to provide ratings of their professors, lecturers and instructors.  Today it’s named RateMyProfessor.com, is owned by MTV Networks, and has over ten million ratings of one million instructors.  This font of shared knowledge has become so potent that students regularly consult the site before deciding which classes they’ll take next semester at university.  Universities can no longer saddle student with poor teachers (who may also be fantastic researchers).  There are bidding wars taking place for the lecturers who get the highest ratings on the site.  This sharing of knowledge has reversed the power relationship between a university and its students which stretches back nearly a thousand years.

Substitute the word ‘business’ for university and ‘customers’ for students and you see why this is so significant.  In an era where we’re hyperconnected, where people share, and share knowledge, things are going to work a lot differently than they did before.  These all-important relationships between businesses and their customers (potential and actual) have been completely rewritten.  Let’s talk about that.

II.  Breaking In

The most important thing you need to know about the new relationship between yourselves and your customers is that your customers are constantly engaging in a conversation about you.  At this point, you don’t know where those customers are, and what they’re saying.  They could be saying something via a text message, or a Facebook post, or an email, or on Twitter.  Any and all of these conversations about you are going on right now.  But you don’t know, so there’s no way you can participate in them.

I’ll give you an example I used my column in NETT magazine.  My mate John Allsopp (a big-time Web developer, working on the next generation of Web technologies) travels a lot for business.  Back in June, on a trip the US, he decided to give VAustralia’s Premium Economy class a try.  He was so pleased about the service – and the sleep he got – he immediately sent out a tweet: “At LAX waiting for flight to Denver. Best flight ever on VAustralia Premium Economy. Fantastic seat, service, and sleep. Hooked.”  That message went out to twelve hundred of John’s Twitter followers – many of whom are Australians.  It was quickly answered by a tweet from Cheryl Gledhill: “isn’t VAustralia the bomb!! My favourite airline at the moment… so roomy, and great entertainment, nice hosties, etc.”  That message went to Cheryl’s 250 followers.  I chimed in, too: “Precisely how I felt after my VA flights last month: hooked. Got 7 hours sleep each way. Worth the price.”  That message went out to fifty-two hundred of my followers – who are disproportionately Australian.

Just between the three of us, we might have reached as many as seven thousand people – individuals who are like ourselves – because like connects to like in social networks.  That means these are individuals who are likely to take advantage of VAustralia the next time they fly the transpacific route.  But here’s the sad thing: VAustralia had no idea this wonderful and loving conversation about their product was going on.  No idea at all.  You know what they were involved in?  An ad-agency dreamed-up ‘4320SYD’ campaign, which flew four mates to Los Angeles for three days, promising them free round-the-world flights on the various Virgin airlines if they sent at least two thousand tweets during their trip.  VAustralia – or rather, VAustralia’s ad agency – presumed that people with busy lives would spend some of their precious time and attention following four blokes spewing out line after line of inane chatter.  Naturally, the campaign disappeared without a trace.

If VAustralia had asked its agency to monitor Twitter, to keep its finger to the pulse of what was being said online, things could have turned out very differently.  Perhaps a VAustralia rep would have contacted John Allsopp directly, thanked him for his kind words, and offered him a $100 coupon for his next flight on V Australia Premium Economy.  VAustralia would have made a customer for life – and for a lot less than they spent on the ‘4320SYD’ campaign.

Marketers and agencies are still thinking in terms of mass markets and mass media.  While both do still exist, they don’t shape perception as they did a generation ago.  Instead, we turn to the hyperconnections we have with one another.  I can instantly ask Twitter for a review of a restaurant, a gadget, or a movie, and I do.  So do millions of others.  This is the new market, and this is the place where marketing – at least as we’ve known it – can not penetrate.

That’s one problem.  There’s another, and larger problem: what happens when you have an angry customer?  Let me tell you a story about my friend Kate Carruthers, who will be speaking with you later this morning.  On a recent trip to Queensland, she pulled out her American Express credit card to pay for a taxi fare.  Her card was declined.  Kate paid with another card and thought little of it until the next time she tried to use the card – this time to pay for something rather pricier, and more sensitive – only to find her card declined once again.

As it turned out, AMEX had cut her credit line in half, but hadn’t bothered to inform her of this until perhaps a day or two before, via post.  So here’s Kate, far away from home, with a crook credit card.  Thank goodness she had another card with her, or it could have been quite a problem.  When she contacted AMEX to discuss the credit line change – on a Friday evening – she discovered that this ‘consumer’ company kept banker’s hours in its credit division.  That, for Kate, was the last straw.  She began to post a series of messages to Twitter:

“I can’t believe how rude Amex have been to me; cut credit limit by 50% without notice; declined my card while in QLD even though acct paid”

“since Amex just treated me like total sh*t I just posted a chq for the balance of my account & will close acct on Monday”

“Amex is hardly accepted anywhere anyhow so I hardly use it now & after their recent treatment I’m outta there”

“luckily for me I have more than enough to just pay the sucker out & never use Amex again”

“have both a gold credit card & gold charge card with amex until monday when I plan to close both after their crap behaviour”

Kate is both a prolific user of Twitter and a very well connected individual.  There are over seven thousand individuals reading her tweets.  Seven thousand people who saw Kate ‘go nuclear’ over her bad treatment at the hands of AMEX.  Seven thousand people who will now think twice when an AMEX offer comes in the post, or when they pass by the tables that are ubiquitously in every airport and mall.  Everyone one of them will remember the ordeal Kate suffered – almost as if Kate were a close friend.

Does AMEX know that Kate went nuclear?  Almost certainly not.  They didn’t make any attempt to contact her after her outburst, so it’s fairly certain that this flew well underneath their radar.  But the damage to AMEX’s reputation is quantifiable: Kate is simply too hyperconnected to be ignored, or mistreated.  And that’s the world we’re all heading into.  As we all grow more and more connected, as we each individually reach thousands of others, slights against any one of us have a way of amplifying into enormous events, the kinds of mistakes that could, if repeated, bring a business to its knees.  AMEX, in its ignorant bliss, has no idea that it has shot itself in the foot.

While Kate expressed her extreme dissatisfaction with AMEX, its own marketing arm was busily cooking up a scheme to harness Twitter.  It’s Open Forum Pulse website shows you tweets from small businesses around the world.  It’s ironic, isn’t it?  AMEX builds a website to show us what others are saying on Twitter, all the while ignoring about what’s being said about it.  Just like VAustralia.  Perhaps that’s simply the way Big Business is going to play the social media revolution – like complete idiots.  You have an opportunity to learn from their mistakes.

There is a whole world out there engaging in conversation about you.  You need to be able to recognize that.  There are tools out there – like PeopleBrowsr – which make it easy for you to monitor those conversations.  You’ll need to think through a strategy which allows you to recognize and promote those positive conversations, while – perhaps more importantly – keeping an eye on the negative conversations.  An upset customer should be serviced before they go nuclear; these kinds of accidents don’t need to happen.  But you’ll need to be proactive in your listening.  Customers will no longer come to you to talk about you or your business.

III.  Breaking Out

The first step in any social media strategy for business is to embrace the medium.  Many business ban social media from their corporate networks, seeing them as a drain of time and attention.  Which is, in essence, saying that you don’t trust your own employees.  That you’re willing to infantilize them by blocking their network access.  This won’t work.  ‘Smartphones’ – that is, mobiles which have big screens, broadband connections, and full web browsers – have become increasingly popular in Australia.  Perhaps one third of all mobile handsets now qualify as smartphones.  Apple’s iPhone is simply the most visible of these devices, but they’re sold by many manufacturers, and, within a few years, they’ll be entirely pervasive: every mobile will be a smartphone.  A smartphone can access a social network just as easily – often more easily – than a desktop web browser.  Your employees have access to social networks all day long, unless you ask them to leave their mobiles at the front desk.

Just as we expect that employees won’t spend their days sending text messages to the friends, so an employer can expect that employees are sensible enough to regulate their own net usage.  A ‘net nanny’ is not required.  Mutual respect is.  Yes, the network is a powerful thing – it can be used to spread rumor and innuendo, can be used to promote or undermine – but employees understand this.  We all use the network at home.  We know what it’s good for.  Bringing it into the office requires some common sense, and perhaps a few guidelines.  The ABC recently released their own guidelines for social media, and they’re a brilliant example of the parsimony and common sense which need to underwrite all of our business efforts online.  Here they are:

•                do not mix professional and personal in ways likely to bring the ABC into disrepute,

•                do not undermine your effectiveness at work,

•                do not imply ABC endorsement of personal views, and,

•                do not disclose confidential information obtained at work.

There’s nothing hard about this list – for either employer or employee – yet it tells everyone exactly where they stand and what’s expected of them.  Employers are expected to trust their employees.  Employees are expected to reciprocate that trust by acting responsibly.  All in all, a very adult relationship.

Once that adult relationship has been established around social media, you have a unique opportunity to let your employees become your eyes and ears online.  Most small to medium-sized businesses have neither the staff nor the resources to dedicate a specific individual to social media issues.  In fact, that’s not actually a good idea.  When things ‘hot up’ for your business, any single individual charged with handling all things social media will quickly overload, with too much coming in through too many channels simultaneously.  That means something will get overlooked.  Something will get dropped.  And a potential nuclear event – something that could be defused or forestalled if responded to in a timely manner – will slip through the cracks.

Social media isn’t a one-person job.  It’s a job for the entire organization.  You need to give your employees permission to be out there on Facebook, on Twitter, on the blogs and in the net’s weirder corners – wherever their searches might lead them.  You need to charge them with the responsibility of being proactive, to go out there and hunt down those conversations of importance to your and your business.  Of course, they should be polite, and only offer help where it is needed, but, if they can do that, you will increase your reach and your presence immeasurably.  And you will have done it without spending a dime.

Those of you with a background in marketing have just broken out in cold sweat.  This is nothing like what they taught you at university, nothing like what you learned on the job.  That’s the truth of it.  But what you learned on the job is what VAustralia and AMEX are now up to – that is, complete and utter failure.  But, you’re thinking, what about message discipline?  How can we have that many people speaking for the organization?  Won’t it be chaos?

The answer, in short, is yes.  It will be chaos.  But not in a bad way.  You’ll have your own army out there, working for you.  Employees will know enough to know when they can speak for the organization, and when they should be silent.  (If they don’t know, they’ll learn quickly.)  Will it be messy?  Probably.  But the world of social media is not neat.  It is not based on image and marketing and presentation.  It is based on authenticity, on relationships that are established and which develop through time.  It is not something that can be bought or sold like an ad campaign.  It is, instead, something more akin to friendship – requiring time and tending and more than a little bit of love.

This means that employees will need some time to spend online, probably a few minutes, several times a day, to keep an eye on things.  To keep watch.  To make sure a simmering pot doesn’t suddenly boil over.

That’s the half of it.  The other half is how you use social media to reach out.  Many companies set up Twitter and Facebook accounts and use them to send useless spam-like messages to anyone who cares to listen.  Please don’t do this. Social media is not about advertising.  In fact, it’s anti-advertising.  Social media is an opportunity to connect.  If you’re a furniture maker, for example, perhaps you’d like to have a public conversation with designers and homeowners about the art and business of making furniture.  Social media is precisely where you get to show off the expertise which keeps you in business – whatever that might be.  Lawyers can talk about law, accountants about accounting, and printers about printing.  Business, especially small business, is all about passion, and social media is a passion amplifier.  Let your passions show and people will respond.  Some of them will become customers.

So please, when you leave here today, setup those Facebook and Twitter accounts.  But when you’ve done that, step back and have a think.  Ask yourself, “How can I represent my business in a way that invites conversation?”  Once you’ve answered that, you’ve also answered the other important question – how do you translate that conversation into business.  Without the conversation you’ve got nothing.  But, once that conversation has begun, you have everything you need.

Those are the basics.  Everything else you’ll learn as you go along.  Social media isn’t difficult, though it takes time to master.  Just like any relationship, you’ll get out of it what you put into it.  And it isn’t going away.  It’s not a fad.  It’s the new way of doing business.  The efforts you make today will, in short order, reward you a hundred-fold.  That’s the promise of network: it will bring you success.