Twitter Me This

Robert Mullins is a freelance technology writer in Silicon Valley. His writing can be found at his Robert Mullins blog.

I witnessed two signs of the end of days in one week this September. First, disgraced ex-Congressman Tom Delay did his star turn on “Dancing with the Stars.” Second, Twitter raised $100 million in VC funding so more people can, for free, tell the world, “I’m eating a ham sandwich.”

I had coffee one afternoon with a Silicon Valley entrepreneur sharing his advice on how to network and he said, “The most important thing I would say for you to do is get on Twitter.”

I’ve been on Twitter for a few months but still find the experience puzzling. To me, Twitter is Facebook reduced to the status updates. I just don’t get it. Maybe if I reach the Ashton Kutcher level of followers – 3.5 million, according to Newsweek – then I might achieve the critical mass to really connect with my fellow Tweeters. But, really, do any of those 3.5 million Kutcher pals think if they meet him in person, they’ll be able say, “Hey Ashton, my bud! Can I borrow 50 bucks from you?” Kutcher: “Robert! Dude! Of course, here’s $50. I know you’re good for it, follower 3,235,612!”

And yet Spark Capital, Institutional Venture Partners, T. Rowe Price and Insight Venture Partners think enough of Twitter’s business model – a service for people to send text messages of up to 140 characters, plus photos and video, via a computer or cell phone – to invest $100 million, its third and largest funding round since Twitter was founded in 2006. The Wall Street Journal reported that the company, which has no revenue model and, therefore no profits, has a valuation of about $1 billion.

While Twitter traffic includes drivel like “I’m watching ‘Mad Men’” and “This bus is never going to come,” among the group that has found it useful are marketers. The Public Relations Society of America recently hosted a seminar titled “Social Media and New Media PR Boot Camp,” one of scores of such workshop invites that has likely filled your inbox. “You will learn … how to use Twitter to track news and build communities,” the workshop promises.

And yes, Twitter, along with Facebook, Flickr, You Tube and other Web-based services, can be effective tools in an integrated marketing campaign. In some cases it’s as simple as a writer posting a tweet touting a column he wrote with a link to said article (such as the message I will create to draw my followers to this column). That’s marketing.

Today, Twitter and other social media are hot, which lends them to hype. In a guest post on the site PR2.0, social media expert Louis Gray warns that Twitter is not the marketing campaign but a tool to execute the marketing campaign.

“The non-stop promotion of the tools and, yes, the individuals who think they are ‘experts’ is getting a little overwhelming,” Gray writes. “Many of the companies that have initiated new media practices are practically falling over themselves offering self-congratulatory praise for how they embraced these new technologies.”

Twitter may evolve into an effective communications platform – in some ways it already is; I found out that the columnist William Safire died via a tweet from the New York Times. But until marketers learn to stand out with their marketing message from the “I’m eating a ham sandwich” crowd, the signal-to-noise ratio of Twitter will remain high, and a limitation.

Newsweek columnist Daniel Lyons cited a study of Twitter which found that “40 percent of the messages are ‘pointless babble.’” But then, he continued, “look at TV.” No one can dispute that TV is a monumental platform for marketing, even if it’s for a TV show where a disgraced ex-congressman dances to “Wild Thing.”

Ignore Facebook at Your Peril

Robert Mullins is a freelance technology writer in Silicon Valley. His writing can be found at his Robert Mullins blog.

I’d thought of Facebook as a fun, entertaining time-waster, which would distract me from work I should be doing to take quizzes on what’s my favorite breakfast cereal or what kind of “Mad Men” character I would be. But I became impressed by the power of social media on June 25, the day Michael Jackson died.

On my Facebook News Feed popped up one post from a friend with a link to a report on the gossip site TMZ.com that Jackson was dead. Soon I was clicking my mouse with one hand and the TV remote with the other looking for confirmation. Mainstream media like CNN and MSNBC weren’t reporting he was dead; the only other Web sites reporting his death only cited the TMZ.com report. My News Feed soon filled with messages from others trading information on Jackson. It was like people gathering around radio sets when Pearl Harbor was bombed or around TVs when President Kennedy was assassinated. Only it was interactive.

I’d also heard that the initial reports of that airliner that splashed down in the Hudson River Jan. 15 came from Twitter.

So, the value of Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms is clear; they can be a powerful way of disseminating information and, where a business is concerned, managing it.

My e-mail inbox is regularly filled with invitations to online webinars or real world seminars on marketing and PR via social networking. For instance, the Web site Mediabistro.com, which follows media news and offers professional training, invites people to view a panel discussion, “Social Media Essentials for PR.”

There is also evidence that embracing social media can help head off PR crises. The Wall Street Journal, in an Aug. 3 article titled “For Companies, a Tweet in Time Can Avert PR Mess,” recounts how three major companies – Ford Motor, PepsiCo and Southwest Airlines, averted PR problems by responding quickly on Twitter.

In the Ford case, the auto maker was being criticized online for forcing a fan Web site – TheRangerStation.com, dedicated to its compact Ranger pickup – to close. Ford’s director of social media, Scott Monty, immediately posted a Twitter message that he was looking into the matter, the Journal reported. He learned that Ford lawyers believed the site was selling counterfeit Ford parts bearing the company’s famous blue oval logo. Monty got the lawyers to back off forcing the site down if the site agreed to stop selling the fake parts. Problem solved.

And you don’t have to be a giant public company to use social media strategically. The New York Times reported July 29 on “Managing an Online Reputation” about how small businesses can set up Google Alerts to send them a message each time their company is mentioned in blogs or other Web sites.

To track Twitter mentions of the business, the Times story mentions TweetDeck, Twendz or Twitter’s own search function as resources.

While social media are still growing and evolving, their value is becoming clear, so scouring Facebook and Twitter may not be a time waster after all, but time well spent.

Interview with Jennifer Vancini, Business Development Strategist

Today we’re thrilled to be chatting with Jennifer Vancini, the acting General Manager of US Operations for the Symbian Foundation, about the role marketing plays in the successful execution of a business development plan.

Jennifer has over 15 years of experience leading strategic business development initiatives and alliances from genesis to maturity. Her experiences include building and managing business development teams, growing alliances, defining and executing business growth strategies for both start-ups and Fortune 1000 companies.

Jennifer offers a real world view on how the right marketing plan and programs can make or break your success when opening new markets.

Attain Marketing: In your opinion, what are the ingredients that make business development strategies successful and how does marketing factor into this success?

Vancini: Simply put, business development efforts are most effective when the needs of the target customer are clearly understood and the company, and its products, sufficiently meet or exceed these needs. It is essential for marketing to support business development efforts by properly framing the value proposition and then providing campaigns and sales tools that will move new target audiences to take the desired actions.

Attain Marketing: What causes business development efforts fail and what can companies do to be more successful?

Vancini: Many companies are too focused on short term revenue goals, which is understandable given the way people are often incentivized. However, they don’t spend the time or money required to develop new markets, which are ultimately necessary to sustain long-term growth objectives and smooth out revenue fluctuations. Companies falsely believe they can develop a few random marketing tools and then magically gain traction in a new market, but that isn’t the case unless, of course, the market was low-hanging fruit to begin with and the company lucks out. I don’t rely on luck for repeatable success.

A successful business development program takes time to develop and execute and includes the selection of target markets with the highest probability of success, customer and competitive intelligence gathering, strategic positioning and message development, and creation of ongoing lead generation programs.

Attain Marketing: In your experience, what issues arise between business development and marketing teams that impede success?

Vancini: The common mistakes all stem from the same problem. Despite the fact that marketing and business development people are both charged with expanding their company’s client base, they rarely start out on the same page.

I’ve seen classic examples of this throughout my career, such as:

The “one-off” marketing campaign. In this instance, a lack of budget and commitment to a new market is replaced with a few disjointed and shotgun marketing campaigns. This short sighted approach often produces disappointing results because marketing activities are not part of an integrated and ongoing campaign.

Another common mistake is trying to be all things to all customers. This is usually a result of limited resources, limited market understanding and impatience. Instead of focusing efforts around a tightly defined audience, the company rushes into new markets with broad messages and ineffective campaigns that try to reach too many people and often the wrong people.

Lack of credibility is often a hurdle when entering a new market. You can’t assume your company’s reputation will automatically transfer from existing to new markets. Prospects won’t believe your claims unless third-party experts and/or customers back them up. You must take the time to build credibility points and endorsements from influencers in new markets.

Finally, new business development ventures are often misaligned with corporate branding and strategy. Time must be taken to ensure that new business development marketing programs align with overall corporate branding strategies. Branding is much more than a logo. The consistent, cohesive presentation of a company brand, which includes all touch points to a customer and market (promotion, product, service, sales, etc.), increases customer confidence. On the other hand, branding “free-for-alls” make a company look unprofessional and unreliable. Depending on how radical the departure is, it can also raise suspicion in the customer’s mind that his/her business development contact is acting on his or her own without buy-in and support from the rest of the company.

Attain Marketing: What tips can you provide to our readers that will help them avoid these mistakes?

Vancini: The main point is to view marketing and selling as an integrated process. Teams from both sides should collaborate and execute on an overarching set of goals and objectives. Management support and proper budget – is the first step to success. Other tips include:

  • Concentrate business development and marketing activities on a few, well-budgeted product and service offerings to avoid fragmented resources and reduced market exposure for each product.
  • Organize the demand-creation process in a way that lines up with target customers’ view of the world and how they prefer to buy your products.
  • Base your marketing messages on well-researched business issues and solutions instead of forcing your target customer to think about these issues and how solve them from your perspective.

Attain Marketing: Great points. As you know, everyone is sensitive about the economy today, so we have to ask you how companies can successfully market their business development projects with limited budget?

Vancini: I expected that one. But really, integrated marketing campaigns don’t have to be expensive – it’s not an all or nothing proposition. What’s important is to be sure that all marketing programs are tied to business development objectives and selected campaigns can generate the best ‘bang for the buck’. Even in good economic times companies can find themselves operating with a self-defeating scarcity mindset, especially small companies who compare themselves to rich competitors. Just do the best you can with what you have, make choices that have the strongest link to objectives and be realistic about the results.

If your sales and business development people on the front lines feel they don’t have enough marketing support, they’ll come up with their own programs and tools. I’ve seen this range from creating their own PowerPoint templates to making up a new product line on the fly. Not only does this become a diversion from where they should be focusing their time, but messages and brands get diluted and overall results are hindered.

More than ever, opening new markets is key for a company’s long-term growth. When marketing and business development are aligned, companies have a significant competitive advantage and will have the greatest chance for success.

Is it Time to Get Real with Your Marketing?

Like many of my fellow marketers, I am by nature a rose-colored glasses kind of person. I can put a positive spin on just about anything. And if an overly complex product gets labeled “feature rich,” I’m okay with it.

It is like real estate listings where a small house is dubbed “charming” and a total dump is a “fixer upper’s dream.” To me these twists on terms are acceptable because it suits my view of the world.

But in marketing, above all else, it is our responsibility to understand prospective buyer’s needs, wants and desires. It is our mission to correctly frame our product’s value proposition and support the sales cycle with the information prospective customers need to make a buying decision in favor of the product we represent.

Sara Gate’s post on “IT Buyers Search for the Truth and Come Up Empty Handed” forces us to examine whether standard technology vendor marketing practices have failed to meet this responsibility.

Most IT buyers are practical, analytical, cautious and maybe even a bit cynical (okay, some are very cynical). After reading hundreds of technology vendor data sheets – inflated with exaggerated claims, ROI and cost saving numbers – it is easy to see why a lack of trust has evolved.

The truth about product functionality, cost of ownership, and deployment requirements seem like reasonable requests. But I can hear the conversation now about providing “real” answers to these questions: “But our competitors say…” “We will build that functionality if someone buys it.” “Under the right circumstances, a company could deploy our product in a day.” Yeah right, like if the world stopped spinning!

So the question becomes, how real is real enough to win back the trust of IT buyers and where do we draw the line? Microsoft is not going to change its Vista marketing materials to read, “Guaranteed to crash your system” nor would I advocate it.

But perhaps it is time to face the truth that whether we like it or not, the ability to share information (the good and the bad) is rapidly evolving thanks to the rise of social media. And people, in general, are fed up with the Stepford Wife approach to marketing.

Over time, the impact of this trend will be widespread, leaving vendors with a choice to (1) uphold their idealist views of their product and continue to alienate IT buyers, or (2) inject more realism into their marketing.

If you decide in favor of realism, here are a few ideas on how to win back the trust of IT buyers without losing the sale:

  • Stop marketing vaporware or product features that don’t exist. I am not sure how many companies would admit they do this, but the practice is widespread. And when you aren’t fooling anyone anymore, it is time to drop the act.
  • Don’t try to be so perfect. IT buyers have been through enough deployments to know that they never go off without a hitch. So next time you write a case study, don’t leave out that challenge your customer faced during deployment. Instead focus in on how they overcame the obstacle. Prospective buyers will appreciate the honesty and feel better prepared for their own deployment.
  • Two wrongs don’t make a right. Just because your competitors claim they can save companies 90%, doesn’t mean you should. If you cannot support the claim, don’t make it. Prospective buyers would rather see a documented case study with hard numbers that supports a 20% reduction in costs, than be given an empty over-inflated promise.
  • Respond to the conversation. If your marketing materials emphasize usability features, and yet the word on the street is that your user interface sucks, perhaps it is time to pick a new angle for your product until the usability issues are fixed. Tools like Monitter, BoardTracker and Technorati can help you track what people are saying on Twitter, message boards and in the blogosphere.
  • Sometimes the best defense is a good offense. The days of sweeping bad news under the carpet are gone. Be the first to tell your customers if something goes wrong and let them know what you are doing to solve the problem. They will be much more willing to forgive and forget (and you may even win some devoted fans in the process). Social media tools like Twitter are great for spreading your “not so good” news with a personal touch.

It’s your turn …
Share your thoughts, ideas and perspectives on technology vendors’ approach to marketing, IT buyers growing distrust, and how marketers should respond.

Is Poor Usability Killing Your Chances for Success?

Paul Rosenfeld is the CEO and Co-Founder of Fanminder, a mobile marketing firm helping small businesses, based in Silicon Valley, CA.

Paul Rosenfeld

Paul Rosenfeld

If there’s one reason software start-ups fail it’s because they don’t acquire customers.

And if they don’t acquire customers, at least one root cause will be it’s “product ain’t usable.”

I am amazed by the piss-poor user experience of online software these days. At Fanminder, we depend on dozens of online services. Most are barely usable and many are downright crap.

Allow me to blow off some steam by ranting about a few of those services here:

  • The most popular text marketing service for small businesses (not us, yet 🙂 ) took 26 screens to send a single text. Ugh!
  • Go to your Twitter Following List. Sort by name. Oh, you can’t?? Or send a direct message from this list. No can do.
  • Using TweetDeck or Twhirl to augment Twitter? You’ll need the eyes of a San Fran Gen Y’er with that white on black and tiny fonts.
  • Goto Meeting wanted me as a customer, but their UI couldn’t give me a way to download their app. WebEx professed it’s adoration for me, yet I couldn’t login with my new credentials.
  • GoDaddy – need I even bother?

If you’re a marketer peddling software, much of the success of acquiring and keeping customers will ultimately rest on your product’s user experience. Sure there are some exceptions to the rule where the novelty and price (aka FREE) out weigh usability factors, but if your marketing programs are not achieving the desired results, it may be time to take an honest look at your product.

Here’s a few ways to figure out where your product stands on the usability scale:

  • Review the product’s log files. I know this sounds scary but you don’t need to be a geek to dig into the numbers. Trust me, just ask to see the log files – all online usage can be boiled down to numbers and good product developers look at this actual behavior to glean all types of key learnings.
  • Watch people use the service. Log files will leave out an untold number of visual cues critical to your evaluation. Observing people live (who aren’t your friends or family) shows you ease of use. Are they able to rapidly and intuitively complete the top 5 or 10 tasks your software is designed to solve for? Ask your product manager what those 5-10 tasks are – if you get back, “I never thought about this!” then you have part of your answer.
  • What’s your trial abandonment rate? If conversion seems low, dig deeper. Call a handful of abandoners and find out why they left.
  • Listen to customer support calls. Get out of your cube, sit with support, and listen to the calls. How many calls per customer do you get? What are the top reasons? What kind of emotion are customers bringing to the call?
  • What are competitive experiences like? While it’s not the best way to benchmark ease of use, it is helpful to see how others in your industry create their own user experiences. Sign up and try them out.

Above all, don’t conduct a survey or rely on a single person to get you the answers you seek. Self-reported behavior is notoriously unreliable, as people will tell you something is much easier than it typically is.

If you find you have a terrible user experience and a product dev team that either doesn’t care – or more typically lacks the skills to make it better – you may be fighting a losing battle with your marketing programs. My best advice is ratchet back spending on acquiring customers (since much of it is going to waste) until you can convince your management team to address the problems, and then go back to market. If your efforts are met with resistance, you may want to consider going to work for a different company that won’t make your job so difficult.