Monthly Archives: September 2007

TypePad: A Case Study in Support that Sucks

It really blows my mind sometimes when companies that are at the heart of the social media revolution behave in ways that make you wonder whether they really get it. My case in point this week is SixApart–the company that provides the TypePad platform that serves up this blog. SixApart is one of the foremost companies behind the blogging revolution, and they provide a number of blogging applications and services that power a large proportion of the blogs that exist. While SixApart makes a good product, their customer support is some of the worst I’ve experienced anywhere. Ever.

First, let me say to SixApart’s credit that I usually don’t need customer service. Good start. But when I need it, I want it fast, and I have a reasonable expectation that as a paying "pro" customer, only one stop short of their highest-tier "premium" customer, someone should be available to fix serious problems. Well, last week I had a show-stopper. My account was turned off after my credit card number was stolen, and I froze the account that automatically pays my Typepad bill. I only discovered the problem when I tried to write a new post, and then realized not only was my account down, but I wasn’t getting any email notifications from Typepad about my account. My first order of business was to get my account back up, and then figure out why I wasn’t getting emails. And that’s when I became a character in a Kafka play.

For TypePad "pros", SixApart has one and only one point of access for customer service. No phone calls. No online chat. No email. No moderated forums. Your only choice is to enter a trouble ticket form online. Once you submit your form, you get to wait until whenever TypePad has someone available to read it. Let me say that as a customer with my hair on fire, it’s sure soothing to get a confirmation that my problem has been received and someone will get back to me within 24 hours.

Getting my frozen account back online took 16 hours, even though it only took 5 minutes for me to provide a new credit card number. I titled my ticket "Please Expedite Reinstatement of Account". The first response, 45 minutes later? "Do you wish to reactivate your account now?" Um. No. Let’s wait another 15 hours while I ponder that enigma. Fixing my broken email alerts took another 3 days, during which 3 separate people weighed in, one of whom didn’t even bother to read the trouble ticket before burning one of Typepad’s precious 10-hour response cycles with the brilliant suggestion that the solution to the problem was precisely what I opened the trouble ticket to say wasn’t working. "Oh, the change-of-email form isn’t working? Then I’d suggest you try the change-of-email form." That was on day 2. After that exchange, I finally called SixApart’s home office and asked to speak to someone who could help me. The well-trained receptionist quickly connected me to a phone tree with helpful information about how to submit a trouble ticket online.

I’m sorry, but this just isn’t the kind of customer service I expect from a company offering "Pro" services in social media. Maybe if I was paying in at the "Chump" or "Cheapskate" level I’d be cool with it. And what the hell: If you’ve only got *one* channel of customer service, shouldn’t you be the best damn provider of that kind of customer service in the industry? SixApart needs to take some of that money they’re shaving off running a call center or online chat, and step up the response times on their trouble tickets. They’re providing the functional equivalent of being kept on hold for 3 days. Not exactly the epitome of social media enlightenment.

Social Computing Strategies for the Product Lifecycle

I’m cross-posting this from MotiveLab, because it’s relevant to a wider audience.

Jeremiah Owyang has a fantastic post on his blog that you should read and then print and post on your office wall. It is an easy to understand framework for applying social media strategy and tactics throughout the product lifecycle, and provides specific examples at every stage of the lifecycle for how business teams should engage with their customers. It’s not worth your time to read my analysis of the framework, I think it speaks for itself. There’s a lot that could be added–particularly a view from the customer relationship lifecycle–but I can’t tell you how gratifying it is to see a blogger generate this kind of intellectual capital. Kudos Jeremiah. Bring us more.

RapLeaf: Social Media’s Trojan Horse

I’ve been watching the furor over the RapLeaf controversy for the past couple of days, really struggling over whether or not to weigh in. If you’ve already been following the controversy, drop down to the next subhead, “The RapLeaf Problem” and I’ll cut to the chase. If you haven’t heard about this yet, RapLeaf is a company that offers an online reputation system, similar to the system on eBay in which buyers and sellers can rate their transactions with each other and thereby establish a commercial reputation. The difference with RapLeaf is that it’s independent of any social network. It works by using an email address as the index for aggregating information available on the web attached to that address—what social networks that email address is attached to, blog posts, Amazon wish lists—a whole host of information that creates a pretty compelling profile of the owner of that email address. You might be surprised to plug your email address into RapLeaf and find much of your online life laid bare.

RapLeaf claims to have 50 million email addresses around which it has developed substantial profiles. If you’ve never heard of RapLeaf, it’s one of three venture-backed startups that all in some way tap into RapLeaf’s IP. The other companies include UpScoop which encourages users to search their friend’s activities by entering their email addresses, and TrustFuse, which sells profile data gathered by the other two companies to 3rd party marketers. ZDNet published an article about these three companies, criticizing the sale of profile data and calling into question how RapLeaf builds its profiles. Apparently it takes more than just trawling search engines, and can entail burrowing or masquerading on major social networks and other commercial sites to leverage those system’s internal search tools to flesh out profiles. The social networks in question, like FaceBook, MySpace and LinkedIn, all deny any business partnership that exposes user data to RapLeaf.

“Rapleaf’s Hoffman said that the company finds profiles through the e-mail search at certain sites, including MySpace, LinkedIn, Facebook and Amazon. MySpace, for example, lets visitors find a profile by e-mail address or first and last name. But for other sites, Rapleaf employs a “secret sauce,” according to Hoffman. It’s not always easy either. Hoffman said the company hasn’t figured out how to crack into accessing members on Digg, for example, even though it would like to.”

The controversy really blew up this weekend after some bloggers noticed emails coming from RapLeaf notifying them that someone had searched their email address, and inviting them to return to RapLeaf’s site to “take control” of their profile, which by the way, requires registration and the divulging of more profile data. A few bloggers cried foul, some charging RapLeaf with heinous spamming, Scoble claiming that RapLeaf was selling email addresses to marketers. Pandemonium ensued, and RapLeaf found itself living a WalMart. But RapLeaf is smarter than WalMart and its PR firm Edelman. Much smarter.

RapLeaf followed the crisis management playbook from PR 2.0, Social Media Edition. The CEO wrote a long and involved apology on the RapLeaf Web site, opened it up to comments, and provided links on their post to all the bloggers frothing over the scandal. Radical transparency excellently played.

But something isn’t right here. And let me disclose why I’m struggling over weighing in. First, I know a few investors in RapLeaf that probably won’t be too happy over my spouting off. I don’t know Auren Hoffman, the CEO of RapLeaf, but we’ve met a couple times. Secondly, I’ve certainly had my own business transactions that people could criticize, and I’m not eager to start throwing stones. But there’s something at the core of this issue that I think needs a lot of open discussion and debate.

The RapLeaf Problem
What concerns me about the RapLeaf story is not the selling of email addresses and the scary threat of more spam. Judi Sohn effectively extinguished that flaming chorus . My concern also isn’t solely centered on what Sohn properly criticizes—the mass accumulation and sale of personal profile data to marketers. My concern is over something I haven’t seen anyone address, and which Auren, in his apology for all apparent transgressions, doesn’t address at all. Something that I think effectively demonstrates that Auren is a hell of a lot smarter than many of the people flapping their arms and hyperventilating about this whole debacle.

It’s not the emails. It’s not the profiles. It’s the tantalizing invitation to put your friend’s email addresses into a system to check on their activities or weigh in on their reputation, and in the process update a massive database of the Real social network—the universal web of social connections linked through online identities that transcends any one application. You can have some fun with the paranoid conspiracy potential here—I mean, being able to cross-reference social network links with profiles and queries would be the dream of any mercenary marketer, not to mention any tin pot police state. Hell, AT&T and Verizon have seats at some powerful backroom tables based on the consumer information they have at hand. But even without going into dark ruminations about intent, the simple fact is that RapLeaf is encouraging users to expose trusted information in a way that is purely designed to be exploited for a profit without being transparent about how that profit is made. At minimum, putting in a friend’s email address exposes them to being profiled, packaged up and sold to some faceless third party, including their social associations. And it’s artfully designed to be viral—how else did a small startup gain 50 million email addresses?

What troubles me in this whole debacle is not that it’s sinister, though it is a little dark for my tastes. It’s playing on a number of levels to draw users into a process that seems fundamentally at odds with the social media trend—and ironically, or perhaps cynically, with RapLeaf’s own brand. Both are based on a significant measure of transparency and trust—on leveraging the power of the internet to make more meaningful connections with new people, new friends and new ideas. Having a way to measure reputations in this brave new world is certainly critical. But damn, I don’t want to learn the company behind the reputation software is gathering and selling much more than I thought I was sharing. Such an attitude toward consumers seems right in line with the exploitive trends in business and marketing that social media is trying so hard to overthrow. And quite frankly, it’s not very helpful for marketers either. Instead of finding a proxy like RapLeaf to build dubious profiles of consumers for more efficient targeting, marketers should be focused on, you know, like, actually building meaningful ties with their customer communities. But hey, missing the whole meaning of the biggest trend in a generation goes a long way in explaining why the average life expectancy for a CMO these days is 18 months. It’s natural selection in action.

In some ways this whole kabuki routine is really kind of amazing when you stop to think about it. For all the power and promise of social media, its Trojan Horse could turn out to be a reputation management system. It’s almost poetic.

Marketing in the Age of Conversation

Arun Rajagopal has a great series unfolding on his blog that he’s calling The Social Media Challenge, in which he’s trawling the Internet to parse the meaning and practice of social media with a beginner’s mind. It’s a good roundup of ideas and theories with a lot of good links.

Arun sent me a link and we started a conversation, and I want to bring that conversation into a broader dialog because he touches on a lot of important issues. The one that sparked my interest today was a link he sent to Gavin Heaton’s blog, and a discussion about what marketers need to do to run effective campaigns in the age of social media. It’s a good post. Gavin obviously has a strong grasp for connecting lofty concepts with tactical marketing execution.

But in all this discussion about how marketers need to be effective, there’s an element that often seems missing.

Marketers are striving to understand social media in terms of the tactics and the technology. They’re trying new things, mashing them up with old things, and trying to figure out “what works”. This is all good, however it misses one fundamental point about social media. Its popularity stems from the power people have to easily connect and share ideas based on their interest and passion. It’s relevant to marketing not because of the great opportunity it presents for marketers to more effectively reach consumers. That’s a marketing-centric view of the world, and it isn’t marketers who put this juggernaut into motion. It’s relevant to marketing in large part because it demonstrates how disconnected marketers have come from consumers, and gives rise to the very real prospect that marketers can be dis-intermediated from much of the purchase decision.

In the context of commerce, people are connecting online because they can get much better information from their peers than they can from marketers. As tactically effective as marketers might become at joining those conversations, they won’t be materially effective if they’re joining communities to put the same crap over on consumers they have with Advertising and Direct Response for the past century. It’s the age-old metric driven mentality that led marketers to believe that gaining 1.5% conversion rates was a great success, while dumping the remaining 98.5% over the transom. I don’t know what it will take for marketers to understand that consumers want value, not conversion tactics, and social media gives them a choice.

I often hear social media pundits talk about the importance of "listening" as part of true engagement. It’s true. But we’re not talking about going through the motions of listening. We’re talking about hearing and understanding what your customer communities have to say. I think all of the points that Gavin makes in his post are spot on, but they have an underlying pre-requisite. Before you can carry out any of those tactics successfully, you have to be a member of your community, not a mole. You have to have a real interest and passion that connects you with people in your customer community–not just an interest and passion for converting them into dollars. People have a remarkable capacity to see through marketing. They’ve had a lifetime of practice.

Do Branded Ticker Symbols Effect Stock Price?

My good friend Victor Cook has a great new post at Customers And Capital rounding up some analysis of the intersection of branding and stock valuation. Victor has been hard at work on the development of an Enterprise Marketing Framework that establishes the connection between marketing expenses and shareholder value. If you’re not familiar with his work, check into our book discussion and review of his book Competing for Customers and Capital. It covers critical ground for any marketer planning a roadmap to the boardroom.

In his latest post, Victor looks at the impact of ticker symbols on stock performance and digs up some fascinating studies that show a real connection. It turns out naming your stock symbol something memorable–like Southwest’s "LUV"–can measurably improve the performance of your stock over stocks bearing symbols that are easily forgettable acronyms. Exactly why this is the case opens up some interesting avenues of speculation, which Victor outlines before inviting readers to offer their own theories.

Here’s mine: Companies that are savvy enough and confident enough to see their stock symbol as a channel to communicate their brand to investors have a more strategic and holistic view of marketing than companies that see their symbol as just a functional index entry. That makes a semantic symbol a marker for companies with more sophisticated and integrated marketing organizations. What do you think?

Check out Victor’s post. It’s one more stellar example of Victor’s work connecting corporate marketing and finance.