Individually smarter, collectively dumber?

8 12 2009

In my first corporate job back in Brazil, I was part of a large cohort of interns who end up all being hired together. We were young and well-connected, and always on top of everything that was happening in the company, from official stuff to the proverbial grapevine telegraph. Rumour conversations used to start like this: “I’ve heard from 3 different sources that…” My pal Alexandre Guimaraes used to joke that none of us had 3 different sources as we all shared the same connections.

Likewise, I often hear from my Twitter fellows that their RSS feed reader is now abandoned, as most of the interesting online things they find now comes from their tweeps. A quick experiment seems to confirm that trend. Here are the results of a Twitter search for “twitter feed reader“:

Search results for "twitter feed reader"

Search results for "twitter feed reader"

In my recent re-read of The Wisdom of Crowds, the following excerpt called my attention (highlight is mine):

(…) the more influence a group’s members exert on each other, and the more personal contact they have with each other, the less likely it is that the group’s decisions will be wise ones. The more influence we exert on each other, the more likely it is that we will believe the same things and make the same mistakes. That means it’s possible that we could become individually smarter but collectively dumber.

The first time I read that was many years before Twitter even existed, so it didn’t mean much to me. Now I can relate: I do feel that Twitter is making me individually smarter, as I can quickly consume a whole lot of info from news sources, geeks, NBA players, celebrities, friends and others. I find the Twitscoop cloud in TweetDeck a particularly good way to find what’s going on around the globe right now.

Twitscoop cloud

I used to see that cloud as a visualization of our collective intelligence. But perhaps that cloud is actually something much more humbling: the visualization of our own echo chamber, our herd’s brain. By being so intensely connected, we may be losing one of the most basic conditions identified by Surowiecki’s for a crowd to be wise: independence (the other 2 are diversity and decentralization).

Should we all stop using Twitter and Facebook now? Of course not. But maybe we should invest a bit more of our time going after the unusual, the unpopular, the offline, the old and the out-of-fashion. The core is boring, and the fringe is where real innovation and change tend to appear first.





Twilight: New Moon – Interactive Displays in Brazil

7 12 2009

I started writing this post a month ago, but stopped as I did not have access to the Internet while in Brazil, so pardon the taste of yesterday’s news here.

Unlike Bernie, I don’t have a teenager daughter, so I have just a very fuzzy idea about what The Twilight Saga is all about. But it doesn’t take a Roger Ebert or Peter Travers to know that it’s at least as popular in Brazil as it is in Canada and the US: its second installment ranked as the top box office in Brazil this year. Taking the subway in São Paulo 2 weeks before the opening of New Moon, it was hard to miss this eye-catching, vending-machine-like, err, device:

Twilight Interactive Display in São Paulo

Here are some more pictures, in case Twilight is your thing:

The main feature was the embedded camera, that allowed you to take a picture of yourself and edit it to transform yourself into a werewolf or a vampire. Your picture then became part of the gallery for all to see. No, I did not try it, or at least that’s what I claim :-) . It actually looked a lot like a very big version of an iPhone app, except that you could not shake it to start over. You could also watch movie trailers and download an app to your cell via Bluetooth.

The company behind it was a Brazilian “digital interaction agency”, Ginga. I know the explanation above is as clear as mud, so here’s their own video showing how it works:

How effective is this new media outlet? Hard to tell. But they used a 1.0 version of their displays for the first movie of the series, back in December 2008, and Ginga claims the following:

This solution was integrated with the whole digital campaign: website, banners, and a strong community created for the fans in Brazil.

RESULTS

Over 4.5 million people reached by the subway campaign over a month.

One of the top 10 box-offices in 2008 in Brazil.

Over 180,000 content downloads via Bluetooth.

Not too shabby, eh? Here’s the video of their first version (which, by the way, looks much more impressive than the second one):

P.S.: If you see me blogging next time about Hannah Montana, it’s a sign that the end of the world is coming.





Old media, new media, and blackouts

21 11 2009

As previously seen in Biznology:

Social media is often compared with traditional communication vehicles such as newspapers, radio and TV as antagonists where the new replaces or challenges the old. The blackout in parts of South America last week showed a different side of this relationship: a symbiosis between radio broadcasts and microblogging. I was in Brazil visiting family and friends during that event and witnessed what a major power outage looks like in the era of social media and our increasing dependency on electricity.

As a matter of fact, I had the unusual, err, opportunity of being in two of the top five power outages in history: I was in Toronto when the Northeast blackout of 2003 happened, and in São Paulo during the Brazil and Paraguay outage last week. The one in 2003, of course, happened before the “broadcast yourself” era, with plenty of daylight left, so my major concern back then was finding a pub with cold beer and some food.

Last week, the blackout started at 11 pm, and most people had no idea of how widespread the problem was. Try to imagine a city like São Paulo, with 18 million people and 6 million cars in its metropolitan area, with no traffic lights on a hot summer night:

São Paulo during the 2009 Blackout – Photo by Andreia Reis, Creative Commons, Attribution 2.0

For most people in Brazil, the only source of information still operating was the good ol’ radio broadcasting. And, ironically enough, the major source of information for the radio stations was Twitter, as some cellular phone networks were still operating despite the outage. Through Trendistic, you can actually see the spike in Twitter with the use of words “luz” and “apagão” (“light” and “blackout”, in Portuguese):

The pop singer Madonna was in Brazil with her boyfriend Jesus Luz that same week, and inspired several tweets that night, the most common being along the lines of: “Blame Madonna for the blackout: she asked Jesus to turn off the lights”.

And if you were there too, you may want to buy this CafePress T-Shirt (“Blackout 2009: I twittered about it”)

Of course, as power was restored a few hours later, the other media channels started to catch up with the event, as can be seen in aggregators such as BlogBlogs. One of the interesting stories was that of a married man stuck in his lover’s house, as the garage door was power operated (article available in Portuguese only, sorry).

This fantastic video posted by Tiago Compagnoni in YouTube registered the whole blackout event is fast motion:

The next time I drop by WalMart, I’ll make sure to buy one of those hand-crank radio/flashlight combos, and perhaps some candles and matches too, just in case social media is not there to rescue me if I get (un)lucky a third time.

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Aunt May 2.0

4 08 2009

A few years ago, during a visit to the Portuguese Language Museum in São Paulo, Brazil, I found that one of my favourite childhood characters, Cebolinha, was getting into blogging:

2004 is typically considered the year that blogs went mainstream, so no surprises there. It’s expected that a cartoon character would just follow the habits of his target demographics.

That notwithstanding, I had a good laugh getting my weekly dose of geeky fix in this sequence of Amazing Spider-Man #599:

So Aunt May is active in both Facebook and Twitter? Is this just a Marvel plot to get more people to follow them in Twitter? One would expect Johnny “Human Torch” Storm to be twittering (see below), but Aunt May, seriously?

If you believe in this comScore report and the referred Reuters blog post from a few months ago, Aunt May could in fact be as likely to be a Twitter user as Johnny Storm:
comScore blog – (…) 18-24 year olds, the traditional social media early adopters, are actually 12 percent less likely than average to visit Twitter (Index of 88). It is the 25-54 year old crowd that is actually driving this trend. More specifically, 45-54 year olds are 36 percent more likely than average to visit Twitter, making them the highest indexing age group, followed by 25-34 year olds, who are 30 percent more likely.

Reuters blog – Twitter may even be catching on among people who have a reached a post-business phase of their lives: Of the 4 million U.S. Twitter users in February, 5.2 percent were 65 or older.

To keep things in perspective, if you Google “Twitter demographics”, you’ll find all kinds of conflicting data, like this one by Quantcast or this other one by Pew Internet & American Life Project, so don’t start placing all your Twitter bets on the older segments of your target audience just yet. But keep in mind that the online landscape keeps changing at a fast pace: if you are still stuck in believing that Social Media is owned by generation Y, maybe it’s time to check if that latest Twitter follower you’ve got is not your grandma taking a break from all the World of Warcraft craziness.





Kiva.org and the future of philanthropy

28 07 2009

Two months ago, Bernie Michalik kindly set up a virtual card-blog for my IBM farewell, complete with a donation widget from ChipIn, raising $165 as a parting gift. After scratching our heads for a few weeks, we finally figured out how to cash that amount via PayPal (after paying quite a hefty fee).

Inspired by Jamie Alexander, of Pass It Along fame, I then decided to use the opportunity to try out Kiva.org. Kiva was recently featured at Time.com as one of “10 Great Ways To Spend Your Tax Refund”.

Kiva’s mission is to connect people through lending for the sake of alleviating poverty.

Kiva is the world’s first person-to-person micro-lending website, empowering individuals to lend directly to unique entrepreneurs around the globe.

I divided the amount among 5 entrepreneurs, and you can follow the progress of those loans here.

Conventional wisdom suggests that good deeds should be kept to oneself, but the more people know about services like Kiva and MicroPlace, the better. Kiva’s success led to an unusual supply-demand situation last year: having more money available to lend than people asking for it, according to this New York Times article. But just to keep things in perspective, take a look at some of the possible shortcomings too, so that you can make a conscious decision.

In the next few years, I expect more and more institutions who depend on public donations to follow Kiva’s “data-rich, transparent lending platform” model, showing exactly what happens to your contributions throughout the whole value chain. Donations are scarce resources, and being transparent goes a long way in gaining credibility and loyalty.





On being off-grid and Byline for your iPhone

26 07 2009

The first 7 weeks after I left IBM were a trip back to my pre-Internet days, as I had problems with both my Twitter account and my Bell Sympatico High-Speed connection at home, and didn’t spend much time in front of a computer at work. Not being connected has its bright side, especially during summer time, so I’m not complaining too much. There’s plenty to do in our non-virtual lives, and an excuse to stay away from the computer is welcome, especially in the sunny days of Toronto’s short summer – by the way, the only reason I’m writing this now is that the weather is pretty bad outside and my golf plans were ruined :-( .

In my case, Bell Sympatico High-Speed was a bit of a misnomer, especially in early July, when I was getting a download speed of 0.25 Mbits per second and learned from Bell that as far as my connection is up, they are charging for service. Last week I switched all my services to Rogers, and so far it’s been good. I’m typically getting very close to 10 Mbits, a 40 times improvement. Just in case, I’ll keep my fingers crossed, as consumers typically don’t have the upper hand in a de-facto ISP duopoly landscape.

In those 7 weeks off-grid, my iPhone became my online lifeline, but while the small screen is good to consume content, it’s less so to create stuff. Going down the Social Technographics ladder led me to discover a great tool for my iPhone, one that I highly recommend: Byline, by Phantom Fish. Here’s what their website says about the app:

Read the latest news from your favorite sites and blogs on your iPhone or iPod Touch, even when you’re offline.
Simply use your free Google Reader account to subscribe to websites you’d like to keep track of. Byline will automatically bring you new content, putting thousands of RSS and Atom feeds at your fingertips.

Stay in sync
When you read an item, it stays read. The same goes for the items you star: Byline will let Google Reader know the next time you have an internet connection.

Browse offline
Even when you have no internet connection, Byline’s offline browsing feature gives you instant access to complete web pages.
Perfect for flights, subway journeys, and (if you’re an iPod Touch owner) those long dry spells between Wi-Fi zones.
Byline will cache the web pages linked to by your notes, starred items, and (optionally) new items. This allows you to save any news item you read and any website you visit for offline browsing.

Here are some screenshots:

The offline capability is great for consuming comics in the subway ride or during those long, boring flights:

Byline is now the most utilized 3rd party app on my iPhone. To save on the meager data plans available in Canada, you may want to turn the “Cache by Wi-Fi Only” on. I typically synch it a few times a day, just before leaving home in the morning and whenever I drop by a coffee shop during the day. If you work close to the CN Tower in Toronto, the Timothy’s store there now offers free Internet for patrons.





Enterprise 2.0: Jennifer Okimoto and Antipatterns

23 06 2009

Unfortunately for me, I couldn’t join the Social Media crowd at the Enterprise 2.0 conference being held in Boston this week. But luckily for those attending, Jennifer Okimoto kindly offered to present the Enterprise 2.0 Antipatterns session, scheduled for this upcoming Thursday. You can take a look at the core slides I used in the Web 2.0 Expo in San Francisco in SlideShare:

But even if you’ve seen me presenting it before, I highly recommend those attending the E2.0 event to see Jennifer’s take on it. She’s a great story teller, and her director’s cut will likely feel like a new presentation altogether. And if you can’t see her live there, make sure you follow her in Twitter for a daily dose of witty commentary and nuggets of wisdom 2.0.





Web 2.0 Expo San Francisco 2009 Recap: Part 1

8 04 2009

I enjoyed attending the Web 2.0 Expo last week, despite missing several sessions due to work-related commitments. Here’s a high level summary of what I thought was memorable, along with a link to the official expo page, where you can find comments and ratings for the session, and a link to the session-specific Twitter tag, where you can get the just-in-time tweets by attendees. I highly recommend you to also search Twitter for the speaker name or the tag #w2e as not everybody included the session-specific tag in their tweets.

1. Dion Hinchcliffe
Economics 2.0: Highly Effective Strategies for Putting Your Business on a Recession Diet
Twitter tag: #econ2

Web 2.0 Expo San Francisco 2009

This is my recollection of something really bold Dion said. It may be more of a misquote than a quote, so just take it with a grain of salt:

The first wave of IT companies was about hardware. The second wave was about software. The next generation of IT companies will be about data. Google may one day become the first trillion dollar company in terms of market cap.

Here are Hinchcliffe’s slides, courtesy of Slideshare:

2. Nancy DuarteTools for Visual Storytelling
Twitter tag: #w2e_story

Web 2.0 Expo San Francisco 2009

This was by far the best session I attended among the electives. I bought Nancy’s slide:ology book last year, and found it to be very good but not extraordinary. Having her conducting a workshop in person is a totally different matter. She’s an excellent story teller and brought interesting and relevant examples on how to go from mundane and ineffective slides to compelling and informative ones. Here are some pics from the session:

Web 2.0 Expo San Francisco 2009
Designing a presentation as if you are plotting a movie or a play

Web 2.0 Expo San Francisco 2009
Combining multiple diagram types in one visually informative combo

Web 2.0 Expo San Francisco 2009
Time to go back to the drawing board and redo all those complex slides

Web 2.0 Expo San Francisco 2009
Great use of Meebo to brainstorm with the audience in real time


3. Peter Kim, Charlene Li and Jeremiah Owyang
Why Social Media Marketing Fails – and How to Fix It
Twitter tag: #smfail

Web 2.0 Expo San Francisco 2009

I had high expectations for this one, but felt a bit disappointed – maybe because the expectations were unfairly high to start with. I’m a big fan of the Groundswell book, and I follow both Jeremiah and Peter in Twitter, and I know they have a lot to knowledge to share. I’ve been in panels in the past, so I know that they are often hit-or-miss, depending a lot on the chemistry among the participants or the questions from the audience. The major reason for this one not realizing its full potential was that the panel was not diverse enough in terms of opinions. It would probably be good to have panelists with radically different points of view for the discussions to get interesting. Despite all that, I was really pleased with listening to Charlene for the first time and seeing how balanced her positions are toward the business value of Social Media Marketing. Talking to her after the session was great too, as she’s very approachable and addresses all questions very directly.

Part 2 will come some time soon :-)

Update: Embedded Hinchcliffe’s presentation from Slideshare.





Is failure overrated?

2 04 2009


Web 2.0 Expo San Francisco 2008

As seen in Biznology (slightly modified to avoid overlapping with previous posts in this blog):

Is learning from failures overrated? When emphasizing the importance of learning from errors, are we actually creating a culture of losers? Read on to hear arguments on both sides of this discussion and make up your mind. Your company’s survival in the long term may depend on it.

I’m in San Francisco this week, speaking at and attending the Web 2.0 Expo at the Moscone West. In a number of sessions, the speakers emphasized that failure is an important part of the innovation game. Knowing that I also tend to subscribe to that theory, and commenting on the Charlie Brown comic strip I embedded in my previous blog entry, a colleague at IBM pointed me to an interesting piece written by Jason Fried, from 37signals, who challenges that whole concept: “Failure is overrated, a redux”. It’s a good post, and the comments are also worth reading. To have a complete picture of the discussion, I suggest you to also read the New York Times article Jason refers to, “Try, Try Again, or Maybe Not”.

As it’s often the case in heated discussions, I initially found that Jason was defending a completely different perspective toward failure and learning, but this comment of his on another related post made me think that the difference is mostly one of weight.

“Everything is a learning experience. It’s just that I’ve found learning from your successes to be more advantageous. (…) I’ve always found more value in learning from the things that work than the things that don’t.”

I definitely can live with that position. What I have more trouble with is the cited Harvard Business School working paper. Here are some excerpts from the NYT article:

“The data are absolutely clear,” says Paul A. Gompers, a professor of business administration at the school and one of the study’s authors. “Does failure breed new knowledge or experience that can be leveraged into performance the second time around?” he asks. In some cases, yes, but over all, he says, “We found there is no benefit in terms of performance.”

(…) first-time entrepreneurs who received venture capital funding had a 22 percent chance of success. Success was defined as going public or filing to go public; Professor Gompers says the results were similar when using other measures, like acquisition or merger.

Already-successful entrepreneurs were far more likely to succeed again: their success rate for later venture-backed companies was 34 percent. But entrepreneurs whose companies had been liquidated or gone bankrupt had almost the same follow-on success rate as the first-timers: 23 percent.

If the article is accurate – and that’s a big if, considering that this is still a working paper – it seems that the HBS research is not actually proving that “when it comes to venture-backed entrepreneurship, the only experience that counts is success”, as stated in the opening paragraph. It basically demonstrates that enterpreneurs who managed to go public or filed to go public are slightly more likely (going from 22% to 34%) to have a repeat, but isn’t that expected?

There are several factors that come into play when filing a venture to go public, and having done it once gives an entrepreneur some knowledge of what it takes to get there again. I actually find surprising that, even with that edge, the rate of failure is still very high. Another way to interpret the same data is: roughly two thirds of entrepreneurs who were successful the first time (and I’m using the same loose definition of success here) fail the second time. If anything, the data tells me that success is also overrated.

The “learning from failures” approach makes more sense when you take a granular approach to it. Every single initiative you undertake is composed of a vast number of small wins and losses. You definitely can learn from both outcomes, so regardless of which one will teach you the most, embrace successes AND failures. The fundamental message when advocating a culture that allows failure to occur from time to time is to avoid analysis paralysis, or even worse, denial by hiding what went wrong and exaggerating what went right.

The bottom line is that innovation entails good risk management and shares many features with the financial world. Low risk initiatives are likely to generate low returns, and don’t give you much of a competitive edge. Being bold may lead you to collect wins and losses along the way, but also can reward you more handsomely overall. Knowing that, it’s important that you balance your innovation initiatives the same way you handle a portfolio: diversify them and adjust the mix to your comfort level. During economic downturns like the one we are going through now, it’s easy to panic and stop innovating. Keep in mind that a solid and consistent long term approach to innovation may determine your ability to survive in good and bad times.





Ctrl + X and Scissors: Share, even if you think everybody knows it already

19 03 2009

Working with Bernie Michalik for a few years now, we changed our behaviour when sharing knowledge – and also other trivial things that don’t deserve to be called “knowledge”, more like gossip or useless tidbits of information. At the beginning, we would not share some tips about interesting Web 2.0 sites or piece of news because we just assumed that the other party would have heard about it already, as we both are avid consumers of new geeky stuff.

Over time, we noticed that more often than not our assumption was wrong. Even though we share quite a bit of a network and sources of information, we still find that a good deal of what one of us know is not as universally known as we expected. Coming to think of it, the most popular YouTube video of all time as of this writing is Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend”, with 117 million views – it just passed the long time favourite “Evolution of Dance”. Even if you consider that each view was by a different person – very unlikely by the way – that music video would have failed to reach the remaining 883,000,000 people with Internet access. I know, people could have seen it in Vimeo or Metacafe, but you catch my drift. No matter how many people know about anything, there are always more people who don’t know about it.

That’s one of the beauties of blogging or tweeting – or re-tweeting, for that matter. You share without actually knowing if people care of not, a “To Whom It May Concern” note to the world. Sometimes it’s a hit, sometimes it’s a miss. Sometimes it’s a miss that becomes a hit a few months from now, as that shared knowledge becomes digitalized and searchable.

One silly example. In the early nineties, somebody told me a handy logic behind having Ctrl + X and Ctrl + V as shortcuts for “cut” and “paste”, respectively. The letter “X” resembles an open scissor – thus “cut”, and the letter “V” is like that handwritten markup most of us use to signal an insertion point in the middle of a text – thus “paste”. Even 15 years later, there are still a fair number of people who never heard about the mnemonic aspect of those shortcuts.

The bottom line? Don’t be afraid to share what you learn. You’ll quickly find you are almost always the “second last to learn”.





Five things I didn’t know about Darwin

28 02 2009

You should probably know by now that in 2009 we celebrate 200 years of Charles Darwin’s birth and 150 years since “The Origin of Species” was first published. I’ve been feasting on all the information flooding in the media about him, and I learned quite a bit about the man and the book in the last few months. Here’s my top 5 list, in no particular order.

1. A dinasty of sorts
The last publication by Darwin, written just 2 weeks before he died, was about a tiny clam found on a beetle leg. Nothing particularly interesting there. The person sending Charles the specimen was Walter Drawbridge Crick, a shoemaker and amateur naturalist. Even less remarkable, one could say, until you learn that Walter would eventually have a grandson named Francis, of Watson & Crick’s double helix fame, arguably the second most important insight in Biology, and perhaps in all sciences (Source: National Geographic Magazine).

2. Evolution
The word “Evolution”, so associated with Darwin in our collective mind, never appears in “The Origin of Species”. The closest you get is the last word in the last sentence of the book, a poetic gem of scientific literature: “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” You can check that yourself by downloading a PDF version of the book here (Source: Quirks and Quarks podcast, CBC).

3. Survival of the fittest
Even more puzzling is the fact that the term “survival of the fittest” was first coined by Herbert Spencer in the book “The principles of biology” (1864), and only shows up in late editions of Origin, duly acknowledging Spencer’s authorship: “I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term natural selection, in order to mark its relation to man’s power of selection.  But the expression often used by Mr. Herbert Spencer, of the Survival of the Fittest, is more accurate, and is sometimes equally convenient.”. (Sources: The Phrase Finder and Gutemberg project).

4. The destiny of species
Long before coming up with his theory about where the species came from, many of Charles’ objects of study ended up in his stomach. Darwin used to eat several of the animals he helped describing, including, but not limited to, water-hogs (capivaras for Brazilians, a REALLY big rat, in fact the largest rodent in the world), birds of prey like the caracara, and armadillos. I guess that to provide a comprehensive description of a species, behaviour and looks were not enough: the more information the better :-) . I learned about this bizarre piece of trivia while watching the excellent “Darwin’s Legacy” course by Stanford University, available in iTunes U., but you can find a very good description of Darwin’s culinary adventures here.

5. Brazil according to Darwin
Charles, to put it mildly, didn’t enjoy much his time in Brazil, affirming at the end of his “Voyage of the Beagle” travelog: “On the 19th of August we finally left the shores of Brazil. I thank God, I shall never again visit a slave-country.” I’m not sure if slavery in Brazil was worse than in other parts of the world, but being the last country in the Western hemisphere to abolish slavery suggests that the Brazilian society of the 18th century relied heavily on it, to the point that even today Brazil still has the second largest population of black origin in the world (after Nigeria). On the other side, Darwin was awed by the forests in Brazil: “Among the scenes which are deeply impressed on my mind, none exceed in sublimity the primeval forests undefaced by the hand of man; whether those of Brazil, where the powers of Life are predominant, or those of Tierra del Fuego, where Death and decay prevail.  Both are temples filled with the varied productions of the God of Nature: — no one can stand in these solitudes unmoved, and not feel that there is more in man than the mere breath of his body.” Both quotes are a bit surprising given their quasi-spiritual tone. Finally, to conclude on a lighter note, this is Darwin’s account of Carnival folies in Salvador, Bahia, written on March 4th, 1832:

This day is the first of the Carnival, but Wickham, Sullivan & myself nothing undaunted were determined to face its dangers. — These dangers consist in being unmercifully pelted by wax balls full of water & being wet through by large tin squirts. — We found it very difficult to maintain our dignity whilst walking through the streets. — Charles the V has said that he was a brave man who could snuff a candle with his fingers without flinching; I say it is he who can walk at a steady pace, when buckets of water on each side are ready to be dashed over him. After an hours walking the gauntlet, we at length reached the country & there we were well determined to remain till it was dark. — We did so, & had some difficulty in finding the road back again, as we took care to coast along the outside of the town. — To complete our ludicrous miseries a heavy shower wet us to the skins, & at last gladly we reached the Beagle. — It was the first time Wickham had been on shore, & he vowed if he was here for six months it should be only one.

Watching Darwin braving the festive Carnival crowds in Salvador would have been priceless. If only we had Flickr and YouTube back then!





ROI 2.0, Part 3: We don’t need a Social Media ROI model

19 02 2009

Malcolm Gladwell, in his hilarious TED talk on spaghetti sauce, tells the story of Howard Moskowitz’s epiphany while looking for the perfect concentration of aspartame to use in the Diet Pepsi formulation:

Howard does the experiment, and he gets the data back, and he plots it on a curve, and all of a sudden he realizes it’s not a nice bell curve. In fact, the data doesn’t make any sense. It’s a mess. It’s all over the place. (…) Why could we not make sense of this experiment with Diet Pepsi? And one day, he was sitting in a diner in White Plains (…). And suddenly, like a bolt of lightning, the answer came to him. And that is, that when they analyzed the Diet Pepsi data, they were asking the wrong question. They were looking for the perfect Pepsi, and they should have been looking for the perfect Pepsis.”

Tangent note: Most TED talks are a treat, but this one is particularly funny and thought-provoking. If you haven’t seen it yet, consider paying it a visit. If you have an iPhone or iPod Touch, you may like the TED app too!

Over the last few years, many in the Social Media space have been on a quest to find the perfect ROI model for blogs, micro-blogs, wikis, social networking, social bookmarking and other animals in the ever growing Web 2.0 zoo. You’ll see opinions ranging from “we don’t need ROI for Social Media” to “Web 2.0 has to rely on a lagging ROI” to “ROI 2.0 comes from time savings”. In a way, they are all right and all wrong at the same time. Paraphrasing Doctor Moskowitz, there is no perfect Social Media ROI model, there are only perfect Social Media ROI models.

Since 2006, I’ve been talking to several senior executives in multiple industries and across geographies about the business value of Web 2.0, and have noticed a wide range of approaches when deciding whether or not (and how much) to invest in social computing. For companies in the forefront of the social media battleground, such as newspapers, book publishers and TV channels, investing heavily in new web technologies has often been a question of survival, and decision makers had significant leeway in trying new ways of delivering their products and services, with the full blessing of their stakeholders. On the other side of the spectrum, in sectors such as financial services, social media is not yet unanimously regarded as the way to go. I’ve heard from a number of banking and insurance clients that, if Social Media advocates don’t articulate clearly the returns they are expecting to achieve, they won’t get the funds to realize their vision.

Most players in Government were also very skeptical until the Obama effect took the world by storm, creating a sense of urgency that was not as prevalent before. Since then, government agencies around the globe seem to be a bit more forgiving with high level business cases for social computing initiatives inside and outside the firewall. However, to balance things out, in most of the other industries, investments in innovation are being subject to even more scrutiny than normal due to the tough current economic environment. So, having a few ROI models in your pocket does not hurt.

The following ROI models are emerging, and we can expect a few more to appear in the near future.

1. Lagging ROI

Last year, I spoke to the CIO of a global retail chain and he had an interesting approach towards strategic investments in emerging technologies. Instead of trying to develop a standard business case based on pie-in-the-sky ROI calculations, he managed to convince the board of directors to give him more flexibility to invest in a few projects his team deemed to be essential for the long-term survival of the company. For those, he would provide after-the-fact ROI metrics, so that decision makers could assess whether to keep investing or pull the plug. He also managed expectations by saying upfront that some of those projects would fail, but doing nothing was not an option. By setting aside an innovation bucket and establishing a portfolio of parallel innovation initiatives, you can hedge your bets and improve your overall success rate.

2. Efficiency gains or cost avoidance

Many of the early Social Media ROI models are based on how much time you save by relying on social media, converting that to monetary terms based on the cost of labour. While this is certainly a valid approach, it needs to be supplemented by other sources of business value. Unless you are capable of mapping the saved minutes with other measurable outcomes derived from having more time available, the most obvious way to realize the value of being more efficient is to reduce head count, as in theory the group can do the same work as before with less people. If that’s the core of your business case justification, it may fire back in the long term, as some people may feel that the more they use social computing, the more likely it is that their department will be downsized.

3. Proxy Metrics

Some of the ROI examples in the Groundswell book and blog rely on proxy marketing metrics, i.e., what would be the corresponding cost of a conventional marketing campaign to achieve the same level of reach or awareness. For example, when calculating the ROI of an executive blog, the authors measure value by calculating the cost of advertising, PR, SEO and word-of-mouth equivalents.

4. Product/Service/Process Innovation

The value of customer or employee insights that end up generating brand new products, services and processes or improvements to existing one needs to be taken into account. Measuring the number of new features is relatively straightforward. Over time, you may want to figure out the equivalent R&D cost to get the same results.

5. Improved Conversions

Back to the Groundswell book, one of the ROI examples there shows how ratings and reviews can improve conversion rates (i.e., from all people visiting your site, how many more buy products because they trust the input from other consumers, compared to typical conversion rates).

6. Digitalization of knowledge

By having employees blogging, contributing to wikis, commenting or rating content, creating videos and podcasts, companies are essentially enabling the digitalization of knowledge. Things that used to exist only in people’s heads are now being converted to text, audio and images that are searchable and discoverable. It’s the realization of the asset that Clay Shirky calls the cognitive surplus. That was an elusive resource that didn’t have much monetary value before the surge in user-generated content. Naturally, a fair portion of that digitalized knowledge has very little business value, so you need to find metrics to determine how much of that truckload of content is actually useful. You can infer that by using cross-links, comments, ratings or even number of visits.

7. Social capital and empowerment of the workforce

There is certainly business value in having a workforce composed of well connected, well informed and motivated employees. What metrics can be used to assess the degree of connectivity/knowledge/motivation of your human resources? Several social computing tools give you indirect metrics that provide a glimpse of the metrics you can exploit. Atlas for IBM Lotus Connections, for example, gives you the ability to see how your social network evolves quarterly, and can help determining how many people are associated with some hot skill (full disclosure: I work for IBM).

As you can see in several of the emerging models listed above, there are often three types of inputs to develop ROI calculations:

  • Quantitative metrics that can be obtained directly from the system data and log files
  • Qualitative metrics that are determined using surveys, questionnaires and polls
  • Dollar multipliers that attribute arbitrary monetary value to hard to assess items such as a blog comment or an extra contact in your social network

For the monetary value, I would suggest to adopt a sensitivity analysis approach, working with conservative, average and aggressive scenarios, and adjusting them over time. Just don’t go overboard. As I stated in a previous post, there’s an ROI for calculating ROI. ROI models should be easy to understand, as decision makers will often frown upon obscure calculations that require a PhD degree in financial modeling.

In summary: we don’t need one Social Media ROI model, we need many of them. None of the ones emerging now is perfect, none will ever be. You may need to have a few in your toolkit and develop a sense of which one to use in each case.

Previous ROI entries:

ROI 2.0, Part 1: Bean counters vs Innovators – The need for a real exchange of ideas
ROI 2.0, Part 2: Storytelling and Business Cases





Web 2.0, Unplugged

10 02 2009

As previously seen in Biznology:

Reports of the demise of newspapers, radio, TV, and other traditional media have been greatly exaggerated over and over again through several decades now. But when the so-called “new media” head offline to show up in traditional media clothes, is that a step backward or is it just the natural evolution of communications?

On January 29, I was speaking at a local event in Toronto, and had the opportunity to attend a session by Evan Solomon, the co-anchor of CBC News: Sunday. It was a good talk about how the next technology revolution will play out. He pointed out that when a new technology comes, the incumbent never dies: it simply goes after deeper efficiencies. TV never killed radio broadcasting, just forced the old media to discover spaces where the new entrant would not be as efficient. Talk radio, for example, is perfect when you’re driving. Watching TV? Not so much.

Coincidentally, on my way back home I was listening to random podcasts in my overgrown playlist, and serendipity showed its face. Spark episode 64 came up, and the great Nora Young (CBC again, sorry :-D ) was interviewing Ben Terrett, one of the guys behind this:


Photo by Flickr user a.affleck, Creative Commons, Attribution 2.0 Generic

It’s exactly what it looks like. They took 23 blog posts from the Internet and printed them in newspaper format. You can read more about their effort here. Here’s some excerpts from Ben’s words:

We wanted to see what things written specifically for screen felt like when they were printed out. (…) If you print it out, you can take it on the bus, you can take it into the loo, you can actually read it out. So, we thought some things needed a paper-based audience rather than a screen-based audience…The newspaper is not dying but maybe the business model is. The format is still a great way to read stuff. And it is really accessible…We wanted to see what happens if we just print some stuff from the Internet out. And then would that lead to something else?

The podcast goes ahead and mentions two other similar examples: The Printed Blog (“The Best of the Web on your Newsstand”) and Printcasting, a service that “will make it possible for anyone to create a local printable newspaper, magazine or newsletter that carries local advertising–all for free–by pulling together online content from existing sources, such as blogs, and combining it with local advertising that matches the content.”

You may also have read recently that Wikipedia may soon start offering printed books with its popular articles. The contents of the German edition seem to already be available for the PediaPress service, but as my German is as good as my Korean–i.e., non-existent–I couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to do it. It’s interesting to hear from Angela Beesley Starling, chair of the Wikimedia Foundation Advisory Board, that one of the intended objectives for having a print edition is to remove the perception that a wiki-based encyclopaedia is not reliable. That’s exactly the same point that Ben made to Nora: somehow, good ol’ paper feels much more serious, important, authoritative.

In some cases, like with “The Tech Guy” talk show by online celebrity Leo Laporte, it’s even hard to tell if that is a podcast made into a radio show or the other way around. Finally, YouTube has long been rumoured to be flirting with network TV. YouTube is somehow already available on the living rooms via Apple TV or game consoles. I tested it on my Wii this week. The experience is underwhelming, but I definitely see the potential behind it.

In my last Biznology post, I mentioned that the online social media conversation was expanding and becoming increasingly fragmented. Looking at the bigger picture, it may just make sense that social media also expand to the offline side of the spectrum, so that it can extend its reach. Many people are still much more comfortable with paper, TV or radio than with the cyberspace. And there are places where quite frankly people should not take a computer anyway :-)

Coming back to Evan Solomon’s message, social media is also in a continuous search for deeper efficiencies. This may sometimes just mean reaching out to conventional media, which can expose the existing content to audiences and places that would not otherwise be touched, and also access to new marketing opportunities.





Darwin: blogging and twittering in the 19th century?

26 01 2009

The Evolution RevolutionYou will be hearing about Darwin a lot this year, as 2009 marks 200 years of his birth and 150 years of “The Origin of Species”. Regardless of what you think about Darwin the scientist, there are lots to learn from Darwin the man.

Last summer, I visited “Darwin: The Evolution Revolution” at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. It was the first time I saw him not as a naturalist, but as a person. You still can catch the exhibition till April 19 in the Natural History Museum in London, renamed “Darwin – Big Idea” (see the slideshow for a taste of what you’ll find there).

The handwritten notes and letters caught my attention immediately, as they ranged from the deeply scientific (the famous “I think” sketch with the evolutionary tree) to the trivial and mundane (Fanny Owen, Darwin’s first girlfriend, asking “Why did you not come home this Christmas? I suppose some dear little Beetles kept you away!”).

Almost 3 years ago, I wrote a blog post wondering what it would be like if folks like Darwin, Shakespeare and Martin Luther King had blogs. I didn’t imagine back then that Darwin actually had the next best thing available to him: a notebook, a pen, and the discipline to write almost daily about whatever crossed his mind.

Darwin left a huge written record in books, articles, notebooks and more than 14,000 letters. Looking at them, I can’t help but see the similarities with the Social Media tools we use today. See for example one of his notes aboard the Beagle:

Darwin Manuscripts

I can almost see a “Powered by WordPress.com” at the bottom of his entries :-) .

If you keep digging, you’ll find also his journal:

Darwin Manuscripts

If only he had Twitter and GPS, eh? I would follow him for sure.

Bad jokes aside, I find fascinating that you can know so much about a person who was born 200 years ago. It’s been said that “thanks to MySpace and Facebook, autobiography can happen in real time”. Darwin was doing that back in 1822 at age 12!

So, if you think you know Charles, take a look at the “10 Fun Facts About Darwin” at Neatorama.com. You’ll find that not only he described plenty of new species, he ate several of them too, including armadillos, iguanas and tortoises. And that he once wrote that a wife was “better than a dog” for companion. Not exactly the most romantic thing to say about your significant other, but geeks will always be geeks, I guess.

If you want to learn more about the man, I highly recommend BBC’s “In Our Time” Darwin series, and also Darwin’s Legacy, a lecture series from Stanford University at iTunes U. You won’t be disappointed.





Enterprise Blogging Inhibitors: writer’s block, making a fool of oneself and lack of feedback

26 01 2009

This is an updated version of a blog post I wrote for my internal IBM blog back in April 2006. It shows its age, but it may still be relevant for folks starting to blog inside the corporation.

When I ask colleagues at IBM why they don’t blog, or why they don’t blog more often, the most common answers are “I don’t have  time”, “I don’t know what to blog about” and “no one cares about my thoughts”. In a survey I ran 3 years ago, not even a single respondent mentioned writer’s block or fear of making a fool of oneself as blogging inhibitors.

Many of my fellow IBMers are quick-witted, bright and have plenty of good ideas. They are typically well-read, inquisitive and very open to hear other people’s opinions. Most of them are good writers too, and they would probably be good bloggers. However, many of them don’t blog. There’s this somehow unfounded idea that blogging is going to take a lot of time and effort. Some of them even started a blog, but stopped after a while. They got discouraged by the number of daily hits in their blogs or by the low number of comments their early posts generated or by the time they spent just to write a few paragraphs. Or they just don’t know what to write about on a frequent basis.

If any of the readers of this blog is wondering whether or not to start blogging or resume blogging inside the enterprise, here’s my take on it. Don’t forget that we are all learning, so take it with a grain of salt (as you should do with anything you read). Also, you’ll find lots of – sometimes conflicting – advice out there on how to blog effectively. Be confident that you’ll eventually find what works better for you.

  • Don’t liken enterprise blogging to writing an article for a magazine. In blogs, you can afford to disclose unpolished thoughts out there. Writing them actually may help you to structure your ideas, and sharing with others may enrich a reflection you had only as a raw piece of clay inside your brain, as others may have a common interest on the topic. So, while your post may not be getting you a Pulitzer Award any time soon, it may actually trigger a good discussion with others in your company. I see blogging more like chatting in a bar after hours (minus the drinks and the hangover) than giving a lecture to a demanding audience.
  • Approach blogging like reading and writing e-mails, with the advantage that there’s no serious harm if you skip reading some posts from time to time, and that nobody ever expects you to reply to blog entries. It’s something you do at a best effort basis. Time-box the time you spent reading and writing blogs to, say, 15 minutes a day, or 30 minutes a week. Or just harness your interstitial time, blogging whenever you have a few minutes to spare. As you get used to doing it, you’ll become more efficient. Remember, don’t approach it as one more task to squeeze into your already busy schedule. It’s a learning and networking venue where you get a lot accomplished just by dedicating 15 minutes a day to it.
  • Be aware that many in your company will consume your internal blog via an RSS reader. This means that even though people are reading your blog, the hit counter may not show that. Also, as it’s the case with most blogs, expect a very low comment-to-post ratio at least at the beginning. Some of your interesting posts will not necessarily generate any comment, even though people are paying attention. I found over the years that some of my “comment-less” posts were actually “dogeared” by some colleagues, proving that the number of comments is not necessarily an indication of whether or not readers found it relevant. Most days, like many others blog addicts, I skim through all posts in my feed reader. Whatever you write about, you’ll have the attention of a fair number of readers for at least a few moments. Therefore, make sure the title of your blog entry and its first few lines give a good idea about what you are writing about.
  • Blogging is a 2-way street. If you blog but you don’t read other people’s blogs, you may not “get” it. Reading internal and external blogs actually is crucial for you to REALLY understand why blogs are not the same as newsgroups, instant messaging or social networking web sites. As you start commenting on other people’s blogs and observing how some topics generate more interest or discussions, you’ll probably have a better understanding of the dynamics of this media. You’ll also establish your own network of bloggers who are more attuned to your own interests and area of expertise. Make sure that you reply to comments when appropriate, showing your appreciation for other people’s time and effort. It’s pretty much like going from high-school to University: it takes time to adapt to this new environment.
  • At first, you may not want to limit yourself to a single theme. Some of my favourite blogs talk about a wide variety of subjects: technology, working environment experiences, “fluffy” stuff, latest news, photography, parenthood, jokes. The proverbial writer’s block only happens if you see yourself as a writer with a theme or a deadline to meet. If the whole world is “in scope” for your blog, and you are just “chatting”, not “authoring”, you’ll probably start having a backlog of things you may want to blog about. I’m not suggesting that you blog about things that are too personal all the time, but variety is a good thing. Keep in mind the “virtual watercooler” analogy: in real offices, you do talk about things that are not strictly work-related sometimes, and that helps building rapport with your colleagues.

In my first Social Media presentation ever, back in 2006, I mentioned that Charles Darwin wondered many times if it was worth it to publish his ideas (note that some scholars dispute this as a myth):

Darwin feared putting the theory out in an incomplete form, as his ideas about evolution would be highly controversial if any attention was paid to them at all.

I keep imagining how many good ideas are left private just because people feel afraid of making a fool of themselves. As I said before, everybody has something to say, and nobody says brilliant things all the time. What if Shakespeare, Einstein, Martin Luther King, Gandhi all had blogs where they could share their reflections with others? It takes ideas to generate ideas, so just let you ideas out: many of them will probably be soon forgotten, but a few good ones may florish and persist (if you are not familiar with the concept, you may want to read about memes). Innovation is most often just a way of aggregating independent ideas into a new cohesive structure.





Government 2.0: The smarter planet initiative and Obama’s inauguration speech

21 01 2009

Yesterday at 12:00 noon EST, several parts of the world came to a standstill to watch Obama’s inauguration ceremony. It felt pretty much like a FIFA World Cup game in Brazil. I found interesting that, at 12.01, the White House site published a blog post entitled “Change has come to WhiteHouse.gov”., written by Macon Phillips, who has the revealing title of “Director of New Media for the White House”. Macon wrote:

Participation — President Obama started his career as a community organizer on the South Side of Chicago, where he saw firsthand what people can do when they come together for a common cause. Citizen participation will be a priority for the Administration, and the internet will play an important role in that. One significant addition to WhiteHouse.gov reflects a campaign promise from the President: we will publish all non-emergency legislation to the website for five days, and allow the public to review and comment before the President signs it.

We’d also like to hear from you — what sort of things would you find valuable from WhiteHouse.gov? If you have an idea, use this form to let us know. Like the transition website and the campaign’s before that, this online community will continue to be a work in progress as we develop new features and content for you. So thanks in advance for your patience and for your feedback.

That’s promising, but still a 1.0 approach: online forms are very 1994. I’m looking forward to see what they mean by “new features”. I would expect to see a conversation that’s more transparent than e-mail and forms. Something like the very cool service provided by debategraph. If you never heard about it, I highly recommend a visit now.

In 2008 we saw a major surge in interest in Government 2.0 in Canada. I spent a good part of the year working in Ottawa, and also speaking in events directed towards all levels of government. However, just by visiting the publick websites of federal and provincial government agencies, you won’t see much of a change yet. I really would like to see that changing from interest and words to action, and I hope 2009 is the year we see that happening in Canada and around the globe, and the White House site will certainly be a major influencer, one way or the other.

Other fact that came to my attention is that this is the first time “digital” is mentioned in an inaugural speech. This is not surprising, as the term was not widely used 16 years ago, but it was not accidental either.

This is an excerpt from Obama’s speech:

For everywhere we look, there is work to be done. The state of the economy calls for action, bold and swift, and we will act — not only to create new jobs, but to lay a new foundation for growth. We will build the roads and bridges, the electric grids and digital lines that feed our commerce and bind us together. We will restore science to its rightful place, and wield technology’s wonders to raise health care’s quality and lower its cost. We will harness the sun and the winds and the soil to fuel our cars and run our factories. And we will transform our schools and colleges and universities to meet the demands of a new age. All this we can do. And all this we will do.

The words above seem to align nicely with this piece IBM published yesterday in the Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times:

In the past, we had to make trade-offs between the imperatives of energy, transportation, infrastructure, security, commerce, the environment and more. But in an ever-more interconnected world, these vast, complex systems are no longer separate from one another. They are now interwoven and interdependent. Which is good news—because the solutions we develop for one system will ripple across many others.

Those solutions are possible because we now have the tools to literally change the way the world works. Computational power is being put into things we wouldn’t recognize as computers: phones, cameras, cars, appliances, roadways, power lines, clothes. We are interconnecting all of this through the Internet, which has come of age. And we are applying sophisticated analytics to make sense of the world’s digital knowledge and pulse.

As we look at investments to stimulate our economies, we have a lot more options and can get a lot more bang for our buck. We can ask ourselves: Do we want an airport, or a smart airport? A highway, or a smart highway? A hospital, or a smart hospital? We can think about new industries and societal benefits spawned by a smart power grid, a smart water system, a smart city. About how innovation across all these systems will multiply the number of new jobs and spread new skills.

Similar to what I said before, while I find the two excerpts above inspiring and encouraging, nothing has been done yet, so it’s still not time for celebration. But we certainly need a vision and charisma to not get lost during the execution, so the first step was a good one.

Update: I forgot to mention, but the White House blog does not seem to allow blog comments either (please let me know if I missed how to do it, other than sending emails). That’s also very web 1.0, I hope them to open it up a bit, by allowing at least moderated comments there. Not a 2-way conversation when only one side has the mike.





Fame, Interactive Ads and Online Reputation

23 12 2008

As previously seen at Biznology:

As marketers try to find ways to join the conversation enabled by social media, they face the challenge of scale. The virtual third space is becoming increasingly fragmented, to the point that engaging into every single thread of discussion pertinent to your business is no longer practical. In that scenario, can you meet the expectations of a target audience increasingly craving for individual attention? Can you effectively manage your online reputation?

Brian Solis and Jesse Thomas summarized the extent of the online conversations in the social web nicely in their conversation prism graphic:

The Conversation Prism, Creative Commons, Attribution 2.0

Going through the petals of the chart above, it’s evident that the online chatter is much bigger than just Facebook, MySpace and Twitter. And it’s not getting any smaller.

In his best-seller book “Here Comes Everybody”, Clay Shirky pointed out that the web did not completely flatten publishing and broadcasting, as fame gets in the way of the elusive many-to-many communication nirvana:

“The Web makes interactivity technologically possible, but what technology giveth, social factors taketh away. In the case of the famous, any potential interactivity is squashed, because fame isn’t an attitude, and it isn’t technological artifact. Fame is simply an imbalance between inboud and outbound attention, more arrows pointing in than out.”

That imbalance can lead to unmet expectations on both sides: companies being frustrated by trying to join an ever growing number of online social spaces and customers demanding individual attention they can’t possibly get.

To mitigate this issue, some organizations have been relying on interactive or personalized online video ads that provide a middle ground between the one-size-fits-all model of traditional media and the many-sizes-fit-many model described by Chris Anderson in his book “The Long Tail”. Here are four examples:

1. Burger King and the Subservient Chicken

Launched back in 2004, this widely popular website (20 million hits within a week of launching, 14 million unique visitors in the first year) is still online after all these years. Its simplicity was captivating: a man in a chicken costume would perform actions based on what users asked him to do. It was based on pre-recorded footage, and more than three hundred commands were available. Sadly, it no longer reacts when you tell him to get a Big Mac.

2. Ms Dewey

This website was launched two years ago as an experimental interface for Microsoft’s Live Search. If you search for “Tiger Woods”, Ms. Dewey may surprise you by making a comment about professional athletes before showing the results. Behind the scenes, the apparent interactivity is achieved via an algorithm choosing one of 600 video clips that may fit the keywords you entered.

3. Antarctica Beer and the Tatoo Ad

As a friendly warning, know that this ad may be a bit too racy for some audiences. I like it for both the humour and the perfect execution. In the future, expect to see even more sophisticated techniques, mixing custom audio or even images with pre-defined content. You can find a rough translation from Brazilian Portuguese to English for the full video here.

4. MoveOn.org viral video

This blog post was actually drafted before the US elections, but I preferred to not publish it back then, as the intent was to discuss interactive ads, not to favour one candidate or the other. MoveOn.org effectively used this personalized video showing the November 4th election being decided by a single voter, whose name is digitally inserted in newspapers titles and video captions.

Interactive videos of course can only go so far. As the amount of user-generated content skyrockets, better tools will become available to marketers for following conversations, detecting trends and managing your company’s reputation. Two months ago, while in Singapore, I had the opportunity to attend a presentation about COBRA (Corporate Brand and Reputation Analysis), an initiative by IBM Research and IBM Global Business Services, that may be a sign of things to come. If you are interested in knowing more about it, visit this page (in the interest of full disclosure, note that IBM is my employer).

Living in exponential times entails developing exponential listening and conversational abilities, for both companies and individuals alike. It’s going to be a bumpy ride, but you certainly can enjoy all the fun along the way.





ROI 2.0, Part 2: Storytelling and Business Cases

15 12 2008

Storytelling, in the various realms of life, is a powerful tool in spreading the word, creating rapport and inspiring others. It’s not uncommon to hear advocates of social media tell nice stories
about how they blogged or twittered about something and because of
that, somebody else was able to solve a problem that otherwise would
take much longer to address. I use it all the time, and enjoy when others do the same.

However, storytelling is not a substitute for a solid business case. While story telling is a legitimate way to communicate, anecdotal evidence showing a feel-good story on the power of social computing does not constitute proof that net returns are being achieved. Of course, that cuts both ways: the fact that a given person or team never got anything out of blogging or using a wiki cannot be used as a conclusive argument against it either.

The tale that goes untold is: how many of the blog posts, tweets or wiki articles went unnoticed, and how much time was spent covering numerous subjects that did not help the resolution of any problem?

User-generated content (UGC), be it in the form of blog posts, tweets, contributions to a wiki, photos posted to Flickr or Facebook, Amazon book reviews, TripAdvisor feedback or comments to newspaper articles, tend to follow a power law distribution, where usefulness or relevance tend to concentrate on a very small fraction of the whole. That pattern is expected, and it can be even considered an intrinsic part of the overall value embedded in UGC. The gems made possible by UGC exist in part because so much content of various degrees of quality was created, not despite of that.

The point that sometimes is missed in the ROI discussion is that one cannot ignore the total cost and investment to generate those gems when assessing the business value of enabling users to create content. There’s no doubt that the enterprise adoption of social media generates value, as can be attested by the multiple stories collected by Web 2.0 advocates in the last few years. But once discounted the costs, does it generate net business value? Any ROI analysis needs to take into consideration the returns, the investment and the time horizon. Therefore, the questions that need to be answered are: how much, how often (or how soon) and at what cost. Add storytelling to that, and you may have a winner in your hands.

Click here for Part 1 of this ROI 2.0 Series: Bean Counters vs Innovators – The need for a real exchange of ideas





2.0 Tales: A not so flat world

11 12 2008

This is an old story, but since I never blogged about it, I thought it would be worthwhile to share

In the summer of 2007, I was visiting the IBM’s Banking Industry Solution Centre (BISC) in Barcelona, and was asked to run a session on Web 2.0 and Social Computing to the local team of young developers. At some point, I was mentioning how the world was not actually flat, and how different countries tend to choose distinct online social networks. I then asked: “Facebook is popular in Canada and in the US, Bebo in UK, Orkut in India and Brazil. Which Social Network is popular here in Spain?”. All those young faces were staring at me as if I were the biggest loser on Earth. Then, somebody took the courage and said: “Err. None. Here in Spain, we just go to bars and talk to each other”.

Confirming that assessment, I found later that the Forrester’s European Technographics Benchmark Survey for Q2 2007 revealed that both Spain and France had the lowest number of joiners (those who participate on social networking sites like MySpace) among the European countries included in the research, at 5 and 4% respectively.

The lesson learned was that one-size-fits-all does not apply when it comes to the enterprise adoption of social software. It’s important to understand how different age groups, cultures and personalities react to social computing initiatives and tailor your strategy accordingly.





ROI 2.0, Part 1: Bean counters vs Innovators – The need for a real exchange of ideas

11 12 2008

This year I’ve been talking to a very large number of clients around the globe and across multiple industries about the business value of Web 2.0 and Social Computing, and inevitably the topic of ROI surfaces. It seems to be more the subject of a book than a blog post due to its complexity and scope, and it’s also a dry subject, not as flashy as talking about Twitter or cool beer ads. Nonetheless, blogging is my way of thinking out loud, so I’ll give it a try here, but breaking it down into manageable chunks.

Discussions on the ROI for Web 2.0 and Social Computing tend to be very polarized. Many early adopters, enterprise 2.0 thinkers and so-called evangelists tend to dismiss the need to articulate ROI for innovation, with arguments ranging from quick – and shallow – “nobody asks for the ROI of email or phones” to some elaborated points of view. Andrew McAfee, Associate Professor with the Harvard Business School and a recognized thought leader in Enterprise 2.0 wrote a blog post back in 2006 about the challenges of building business cases to justify IT investments using ROI or NPV figures. He quotes the book Strategy Maps, by Bob Kaplan and David Norton, who say:

“None of these intangible assets has value that can be measured separately or independently. The value of these intangible assets derives from their ability to help the organization implement its strategy… Intangible assets such as knowledge and technology seldom have a direct impact on financial outcomes such as increased revenues, lowered costs, and higher profits.  Improvements in intangible assets affect financial outcomes through chains of cause-and-effect relationships.”

On the other side, there seems to be a strong demand by the ones holding the money – often the decision makers – to better articulate the financial returns on social computing initiatives. Pat LaPointe, from MarketingNPV, stated in a blog post he wrote in September 2008:

“(…) we marketers don’t do ourselves any favors by trying to disconnect [Social Media] from financial value just because it’s hard to make the links. Maybe we should take a page from how our companies decide to invest in R&D – with clarity of purpose, explicit assumptions, and rigorous experimentation in escalating risk scenarios. In the end, that will accelerate corporate adoption of social media much faster. So rather than trying to spin the tangential metrics, help those grounded in the P&L to “get it”. Remember, if they don’t “get it”, neither will you. Budget that is.”

John T. Gourville, associate professor at Harvard Business School, writing about the psychology of new-product adoption for the Harvard Business Review (Eager Sellers and Stony Buyers), described a similar conflict between product developers and consumers. The former, like innovators, are likely to see a need for their product and see them as essential, while the latter are reluctant to part with the incumbent product, and are unable to see the need for a change.

As in any polarized discussion, the arguments quickly escalate to become very dogmatic, and no real dialogue takes place. Which side is right, the innovators or the bean counters? Both, to some extent, as it’s often the case. ROI models are far from perfect and benefits derived from social computing are hard to measure. But in a corporate world of limited resources and high scrutiny, investments on Web 2.0 compete with more ordinary needs such as employee compensation and basic infrastructure improvements, so if you don’t have a business case, chances are that you won’t get much funding either. Hype will only take you so far. Past the smoke and mirrors, if there is real net value in Enterprise 2.0, it must be clearly articulated.

To get this conversation started, both sides need to focus on their common objectives: a solution that will benefit both the individuals and the companies they work for. That’s why, at this point of the Social Media evolution, we need more bridges than evangelists.








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