Category Archives: Social Media

A TechReckoning update for September

TechReckoningAll my good stuff is now going on over at TechReckoning. Check it out.

(I will be at SpiceWorld in Austin, TX Sept 23-24 and VMworld Europe in Barcelona Oct 14-16. Please say hi if you’re there!)

1. Subscribe to the Weekly Newsletter. This is where most of the action is. At the time of publishing, we’re up to 13 issues – more or less every week. I put a lot of work into the newsletter and folks seem to enjoy it. It’s been called “an odd look into your brain” and “one of two newsletters I read every week”.

2. We just launched the Onlne Events Calendar. Here’s an excerpt from the calendar announcement in the newsletter. Send suggestions to

Events on the calendar must be:

  • Live. This is not a podcast directory. This is not for your latest YouTube video. (Hmmm, both of those are good ideas.) Interactive is good — Google Hangouts, Twitter chats, or Talkshoe podcasts will be typical platforms. But interactive is not mandatory — live streaming video from conferences or programming like theCUBE and Tech Field Day are all ok. The only mandatory thing is that whatever is happening is happening now and not pre-recorded.
  • Online.This calendar is for online things that people across the globe can access. This is not an IT events directory. (hmmm, now there’s another idea, although check out the event calendars at The Virtualization Practice andStephen Foskett. There are an increasing number of IT conferences. Two I just heard about yesterday: VeeamON and NetApp Insight.) 
  • IT-related. It must be IT-related and priority will be given to educational and technical topics.
  • Open-access. It must be available to everybody and must not require registration. It must be free.
  • Community-oriented.  I’ll unpack this below, but let’s just admit we all know what corporate webinars smell like most of the time.

Commercial content is ok. Let’s acknowledge that much of what we do in the IT space is related to something commercial. Free tutorial how to use product XYZ from a blogger? Unpaid podcast guest from company XYZ? That’s non-commercial to the blogger or podcaster but advances the commercial interests of vendor XYZ. (BTW, I was not paid anything for the Veeam and NetApp conference shout-outs above, or the Red Hat link below.)​

3. And finally we launched a Community-Projects Directory. It’s for community folks but perhaps more importantly it’s a list of projects that can be sponsored by vendors. Are you a marketing manager with some money earmarked for community marketing but you’re not sure how to spend it? This is your list. Again, suggestions and additions to

More stuff is in the pipeline. I’m building a nice campfire. Everybody’s welcome to drop in.

The operational story companies don’t realize they are telling

three storiesWith the rise of social media, a company tells many more stories than we traditionally recognize. The Company Story is the official one, and the Product Story has now grown larger with social media, but have companies considered the story they are telling through their operations, the one that actually shows who they are? That’s the story that their stakeholders care about.

In the old days, a Company Story was told through its spokespeople and its PR/AR (press and analyst relations) team. The PR team is traditionally given the role of corporate storyteller. It crafts the overall narrative of the company, describing the benefits of its products, and positioning the company’s place in the overall marketplace. It’s a big picture view that doesn’t like to get bogged down in the details. Terrible PR folks tell this story terribly, with messages that normal people roll their eyes at and discount immediately. The good ones have so skillfully created the story of their company in your mind that you’re not even aware of it.

But now there are changes in the stories that are told about companies. The one we talk about often is the the Product Story. Learning about a product or even trying it out is easier than ever, and sharing your experience with your peers is welcome. This has been driven by the web, social media, open source, streaming video, and other manifestations of the cloud like SaaS.

The Product Story is co-created by the community together with the vendor as experiences with the product are shared.

PR and AR are involved in this second story, especially as they seed product journalism and analyst reports. But increasingly, the story that is told is the one that we create together as we share and discuss the Product Story, both the parts told in the traditional media as well the chapters that are our own contributions.

Marketing programs — events, promotions, webinars, and other campaigns — usually build off these first two narratives. But there’s a third story that’s just beginning to be recognized.

With social media, everything a company does throws off an exhaust trail online that can be seen by your customers, partners, and prospects. This is the Operational Story. Often when we talk social media we consider customer service alongside marketing, but we often forget that now every part of the company tells a story, even the parts that aren’t traditionally thought of as marketing: customer and technical support, partner programs, education and certification programs, professional services, legal activity, changes in policy and programs. and even how employees of the company go about their daily jobs in social spaces.

This Operational Story is created by all programs and employees of a company as they perform their daily jobs and interact with their ecosystem.

This story isn’t carried out by the marketing or PR departments. It’s often not even considered as marketing. It’s organic and fragmented and unconscious. It’s marketing by doing. Showing, not telling. But this is true one-to-many communication. Customers, partners, and prospects can, and do, read the announcements, the opinions, and the reactions. This is public communication that is usually invisible to the traditional marketers of the company.

Let’s say a partner program changes a policy or a product SKU is changed. As long as it doesn’t get written up in the press, does the CMO and PR team know or even care? However, there is external communication involved: blog posts, email blasts, newsletters, Twitter updates. There is reaction from the employees of the companies affected as they blog and tweet about it. There is discussion and conversation and feedback, all happening out in the open with people are watching.

The interesting thing about this kind of communication is that it’s actually the story that is truly interesting to the company’s stakeholders, far more so than any grand vision of the company’s strategy.

The Operational Story is interesting to your customers and prospects because it directly affects them in a way that standard company marketing does not.

Customers ask: Is this change going to affect my job for better or worse? Should I be looking at other vendors? Do I need to tell my boss? Prospects ask: Is this company fair? Is it greedy? Is it operationally screwed up? Am I going to regret purchasing from them?  All these questions matter a lot more to them than reading a press release that says that the company is the leading provider of widget solutions that enable businesses to innovate.

Marketing folks these days talk a lot about how in a world of social media, all companies are publishers. PR departments usually think of this in terms of their Company Stories, and have created online publications that reflect this. These publications do a great job of telling the Company Story, and others tell a good Product Story. but there is an opportunity to create the publication that tells the Operational Story, the Newspaper of the Ecosystem.

Companies tell this story in a lot of ways through channels like blogs and newsletters; and perhaps a centralized publication isn’t even the right way to think about it. But shouldn’t companies think of the Operational Story as part of their corporate narrative and the marketing message they present to the world? Shouldn’t they construct it consciously and ensure it is in harmony with the Company and Product Stories? After all, the Operational Story is the one that actually impacts the lives of their customers, prospects, and partners.

Webinars as a digital marketing platform

I will now explain things to you for 45 minutes before doing a demo My colleague Karri was telling me about  some research on webinars she had seen recently. The takeaway was that, shockingly, people didn’t like to sit through an hour of a video webinar* to get the five minutes of information they had been promised. Karri then shared her idea that maybe people (including us) should be putting up transcripts with their webinars. 

I posted this idea to Twitter and got some good responses. Howard thought transcripts would be too expensive. Greg implied that dealing with transcripts was so difficult that it was literally unspeakable. I think they’re both right, but our little conversation actually brought me to another place, which is that we’re doing webinars completely wrong. (Note that I’m talking about big-budget corporate marketing or technical webinars, not online training and not non-corporate podcasts like the ones Howard and Greg and I create. Not that podcasts can’t have transcripts.)

Here’s my main point:

Marketers should think of webinars as platforms, not as presentations.

Marketers think of webinars as, well, seminars on the web.  The word lecture goes back to the 14th Century (meaning ‘to read’ — yes, they had Death by PowerPoint even in the Middle Ages!). We’ve been running marketing seminars ever since there was marketing, and we’ve been doing online seminars ever since there’s been an online.  Webinars thus mimic the attributes of live, in-person seminars. Their primary purpose is for attendees to watch and listen to the presentation. They have a live chat for questions. They’ll let you pass the mic to another speaker. They have polls that are like asking for a show of hands. They have document sharing, which is like passing out handouts. All great. But that ignores that fact that you now have a bunch of live humans, logged in and identified, hanging out in a private space on a digital platform where you can track every single thing they do. And you make them sit in their seats and watch a product marketing manager read some slides. Good Lord, what a waste.

At this point, the pedagogically trained among you are no doubt about to leave a comment telling me that research shows that people will learn better if forced to sit still and watch the presenter. I’ll concede that most people will have better retention if they pay attention to what the speaker is saying. But folks, (1) we’re talking about marketing seminars, not calculus lessons; and (2) your audience is watching you from inside a tabbed browser! I’m pretty sure they’re already reading the news or writing an email rather than watching your slides. Or in at least one case I know, managing their Dwarf Fortress. Poor dorfs.

I will admit to a pathological hatred of presentations that colors my opinions about webinars. I drew cartoons during class all the way through my PhD and only recently have forced myself to stop drawing robots in my notes when meeting with executives. Mandatory corporate training makes me want to do things that are definitely against HR policies. I’d rather read a 500 page book than sit through a certification class. These traits have led me to the opinion that marketers should recognize that everybody does not learn in the same way, and that they should remember that all marketing is about the customer, not about them.

So instead of sit-down-shut-up webinars, why don’t we have platforms that offer added value to participants while they are gracing you with their presence? You could make available to attendees all sorts of transcripts, white papers, supplemental downloads, diagrams, slides from the presentation, one-sheets to show to their ADD boss, demos, blog articles, ROI calculators, RFQ forms, and other things to do while they’re at your presentation. What if there was a permanent forum where they could come back next week to ask a question? What if the attendees could be in a live chat room before or after the presentation? What if you broke into small groups for an exercise during the event? What if there were follow-up classes immediately after the current session? What if during the presentation, attendees could share a slide on Facebook or Pinterest? What if they could push out a promotional video for the next session of this webinar? What if they could see their Facebook friends and start whispering to them? What if people could download diagrams and presentation notes to incorporate in a blog post? What if, during the presentation, key quotes and takeaways appeared on the screen with a Tweet button beside them?

What if attendees could recommend the product during a webinar while they are still in the midst of the aha moment?

This is a digital platform; we can make it do anything. And after the session, you can score each attendee with points for every asset that they touch and every activity they do, and at the end you’ll have a list of everybody who is interested in your product. If you are a lead-generation marketing manager, you might be getting a little flushed at this point.

We started off by talking about transcripts, which implies a recorded presentation, and now I’ve just talked about a lot of live features. There’s a full separate discussion to have about the value of live events vs recorded ones, both to marketers and their audience. Let’s have that another day.

But since transcripts started this, let’s talk about them for a second. Transcripts are cheap in this context; services start at $1/minute and go up from there to several dollars a minute. You can spend less using something like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk if you want to exploit your fellow humans by paying them sweatshop wages. The transcript that comes back often has problems, especially for technical topics, and so someone has to go through and clean it up. Even after they are correct, transcripts are exceptionally tedious to read; I’m grateful for journalists who selectively quote their sources to get the gist of the matter! However, the point of transcripts in this context is not reading them through. The point is scanning them quickly to find out the scope of the presentation and the information you were promised when you were pitched this event.

Karri, who had the original idea, had wanted to see the “5 Things You Should Be Doing” she was promised in a webinar, but then had to wade through the whole hour to find out what they were.  I remember webinars that blathered on forever until finally showing me the product demo I had signed up for. We would both have been grateful for a published transcript or a couple of downloadable screenshots.

I’m sure there are very good reasons why marketers don’t treat webinars as platforms.

  • “Adding more options reduces the number of people who take the next step.” I would not be surprised if this is true, but I’d like to see some evidence. Having too many distractions in the presentation may cause people to freeze up with the paradox of choice or be too distracted to see the sign up for a sales call. If true — that is, if these crazy ADD webinar platform thingies that I’m describing here honestly don’t perform better in convincing people to go on to the next step and to have a conversation with you, then I’m just completely wrong and this whole rant is a bit beside the point. But bear with me if you’ve gotten this far, because I think we’re still going in an interesting direction.
  • “Having too many things on the page confuses people and looks ugly.” The trend in web design is toward simplicity and away from link stew. In the wrong hands, which in this case is marketing’s hands, this could indeed turn really ugly.
  • “The software doesn’t let me do this.” True for now; thus this rant. However, I’d bet there are some startups out there that have thought about this and I’d like to be told that this all already exists.

There are reasons that are right but also wrong.

  • “Adding more things inside the webinar doesn’t drive more registrations.” Since all the good stuff is after you register and nobody reads the details, everybody will be expecting a normal webinar and about the same number of people will show up. Marketers get judged on how many people show up, so why bother? The people who do show up will be better served, but I don’t like to come between people and their bonuses. Try to get your MBO goals changed.
  • “If people don’t stay for the full hour, they won’t feel like they got value from the webinar.” Psychology is weird. If people pop in an out in 5 minutes, which they might do if they could find out the fact they wanted, they might indeed feel less of a bond or obligation or favorable feeling than if they stuck around for an hour. Again, I’d like to see evidence on this. On the other hand, you saved them an 55 minutes, which they might appreciate.
  • “People need some time to sleep on the information I’m giving them. Then I’ll send them a follow-up email just when they’re ready.” This might be true.  Again, the psychology of decision-making is twisty. But why not give them the white paper and transcript now, and then still send them the nurturing email in a week?
  • “I’d rather create more webinars than more complicated webinars.” Fresh content drives activity. Talking live over some slides is the cheapest way to make fresh content that I know of. All this other digital platform stuff and finding extra assets will cost more, either in time or in dollars. On the other hand, better content trumps more content.
  • “This won’t work on mobile.” Yes, true, you don’t have the screen size to be showing the user all sorts of geegaws. But also no, you’re probably displaying this in some presentation app already; in this future webinar utopia that we’re describing, the app should have all sorts of options to display more assets and go deeper into your product before, after, and during the presentation.

And there are certainly some dumb reasons.

  • “They owe me their attention for a full hour. If I give away the good stuff in a transcript, nobody will stick around.” This is not about you. The attendees are paying you with an hour of their attention. Respect that.
  • “I want people to watch my webinar, not looking ahead in the slides.” You must have had grade school teachers that punished you for reading ahead in the book and that has warped your worldview. We’ve already established that people are multitasking. Wouldn’t you rather them read your white paper than Reddit?
  • “I don’t want to spend all my digital assets in one place. I dribble them out like precious diamonds.” That’s smart. Assets are expensive. Instead, load up with non-gated assets that are already available on your website. After all, your prospects are right there and interested — why not give them some material that you have already created that they’re now ready for and that will lead them further along the buying journey?
  • “I already have a campaign microsite and it’s branded and customized and I paid a lot of money for it.” Fabulous. I hope you get a bonus this quarter. While in my perfect future we’ll all have branded and dynamic webinar platforms that will let you set your asset list in 14-point Frere-Jones Gotham over a retina full-bleed stock photo image with a small depth of field for that awesome blurry bokeh, you’ll do just fine with an HTML list of links in Verdana. I promise if the content is interesting, people will read it and share it.
  • “I share all that stuff in emails for my lead nurturing campaigns. I don’t want to use it now.” What are your open and click-through rates again? Nobody reads your nurturing emails.
  • “People won’t retain my messages if they are clicking around.” True only if you are giving a technical deep dive. For everything else, I promise I can follow along while browsing. Presentations are an extremely low-bandwidth communication channel. Remember also that not everybody learns in the same way.
  • “People just expect a normal presentation.” Perhaps, if marketers provided a greater value to webinar attendees, they’d get more registrants.
  • “My boss doesn’t understand it.” Do one on the sly and then show them the results.

We are now three decades into this online thing. It took time for radio to stop being just a broadcast of a live performance, and it took time for TV to stop being radio with pictures. It took time for web sites to stop being static and start being interactive and social.

It’s time for our online webinars to stop aping the structures of the previous platforms and develop their own behaviors. We need digital interactive marketing platforms, not webinar platforms.

This software doesn’t exist yet as far as I know, and done poorly it could even reduce your effectiveness. But I think we as digital marketers need to approach the webinar differently. We owe it to our potential customers who give us their time. So as you put together your next webinar, try to think of it as a digital platform. What other good stuff can you give to your audience? What delightful user experience can you create? How could your follow-up be even more useful? What kind of webinars would you invent if they were attractions at Disneyworld? If they were a raid in World of Warcraft? If you had all the engineers at Facebook at your disposal? What if your webinar were amazing?


*I’ve heard people complain that “webinar” is not a word. As I am a language descriptivist, not a prescriptivist, I say, “Give it up, already. Webinar is a word. You’re going to replace this perfectly useful word with some adjective- and jargon-laden phrase? Go burn your copy of Strunk & White.”

Influencers and Innovation

smc_logo_tag[Update! The event was cancelled and will be rescheduled!]

I’m appearing in a Fireside Chat with Brian Solis at the next Social Media Club of San Francisco meeting on Wednesday, February 26 at 6pm. The event is split into three separate parts, but the overarching theme will be innovation. For my segment, we’ll be talking about Using Influencers to Drive Innovation, and I’ll be talking about the VMware vExpert Program and how they help drive innovation at VMware. Tickets are still available as I’m writing this, so please stop by and say hi. The other guests should be good – the managing editor of the SF Chronicle and the CEO of BrightIdea, a purveyor of software that helps you manage innovation. Brian Solis is one of the smartest folks in social media who always has insight in how social is impacting business.

vexpert-logoFive years ago we started a new program to work with the biggest influencers in the VMware ecosystem. We named it the VMware vExpert Program and included 300 of the most passionate bloggers, book authors, user group leaders, and tool makers in the program. It didn’t matter who they worked for — they could be customers, partners, independent consultants or even employees of VMware itself. Over the years we’ve expanded the prototypical role we’re looking beyond public evangelists, but our defining criteria for vExperts has remained the same: people who had given back to the community and gone above and beyond their jobs. In 2013 we had 580 designees, and the 2014 applications are now underway.

The vExperts have grown into an formidable force. They have produced dozens of books on VMware technologies, spoken to thousands in user groups and sales meetings, and searching on most VMware-related technical terms yields a long tail of blog articles alongside our own documentation and web pages.

In the context of innovation, the vExperts have contributed greatly to VMware:

1. vExperts use VMware’s products daily, either as customers or as consultants working with customers. As hands-on users and active IT pros, they are in many ways more qualified to comment on VMware’s products than the engineers who built them. Their blogs are well-read inside the company as feedback. The scripts and tools and workarounds they build to make our products work better are also feedback into the system. In fact, many vExperts have come on board as employees of VMware, and not just as sales engineers or consultants — some have innovated so hard they’ve ended up in engineering! There’s more than one story of a vExpert joining the company and being surprised that their blog posts were being circulated around engineering or were even taped to the walls.

2. The vExperts are important participants in VMware’s private beta testing programs. Not only are many of them hands-on experts, but they have been selected because they are good communicators, and many of them are very comfortable working in online forums. They are exactly the kinds of people that we want participating in our beta testing. They fire up their home labs and put the hours in to install and test software and report bugs so that they can give us feedback but also so that they can get an early grasp of what’s coming in the next release. Years ago, we tried to distinguish early vs late testing programs by only admitting our customers to the early beta tests and then gradually allowing our wide variety of channel partners in. Now, it’s alpha geeks first — which means the vExperts. We also have a more formal Blogger Early Access Program which gives a few selected vExperts a higher-intensity series of briefings and interaction with the product team.

3. The vExperts have turned out to be innovative when it comes to our education as well. Not only are they creating literally thousands of posts around how to use our products, they’ve also helped many study for our certifications. Writing about certifications can be tough — although all companies publish certification topic roadmaps and reams of documentation, they also strive to stamp out “dump sites” of dubious legality that  post remembered test questions from recent test takers and basically let people cheat. This diminishes the value of certifications for everyone. The vExperts not only keep up the culture of not cheating, they’ve created their own study materials that supplement the company’s own materials without just giving away test answers. Along with the blog posts, study guides, books, and videos that help with certification, one programs stands out: the vBrownbag podcasts. This podcast series started x years ago as a simple study group, and has now expanded to four regional podcast series and a program of live-streamed technical talks at our main conference. These have all be organized by a geographically disbursed crew of community members who met each other via social media and the vExpert program.

4. Innovative marketing approaches. While I don’t want to compare vExperts to a million typing monkeys, any time you have hundreds of people trying to explain a topic in their own words,  you’re bound to get a few works of Shakespeare in there. We’ve got blog posts about every topic relating to our company, stickers, games, videos, podcasts , online events, offline events, scholarship programs, and more — all organized by the vExpert community with zero guidance from us. One of the more interesting programs has been the Virtual Design Master competition. This online reality competition, dreamed up by two of our vExperts in Toronto, had contestants building actual  data center technical designs and other challenges. Last year’s contest was won by a technical architect from Bangalore. Again, innovation driven by the vExperts without any oversight from VMware itself.

We do have formal innovation programs inside VMware, but the vExperts, as a voice of the customer and as a group of alpha geeks, are certainly an engine of VMware innovation. They are passionate about the technology, they give back to the community, and they drive forward how businesses — who are our customers — can take advantage of technology innovations.

Geek Whisperers in Action

See more Geek Whisperers – our podcast about social media and community in enterprise IT — over at  Somehow I’m not surprised I got caught talking. The laptop is Brender’s — mine has more stickers and more dents. Taken on Aug 28, 2013 at VMworld in San Francisco by Sean Thulin.
via Facebook

Watch the Influencer Marketing Panel at the Cisco Social Media for Savvy Marketers Event

The Cisco Social Media for Savvy Marketers event was quite interesting. I don’t say that just because they invited me; the topics and the guests were way above the typical Social Media 101 level you often find at conferences. The event was held April 19, 2013 on the Cisco campus, and it was streamed live online. You can now access video from all the sessions on demand.

Our panel was on Influencer Marketing with panelists from SAP, Citrix and VMware. I posted the abstract and lineup previously. Since Perrine runs the Citrix CTP Program and I started the VMware vExpert Program, I thought we’d get more into the “Ambassador Program” end of the topic. But our moderator, Darin Wolder from Marketwired, was quite good and kept us out of the weeds and inside the more general part of the topic and how it related to social media marketing in general.

I’ll have to rewatch the whole thing and see if we embarrassed ourselves. I didn’t have any place to stash my iPad so I brought it on stage with me and keep watching the tweetstream. Reading an iPad while sitting on a stool doesn’t foster very good posture, so I don’t recommend it for public speakers.

Go to the blog post that links to the reg form that gets you to the on demand video here.

[Finally, It’s never nice to be rude to your hosts, so I want to make this suggestion nicely, but my observation is that I think they might be going a bit heavy on regulating access via a registration wall here. I was surprised by the online registration form on the day of the event (and it is a relatively gentle one; sometimes our corporate ones are much worse — how many x86 servers do you have in your environment?) And now since it’s behind a reg wall I can’t embed our panel session on this blog. Of course, in a corporate setting, there are lots of cooks in the kitchen, and I imagine the Cisco Social team wanted to see who is watching, and show the powers that be that it’s real people from real companies, not just 20-year-old social media interns. And it looks like the videos are hosted on their learning platform, so there might be technical issues involved in opening it up. Still, I don’t normally recommend gating your videos if you want more people to watch them. Given the people involved I’m pretty sure they aren’t going to start spamming my email address, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they found that Mickey Mouse and friends were watching their event. But don’t let that put you off — please check it out! It’s worth watching.]


Why company accounts on Twitter aren’t enough

Last week we released a Geek Whisperers podcast, as we’ve done every week for seven whole episodes now. Since we think we’re somewhat clever, we pull out witticisms from the podcast itself to use as titles. We think this is fun but it makes for terrible SEO. The latest episode is entitled You Would Not Survive without Humans, which I think is something I said. The topic is about balancing the needs and responsibilities of personal vs corporate social media.

Several people in our community had asked us to cover this topic, so we recorded a podcast on it a few weeks back. Coincidently and after the podcast was already in the can, when I went to speak at the Cisco Social Savvy event last week, three people independently asked me the same thing: “How do I balance personal vs corporate social media? What happens when the personal overshadows the corporate brand?” Our panel wasn’t even on that topic, but it seems like this question is top of mind for a lot of people.

I think we did a good job in our podcast on personal vs corporate social media, but this topic is deep and multi-faceted enough that we’ll come back to revisit it a few more times. I do want to explore a few aspects of how to deal with it in this blog. I’ll do it in several parts — this first part talks about why your corporate social account alone is insufficient.

I think this analysis holds for all social media platforms, but it holds the most for Twitter. Twitter has always been an odd duck. Even now we get asked all the time how to get started on Twitter, because Twitter usage is very individual and these overlapping circles of conversation are not easy to conceptualize at first. (In fact, next Monday’s podcast is on this very topic.) I’ll touch on the other platforms at the end. Remember, as always, that my context is the community surrounding a large technology company, and your mileage may vary.

Your Brand is a Robot that clicks and buzzes at your audience.
Your Brand on Twitter is a Robot that clicks and buzzes at your audience.

On Twitter, companies and people are on an equal footing. I haven’t seen any statistics, but I suspect that most people follow more fellow human beings than companies, even if the human beings they follow are celebrities and not real people with real lives. In my personal Twitter account, I follow around four thousand people in the IT and social media fields. (I’m a professional at this; I don’t necessarily recommend following this many people at home.) Recently I realized I’ve stopped following all corporate accounts except for my own company’s account and a few media outlets. I don’t follow big companies; I don’t follow startups; I don’t even follow companies partnered with my company — but I do follow employees from all these companies. So if this is true, and it is from my experience, most people’s Twitter streams are filled with people’s faces. Although some corporate logos are sprinkled in, the context is social — people chatting with other people. In that context, brands are robots.

Brands accounts are really good at one thing: they’re the official news source of your company. Most corporate social media accounts realize this and tweet what are more-or-less headlines. They are the official source of first-party content, with most tweets are a title and a link, or perhaps a pithy saying you’re going to find quotable. They’re linking to what they hope is valuable and interesting content to their followers. One of the trite sayings I give to people I’m advising is: “You have to put out fish food to attract the fish.” Everybody nods after I say this, so I keep saying it. The brands are trying to attract some fish by actually adding value and nurturing their followers. They’re linking to articles; they’re linking to white papers; they’re linking to webinars and events and funny pictures and press releases. They’re linking either to materials they’ve created or 3rd-party content they think you’ll like. They’re probably also slipping a bit of demand generation activity in there as well, even though I suspect that most of the people that read these tweets are already in the corporate demand gen database.

But brand accounts have two big disadvantages, and this is why our ultimate conclusion is going to be that you need your employees out there as well. Their first disadvantage is that they are companies, not people. You can try to humanize them, but it doesn’t work on Twitter — just take my word on it for now, and we’ll discuss how it doesn’t work next time, but for now, here’s one example. My university alumni association’s Twitter account just congratulated me on finding our cat, who had been trapped in our neighbor’s basement for 3 weeks. I found it creepy. But if “Mary from the alumni association” had done the same, I would have found it thoughtful and maybe followed her back just from that shared connection.  Sometimes brands will tweet inanities like “Happy Friday”. This is also a mistake. Brands don’t have permission to make small talk. Remember, in the Twitter-as-chat context we’re talking about, your brand is a robot. A robot can try to talk about the weather, but it can’t talk about getting stuck in the airport or its kids or its hometown football team, because it doesn’t have any of those things.

As an aside, if you switch out of the “chat” framework of thinking about Twitter, your can think of your branded account actually as more of a magazine than a robot. This realization has spurred a lot of hype around “content marketing,” and some of that advice is actually good. Your company is a media company producing a magazine. Out of scope for this blog post, though, but let’s just note that magazines don’t make good small talk either.

The second disadvantage is that brands talk too much. Twitter is the ultimate content black hole. Tweets only last for a short time; most people will see your tweet in the first hour or two before it gets pushed away by other content. If you want to keep your message out in front of your followers — which you do, because that’s what you get paid for — you need to keep pumping out tweets to keep your channel filled. And that’s ok, especially if you’re a big company, because you’ve got all this content you’ve spent all this money to produce. At one point we were cranking out 5-10 different items a day pulled from blogs, program news, and other assets published across our company. New blog posts, white papers, webinars, classes, user groups, promotions, videos, … and on and on and on. If you’re a smaller company or more aggressive about marketing, you’ve got less content but you’re repeating each item several times. (Which people notice, by the way. Don’t think they don’t notice.) And we’ll just assume that all of your content is valuable, on target, well-written, and not full of corporate marketing-speak, so that people would actually want to read it. We’ll ignore the fact that this is only true for 10% of the things your company creates.

One of the main reasons that email marketing open rates go down over time is saturation: you are sending too much for the recipients to absorb. Even if you send me a newsletter every week that’s incredibly valuable, I probably won’t open every one just because I get too busy. The same problem is part of what prevented RSS from becoming a mainstream consumer-facing technology. People felt guilty when they opened their feed reader and were faced with thousands of unread items from hundreds of information fire hoses. They already felt guilty about that situation in their email client; why did they need more guilt in their lives when they wanted to do something fun and informative? There’s a real reason why Twitter doesn’t track where you left off last time or have a big flashing Number of Unread Tweets.

You’re stuck in this Catch-22. You need to keep your channel filled it so people see it. You can’t make small talk, so you publish with interesting information and links. But at the granularity of a Twitter account which represents a company or a product, most people are overwhelmed either by volume or breadth — they just aren’t that interested in you. Even for VMware, which has passionate followers who have bet their entire professional careers on us… they still aren’t interested in every corporate fart we emit.

Enter your employees, who are actual people with actual faces and who can help curate you out of this mess. We’ll pick up there next time.

We’ve been focusing on Twitter. Does this hold for other social channels like Facebook, Google+, and LinkedIn? They do have a few advantages for brands over Twitter. Since they are more visual — pictures and link previews show up right there in the stream — companies can drop some sort of branded image in the stream, and people will see it without clicking on it, which has some sort of value to the company, and hopefully to the viewer. For Facebook & LinkedIn, they also allow people to show off their affinity by following you. People may not really want to read all your spam, but they want to have your logo on their profile page. But the saturation problem remains, and in fact is even worse. Twitter is a wall of text messages, and it is built for skimming. You can follow many people and skim a lot of content on Twitter. For the other platforms, since images and previews show up right in the stream, skimming is harder, and the number of accounts you can follow goes down. The saturation problem gets worse. Nobody has time for all your emissions in the first place, and now they have to scroll and scroll to get past them.

Next up: Why your employees are your most effective social ambassadors. How they can balance their personal brand vs their corporate responsibilities. And what happens if somebody gets famous and then leaves?

John on Social Influencer Marketing panel Thursday 5/17/13

I will be a panelist at the Social Media for Savvy Marketers event this week put on by Cisco. You can watch online by registering for the online event here. Our panel on “Social Influencer Marketing” will be at 3:45pm PDT / 6:45pm EDT on Thursday, April 17. Check out the full two-day agenda.

The panel is:

  • Moderator Darin Wolder, Marketwire 
  • Todd Wilms, Sr Director, Social Media, SAP @toddmwilms
  • Perrine V. Crampton, Community Programs Manager, Citrix @pcrampton
  • John Troyer, Director, Social Media Evangelist, VMware @jtroyer

And our abstract:

While social influence marketing has taken the B2C world by storm, the B2B space has lingered behind, more encumbered by the need to budget against measurable results. Yet the reigns are loosening. The reality is that, while behaviors are very different among B2B influencers, the opportunities for amplifying messages and driving action are just as worth pursuing. This session will explore how B2B marketers should address a social marketing influence plan, including identifying  and understanding key market segments, the motivations encouraging influencers to work with brands, the return on investment and setting expectations.

I’m afraid I kicked off our prep call by saying that I don’t like social media, and looking at the abstract I don’t agree with the opening premise that the B2B space has “lingered behind”, so I hope I don’t bring too much snark to the panel. However, in our prep call discussion we all seemed to agree, so I think snark won’t be needed and I’m confident we’ll give out some good insight on the state of influencer marketing in the B2B space in 2013.  I’ll probably talk about loving the people in your community and come off as some sort of social media hippie. Maybe I’ll have to slip some ROI stuff in there as well to disperse the patchouli oil smell.

Join me on Thursday! Thanks!

The Geek Whisperers: a podcast for social media practitioners who work with enterprise IT technologists

geek_whisperersWe launched our podcast, The Geek Whisperers, in February and now we’re about to publish episode 6. The Geek Whisperers is a podcast for social media practitioners who work with enterprise IT communities. The first episode has the founding story of how this little project began, but I’ll repeat it here from my perspective.

I work in social media professionally, and I have for the 7 and 1/2 years I’ve been with VMware. We called it something like blogging and evangelism back then, but the objectives are still the same — connect with the folks who use our products and make them successful. I really do as much work with online community as with social media, but increasingly those lines have blurred and I do a lot of internal consulting on social media campaigns, social networking presence, and content marketing. (Content marketing being 2013’s social media word of the year, but basically content marketing means writing stuff that people actually want to read, rather than marketing crap that you want to write. This has been a revelation for some marketing professionals.)

But over the whole time in my job I’ve struggled with my relationship with the social media industry. I think this comes in two parts. First of all, I’m really more of a technologist than a marketer. Although my technical background was more in programming than system administration or infrastructure, over the years I’ve become deeply enmeshed in this IT space filled with storage, networking, servers, and the mysteries of how IT can transform itself to align better with the needs of the business and not just be the guys you call when the printer doesn’t work. Becoming an IT-pro-by-proxy is how I’ve done my job — by becoming part of the community I’m working with.

But the second part of my difficulty is that the social media industry doesn’t seem very relevant to what I do. Even if you avoid the obvious simplistic advice about how and when to Tweet, the self-help/guru/personal branding crowd, and the scammy Internet Marketers, you’re left with a lot of direct marketing and consumer branding activity. Not much of that is directly related to helping an IT architect be successful building out a next-generation data center.

So over the years I’ve girded my loins a few times, filled up my RSS reader with social media blogs, started a blog or two, and gone to a few conferences, but my heart really hasn’t been in it, and I’ve chucked it all after a few weeks to get back to doing my job with my community. At the same time, after 30 years of participating in online community and after 7 years of doing it professionally, I think I have something to say.

Enter the Geek Whisperers. It was born out of a conversation with Amy Lewis of Cisco at VMworld Barcelona in 2012 — if you’ve met us you can imagine the scene, with both of us only getting a word in when the other one had to stop and take a breath. It turned out we had a lot in common professionally. After adding Matt Brender of EMC as a co-conspirator, we finally just kicked it off and figured we’ll figure out the details as we go along, which is the way all good (non-IT) projects should go!

Some people have pushed back on the name. “Geek Whisperers” doesn’t necessarily mean that we talk about geeky IT stuff, but like the Horse Whisperer and Dog Whisperer, we have experience working with geeks, we seem to have an affinity for it, and our methods are mysterious to many traditionally-trained marketing pros. We spend a lot of time in our respective large company employers explaining what we do, why it’s good for the company, and how you can do it too.

The podcast format is a bit of an experiment. I’ve run a live weekly call-in podcast for the VMware community for almost 5 years now, so I know it can be effective in reaching people, but this experience of starting a new, weekly show, hopefully well-produced and edited, and starting from scratch is a bit of a new thing for us. We hope the podcast format will help us directly interact with more people, interview more people, and entertain more people. We seem to laugh a lot, which comes across better in a podcast than a blog!

I’m bullish on podcasting in 2013. After 10 years of skipping along at a low level it seems like smart phones are finally making it easier to listen to podcasts. I’ve started listening more in the car and while cleaning the house, simply streaming to my iPhone or iPad.

We haven’t been doing a lot of promotion, so our audience has been growing slowly and it’s really been more in our native IT communities than the social media practitioners we were expecting to talk to. We’ve tried to be very honest on the show, so I hope my IT friends aren’t shocked that, yes, actually, we do run marketing programs tied to business objectives. But we work by bringing humanity and a community spirit to the dark arts of marketing, so I hope you see us as the good guys.

If you do work in social media marketing in a company that sells products or services to enterprise IT, come along and have a listen! We’ll keep doing the podcast as long as we’re having fun, and so far we’re having a blast! Here’s our episodes so far

Drop us a line if you like what you hear. Thanks!