I’m not sure if its just the natural cross pollination that happens in your mind when you are working on more than one big project at once or if I have really had an epiphany (NB – if it does happen to be the latter, I am certain that I am not the first person to have it, but it’s still fun to write about those A-Ha moments nonetheless).
Any of you following my twitter stream for the past few months will know that I am currently going very deep on two projects right now at work: ‘corporate social media’ (I already hate the sound of that) and marketing automation. The first is being driven mainly by personal interest and a boss who gives me time to experiment in areas that I can convince him might be important some day to what my real job is. The second is an actual assignment: something I wasn’t necessarily looking to do, but nonetheless have devoted a significant amount of time and mental energy to and have actually quite enjoyed working on.
I am sure anyone who can actually find this blog has at least passing familiarity with social media, so I won’t go into that here. Marketing automation may be a new topic (at least it was for me). The basic idea behind marketing automation software is to manage the very front of the engagement process between potential customers and the companies they might do business with. In these early stages, the idea is that potential customers exhibit behaviors that indicate their level of interest and willingness to buy. Steve Gillmor calls them gestures (no link to Steve cause he likes it that way…besides that he doesn’t need my links). By capturing as many of these signs as possible you allocate your limited sales resources to the customers who need the most attention at a particular point in time. Others who aren’t quite ready to talk a sales person are ‘nurtured’ by providing them very specific information about what they are looking for based on the gestures they have provided to this point in the engagement. Micro-sites, targeted custom emails, etc. Those that have provided some gestures but not enough to warrant being nurtured are just tracked in the hopes that one day they may ‘perk up’ and move to the nurture or even the sale stage.
Now, my epiphany: the gestures that marketing automation solutions are tracking are only getting part of the picture. Email opens, website visits, calls into call centers are all valuable gestures and should certainly figure into the scoring system. However, lets say a email open is worth 1 point, a website visit of more than 60 seconds is worth 2 points and a call into a call center is worth 4 points. What then is a blog post about a product or service worth? A comment in a user lead forum? A video about the product or service? These have to be all double digit points – they take alot more time, effort and thought by the potential customer than reading their email. They all represent a much greater commitment than clicking on a link and browsing through to a website.
So if I can get the feeds, what’s keeping me from being able to track these most valuable gestures?
Identity for one thing. I can tell that user 678abc posted a good how-to video on our product on YouTube, but I have if that might be the same person or someone completely different than user 123hjk that posted a critical comment on a forum. The screen name culture that has widely emerged on the net keeps me from being able to put all the puzzle pieces together. There are two potential ways out of this: an identity system like OpenID could finally catch on and there would start to be unification of a users identity across a wide range of sites. What I think is more likely (solely based on personal experience of having an OpenID and being able to use it on all of 5 of the hundreds of sites I visit that keep track of my identity) is that the aggregagation services like FriendFeed or SocialThing may be a more pervasive solution to the gesture identity issue. With these services users can create a single feed from all their various services. The aggregated feeds provide a single user to assign gestures on blogs, twitter, flickr, etc. to. With that single identity I can get somewhere in figuring out what someone really thinks across a much richer set of gestures and can correlate what was said on a blog to a tweet a few weeks later to a video on youtube.
Another stumbling block is one interpretation of the ladder of participation that Forester has popularized. This interpretation says that since less that 10% of any market is actively engaged in ‘creating’ content in the social media sphere, that if we can capture the gestures of the vast majority that just consume then we will have plucked the ‘low hanging fruit’. The fallacy of that argument is that it ignores the weight of the gestures made by those that create. It assumes that every gesture gets 1 point in the example I gave above. So while only 10% of a market population create, the weighted value of the gestures they emit may well be over 50% of all those sent to the market.
The last stumbling block seems is one of focus. It goes back to a concept I have read and listened to about a lot and one I have even blogged on a few times: VRM or Vendor Relationship Management. Originally conceived on a podcast a few years ago as the inverse of customer relationship management, it has evolved to the point where there is a pretty considerable body of work out there defining what it is and how it should work, Basically it’s a system for individuals to express to the market a need or requirement for a product and selectively disclose additional information to potential providers of that product (or service) as they earn trust. I am very interested to see how that progresses, but what I think I am really talking about here is the ‘catcher’ for all of that information on the company side. Giving the ‘little guy’ (i.e. the individual consumer) a voice is a necessary and good thing but it won’t alone solve the problem. The VRM project needs to give a way for companies to better listen to what is being expressed by individuals through their VRM tools.
I am genuinely excited about the idea of every consumer being able to express exactly what they want to the market and the proto forms of that are already appearing in what you see happening in the social media space today. Every snide comment is actually a suggestion for improvement in disguise. Every unsolicited and honest testimonial is worth its weight in gold. However, the VRM system that Doc Searls and others are working on needs to not only have the individual side of the equation covered, but also the provider or there will be no way for them to actually listen to the market and give each individual what they really want.
So, if any of the marketing automation providers are listening: check out what Doc is up to with VRM at the Berkman center and get it baked into your product plans yesterday
. If anyone from Project VRM stumbles across this, please spend a little time thinking about us poor companies that want to listen to customers but can’t read every page and need a way to better figure out who is saying what so we can listen and then talk.
Not to get too meta, but this blog post is a perfect example of why this connection is needed: If all of the pieces of VRM were in place I could express this need in a formalized standard way in my VRM tool and then the marketing automation providers and the Project VRM team would hear this from their collectors and be able to read and respond. Let’s see if it works even in this proto form.