Monthly Archives: March 2010

The 10 Plagues of Social Media

Here’s a clever take on the traditional 10 Plagues of Ancient Egypt (as adapted to our modern world). Just in time for Passover.

Courtesy of David Berkowitz and Media Post’s SOCIAL MEDIA INSIDER.

In honor of the season, where some celebrate the ancient story of slaves’ exodus from Egypt, it’s time for a new telling of the ten plagues: the Ten Plagues of Social Media. All are paired with a counterpart from the ancient rendition.

Note that some debates remain as to the ancient plagues’ literal meanings. When in doubt, I deferred to biblical scholar Robert Alter’s translation of “The Five Books of Moses.”

1) Blood: Lack of transparency

Whenever marketers aren’t fully transparent as to who they are and what they’re promoting when reaching out to consumers and online influencers, they cloud consumers’ trust just like blood clouded the Nile. The demands of transparency also fall on the content producers whenever their contributions can be considered influenced by other parties.

2) Frogs: Oversharing

Imagine trying to get a good night’s sleep with millions of frogs croaking up a storm. Now try staying on top of what’s happening with your social graph when so many of their updates are dedicated to what errands they’re running or how much they had to drink last night. Oversharing can wind up hurting relationships, and rightfully makes some question how much value social media adds to their lives.

3) Lice: Campaign-based thinking

It’s hard to get lice out of your head, and there’s no easy cure for shaking off campaign-based thinking, either. Campaign-to-campaign and quarter-to-quarter thinking prevents marketers from reaping the long-term benefits of social marketing.

4) Flies: Autoposting

Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, Foursquare, and other sites are not all the same, but the way some marketers unleash hoards of content, you might think the sites were interchangeable. Posting the same content in the same way across every social site is efficient for the producer, but diminishes the experience for the recipients. Marketers need to think twice about nearly any kind of automated messaging. There’s a place for it; headline and deal feeds are some that can work as syndicated feeds while managing consumer expectations. The first instinct should be to avoid this, though.

5) Pestilence / livestock disease: Lack of internal communication

I don’t want to refer to your colleagues (or mine) as livestock, but you depend on your colleagues for your livelihood and putting food on the table, just as our ancient forbears relied on livestock. When marketers and their agency partners aren’t in close communication, and when there isn’t communication internally with any of those parties, it amounts to a plague on their livelihood.

6) Boils: Lack of Integration

In this case, the plague fits the crime. Social marketing campaigns should be planned just as tightly in conjunction with other marketing programs as boils are connected to victims’ skin. Perhaps it’s not the most pleasant analogy, but these are the ten plagues, not the ten happiest things to ever happen.

7) Hail: Talking at consumers

Sometimes, reading marketers’ updates in social channels feels like walking through a hailstorm. You get pelted by a self-aggrandizing update here and a limited-time offer there, and you can’t wait to run for cover. Conversing and asking questions can soften the blows and make it more like a day at the beach.

8) Locusts: Bright shiny object syndrome

If you’ve ever seen a swarm of locusts on National Geographic Channel or Discovery, you’ll appreciate why this was the first plague association to come to mind. Look at all the locusts move from field to field — blogs to MySpace to Second Life to widgets to Twitter to Facebook to augmented reality to Foursquare — sucking the life out of them and then looking for their next meal. Marketers can shed their locust exoskeletons by figuring out what works and sticking with it, even while exploring new opportunities.

9) Darkness: Lack of vision

When you see marketers fumble royally in social media, you’re usually witnessing a marketer that didn’t plan ahead. These fumbles can often arise when a marketer is dealing with a crisis, but they can also come up when marketers are more successful than they anticipated, such as when too many consumers take them up on a deal. Plan for the best and the worst, and be prepared to act when either arises to prevent darkness from descending on your social programs.

10) Death of the firstborn: Death of marketing as we know it

The death of the firstborn plague is the most permanent. There has been a similar plague on marketing and media: rising consumer expectations of some form of two-way communication. For consumers like myself who grew up writing letters to brands that pleasantly or unpleasantly surprised me, this is deliciously empowering. This plague will kill off some marketers who can’t adapt.

Egypt wasn’t undone by the exodus, or any version of it that has been passed down to us. It remained a capital of the ancient world for over a thousand years more and has been a pivotal part of many great civilizations and cultures since. Plagues may afflict us and they may kill off the weak, but the springtime exodus saga tells the greater story of rebirth and renaissance. If there’s not a promised land for marketers per se, may we at least heal from these plagues to uphold brands’ promises to consumers.

Advertisements

TIME Recognizes “The Fast Growing World of Internet Radio”

In their special investigation into “post industrial Detroit”, TIME magazine wrote about “a fairly new group of young Detroit women who are looking to leave the freshest broadcast imprint” in “the fast-growing world of Internet radio” (their words, not mine!)

The show is called ALL GIRL TALK RADIO and features lively discussions with four “Detroit-raised businesswomen, wives and moms” who have (according to TIME) “steadily gathered steam in recent months as their hot topics and smart, sassy on-air personalities have reeled in thousands of listeners a week, some as nearby as W. 7 Mile Road and some as far away as the United Kingdom”.

I mention it here for two reasons:

1. I’m an ex-Detroiter who always likes to hear ANY good news from back home and

2. As an even prouder INTERNET RADIO PIONEER who is thrilled to hear words like “the fast-growing world of Internet radio” and “the growing world of online radio” included in ANY mainstream magazine article. Could they be catching on to the most powerful social medium ever imagined?

You can read more at TIME’s year long investigaton project called (what else?) THE DETROIT BLOG.

Hyper-Local Blogging

If the Internet is truly aboutdiscovering and mining overlooked niches in the marketplace, then here’s a trend worth watching: hyper-local blogging.  It’s all about using the incredible power of the Internet not to reach the whole world but just one small part of it (just like our idea of “hosting an Internet Radio show for your local community”).

Found this great article by Drew Hubbard that discusses it more:

“If you are involved with your community, and you have some free time, a hyper-local blog can provide a much-needed, dynamic source of information for your fellow residents. In short, hyper-local blogging is awesome. The concept can be appealing to potential bloggers trying to find a niche. If you don’t know much about it, check out Matt McGee’s great site about hyper-local blogging at http://www.hyperlocalblogger.com/.

Another excellent venue for reading up on hyper-local blogging is the Outside.In Blog which covers all things hyper-local. My favorite feature of the site is called Blogiology, in which the staff examines cities and their best hyper-local resources. So far, they have covered Miami, Richmond, Dallas, Phoenix, Durham, Detroit, Ann Arbor, Portland, Philadelphia, Buffalo, San Francisco, St. Louis, and Boston.

Stay informed. For more insights into local advertising, visit the exhibit hall at ad:tech San Francisco, April 19-21. Learn more.

But even more important than individual bloggers, brands (yes, even big ones) can and should be exploring the benefits of hyper-local blogging. Being able to connect with existing and potential clients and consumers on the neighborhood level can build a trust-based relationship that is virtually unattainable elsewhere in traditional and even digital advertising.”

To read the full article, visit his blog on IMedia Connection.

And don’t forget to check out our own take on “hyper local” thru “hosting your own Internet Radio show on http://www.OCTalkRadio.net.

New Apple iPhone App Plays OC Talk Radio

As all our loyal listeners know by now, OC Talk Radio will play on any internet enabled smart phone.  But SPARK RADIO has taken that concept to a new level by creating the first iPhone app that allows you to keep surfing the web while listening to our “stimulating conversations” in the background thru the addition of a built-in web browser.
 
Using the station directory supplied by our partner RADIO TIME, listeners can instantly tune into OC TALK RADIO or 10,000 other top rated internet and terrestrial stations from around the world, with new stations being added daily.  The expectation is that there will be more than 30,000 available by April. This means users can listen to precisely what they want, when they want, whether it be music, talk radio, sports events, public radio or special programming from the ‘global community’ (including our exclusive content broadcast right here from Orange County, California).
 
An elegant interface and program guide make it easy for users to quickly find their favorite stations. Users can search for stations or programs by keyword, location or the station URL and can browse programming by genre or location. A GPS component even allows listeners to find local stations in any given city based on current GPS coordinates. “The Spark Radio app is a beautiful and fun radio application that opens the world’s selection of music and talk programming that only radio can provide,” said Bill Moore, CEO of RadioTime, Inc. “RadioTime makes it easy for Spark Radio users to find their favorite radio stations, like OC Talk Radio, and discover new ones from wherever they are.” And Spark Radio has a social component which allows listeners to create a profile and see what other people are listening to at any given moment by using an interactive Globe Navigator. Ratings of stations can be shared in the community along with any favorites. 
 
So if you want to instantly become part of a community of listeners tuned into a wide range of community stations from around the world, check out the new Apple iPhone app called SPARK RADIO.  It’s available for download through iTunes for $5.99.
 

Read more at the Handcast Media press release

Anatomy of a Google Snippet

This may be  a bit technical, but it’s important (none the less) to consider how Google (and others) come up with their “snippets” of infomation that they display for each page they index.  That’s why I’m passing along the ONLY article I’ve even run across that discusses this important (but often overlooked) point.

  After all, it doesn’t do any good  to get your page indexed if it isn’t clear and isn’t captivting what that page offers.  So, let’s deconstruct the Google snippet in all its glory — from the Posts/Authors/Last Post line, to the document date, to the Keywords in Context (”KWIC”), to the ellipses, to the inside-the-snippet anchor links.  As explained by Stephan Spencer, Vice President of SEO Strategies at Covario in a recent guest article he wrote for SEARCH ENGINE LAND.

But before we do, it would probably be a good idea to define the term snippet. Google defines a snippet as “a description of or an excerpt from the webpage” that follows the title and precedes the URL and Cached link. Simply put, the snippet refers to the description portion of a Google search listing. It doesn’t include the title, nor does it include the URL. Google engineer Matt Cutts provides a good introduction to snippets and the surrounding neighborhood in this video.

This is a crucially important detail: snippets are determined query-time; in other words, they vary depending on the keyword being searched on, as demonstrated by Wordstream’s blog post about snippet control here.

What are the components of a Google snippet?

First, there is sometimes a gray line of text that precedes everything else. If Google determines that the site is a discussion forum, you’ll see in gray text: “[number] posts – [number] authors – Last post: [some date]“, as you can see in the example below:

If it’s a scholarly article, then the gray text says something like “by J Smith – 2010″ or “by J Smith – Cited by 1 – Related articles.” If a book result, then it’ll show something like “by J Smith – 2010 – Fiction – 333 pages.” If the page is marked up with microformats, the gray text may display structured data on people, locations, events, product ratings/reviews, etc. — this is referred to by Google as a rich snippet.

Rich snippets are relatively rare, so don’t expect that employing microformats will automatically trigger rich snippets. I expect this will change as Google continues to roll out their implementation of rich snippets. Rather than discuss rich snippets in detail here, I’ll point you to an article on the topic written by one of my colleagues here at Covario, Jill Kocher.

Then it switches to black text. Sometimes the snippet includes a date at the beginning followed by ellipses (”…”). That occurs if Google determines there is a primary date associated with the page in question, such as is often the case with a blog post. This does not hold true for blog category pages, because there are multiple posts listed, with a date associated with each.

Google is quite adept at teasing out the date from the page. It doesn’t have to be marked up with some special microformat. I’ve seen dates enclosed in div or span tags with a class name that is anything but standard (e.g. class=”date”, class=”submitted”, class=”posthead”, etc.). I’ve seen dates in dd tags with a label like “Post date” in a dt tag, or simply the words “Last modified:” preceding the date. I’ve even seen dates simply bare in the copy. Google correctly handled them all.

If there is no date but the snippet begins with ellipses, that indicates the snippet was excerpted from a larger body of text (whether part of a meta description or page copy — more on this in a minute) and text preceding the ellipses was omitted. Similarly, when ellipses follow at the end of the snippet, the snippet was truncated for length. The maximum length of a snippet (at least a standard snippet), not including ellipses at the beginning or end, is 156 characters. If the snippet source (e.g. the meta description) is any longer than 156 characters, the snippet will be truncated and ellipses will be displayed to mark where the text continues but was omitted in the snippet view.

Ellipses can occur at the beginning, and/or end, and/or somewhere in between once or multiple times. There is an exception to this 156 character rule: sometimes an extended snippet is displayed for certain listings, like when it’s a more esoteric query. Or, when the listing is buried deep in the search results, where the snippet spans 3 or even 4 lines in the search results instead of the standard 2 lines and thus there can be nearly double the number of characters present (as in the screenshot above.)

How to influence snippet text to use a Meta description

The copy in black text could be pulled from one or multiple of these sources: from the meta description, from the description from the site’s Open Directory listing, from the content of the page body, or even a combination of these. I’ve seen cases where the meta description and body copy were both incorporated into the snippet.

Surprisingly, even hidden (”display:none”) text can end up in the snippet. Rather than leaving your snippet to chance, try to “convince” the Google algorithm to use your meta description instead (assuming it’s good, i.e. is well-written and compels the click through, of course!) by incorporating the popular search terms in the meta description.

It’s most likely that the meta description will be used by default when the page doesn’t contain the user’s search term and is ranking primarily because of inbound links and their anchor text. Here’s a (perhaps obvious) tip: look at your web analytics for the top search terms driving traffic to the page and make sure these terms are present in that page’s meta description.

Meta descriptions are best hand-crafted, but for a large website, that’s probably impractical. Thankfully, meta descriptions generated automatically based on a recipe can work out well too. For example, an etailer could auto-generate meta descriptions for their product pages whereby all the key bits of information which are scattered throughout the page (e.g. price, size, style, manufacturer) would be gathered together — since it would otherwise be unlikely that a Google-generated snippet would capture all of this information.

According to this Google Webmaster Central Blog post, the meta description is less likely to be used if Google’s automated algorithm deems it low quality. What would cause Google to deem a meta description low quality? If it’s comprised of long strings of keywords, duplication of information that is already in the title tag, content duplication within the meta description itself, or poor formatting that makes the description hard to read.

An Open Directory listing, if you have one, will probably trump your meta description and page copy for your home page. For example, search for “starbucks” and you’ll find the Starbucks.com home page listing has this 1-line snippet: “International chain. Offers store locator, menu, and product information.”

This is the description from the listing for Starbucks in the Open Directory. Despite the fact that the meta description (”Starbucks.com home page”) includes the search term (in this case “starbucks”) and the ODP description doesn’t, the latter is what is chosen for the snippet. If you don’t want your ODP listing to be the basis for your title or snippet, use the meta robots NOODP tag, as explained here.

Search snippets and “Key Words in Context”

Within the black text, you will often see bolded keywords. The bolded words correspond to the search keywords entered by the user. The bolding is referred to by Google engineers in information retrieval (IR) parlance as Keywords in Context, more often by its acronym KWIC. Matt Cutts talks about KWIC (pronounced “quick”) in this video.

Google uses stemming, morphology, and synonyms to relate the searcher’s keywords to the keywords in the document. A different gerund (-ing instead of -ed) could be considered a match by Google’s relevancy algorithm, but it may or may not be bolded as a keyword in context. Doing my own tests, I found cases where queries in a singular form returned plural forms of keywords in bold, and vice versa.

Additional snippet features

After the line(s) of black text, there may be a “plus box.” The plus box could, for instance, be with a stock chart for a publicly traded company’s home page listing. Or a map of a pertinent location if Google was able to extract a primary address from the page.

Sitelinks also may be present after the black text. Sitelinks are not traditionally considered to be part of the snippet. Sitelinks in their standard form point to other locations within the site using text obtained from anchor text or title tags. But there are now anchor-based sitelinks too that point to locations within the same page (when links containing # are present on the page.)

Sitelinks will sometimes be present within the snippet itself (read about this “Jump to” feature here). Strangest of all, the anchor sitelinks is the one that is sometimes attached to forums, detailed at the end of this post. Sitelinks are beyond the scope of this article; I’ll save that for another time. In the meantime, check out this article from one of my New Zealand-based colleagues to learn more about Google’s criteria for displaying sitelinks and how to influence when and how they are displayed.

Occasionally, you may come across a search listing with no snippet. That can happen if the site goes offline or is otherwise not available, such as during a DDoS attack. A more likely scenario is if the page was disallowed by robots.txt. A Disallow directive tells Googlebot not to access the page, but it can still list it in the search results — even though it doesn’t know what is contained on that page. A No-follow directive on the other hand, which is also unofficially supported by Google, will keep the page out of the search results altogether.

5 myths about Google snippets

I’d like to take a moment to dispel several myths about snippets:

The term snippet is synonymous with the search listing and therefore includes the title, URL, Cached link, etc. Not true. Google makes very clear the fact that the term snippet applies solely to the description — and therefore follows the title and precedes the URL and the Cached link.
Google always uses the meta description in the snippet if it’s defined. That is far from the case. As already mentioned, snippets are query-specific and so they are always changing. Even when your meta description includes the search term, there are no guarantees.
Meta descriptions help with rankings — not just the snippet. This is patently untrue. According to Google, “while accurate meta descriptions can improve clickthrough, they won’t affect your ranking within search results” (from this aforementioned post.)
The bolded keywords in the search listing are bolded because they affected the ranking. Nope. The bolding of keywords (KWIC) is solely for user experience purposes. The meta description, as already stated directly above, does not influence a page’s rankings.
The maximum length of a standard snippet is 160 characters. I’ve seen various SEO bloggers asserting max lengths of 150, 156, 160, 161, and 165. What’s the correct answer? As mentioned above, 156.
I love to see creative snippets. Here’s one of my favorites, from Darren Slatten’s home page (SEOmofo.com):

Speaking of Darren, I encourage you to check out these clever snippet experiments he conducted and his Snippet Optimizer tool. Another useful tool — this one from Google — is the Rich Snippets Testing Tool; just don’t get your hopes up that this means your listings will display with rich snippets anytime soon – unless of course, you’re the size of LinkedIn or Hulu.

7 Consumer Trends that Define Business in the “New Normal”

By Paul Diamond, Manager Base Communications, Vistage International

“Business as usual” is undergoing a transformation brought on by changing consumer tastes and dramatic economic pressures. Companies now have to find new ways to appeal to consumers scarred by the recent economic crisis. These consumers spend less and save more; many are jobless, many lack trust in businesses, and many expect the government to provide a high level of service.

Business operations are under numerous other pressures, including constrained credit, economic uncertainty, threat of increased inflation, excessive consolidation in many industries, the rapid pace of innovation, rising commodity prices and a constant pressure to do things better, faster and cheaper.

The 7 trends detailed below are opportunities you can seize to give your customers more of what they want.

Trend 1: Short-Termism
The financial crisis that brought us to the brink of monetary end-times made consumers realize that governments, institutions and even brands don’t have a good sense of the future—and they certainly can’t control a quickly developing crisis. Consumers have become fearful of what might happen next, and they no longer trust that enterprises operate towards a stable, long-term future.

“People are thinking more about the here and now, and less about things that may or may not last a long time,” says noted trend analyst William Higham, author of The Next Big Thing—Spotting & Forecasting Consumer Trends for Profit.

“This sentiment leads us to buy based on our immediate needs. It also makes us want to take greater responsibility for ourselves across a range of sectors, rather than relying on media, politicians, professionals or brands, who we feel have let us down. For example, we are increasingly self-diagnosing and self-treating; scheduling media at the times we want; and making our own playlists rather than buying new compilation albums.”

Additionally, people now understand that the pace of innovation rapidly outdates expensive technology purchases. The relative usefulness of smart phones, navigation systems, laptops, software, and televisions lasts no more than a year, sometime only months. When it comes to new technology purchases, consumers have learned to adopt a “wait-and-see” attitude.

Trend 2: Brand Aid
Companies are now building brand loyalty by helping their consumers navigate through today’s complexities and difficulties.

“These brands want to be seen as helping consumers through life,” said Higham.

Brand aid typically takes the form of advice, information or free services provided to the public. Examples include:

  • Microsoft: Publishes a free online magazine, Home, offering unbiased Internet guidance
  • Charmin: Offers free public restrooms for shoppers in New York’s Times Square during the holiday season
  • Evy Baby: This diaper company places branded changing rooms in Turkish shopping malls
  • American Express: Created openforum.com to help business owners find success

Higham thinks the trend will expand to an entirely new aid market: “Tomorrow’s consumers will pay a premium for brands that help them avoid activities that are either difficult, time consuming or unpleasant. This will be a particularly strong driver in the luxury sector, as definitions of luxury evolve from ostentation to experience and more recently convenience and privilege.”

Trend 3: Conscious Consumerism
You know those people who buy something only if it’s organic, eco-friendly or made locally? Soon most of us will make our purchases based on such highly selective, specific criteria.

“Companies should think about their consumers in terms of what, why and how they purchase,” says Higham. Impulse buying is waning, giving way to purchases that are driven by enduring core values. “With less money to spend, there will be a reduction in impulse purchasing and a growth in conscious consumption: where individuals limit purchases to products that matter to them. Brands will increasingly need to provide a meaningful reason for consumers to buy their products: from strong aesthetics to durability, heritage to sustainability. And they will need to target their products more specifically to particular attitudinal and needs segments.”

Trend 4: Simplification
One of the key trends of the 2000s was the growth of choice. But a backlash has begun, as more and more consumers suffer choice fatigue. “Consumers will increasingly seek, not unlimited choice, but an edited choice,” says Higham.

Simplification creates three distinct marketplace opportunities for nimble companies, including:

• Recommendation as a service: Recommendations and shortlists of options that give us the right choice rather than an abundance of choices will become increasingly popular. Additionally, products that reduce the need to make a choice will benefit from this trend.

• Single-occasion products: Certain single-occasion products such as birthday cakes, wedding gowns and event insurance have long been with us. Now companies are elevating daily activities into occasions that pair with their products. “You can buy bottles of wine made to be drunk with specific dishes like fish or chicken; or coffee brands that are made to be drunk at specific times of the day.” This pairing serves to simplify choice.

• Multi-use products: “If you own a single device that acts as phone, camera and music player, you don’t need to decide which of several single-use products to take with you when going out.” Multi-use products are marginalizing certain types of single-use products.

Trend 5: Mobile Purchasing
Cell phones are becoming virtual credit cards and mobile credit-card processing terminals. In Japan and Sweden, consumers have long been using cell phones to make purchases. “Mobile purchasing answers a real need in marketing—closing the deal conveniently,” says Philippe Cesson, Vistage speaker and president of Cesson 3.0, a social media and training company.

“Just as customers embraced online shopping for its convenience, they will also embrace mobile purchasing.” The U.S. has been slow to adopt the technology, but currently has four forms of mobile phone transaction in use, and these may become widely adopted, though who knows which technology will ultimately prevail. The four models for cell-phone transactions are:

• Swipe your phone: Customers can securely swipe their cell phone and use it just like a credit card, making for a quicker transaction. Businesses can use this technology to gain more sales and increased conversion. One provider, BlingNation, is spreading this technology via community banks, which provide local merchants with a phone-swipe terminal and checking-account customers with a small adhesive tag that sticks to the back of their phone. Swipe the tag over the terminal to make a purchase. The transactions are processed directly by a local bank which results in lower fees than merchants normally pay for credit card transactions. This system is currently being tested in two Colorado towns. It appears to be work well for high-volume, lowprice purchases.

• Accept payments with your phone: You can now buy a small card reader made by SquareUp that hooks to your iPhone, Android or Blackberry. When a customer wants to buy something from you, they simply swipe their credit card through this gadget connected to your phone, then they sign their name on your phone, and the transaction is complete. You can also email a receipt to the buyer. This solution works well for traditional businesses that want to sell items off-location at trade shows or festivals, and for consultants, one-person businesses, or artisans who want to accept payment by credit card but either can’t get a merchant account or don’t want one because of the fees. With this service you don’t need a merchant account and there are no contracts or monthly fees. The cost per transaction hasn’t been disclosed yet.

This service, which aims to be available in Q2 2010, is brought to you by the people who invented Twitter—expect it to be highly disruptive to traditional merchant accounts.

• Enter your phone number online: Customers shopping online can enter their cell phone number to check out and pay. They must reply to a text message sent by the site to complete the transaction. The customer then pays the charge on their monthly cell phone bill. Using a cell phone number is a lot quicker and easier than entering credit card and address info online, and it appeals to younger people and those who may not have a credit card. What’s the rub? The transaction fee is painful—as a merchant you must give 35 to 50 percent of the sale price to the mobile carrier that processes the transaction. These fees may drop in time.

• Transfer money via cell phone: You can now transfer cash via text message. Both the sender and recipient need to register for a free account with a provider such as

Obopay.com; once that’s set up, sending money costs 25–50 cents per transaction, and the money can go directly from and to bank accounts. For small business owners it’s an easy, inexpensive way to send or collect payment overseas. Wave goodbye to the fees, long forms and bank visits associated with wiring money.

These nascent mobile commerce platforms will likely battle it out, VHS-vs-Betamax style, while most of us will be on the sidelines with a wait-and-see attitude. Forward-thinking companies should dive in now, even if they risk adopting a platform that goes the way of Betamax.

“Payment by cell phone empowers merchants to conduct business everywhere and at anytime,” says Cesson. “One consequence of this technology is that it opens up every social interaction to potentially become a sales interaction.”

Trend 6: Collective Intelligence
“We are now creating a collective intelligence that will filter and respond to what’s worthwhile,” says futurist Ross Dawson.

What does collective intelligence mean for the average business owner? It’s the opportunity to distill the “wisdom of the crowd” in a quick, cost- effective manner and get solutions for your pressing business issues. Here are some examples:

• Crowdsourcing: When you broadcast a request for work you need done and people online willingly help, that’s “crowdsourcing.” For example, say you need to name a new product or want to rename your company. Go to the site namethis.com and post your request. Users of the site will offer names and vote on them. Once submissions are in, you pick the one you like best. It costs $99 to harness the crowd’s brain—significantly less than recruiting the services of a branding agency—and the money goes to the person who picked the best name. Here are 10 crowdsourcing sites explained.

• Freelancers on demand: “You can now access the best talent from around the globe to work on your projects,” says Dawson, who points to sites such as elance.com, odesk.com, freelancer.com and rentacoder.com. On these sites, companies can post job listings and freelancers worldwide can bid on them, usually in an auction-style format.

Caution: while this instant job bidding works well for small and non-complex tasks, it’s not always suitable for large or complicated jobs.

• “My Ideas”: Companies are now gathering the opinions, ideas and recommendations of their customers and then surfacing the most popular of those. Mystarbucksideas.com is an example of how to tap the wisdom of crowds to innovate and figure out what your customers want.

“We now have tools to quickly access the knowledge and views of a large number of people,” says Dawson. “Business leaders should think about how they can best use collective intelligence.”

Trend 7: Emotional Branding
“Companies will increasingly base their brand on emotion, to avoid basing it strictly on price,” says futurist and Vistage speaker David Houle. “Brands with strong emotional content will command the highest prices.”

Most successful brands establish a deep emotional connection with their customers, says Vistage speaker Ronald Strauss, author of Value Creation: The Power of Brand Equity. Smaller businesses, he says, think of their brand only in terms of marketing collateral, logos, letterhead, and colors. Many CEOs are not yet tuned in to the emotional aspects of branding.

“Giving your brand emotional content is not easy,” says Strauss. “You must first learn to think of your brand as an organizing lens for how you run your business. You then have to understand how your stakeholders look at your brand and how you create or destroy value as your business delivers, or fails to deliver, on its brand promise.”

Strauss offers these tips for small businesses to build an emotional-based brand:

  • Acknowledge and recognize your customers. Have an ongoing relationship or loyalty program with your best customers. The program should make them want to tell their friends about what you do for them.
  • Figure out how to best serve your customers by studying what they do to serve their customers. Help them serve their customers better.
  • Infuse your brand with values that drive your products or services. People want to feel part of something bigger than themselves, and values such as quality, creativity, luxury, respect and integrity achieve this.
  • At every touch your customer has with your company, treat them consistently well. This makes them feel important.
  • Create satisfying experiences for your customers. People value sensory, pleasurable, intellectual, safe and consistent experiences. For products, these attributes are often achieved with packaging and design. For services, they are achieved by building trust, which comes from consistency of treatment.

The most common failure of brand to resonate emotionally, says Strauss, is when customers perceive indifference.

Courtesy of Vistage.

Portrait of the New Consumer

Scarred by the Great Recession and embracing frugality, the new consumer is different from the one retailers knew and loved way back in, oh, 2006.

The AlixPartners Consumer Sentiment Index study, queried about 7,700 U.S. consumers on what they buy and where they buy it. Consumers were asked about 63 factors in five major attributes – Access, Experience, Price, Product and Service – that influence their purchasing decisions at 135 retailers.

Its conclusions provide plenty of food for thought for retailers, little of it appetizing. The study has not been made public, but AlixPartners provided BNET with some of the more important findings. Among them:

Despite technical signs of recovery, consumers are unconvinced that the weak economy will recover its vitality soon.
Consumers remain anxious but less so than they were at this time last year.
Unemployment is not the only factor holding back retail spending. Across the demographic spectrum, consumers are restraining their spending.
Little of this would count as surprising among retailers, or even around the kitchen table. The more interesting parts of the study have to do with subtler trends.

A new shopper emerges. Consumers have become sharper and better educated about the products they buy and where those are available. Previously, consumers ranked time as their most precious commodity, but now they are willing to drive the extra mile to get a product at a better price.

Shoppers search for “good enough.” Just a few years ago, shoppers wanted to purchase the best product in a category. Now they are more likely to accept good-enough products. Consumers won’t rebound quickly from trading down because many have been satisfied with their bargains.

Consumers continue their flight to value. In every retail sector, and at every price tier, value is far more important than brand loyalty in purchase behavior. A decade ago, service ranked before price in consumer purchasing decisions. Today, service is the least important attribute in every one of the 16 categories in the study. The danger retailers face is that, if they bungle the price/product balance, their customers may look for a better value elsewhere and never come back.

Winners and losers pop up in every retail category. Bargain prices aren’t a guarantee of success and a luxury orientation need not be the kiss of death. Luxury retailers can succeed but they must strike a balance by offering a unique experience – including product, atmosphere, and service – that can offset higher prices in the consumer value judgment.

Consumers are pickier: Just 15 of the 135 stores in the study met or exceeded customer expectations. According to AlixPartners, the shares of those 15 stores rose twice as fast as the Dow.

These were the study’s general conclusions; more on some of the specifics will follow in an upcoming post.

Courtesy of David Weir and BNET.
Photo: Flickr user David Blackwell