December 21, 2012

Waiting for Godot

“Nothing happens, nobody comes, nobody goes.” – Estragon – Waiting for Godot

As we approach 2013 we spent some time looking through the series of blog posts we’ve released over the last three months and sadly, the majority of them talk about new features in VinTank.  No commentaries on how to do social media better.  No op-eds on new wine apps or the state of wine and digital (and believe me I have some sizzler’s I can’t wait to write . . . ).  Nothing but descriptions of features.  We obviously are very proud of our work and our main communication vehicle for sharing our work is through the blog.

Looking inwardly at our social media streams (including my personal streams) we see ourselves executing exactly what we disdain.  Push posts with rare engagement.  Why so devoid of meaningful posts?  One simple explanation is that we truly are SUPER busy enhancing VinTank.  So much so that we haven’t even had time to describe all the incredible features that James has been adding.  We won’t go into them in this post because that will just be a continuation of the theme. Rather we’d like to focus on the other key reason we’ve been so quiet.  We’ve been completely re-evaluating social media.  Not the value.  We believe in it to the core of our being.  But more about what is the future of social media?  What are the key activities that are demonstrative of success?

One of the best analysis of this challenge is by Susan Etlinger of Altimeter in her Social Media ROI cookbook.  We are incredibly lucky to participate in her annual interviews.  But after our conversation with her staff this year we struggled with some of the questions, not because we didn’t have the answers or that they were the wrong questions, but because the framework was wrong for our perspective.  It became clear to us when we tried to describe our challenges with our answers to our Board of Advisors and we were finally able to distill it to its essence: our job is to build easy to use and actionable tools for a businesses to manage and engage with social customers.  That sounds inane when we type it but in essence our job is to take the complexity of social media and make it simple, useful, and relevant to businesses of all sizes BUT ESPECIALLY small businesses (and in regards to social media this encompasses nearly the entire wine industry).  We said something on the phone to Susan that we’ve been carrying for almost a year, “When we can make social media ROI relevant to small businesses, then it will be a universal business tool like email or the telephone.”

So here we are . . . thinking about how to make this true.  We have been an outspoken critic of wineries use of social media (and digital in general). Perhaps we have been wrong.  Perhaps the fault is not on the side of the winery but on our side.

SidebarWhile writing this post something that Lauren Ackerman of Ackerman Family Vineyards asked reminded me to make one fundamental statement about wineries and social media.  She asked, and I paraphrase, “what is the ROI in the investments we are all making into social media?”  I only had seconds to answer but I still and will always adhere to the fundamental answer, “When a customer calls your phone or emails you, do you answer?  What makes a customer talking to you on Twitter or Facebook any less meaningful?”  Essentially, what is the ROI of talking to your customers when they reach out to you?  At a minimum, despite anything else, this is the MINIMUM investment you need to make into social media. Otherwise you can ignore your customers at your own peril.  

But a deeper realization has occurred at VinTank.  At its core, the tools to help businesses, ours included, have not met the needs of being essential, easy to use, and relevant.  Yes, all of us cover pieces of social media.  Some more than others.  But none of us are as essential as Outlook, Gmail, Excel, Word, Google, etc.  We haven’t helped the workflow of a winery to be the center of handling the meaningful, relevant, and ROI of a small (and large) business.  No platform has. None. Yet.

And thus James and I have hunkered down to understand this problem and solve it with VinTank.  How do we make social media easy, relevant, and tied directly to ROI (through ANY of its permeations)? This is our foundational understanding of the truths of social media:

  1. We live in a customer centric reality and business strategies should be customer centric or you don’t understand the modern world.
  2. A customer can be defined by anyone talking to you or about you (consumer, press, trade, …).
  3. The notions of “earned media” or “owned media” conversations are antiquated.  Whether someone is talking about you or to you the reality is it is a conversation that you need to hear.
  4. The science of context is the strongest way to conversion.  As such our methodology of social listening against an “interest graph” (aka a vertical), is the fundamental key to finding the best “signal” to understand customers.
  5. Social media conversations can now be abstracted beyond just a message about/to a brand.  It now represents a “Like”, a “+”, a share, a check-in, a picture and more.
  6. Conversations (talking about a brand, to a brand, or interacting with a brand) have weight based upon who is conversing (a direct customer, an influential person, or a potentially high ranked customer), what they are saying (the texture of their conversation), and where they are when they are conversing (are they at your location, nearby, or in a region with low value), who they influence (other key customers, influencers, or potential highly ranked customers), and what platform they are conversing upon (what is the value of a Yelp review vs. a blog review).
  7. We believe (only currently and until the science is discovered) that bringing commerce to social is the wrong approach.  The key is bringing context to commerce.  As such the current tools fail until they integrate with modern e-commerce platforms.  Integration is essential.  All SM tools need to understand this.
  8. Platforms will live and die and, more importantly, evolve faster than we understand.  Tools need the flexibility to adapt to this CONSTANTLY transforming ecosphere.
  9. Modern business managers are in flux and constantly on-the-go. The tools to help them manage this medium need to be mobile ergo the key to delivering value and ROI needs to be mobile.

So where are we going with all this?  These items are magnetic North and where we should focus our energy on solving or enabling.  We (the entire social media software industry) can no longer point at our customers and put the responsibility of understanding this medium completely on them.  We need to look in the mirror.  The responsibility is ours.  We need to make social media relevant, easy to use and meaningful for you, our customers.  This sounds mundane but this has redefined VinTank.  Everything we are doing now is to address these truths.  We don’t want to talk about future features in this post.  We want to talk about redefining social media and social media tools.  To illustrate it we are sharing the UEX of the future of VinTank.  It’s not meant to be a discussion about the features but an illustration of how our thinking has redefined the way we view our sofware:

As I mentioned the screen above is the physical reality of our vision and philosophies.  So what does it all mean?

  1. A “conversation” is ANY interaction with a brand and they should be presented accordingly.  The notion interactions from “earned media” or “owned media” are over complicated as it relates to the work flow of the majority of people managing social media including dedicated social media practitioners.
  2. Certain conversations have more value than others.  As such they need to be prioritized (similar to the Priority settings in your Gmail’s inbox).  As an example a conversation from a wine club customer could be more important than just someone talking about your brand.  Another example is someone who is a wine aficionado may be more valuable to a high end brand vs. a neophyte.
  3. “Nearby” is a moniker for any conversation in your vicinity and has more weight than most conversations.  In effect, it is important to know about the conversations that are happening at your location immediately.
  4. Platforms is an abstraction to cover all social networks.  Though aggregating the conversations from platforms should be supported, platforms have their own nuances, psychology, and differences in measuring success. By putting them under an umbrella navigation it will allow an easy entry point that to manage and work with a single social platform but be abstract enough to add (or subtract) social networks as they hit critical mass.  Who knows what will be the next big thing?  If you told me a year ago that Pinterest would be as big as it is, I would have chuckled but you’d have the last laugh.  Could MySpace come back?  Will G+ overlap Facebook?  People have chastised our notion that Flickr is a powerful social network but we continue to see it succeed and (perhaps as a result of Marissa Meyer) begin to flourish again.  Only time will tell.  But we’ll be prepared.
  5. With the continued proliferation of SM platforms, wineries want to access ALL MAINSTREAM social media platforms from one place.  The days of single feature platforms (social listening, social media management, social CRM, social analytics, and more) are numbered.  It has been observed by Jeremiah Owyang as well as large companies who are gobbling up single serving companies to build the ultimate social suite.  None of us will escape this reality and as a result most of our features in 2013 will be about deepening our SRCM functionality but more importantly rounding out our Social Media Management and Social Analytics features.  We need to make our solution “mission control” for all social media and even emulate tools like Tweetdeck and Hootsuite to help save you time and money.
  6. CONTEXT is king can be derived from so many data points provided by social media.  We call this texture and it will become more and more relevant as social evolves.  As an example, when someone mentions a winery’s brand the winery wants to know how much they talk about wine, what kinds of wine they talk about, and what were their most recent conversations about wine.  Customer + Conversation + Interest Graph + Social Graph + Texture = Context.
  7. We still believe that anyone who talks about or interacts with a brand is a social customer.  As we mentioned above, these interactions have different values (a comment on Facebook has more value than a “Like”) but ALL of them have more value than vanity concepts like “reach.”
  8. Social CRM will grow to be the dominate form of CRM because it’s the quantity and quality of data that gives context.  In January we’ll finally release our algorithm that scores a consumer on the axis of price/wine knowledge by analyzing recency + frequency + monetary value over “texture.”
  9. Listening to an experiential “interest graph” is the highest quality of potential customers for conversion.  We achieve social listening about an interest graph by listening to a dialect (in our case it is all the words about wine).  That being said we are finding that combining “dialects” creates a venn of higher signal (seems intuitive but has taken a ton of experimentation).  Currently we are testing this notion in our goal to “geo-fence” every major wine region in CA.  Because the amount of LBS enabled social activity is only a small percentage of total wine conversations we are creating geo-dialects (other words that indicate someone is in that region) and by coupling this sub-dialect we can vector in answers like this: give me everyone who loves Napa Cabernet Sauvignon and is in the valley TODAY.
  10. Deliver the minimum viable tools for interacting with mobile conversations via a mobile device.

So thematically this is our roadmap for 2013.  As we finish this post today, there is one more truth that needs to be clearly stated: THE MAYANS GOT IT WRONG!

Happy holidays to you and yours.  May this season be filled with joy and love.

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