Archive for the 'Social computing' Category

I Giorni Migliori

It is an irony of the internet age that its biggest enabler, the telecommunications industry, is often perceived as being dormant as those around it have disrupted, innovated and reinvented themselves.

To be fair, few industries have escaped ridicule when evaluating the merits of their internet strategies.  Consider the much maligned print media industry which has had its fair share of criticism over the years, but only because the web so dramatically levelled the playing field for every armchair wannabe journalist.  Or the financial services industry, where the most innovative ideas have come not from bellwether financial institutions, but from new entrants – think PayPal, Mint, and Kiva.

And yet, within both the print media and financial services industries, old world players have made significant progress towards meeting their customer’s ever-evolving expectations.  Old world brands who’ve survived the transition from a pure bricks-and-mortar existence to providing services in the Cloud may lack creativity and rarely excite you, but chances are you know how to navigate your favourite online newspaper site to get the scoop on your favourite sports team, and can schedule monthly payments for all your household utilities using internet banking with aplomb.

So when I read on my Twitter feed that eBay was “offloading” Skype – not to a pipes-and-tubes Telco, but a venture capital firm – it got me thinking.  Are Telco’s truly content playing plumber to the Googles of this world?

Here are five things that should start to change, as Telco’s work hard to earn online cred with customers –

  1. Transition focus from “dotcom” to “platform” – It matters not how many websites we build and maintain, it’s platforms that deliver a complete customer experience across channels (think Google Applications and iTunes), and provide opportunities to monetize in spades.
  2. Build a strong social media competence within the enterprise – Social media is being recognised as less of a fad, and more as a way of interacting, collaborating and building communities, not just with customers, but also within an organisation.
  3. Offer real-time experiences – The immediacy afforded by the internet has meant that businesses can anticipate and respond to customer needs like never before.  LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook are not websites, but platforms that allow businesses to tap the stream of conversations across social connections for targeted offers, incentives and myriad value-adding services.
  4. Develop new customer personas around unique experiences – Existing market segmentation strategies quite often take a myopic view of customer circumstances and preferences.  Today’s customers are evolving, and existing segmentation profiles are becoming less valid.
  5. Pursue disruptive innovation – Services like Google Voice will significantly impact how traditional Telco’s market their products and services.  Telco’s will start to revaluate what their cost and revenue drivers are, and challenge existing theory on how they provide value to customers.

The future is anything but bleak for Telco’s.  In fact, now is the time to leverage the gains across other industries – to learn from their foibles and glean insights from their successes.

Finally, apropos of nothing, I should mention that as I type, I’ve been listening to an Italian song by the group Taramancino called “I Giorni Migliori”.  A Google translation reveals it roughly means “Best Days”.  It’s a song I first heard on an internet radio station, and subsequently bought via Apple’s iTunes store. I did all this on my iPhone.  It’s one helluva platform – really.

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Innovating, by embracing the past

Over at the apnakoi blog, I wrote about how traditional matrimonial websites have failed to leverage existing social connections amongst its users.

Here’s an excerpt…

Long before the internet became a household utility – in fact long before dial-up connections, or even the humble dial-tone – families indulged in matchmaking by tapping into far reaching social networks within their existing communities.  Chances were a relative, neighbour, or co-worker knew someone, who in turn knew someone, perfect for their son or daughter. Due diligence was reasonably effortless, with shared acquaintances between the two families vouching for the prospective bride or groom.

With each new generation, the fundamentals of this matchmaking model have evolved to keep pace with the changing times. Today, matchmaking is an indulgent pastime not just around family kitchen tables, but across college and corporate campuses alike.

Read the complete blog post here.

Blogging break over

Late last year I took a prolonged break from blogging, to focus on a new website aimed at the increasingly global ‘Generation Y’ South Asian.   On Jan 20th, we did a beta release of our cost-free, social matchmaking website – apnakoi.com.

I’m excited about the possibilities ahead, and look forward to sharing the ‘apnakoi story’ with regular readers of my blog.  We’ve  launched the apnakoi blog where you’ll find updates about our website, including new feature launches and an ongoing discussion with our member-base.

Stay tuned!

Conference presentation on SlideShare

To view my presentation slides from last month’s USID Conference in Bangalore, India, head to – http://www.slideshare.net/vmalhotra/usid2008-presentation

USID2008 Conference on Design Innovation & User Experience

In our personal space, we artfully manage a constant dialogue across our networks – whether on Facebook, MySpace, and LinkedIn, or via tools like Twitter and Friend Feed. We effortlessly forge new communities of interest, and participate in a wider conversation.

In contrast, our workspaces are far better at enforcing hierarchy than they are at fostering a sense of community. Our workspace tools help control the message, rather than start a dialogue that would encourage collaboration and participation.

What can businesses do to adapt and thrive in this new environment? And how can smaller businesses take advantage of these new tools and technologies to compete globally?

I will be discussing the above themes in detail at the USID 2008 Conference on Design Innovation and User Experience, being held in Bangalore, India from 4 – 6  September, 2008 (via a video link).  If you happen to be in Bangalore and would like to attend the USID conference, please register at their website.

And if you happen to have any specific queries based on the themes discussed above, drop me an email and I’ll try and cover it in my presentation.

The Long Tail and social networks

In Chris Anderson’s best-selling thesis “The Long Tail” , he lauded online businesses that go to market with niche offerings, positing that a sizeable (and profitable) opportunity exists that mainstream businesses typically ignore.  Last week, Anita Elberse, in her HBR article titled “Should you invest in the Long Tail?” countered that argument, citing data that showed that mainstream demand continues to trump obscure, niche interests for wallet share.

While a healthy debate has ensued online between the authors, clearly both notions are plausible. Indeed, their relevance even impacts the strategies corporate decision makers pursue when deciding on how best to participate in online social networks.

At mainstream social networks like Facebook, My Space and Orkut, millions of members connect with friends to communicate and share experiences, forming clusters of people who have either something they identify with, or someone they know, in common.  Individual clusters expand and combine to form thriving online communities, where, as in the case of Facebook, over 250,000 new users sign up every day to participate.  The network effect inherent in sites like Facebook has challenged marketeers to embed their brands in the social experiences of their members.

The Long Tail theory applies spectacularly to online social networks too.  No matter how obscure your interest, idea, or obsession, there is likely a niche social network waiting to sign you up.  And where none exists, it is effortless to start one of your own, thanks to open platforms such like Ning (which had over 275,000 social networks as of May this year).

Niche online social networks can become a potent force, when they transition to full-fledged multi-sided platforms.  Consider LinkedIn, a professional networking site with more than 19 million members that renders the traditional Rolodex obsolete. Adding people to your LinkedIn network is akin to collecting business cards, except you get to view the person’s work history, and get a sneak peak at their network of contacts. And, whereas a business card is useless the moment a contact changes jobs, LinkedIn profiles are assiduously updated to ensure no achievement or career transition goes unnoticed. LinkedIn is well positioned to transform into a multi-sided platform serving the needs of individuals, recruitment firms, and employers.

As in the euphoric dotcom years, it is once again web start-ups who are rewriting the rules across industries. Still, significant opportunities do exist for traditional brands to extend their reach by embracing social networks, whether they participate in a mainstream social network like Facebook, or create their very own niche network. Last year, I posted a blog on how Choice magazine (a not-for-profit consumer reviews publication based in Australia) had squandered an opportunity to extend its brand online and tap into the collective wisdom of online Australians.

An equally compelling opportunity exists for another Australian publication – Vive magazine. This bi-monthly magazine for “women who mean business” has carefully cultivated it’s brand. Ambitious, sophisticated, and an astute sense of balance aren’t just Vive’s brand attributes -they could just as easily be traits their niche audience aspires to. The publishers of Vive have a tremendous opportunity to extend their brand values online, and to become an influential online destination for their key demographic. A hypothetical Vive online social network for women could allow members to comment on articles; authors and contributors could blog more frequently and initiate discussions on various topics; and, clusters of interest could emerge around subjects as varied as ‘working mothers’ to ‘starting my own business’.  Even the potential for advertising revenues would be amplified given the target audience at the site. 

There have been attempts by incumbent industry leaders – albeit limited in scale and ambition –  to extend their brands online via social networks (examples include Ernst & Young’s Facebook group to start a conversation with new grads, the HSBC Business Network, and Amex’s Open Forum). Perhaps the debate ignited by Elberse’s rebuttal of Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail will inspire corporate decision makers to revisit their own online social networking ambitions, and, who knows, maybe the next LinkedIn or Facebook will be the wilful foray of an old world company, attempting to rewrite the rules online.

The Importance of Being Authentic (or internet strategy lessons from the Obama campaign)

Deconstructing the remarkable ascendancy of Barack Obama, from political unknown to presumptive Democratic nominee for President, lessons emerge for political war rooms and corporate boardrooms alike. As much as the Clinton campaign’s foibles have provided a cautionary tale for political operatives, the Obama campaign’s successes have presented a compelling case study for business students and leaders.

Obama’s ability to inspire and command unswerving loyalty, not just amongst his inner circle of advisers and nearly 1,000 employees, but amongst the coveted millennials across college campuses, has intrigued marketeers as much as it has preoccupied journalists.

Obama built a groundswell of support amongst his most effusive of fans, the millennials, by tapping into a core brand attribute – authenticity. Obama wears his authenticity on his sleeve, it transcends his oratory and prose, and it defines him to a new generation of voters. No other brand attribute resonates more with the millennials, who, much to the chagrin of advertisers and marketeers, have a discerning eye when it comes to spotting a fake.

It is common knowledge that the Obama team expertly crafted and meticulously executed a masterful online campaign to introduce their candidate, mobilise support, and raise more funds via online donations than was perceived possible (although less surprising when you consider that 24-year old Chris Hughes, a co-founder at Facebook is championing Obama’s social networking strategy). It is not a stretch to compare Obama’s online operations to other celebrated internet success stories where new entrants have captured our imagination by displacing complacent incumbents. By successfully extending the Obama brand online, primarily through an elaborate online social network at my.barackobama.com, and through countless other means (a decent Facebook profile, Twitter feeds, widgets, You Tube posts, etc), Obama become one of his own people, or to put it another way, stayed ‘authentic’.

Businesses should be forewarned if they think the Obama campaign offers a checklist of online initiatives that will earn them street cred with Gen Y. Were that the case, surely Hillary Clinton could’ve stolen some of Obama’s online momentum. A cursory look at both candidates Facebook profiles is insightful in highlighting the importance of authenticity to building a brand online. Where Obama’s profile is at least somewhat realistic, Hillary’s is amusingly out of character with the medium.

Admittedly, the importance of social networks to businesses and the context for their participation is still being determined. But other examples abound of how the Obama campaign has innovated online in smaller yet effective ways, again providing lessons for large corporations.

For all the immediacy of the internet, when it comes to managing a company’s public image, most online experiences are disappointingly static. Browse through the public relations or investor relations sections of most corporate websites, and besides archives of annual reports and press releases, there isn’t much to engage site visitors. Worse, when many of these corporations are engaged in crisis management of some magnitude, their websites are embarrassingly opaque.

Contrast that with the Obama campaign’s launch last week, of their pre-emptive crisis management website, “Fight the Smears”. Acknowledging that in a world where 24 hour cable news channels feed off sound bites circulating online, they co-opted supporters, detractors and the media in their efforts to combat rumours directly online. The Obama camp invites anyone to forward a rumour they have come across online, and track official responses from the candidate. It has been widely reported that the urgency for this initiative came directly from Obama. By staying true to his instincts (as he did when he made a daring speech on race relations), he defied the conventional wisdom on responding to rumours. Both instances are evidence of Obama’s ‘authenticity’.

Election campaigns are in a constant state of crisis, and it is to be expected that extreme situations will necessitate fresh, innovative, and occasionally lateral thinking. The Obama campaign has broken new ground online, and done so in a very public arena, making  the current U.S. election historical and inspiring on so many levels.  Rarely have corporations had a front row view of what works and what fails online, without taking on too much risk themselves. Perhaps beyond the mundane world of politics, there is also reason to be hopeful for change.


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