Verizon’s “Room to Learn” Community

Today Verizon and Powered are proud to announce the launch [pdf] of a new “branded engagement community” called Room to Learn. It’s a big move for a smart company who operates in an industry that’s not known for it’s focus on customer service. In fact, the reason we’re so excited about this project is because we see this as a big step toward the future of the way customer service will get done in the future.

Podcast: Director of eBusiness at Verizon, Mark Studness, and I talked about the project in a recent podcast.

What’s unique about Room to Learn is that instead of waiting for customers to come to come to them with questions or complaints, Verizon is reaching out their customers with useful content. Content that will help them with all things media and home entertainment. Even better, the information and education that Verizon will provide it’s customers (and non-customers) doesn’t try and sell them anything. Imagine that?

Why would a company do this you ask? Because Verizon realizes that in order to maintain their leadership position in the market, they need to do something game changing. Something my colleague, Joseph Jaffe, likes to call customer service 2.0. It’s the concept of the “give before the get.” The results should be things like greater loyalty, deeper engagement, greater share of wallet and most importantly, referrals.

A few other exciting things to mention about this new branded engagement community:

  • The community manager will be none other than Becky Carroll, a seasoned social media professional who is well versed in blogging, podcasting and community.
  • A resident contributor in Alfred Poor. Yes, that Alfred Poor, the guy that has covered consumer electronics for 20+ years for the likes of PC World.
  • Community forums for customers to ask questions, talk with professionals or share ideas with one another.

What you’ll notice today is that the conversations on Room to Learn are just getting started. If you’re interested in joining, the good news is that you don’t even need to be a customer. Obviously, Verizon expects that if you participate, you’ll be respectful and will keep the language clean. But they are always looking for feedback to if you have constructive feedback or simple suggestions, you can let them (or us) know and we’ll be sure to work it into the mix.

Is your company following Verizon’s lead and getting proactive about customer service? If not, what’s stopping you?


Samsung Encourages You to Join the Conversation

Apologies to my colleague, Joseph Jaffe, for borrowing the title of his second book, Join the Conversation [LINK], but in this instance, I just couldn’t resist. The “conversation” I’m referring to is one that consumer electronics giant, Samsung, is their asking their customers to “join” at the bottom of their home page.

At first blush, you might laugh and remind me that many brands these days are asking their customers to “join THEIR conversation” on Facebook, Twitter and the like. However, not so fast. In Samsung’s case, they are taking a clever and unorthodox approach to engaging with their customers. Let’s call it “reverse influencer outreach” where instead of asking bloggers like myself to reach Samsung’s customers (and prospective customers) via my Twitter, Facebook, blogs and podcasts, they instead are asking their customers to reach out to folks like me, Brian Solis, Mario Sundar and others. And instead of talking about Samsung’s products, we’re talking about the lifestyles that wrap around those products. Or in my case, more conversational topics like, “If you could write a best-selling book, what would it be about?”

Wait a second? Why would a Fortune500 company like Samsung who enjoys millions of visits a day to its website waste valuable real estate on frivolous conversation? Rather than speculate about why, I asked Samsung’s Social Media Manager, Esteban Contreras (the person that invited me to participate in this program) a couple of questions about the program. Here are his verbatim responses:

[Aaron] What was the impetus for your innovative approach?

[Esteban] Samsung’s strategy going into this exciting project was focused on creating an online environment that further engages with our consumers. We wanted to develop a customer-centric and socially relevant site that enhanced the overall brand experience.

Our new site provides opportunities for people to engage with us and with each other. From social elements on the homepage and “like” buttons on product pages, to consumer comments, reviews and Q and As.

[Aaron] Some people might say this is a waste of valuable space on Samsung US’s home page (I think it’s brilliant). What would you say to those detractors?

[Esteban] We are living in a world where consumers expect and deserve more. Being customer-centric means offering an authentic and human experience. That’s why you see photos of real people on our site and an easier experience to find some of our employees and official accounts on Twitter. It’s also why we’ve provided an area for our visitors to engage not only with us, but also with others that have similar interests.

The web has become a social web and all we’ve done is bring a small part of it unto our site. We believe that giving some of our valuable digital space to our customers is important because they are the number one reason why we love doing what we do. Our customers mean everything to us.

While the “join the conversation” program is too new to measure impact, I can tell you anecdotally that I’ve received a couple of dozen responses (and anticipate receiving hundreds more). More importantly, I can’t help but think that Samsung’s customers will appreciate the fact that a big brand is taking a few minutes out of the day to get to know it’s customers better (all of the inquiries come through as hash-tagged tweets with #samsung in the “@” replies I receive so Samsung can measure the traffic). Even smarter, Samsung is outsourcing the responses to subject matter experts versus tackling them all themselves — okay, I may not be a SME in book writing but I have supported the marketing/social campaigns around three colleagues’ books to date (We Are Smarter than Me, Flip the Funnel and now microMarketing).

What do you think of Samsungs’ approach? Is it worth the real estate they are using on their home page? Should Samsung themselves be getting more involved in the conversation? Or are they just being a good host, handing conversations off to the “experts” and then keeping an eye on what transpires?

Looking at the Future: Onstar’s Live On

It’s an OnStar kinda night at Stubbs — Austin, TX

Last night, I had the pleasure of attending a fabulous event at Stubb’s BBQ here in Austin. The host of the party was OnStar (a Powered client) and the purpose of the shin dig was to announce OnStar’s latest and greatest in mobile technology called Live On. Without getting into too much of a marketing pitch, the crux of what VP of Planning and business development at OnStar, Nick Pudar, walked us last night through focused on these four areas:

  1. Innovative technology
  2. 9th generation hardware
  3. Enhanced safety features
  4. New marketing campaign
Rewinding a little bit, I had a chance to try out some of OnStar’s technology a few months back when my colleague, Joe Jaffe, and I were in Detroit for the Future Midwest conference. Friend and director of social media at GM, Christopher Barger, was kind enough to lend us a Cadillac Escalade. In addition to it being a REALLY sweet ride, it was equipped with OnStar technology. What I loved about the technology (in addition to coveting the ability to remotely unlock my doors) was the fact that everything is done via voice. As someone that is married to their iPhone, I can tell you that I know how dangerous it is to try and text or tweet while driving. I also know how aggravating it is to not be able to enter an address into my GPS en route.

Joseph Jaffe, Powered and Christopher Barger, GM
Back to last night… what I like about OnStar’s thinking is that they are working hard to keep drivers safe on a lot of different fronts. Considering the fact that over 6,000 people died last year in texting or other smartphone related accidents — a number that’s destined to go up dramatically — allowing people to do the thing that they will inevitably do in a safer, smarter fashion makes a ton of sense to me. In fact, OnStar President, Chris Preuss said it best in yesterday’s announcement:
Giving our customers control of their vehicles with smart phone application technology is a key advantage of OnStar’s in-vehicle connectivity. This technology empowers drivers to make decisions about their travels well before they enter the vehicle,  meaning their full attention can stay where it needs to be – on the road ahead.

To that end, allowing for the ability to use your smartphone’s bluetooth capability to to perform text to voice OR using OnStar to be able to update your Facebook status (and listen to recent updates) is huge.

Inside a Chevy giving commands to Facebook via OnStar

The live updates coming from our car as we update from OnStar

On the “room for improvement” side of things, it does take a little doing to coordinate the Facebook updates. And once you do an update, it results in a voice >> text >> automated voice update on Facebook itself. However, this is OnStar’s first shot of the gate with this stuff so I imagine that the technology and capabilities will smooth out soon. I’m also envisioning that services like Twitter and location-based applications will be included in subsequent releases of this technology.

One other thing to note is the ability to go to OnStar’s site, enter in a location and then send it to your car is VERY cool and something that is a no-brainer. As I noted earlier, I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve gotten into my car, forgotten to enter my destination into the GPS and ended up having to pull over onto the side of the road.

So a big kudos to OnStar last night for pulling off a fun and informative evening (something they replicated across the country). Also, a great big thank you to my friend, Kameya Shows, who was kind enough to invite me to last night’s soiree. You can see other pictures from the event over on Flickr.

Simon Salt, Incslingers, Aaron Strout (that’s me) and Wayne Sutton, TriOut & OurHashTag

Hotel Nikko Asks: What Could We Do to Get You to Stay?

Last week, I had the opportunity to speak at the Social Media Marketing 2010 Conference in San Francisco which happened to be held at the Hotel Nikko. If you haven’t visited/stayed at the Nikko before, it’s a nice hotel. Centrally located (just a few blocks off of Market), bright and clean with all the charm of a boutique hotel. The rooms are well-laid out with large flat panel televisions, wet bars and bathrooms that offer separate bathtubs and showers.

Of course I enjoyed my experience at the Hotel Nikko (in fact, this was my second time staying there) but my main criteria for choosing it had more to do with location (it’s where the conference was being held) and price (about $200/night all in) than anything else. While I was there, however, an interesting thing happened that led to the eventual writing of this blog post…

I was riding up in the elevator when a young woman who was interning at the hotel asked me if I was attending the conference. I said that I was which prompted her to ask me why I thought more of the attendees weren’t staying at the hotel. This was a fairly easy question to answer given the fact that I knew a lot of the speakers/attendees lived locally and thus didn’t need a hotel that night. It was her next question, though, that really piqued my interest. The intern asked, “what could we do to get you to stay here next time?”

At this point in the conversation, I started thinking to myself, either this is a very clever young lady who will go far some day OR Hotel Nikko may be taking an innovative approach to their customer research. Either way, I told her I had exactly the answer she was looking for… but she would need to do a little homework. I gave her three names that I told her to write down: The Roger Smith Hotel in NYC,  Brian Simpson aka @bsimi (their director of social hospitality) and Brian’s sidekick, Adam Wallace aka @adwal (new media director at the Roger Smith).

[NOTE: if you don't know the story of the Roger Smith and how unbelievably successful they've been through their customer-centric AND social media efforts, be sure to listen to my colleague, Joseph Jaffe's interview or read Chris Brogan's glowing post about their efforts]

Being as diligent as she was curious, the intern took out her notepad and wrote all this information down, obviously intrigued by what a hotel in NYC and two guys with hip hop sounding Twitter handles could have to do with getting me to stay at her hotel. At this point, she thanked me for the information and we parted ways. Upon our separating, I got thinking more about the question she had asked me and decided to write a prescriptive post about five things I liked about my experience at the Nikko along with five ways they could improve.

The good:

  1. I arrived at the hotel at 8:30 AM and asked if I could check in. While many hotels are strict about their early checkin policy, the woman behind the desk was very polite and let me check in early without even batting an eyelash.
  2. This may not be a big deal for most people but as someone that travels a fair amount AND is married to his laptop, the fact that the electrical outlets were easily accessible and that they had reliable wifi was much appreciated.
  3. Anyone that follows me on Twitter will understand how happy I was that there was a Starbucks in the lobby.
  4. There was a bottle of water on my bedside stand.
  5. I’d like to think that the Nikko was the impetus behind their inquisitive interns line of questioning, even if they didn’t explicitly tell her to chat up guests in the elevator. If that wasn’t the case, they were still smart enough to hire a smart and motivated intern.
The “could use improvement”:
  1. When I arrived to checkin, I was as little surprised that they didn’t acknowledge the fact that I had stayed there before (level of difficulty from a CRM perspective is about a 2 on a scale of 1-10). This also required NO knowledge of social media whatsoever.
  2. The “reliable” in-room wifi was $15/night. And while it was provided by AT&T; (a network that usually allows roaming via my Boingo account), I wasn’t provided with a “roaming” option in spite of the fact that the FAQs on the site said that I could.
  3. Corollary to number four in the “good” column above… while there was in fact A bottle of water on my bedside table, the aforementioned bottle was not a FREE bottle of water. I am of the strong belief that every hotel should offer at least A free bottle of water, even if it’s the cheap, no name kind.
  4. While I don’t expect that many businesses will make an attempt to use or even experiment with location-based services like FourSquare, Gowalla and Whrrl, restaurants and hotels are foolish for not tapping into this capability now. To that end, I was disappointed that the Nikko did not acknowledge of my FourSquare checkin given the fact that I cross-posted it on Twitter for all to see.
  5. They weren’t the Roger Smith
All in all, you’ll notice that my “could use improvement” column isn’t too scathing. While I travel a lot, I have simple needs. And maybe I’ve been spoiled by my stays at the Roger Smith but I am really surprised that more hotels — boutiques AND chains — haven’t done a better job at embracing social media.
How about you? Have you had a good or bad experience at a hotel that you’d like to mention? Please include it in the comments below.

Surrounded by Smart People

This morning, we announced some very exciting news. Yes, Valeria Maltoni aka Conversation Agent (@ConversationAge on Twitter) has joined the company that I work for, Powered, as director of Strategy. In addition to being one of AdAge’s top 50 marketing bloggers, we’ve added a witty, hard working brand marketer to a fold that already included a few smarties.

While I’ll let Valeria’s work speak for itself (she is a must read if you don’t have her in your blog reader or Tweetdeck yet), you should also know about several other smarties we have at Powered. Some are pretty well known, others are “soon to be” well known. Here is a list of who they are and where you can find them on Twitter and in the blogosphere (alphabetically):

Yup, I’m pretty lucky. Now you know when you read this blog, follow me on Twitter or listen to my podcast that I’m just trying to keep up with my colleagues!

post script: I realized after I posted this that while the 10 people I highlighted will likely be happy for the love, the 70 other people I work with may feel like I’m slighting them. This couldn’t be further from the truth. To clarify, I tried to call out people at Powered that were regular bloggers (I’m sure I missed a couple of folks). I have nothing but love and respect for the rest of my VERY smart colleagues. 

A Tale of Two CMO’s: A Sudden Turn of Events (Part III)

Continuing on the blog series that I started a few weeks back titled, A Tale of Two CMO’s: A Study in Contrasts, the focus of this week’s installation was supposed to be on creating product “desire.” However, we’ve had a little bit of a turn of events as we find that our old school CMO, James Hossenpfeifer, has been asked by the board of directors at his company to step down at the end of the year. While the official word from James and the company is that this was a mutual decision, I’m going to direct most of today’s questions toward James and ask him to give us a little inside perspective on this turn of events.


James, this news of you stepping as CMO at the end of the year came as a little bit of a surprise. Can you give us a little more insight beyond what was in the initial press release?

James: Ha ha, well, you know that they say that the average tenure of a CMO is only 23 months. Given my run of 14 years, I’d say that I’ve done okay. With that said, I know I’m not “off the record” on your blog but I will share just a little bit more insight as to how this all went down. The bottom line is that the times are a changing. And while my leadership in the marketing world has helped us grow our company into what it is today, my CEO and our board has been pushing harder for our collective style of leadership to change. Between some of the work that John Chambers has accomplished as CEO at CISCO and what A.G. Lafley had done at P&G;, the feeling was that our company should be more focused on open leadership and a flattening of the organization. There has also been a tremendous push to focus more on customer service and social media. Apparently, one of our board members read a book by your colleague, Joseph Jaffe, called Flip the Funnel and it’s got him all hot and bothered about the potential of using social media to better communicate and collaborate with customers. While I don’t disagree with this philosophy or direction, I am also in touch enough with my skills and capabilities to know that I was not the guy to lead us down this path. After a lot of discussion with my CEO and our board of directors, we decided that I would help us look for my successor during this transition.
Tessa: James, I guess I’m not sure whether or not to console you or congratulate you. While I applaud you for being self-aware enough to realize that you weren’t the right fit as the future CMO of your company, it’s sad to see someone with your skill set and knowledge base step down. This may sound a bit patronizing given how much more experience you have than me but I know a lot of people so let me know if you’d like some help finding your next opportunity.

What will you look for in your replacement?

James: If you don’t mind, I’d like to respond to Tessa’s comment first. Tessa, thank you for the kind words and in this case, you can congratulate me. After many years of working too many hours and getting on too many planes, I think I’m going to take some time off and spend it with my wife in our second home. My company has taken good care of me so I don’t have to go back to work but I may think about writing a book or perhaps doing some consulting down the road. Who knows, I may even think about starting one of those blogs to share my experiences with some of the less experienced marketers out there. I know I can’t teach them much about new media but I can talk about some of the fundamentals of marketing that many digital marketers may have missed as they cut their teeth during the dot com days.
Getting back to your question, Aaron, I think my replacement will end up looking a lot like Tessa. I probably shouldn’t say that out loud because that will ruin any chance of me recruiting her but her new approach to marketing is exactly what our board is looking for. What I like about Tessa is that she hasn’t thrown the baby out with the bath water in her approach to generating awareness and purchase and intent for her company. She’s done a fantastic job in balancing traditional marketing tactics like direct marketing and advertising with some of the newer social techniques. By the way, I was really looking forward to what she was going to say about creating product desire in today’s installment. I guess my news pushed that off for at least another week or so.
Tessa: James, I am humbled that you think so highly of my approach to marketing. At the risk of turning this post into a gush fest, I’ll leave my response to that. I would, however, like to comment on something you said earlier. It’s funny that you mentioned the book Flip th
e Funnel as I just received a copy of it in the mail about a month or two ago. It’s sitting on my desk at work and I keep promising myself that I will read it on my next business trip. Aaron, I think it was someone from your office that sent it to me, wasn’t it? Hopefully I’ll check that one off the list soon.
Could you give us a little more detail on your answer to that last question?

James: Sorry, I guess I got distracted. In terms of what I’m looking for in my replacement, I have five high level criteria in mind:
1) 15-20 years of brand marketing experience at a B2C company
2) impeccable communications skills — this is probably the most important item
3) a track record of creating successful marketing programs for a midsize to large company
4) an advanced understanding of how digital and social media work and can be applied to generate awareness, intent, desire and action aka purchase.
5) ideally, this person has experience working at a company that is extremely customer focused (like a Southwest Airlines).
Tessa: James, you might talk to Charlene Li from the Altimeter Group. She’s written a second book titled, Open Leadership and I know she has met with a ton of CMOs and CEOs to talk about this very topic. You might also work with Aaron to get some time scheduled with Joe Jaffe. I hear the two of them are doing a series of private dinners with senior level marketers where Joe talks a little bit some of the theses from the book.
There have been several CMO changes just in the last few weeks with Jeff Hayzlett stepping down from Kodak, Joel Ewanick leaving Nissan to join GM among others?

James: Ironically, I think Jeff Hayzlett is leaving Kodak for the opposite reason that I’m stepping down. I know he’s done some amazing things at Kodak over his last four years and you want to talk about a guy that gets digital and social. In fact, thanks for the reminder because I may have to give Mr. Hayzlett a call to see if he has any interest in my job. Although I’ve heard he’s pretty darn busy with his new book so not sure if he’s really looking for his next gig yet. But back to your question, I mentioned earlier that CMOs are one of the shortest tenured C-level positions in the business. To that end, now more than ever we are facing unusual challenges like budgets that got reduced anywhere between 10-20% in last years’ downturn but with little to no reduction in our marketing outcomes. As CMOs, we are also being pushed to figure out alternatives to traditional marketing tactics as ad effectiveness continues to erode and the popularity of places like Facebook and Twitter continue to grow.
Tessa: Just to second what James is saying, it is a tough time to be a CMO. Not that I’m complaining because I love my job. For me, what seems to have helped me adapt to this ever changing world of marketing is to expand the network of people/companies that influence me. That doesn’t mean I try and read more or attend more events but rather that I look for ideas outside of some of the traditional marketing publications and conferences. In fact, I’m thinking about skipping this years DMA Conference and instead attending Blog World Expo. I know that sounds like a crazy idea but there are so many smart people including more and more brand representatives that show up for
these types of conferences. I know you’re next question will be how the hell I know about Blog World Expo? Twitter of course.
Well, there we have it. While we didn’t learn how James or Tessa generate product desire through new or traditional marketing means, we did find out a little more about what’s required from the CMO of the future. Next week, I’ll try and get our two CMOs back on track and perhaps wrap up the series with a combined focus on desire AND action. In the meantime, keep those questions coming. [Dwight, sorry I couldn't get to your question/comment from last week's post about brand driving sales. One way or another, we'll make sure to pin these two down].