Archive for Business

Put the social back in social media

I’ve worked for two companies during the social media era and both have used it almost exclusively for one-way bullhorn marketing efforts, and even with ambitions that low they’ve mostly failed. Social media presents unique new opportunities to reach customers, engage audience and build community around your product or service. Nevertheless, of the millions of companies with a Facebook page or a Twitter account, only an infinitesimal percentage of them are using the technology well.

In the newspaper industry (where I worked before getting into restaurants), newsrooms across the country were constantly abuzz with discussions of Facebook and Twitter, Foursquare and Flickr. But the bulk of the conversation was always about using social media as opposed to becoming a social medium.

(Finally, three years later, The Washington Post Social Reader, flawed as it may be, attempts to get it right. Is it too little too late?)

At my current gig, our restaurant chain’s Marketing Director maintains a social media presence on Facebook and Twitter, but misses the point by using it only for one-way broadcasting. The nice thing about social media — indeed, its defining feature — is that it’s interactive. If we never respond to our customers’ comments, if we never ask for their feedback, if we never engage them in discussion of our products or service, we’re putting a converse twist on Maslow’s law of the instrument: If all you have are nails, every tool looks like a hammer.

It’s important, too, to consider the reasons you feel more connected to certain businesses via social media. I’m willing to bet they act like human beings, maybe even put their own faces on their accounts, and that they’re allowed to introduce at least a small measure of personality into their tweets or Facebook posts. I’m guessing that the information they share doesn’t read like an official press release or like it was prepared for them by a team of publicists, but that instead it reads like their own thoughts in their own words. I’ll bet there’s even an occasional opportunity for discourse with someone who would otherwise be completely inaccessible to you.

Would it feel the same if they hid behind a generic company logo? If they spoke only in officially sanctioned platitudes? If they never responded to your questions or comments? Would you bother checking their feed at all?

In any business, the ultimate goal is to create shareholder value, but how do you do that? You do that, of course, by meeting the needs of your customers better than your competitors do. Given that, it seems like a decent idea to get to know those people a little bit, doesn’t it?

Not long ago, businesses had almost no connection whatsoever to their customers. They relied on mass markets and mass-media communication to target huge swaths of generic “customers.” They focused on marketing products and services or creating transactions rather than on cultivating relationships.

What did this lack of meaningful engagement give us? As customers, it gave us things like planned obsolesence, so-called “negative externalities” (a k a pollution), false advertising and the burgeoning (dis)service and (mis)information industry. As business people, it gave us customers who were about as loyal as Judas.

Social media changes all that — or, at least, it could. Businesses now have unprecedented tools at their fingertips for understanding and interacting with their customers, not just as broad demographics but as unique individuals.

I say “unprecedented,” but in a way it isn’t. Before the industrial revolution came along and customers were suddenly reduced to stereotypical consumer segments by faceless behemoths whose employees were alienated corporate cogs, there was a time when local business people — often our friends and neighbors — worked hard to gain our trust and meet our needs.

For instance, as a teenager I frequently shopped at a local record store where the owner, Pete, and his employees, Marshall, George and Jen, all knew my name, my tastes and my budget. I’d walk in the door and they’d cue up a CD they were sure I’d like, and eight times out of 10 they were right. can make recommendations like that to me today, but I have no relationship with Jeff Bezos or anyone else at his company. If another online retailer offers a better price, well, guess what? Smell ya later, Amazon. On the other hand, I’m still friends with Pete and Marshall 20 years later and if their store was still open, I wouldn’t shop anywhere else.

You could argue that building relationships that strong is too tall of an order for most large businesses in today’s globalized economy, but social media says you’re wrong. (Or, at least, you’re doing it wrong.) And, really, can businesses afford not to take advantage of this opportunity? There’s something in it for them, too.

That’s the nature of reciprocity. The consumer Cold War is over. It’s time for businesses and customers to start scratching each others’ backs again.

On eMusic and et cetera

Today I logged into my eMusic account to discover that — for at least the third time since I became a user — their pricing structure is changing.

I haven’t really thought this out, and it’s probably a case of sour grapes, but I need to get some things off my chest.

Years ago when I first signed up for the MP3 service, I got unlimited downloads for $9.99 a month. Admittedly, that was a steal. But, then again, the number of high- or even mid-profile artists whose music was available on the site at that time was scant, especially for the mainstream listener.

Until last year, I got 40 downloads a month for $9.99, still a heck of a bargain.

And until recently, I was getting 30 downloads a month for $11.99, which, while a considerable downgrade from my previous plans, was at least a good deal compared to the outrageously priced alternatives such as iTunes.

Starting next month, it appears that they’re giving me what, on average, will amount to roughly 20 downloads per month for $11.99. It’s tough to say exactly, because the per-song price now varies, whereas before every song counted as one credit. But at best, I’ll get 28 songs, assuming all I care about are obscure outtakes from Third World vuvuzela bands.

OK, yeah. It’s still better than iTunes. As they helpfully point out in their explanation to users, “Under the new currency pricing system, eMusic members will enjoy savings of 20%-50% compared to iTunes’ a la carte prices.”

I suppose if that’s all eMusic wants to be, maybe they can turn it into a marketing slogan: “eMusic! Hey, it’s better than iTunes!”

Way to aim high, guys.

Listen, eMusic. I get it. You’re a business. You’re trying to make money. That’s fair.

And I’m sure the addition of the Universal Music Group catalog — which, ostensibly, is what prompted the change — will be swell. That’s a lot of music, some 250,000 tracks in all, many of which might even be worth hearing.

But aren’t we losing track of the larger point here?

This shouldn’t be about eMusic offering an alternative to iTunes and other Internet-based music retailers. It should be about digital distribution being an alternative to brick-and-mortar shops.

Ten or 15 years ago, I’d drive to my local store and shell out about $10 to $12 for a CD, which typically included 12-15 songs. That works out to about 75 cents per track. That price-tag covered the cost of recording, the artists’ royalties, the copyright fees, the marketing and promotional efforts and, of course, a hefty cut for the bloated music industry to line its pockets with.

But it also covered the cost of CD production, artwork and packaging, worldwide shipping and distribution, and a tidy little profit for the retailer itself. Those costs are no longer necessary.

And yet I’m still being asked to pay 70 to 80 cents per track? What gives?

I have my theories.

For example, a big part of it, probably, is that because digital downloads allow me to pick and choose the tracks I want, the labels can no longer force me to pay for the filler. After all, when you’re no longer able to charge for the chaff, you have to mark up the wheat.

(Of course, this model disrespects artists, who overwhelmingly continue to write, record and release songs as albums, presumably intended to be heard in their entirety, and arguably encourages throwaway culture by elevating the hit single above more “serious” works, but that’s a whole other discussion.)

Still, it’s hard to ignore the suspicion that it all boils down to something obscenely simple. Namely, that the major record labels simply aren’t willing to let go of the outrageous profit margins they grew accustomed to in the CD era.

And I guess that’s what bothers me most. At one time, eMusic wasn’t just an alternative to iTunes (which arguably started this whole mess by capitulating to label demands for higher prices). It was an alternative to the whole fat-and-happy, self-interested corporate culture of an increasingly soulless industry that cared about its consumers even less than it did about its artists. At least, it was a thorn in its side. At best, it was a catalyst for change.

Or at least I thought so.

So maybe the record industry won’t be brought to its knees today, or tomorrow, or maybe not the next day, either. But isn’t it inevitable? Isn’t the writing on the wall? The way I see it, you either evolve or you die, and for all the lip service the major labels give to change, they’re ultimately the same as they’ve always been: A wildly overgrown, woefully inefficient and largely unnecessary middleman.

Oh, and eMusic? It might be worth keeping something in mind. You’re a middleman, too.

Good luck with that.

Blurry bits of my life through phone pictures

I call him Mr. Integrity, but it’s not important why. His ex is one of my besties. Otherwise we’d probably never talk, or maybe we’d talk more. In any case, we work together. And he’s walking toward me right now, his hat all askance in the effortless laissez-faire fashion of bullshit iconoclasts.

“Dude, what are you doing?”

“What does it look like I’m doing? I’m clipping my nails.”

“In the parking garage? At work?” He smiles, but only for a moment. He wouldn’t want me to think he cares. About anything, ever.

“It was time,” I say, instantly exhausted by the hopelessness of the conversational girder I suddenly find myself pinned beneath.

“You couldn’t do it at home this morning?”

“They weren’t ready yet,” I explain, the delivery of each word a supreme struggle. I decide I should mentally prepare myself to teach him how to breathe, should it come to that.

“So you brought a nail clipper with you? Just in case?” he inquires. You know, inquisitively.

“I always keep one in the car. Some people carry pocket knives or flashlights or boner pills. You never know. But when you need it, you need it.”

“Dude, you’re so OCD it’s ridiculous.”

“I do not have OCD.”

“You realize you park in this same space every day, right?”

It’s almost adorable how he thinks he’s got me cornered. Almost.

“That’s only so I can easily remember where my car is.” Dipshit.

But he isn’t finished. I can see him reaching for his ace in the hole. The one I put there myself.

“Didn’t you tell me once that every time you walk past the paper cutter, you think of chopping your finger off?”

Fucking hell. I never should have said anything.

“Maybe, but I only think about it. See?” I hold up my 10 fingers, their nails now perfectly trimmed, not too long, not too short. I wiggle them around a little bit, just to show off. I’m such a dick sometimes.

“Whatever, man. That’s still OCD,” he says with the sort of conviction you only get from people who believe in anything at all. I wonder for a moment if he has the entire text of the DSM-IV tattooed on his leg, but then our marketing coordinator squeals around the corner in her blue SUV, waving at us like we’re on fire. We might be.

Whatever. It’s better to burn out. And, anyway, I’m finished here.

“Listen,” I say. “Do you want to stand around in the parking garage all day talking about my non-existent problem, or do you want to start taking the 406 steps to the front door?”

Yeah. That’s what I thought.

Don’t get too comfortable

Jumbo Slice

Size, as it turns out, does matter.

I just got home from Washington, D.C., where I spent the weekend to attend the bachelor party of a close friend and former colleague. We had ridiculous amounts of fun. I caught up with old friends and made new ones — all of them smart, creative, amibitious and, without exception, wonderful human beings.

I joked yesterday that when I met the groom-to-be about eight years ago, he was “a broken man.” But it wasn’t really a joke. He was miserable then, almost completely lost at sea, with nothing to buoy him but a nagging sense that things had to get better.

Within a year, he took a leap of faith and moved to the capital to take a demanding but potentially rewarding job that he wasn’t fully confident he was cut out for. “I feel like an impostor,” he told me in the early weeks of his new gig. But he stuck with it, because if nothing else it was challenging. It was interesting. Mainly, it was different.

Since then? His professional trajectory has been nothing short of meteoric. He has risen with distinction to the very top of his profession. Today he’s an extremely influential man in arguably the most influential city in the world. And, oh yeah: Next weekend, he’ll be married to an impossibly wonderful woman who makes him happier than I’ve ever seen him.

In the wee hours of Saturday night, we were riding home in a cab down 18th street in Adams Morgan when another friend spotted a neon sign that beckoned to him like a siren.

“Jumbo Slice,” it said.

“Stop the car! Let us out here!” he cried, and the driver obeyed. The rest of us were too drunk or half-asleep to question it.

So next thing I know, we’re stumbling through a crowd of drunks toward the promise of gooey cheese and pepperoni and grease running down our arms on a scale that is at least somewhat more “jumbo” than we’re accustomed to.

I’m happy to report the neon sign did not lie.

You don’t really get a sense for it in the photo, but these slices were massive, requiring multiple paper plates to (barely) support their bounty. They were the perfect ending to a night that had celebrated excess. And as we walked slowly back toward home, munching on our Jumbo Slices along the way, the groom-to-be drunkenly related the tale of their evolution.

“Originally they were just, you know, merely huge,” he said. “But then the place down the street started making a bigger slice. So these guys started making theirs a little bigger and then the place down the street bought a whole new oven — a bigger one, so they could make even bigger pies. Naturally, this place had to respond in kind, and so now it just keeps escalating. There’s no telling when it will end, really.”

“It’s like a pizzeria arms race,” one of us said. “A Cold War of kitchen equipment,” someone countered. “We can only hope that one or the other side enters a phase of perestroika and the whole thing ends peacefully,” we added, laughing hysterically between bites.

And that’s when it occurred to me: You really need to be around people who challenge you if you’re ever going to get anywhere.