Are Your Social Media Activities Integrated With Business Lines?

November 28, 2011 2 comments

Last weekend, I attended a conference at a nice resort and brought the whole family. We tried the hotel restaurant and went on Foursquare to look for tips and a possible check-in special. To my surprise, the hotel was very active on Foursquare and offered a free appetizer for checking into the restaurant. When I showed the unlocked special to the server, he looked puzzled and said he had no idea what I was showing him. He had to go back and forth with his manager a few times, and eventually, everything worked out and I got the shrimp tacos on the house. They were delicious.

If social media activities are not integrated with business, customer reps will be confused

Free appetizer on Foursquare? We do that here?

Very happy about the deal and very satisfied with the meal, I tweeted about how great the offer was, even though the staff had no idea they were on Foursquare. Not long after, there was an @reply from the resort apologizing for their uninformed staff. Of course, it was no big deal for me because a free appetizer is a free appetizer.

Spending just a few minutes looking through the resort’s profile, it was obvious that they were very well-versed in the social media space. Their Twitter account had over 2000 followers, 3100 tweets, and were on over 130 lists. They were very engaged and responded quickly. They retweeted useful content, used hashtags appropriately, and had a very likeable personality…displaying all the good practices for businesses on Twitter. Likewise on Foursquare, they had over 1500 check-ins from over 800 people, being available for at least the past two years.

So why was the staff unaware of their social media special? And why was I not surprised?

Perhaps the restaurant staff that night was new, but it’s not a unique situation. Plenty of times I’ll go into a business, show them the check-in special, Facebook coupon, Twitter discount code, or any other social media promotion, and get a “let me ask a manager” confused response from the person behind the counter.

Which makes me wonder, is your social media activity done in a bubble, or is it integrated with related business lines? For some organizations, especially in government, social media is an experiment or a “pet project” done on the side, disconnected from the rest of the organization. However, social media activities should involve related business lines and program areas, since they are the ones that engage with customers. If your communications expert/social media guru/marketing maven/web 2.0 ninja is interacting with your customers, most likely it’s being done behind a closed door. Eventually, the customer will need to interface with the organization, and it would make for a more pleasant experience if the person behind the counter were aware of the situation.

Of course, some transactions will be specific to a single customer and it’s not practical to inform your entire staff that Mr. so-and-so might be walking into any one of your 11 stores with a particular issue. Regardless, your staff should at least be aware that

  • you are on the social network,
  • you do offer certain promotions or special deals for customers, and
  • what an authentic promotion code looks like.

Eventually, if your social media “experiment” turns out to be a viable and sustainable program area in your organization, it is important to integrate the activities with relevant business lines and staff. Just like any IT solution, it should be aligned with the program it supports, especially if customer service is involved.

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Netflix/Qwikster is Pure Genius

September 21, 2011 Leave a comment

What do you do if you run a highly successful company with two business lines; one extremely profitable but the other, not so much? Your customers still enjoy both products, but it’s increasingly difficult to advance the first if you have to keep pumping cash to sustain the second.

The obvious answer is, you get rid of the one that’s floundering and reinvest in the one that’s flourishing. Yes, there will be backlash from people who like the second, but you know that in the long term, it’s the right thing to do.

This is the exact situation confronting Netflix, a company that provides media through on-demand streaming services (boom) and DVDs through the mail (bust). Until recently. In a highly controversial decision, Netflix announced it is spinning off the DVD mail-in service to a completely different company called Qwikster. Netflix was qwikly reprimanded for the move, with critics disapproving of

  • A name that resembles other startups that died off, such as Friendster and Napster
  • A Twitter handle @qwikster that was already taken by someone who posts about taking a shower and getting stung by a bee
  • A name that can easily be misspelled, which hurts brand recognition
  • The second fee hike this year (only to the mail service, not to the streaming)

Could a savvy business man who brought the Blockbuster juggurnaut to its knees suddenly be so dim-witted to rebrand a business with a silly, childish name? Perhaps. Unless he was trying to kick Qwikster to the curb so he can focus on the other business line that he actually cares about.

Here’s my prediction: Qwikster will fail. Netflix will improve. To the point that people who love DVD by mail won’t care for it anymore because streaming will be sufficient.

Netflix’s biggest threat isn’t disgruntled users who huff and puff about fee hikes and inconvenient billing setups. Their biggest threat is competitors in the content streaming market. Big competitors with deep pockets and clear advantages.

  • Hulu Plus offers TV shows a day after they air
  • Amazon Instant is bundled with Amazon Prime
  • Apple iTunes has its own software platform and hardware devices
  • TimeWarner gets movies the same day as DVD releases
  • Android Market is backed by internet giant Google
  • Vudu, a streaming media company is backed by retail giant Walmart

Netflix’s advantage is in brand recognition and an already large customer base. But if it doesn’t improve its deficiencies soon, one of these other giants will overtake them with relative ease. They knew that if they had to keep sinking cash into a destructively expensive operation like mailing physical DVDs, where

  • the cost of postage keeps increasing,
  • the number of DVDs keep expanding, and
  • the overhead costs never diminish

they’ll be sunk faster than you can say Alta Vista. But now that they put all their eggs into one content streaming basket, the likelihood of success greatly increases, despite the short term criticism from upset customers.

So was it the right move to ditch the DVD mail-in service? Definitely.

 

Can government learn something from this move? Obviously, government can’t get rid of important services just because it’s antiquated and incredibly costly to maintain. Government could save a lot of money if they closed down brick and mortar field offices and mandate citizens to conduct business online, but they can’t.

However, has government done a careful analysis of the cost-effectiveness of their programs? Yes, we have many performance measures and benchmarks, but do they translate to useful metrics that help us better manage our programs? In many cases, yes, but in many cases, probably not. Government still sinks way too much money into outdated, costly behemoths and not enough into newer, more cost-effective technologies. It’s certainly easier to talk about efficiency and effectiveness than to actually do it, but there are steps government can do to better manage how it allocates resources. We might be scornfully criticized in the short term, but in the long term, it might be the right thing to do.

Design For Yourself, Not For Your Customer?

September 7, 2011 2 comments

On August 24, 2011, Steve Jobs resigned as the CEO of Apple Inc. Whether or not you like his products, it’s hard not to be fascinated by the black turtleneck-wearing visionary. Over the course of his career, Jobs has said many insightful and profound statements about technology, PCs, business, the future, and life in general. One interesting perspective he had was around design.

“We think the Mac will sell zillions, but we didn’t build the Mac for anybody else. We built it for ourselves. We were the group of people who were going to judge whether it was great or not. We weren’t going to go out and do market research. We just wanted to build the best thing we could build.” (source here)

“You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them. By the time you get it built, they’ll want something new.” (source here)

”It’s really hard to design products by focus groups. A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” (source here)

As one trained to cater to the customer, I’ve always emphasized the importance of user testing and focus groups. Perhaps a bit too much at times. Naturally, I was a bit surprised to learn of Jobs’ perspective.

But I couldn’t help but be a little inspired, because Jobs is not talking about ignoring your customers; he’s talking about having a certain level of passion and conviction in what you do. I became a little introspective, asking myself questions like:

1) Do I believe in my work?

2) Am I emotionally invested in my work?

3) Do I want to innovate?

4) Do I want the product to look good?

5) Do I want to surprise my customers?

6) Do I take shortcuts?

I think Steve Jobs’ attitude can translate to government. It’s about going beyond the minimal requirements and putting out something you’re passionate about. You don’t have to change the world to make a difference. Just put forth your best effort, think outside the box a little, and deliver the best product you can with the resources you have. Don’t just do things for the sake of doing things; do it because you believe it adds value to your customers.

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Are You Allowed to Use that Awesome App?

August 10, 2011 2 comments

I hate carrying legal pads or laptops at conferences, but I need to take notes if I want to remember anything anyone says. The perfect solution? I take notes with Evernote on my mobile device, which I can access on my desktop at work, my laptop at home, and on both my phones wherever I get a signal.

But why stop there? I could

  • share my notes with coworkers,
  •  allow them to add and edit,
  •  supplement with photos, videos, scanned business cards, voice memos,
  •  use them to start a brainstorm session,
  •  tweet out nice, catchy soundbites,
  •  derive action items and task team members,
  • integrate with Microsoft Office…

…essentially transforming its use from my personal note-taking tool to an agency-wide knowledge-sharing and productivity application.

Sounds brilliant, right? Except, there might be a problem: I might not be allowed to use it for conducting official government business.

There are so many great web-based services that add productivity to the workplace, and many of them are free. From cloud-based services like Dropbox and Evernote to collaboration tools like wikis to schedule makers like Doodle to even just a URL shortener like bit.ly, the web is full of fantastic, innovative third parties waiting for people and organizations to take advantage of its services.

The problem is, many of these third parties have terms that a government agency can’t agree to, such as

Indemnification – this is a legal term meaning that you won’t hold the provider responsible for legal actions created as a result of using their website. A real world example is if you rent a power drill from the hardware store, and you hurt yourself with the tool, you can’t hold the store responsible for what you’ve done. What are the chances that the government’s use of a website would result in legal action? Probably not high, but still, the fact that the provider would have such a clause might give your legal department heartburn.

Jurisdiction – It’s easy to forget that although a website is ubiquitous, the provider still resides in one location, like Silicone Valley or Austin, TX. To protect themselves, they’ll often say that if you ever need to duke it out in court, you must go to the court on their home turf, which may have different laws than where you are, especially if they’re in a different country. Is it likely that you’re agency will take legal aciton against a website? Again, not likely. But again, it’s still there.

Advertisement – In order for many websites to offer services at no cost to the user, they’ll place advertisements on the site to generate revenue. Pretty standard. But having official government information displayed on a website with advertisements on the side might violate legislation, even if it’s not viewed by the public.

Agreement via clickthrough – When you click that checkbox saying you agree, you are legally entering into a contract with the provider. There are still many government entities that have restrictions about entering into contracts, such as requiring a signature or approval from the Executive Director. This makes sense for paper contracts entered between government and a vendor, but wouldn’t be possible with websites. But still, a contract is a contract.

Other problems not related to Terms of Service:

Privacy Policy – In addition to Terms of Service, it’s standard practice for websites to have a Privacy Policy. This is a statement about the information they collect about their users. Even though you’re a government agency, it was a private person that signed up, not the agency. Many of these sites will collect information such as log data and cookies to use as part of their business model research and analytics.

Now with many websites providing mobile apps to enhance services, they might have insight into information on your phone or tablet, such as your address book, call log, what other apps you have and GPS coordinates. You’ll probably never know what they do with this data, but the thought that it’s being collected could deter your agency.

Accessibility – Many modern websites have problems meeting accessibility requirements, which could preclude your government entity from using its services, even if the website is used by one person with no physical disabilities. There are often workarounds or exemptions, but it could take some time to get approval.

Offshore operations – Many government entities have Security policies that prohibit data to reside on offshore servers for disaster recovery purposes. If the service provider is in another country, their servers will be too. And with so much stuff going into the cloud, who knows where your data is being housed?

An example is bit.ly, a popular URL shortener service for many Twitter clients. The “.ly” top level domain is the country code for Libya, which has nothing to do with bit.ly. They just wanted a short and catchy URL. But to a CISO, this might give the impression that their servers are housed in Libya, which could be a deal breaker (for the record, bit.ly is based in New York and doesn’t do any business in Libya. More details here).

This is just a quick list of obstacles you could encounter if you try to use web-based applications for official government business. The problem is that this model of no-cost-in-exchange-for-non-negotiable-agreements fly in the face of traditional government procurement methods. In many cases, legal departments will accept the risk involved with terms of service, because the risk is so small compared to the potential business value gained.

There is a lot of work being done in this area for social media sites like Facebook and YouTube, but not as much for internal business use applications like Evernote and Dropbox. The federal government is definitely aware of these issues and is very successful at negotiating with service providers on www.apps.gov, but this doesn’t apply to state and local govenrment (A provider only has to agree to one jurisdiction with the federal government, Washington D.C., but 50 different jurisdictions for states, and countless for locals).

In the end, government workers need to get the jobs done. These services can help make it chearper, better, faster. At some point, government will need to figure out how to effectively and efficiently allow apps and websites that deliver business value to be implemented safely and quickly for its business users.

How does your agency handle these issues?

Texas Passed Open Data Law, But Not an Automatic Win

July 6, 2011 1 comment

On June 17, Governor Rick Perry signed Senate Bill 701 into law, which requires each state agency to post high-value data sets online. This was a great victory for transparency and open government, putting into statute the requirement for all state agencies to post “raw data in open standard format that allows the public to search, extract, organize, and analyze the information.”

Even though this was an enormous win for Texas, this alone does not guarantee that open data will be sprouting across every agency come September 1. There is still a lot of work that needs to be done in order for this law to become a reality across the state.

Why this is no automatic win
Due to the economic climate of the state entire planet, this law requires that agencies use only “existing resources”, making data available “at no additional cost to the state.” In a time when IT programs are being asked to do more with less, there is already an abundance of competing initiatives clawing at the shrinking IT budget. It’s difficult to weigh the importance of publishing data versus other initiatives like infrastructure costs and application development, whose value is more tangible and straightforward.

So, if an agency feels like they need existing resources to focus on what they feel are more mission critical tasks, it won’t be hard to say “sorry, no resources available” as its get-out-of-jail card.

The bill did allow two alternatives for agencies without resources: find a vendor who is willing to do it pro bono or find a grant to fund your open gov initiative.

Overall, despite the challenges, SB701 is still a reason to celebrate, and there will be some agencies preparing data sets to publish by September 1. Texas now has the statutory foundation for transparency and open data, but it’s still up to the agencies to allocate the necessary resources to make this a reality. This is a great catalyst to create momentum, and it will be exciting to see how supporters respond in the coming months.

What do you think? What are some incentives that open gov proponents can use to encourage agencies and vendors to make this legislation actionable and attainable?

Angry Birds Pummel Pigs, Understand Collaboration

June 9, 2011 2 comments

By now, most people are familiar with Angry Birds, the simple trajectory-based mobile game about birds that can’t fly crashing into green pigs with mustaches and helmets. This game is so incredibly popular that it made the Guinness World Records for being the most downloaded paid app in most countries across the globe. There were over 30 million downloads worldwide, with over 10 million on an Apple device, and over 7 million on Android. According to Rovio Mobile, the creators of Angry Birds , an average of 65 million minutes of Angry Birds are being played every day just on an iOS device.

But that’s not what this post is about. I’d like to focus on another area where Rovio Mobile excels: collaboration.

 

Angry Birds picture

 

There are at least four ways where Rovio Mobile teaches us about the art of collaboration. This is a concept we strive for in government, but there are often barriers that keep us from achieving it in an effective manner. The examples below aren’t things that government can replicate, but they do show an inspiring level of creativity and innovation, turning seemingly far-fetched partnerships into relationships that simply make sense.

1. Collaborate with the entertainment industry – Rio the Movie

What does a simple game about birds sling-shotting themselves at green pigs have to do with an animated film about rare macaws getting kidnapped by exotic bird smugglers? Besides feathers, not much. But Rovio Mobile was creative enough to merge the two plotlines into Angry Birds Rio, a re-invention of the game replacing the snorting pigs with caged exotic birds. The creators were able to create a new theme filled with new challenges without compromising the playability of the original concept.

This was a big win for both Angry Birds and Rio the movie, allowing Rovio Mobile to crank out a new reason for fans to throw another $0.99 at the company.

2. Collaborate with the advertising industry – Microsoft Bing

Another shrewd move by Rovio Mobile was to create four short YouTube episodes cleverly integrating Microsoft Bing’s search engine into a retelling of the Angry Birds story. In the first episode, the hungry pigs pull out a smart phone and use Bing to search “how to get eggs.” In episode two, the pigs use Bing to map the location of the eggs. In episode three, the birds counter with a search of their own. And the last episode has a brilliant ending (no spoilers here).

This was definitely a win for both parties because Rovio Mobile was able to introduce a new element into the simple plot, adding enough of a twist to warrant a new video without appearing redundant.

3. Collaborate with the philanthropic industry – BirdLife International

On a blog post in April, Rovio Mobile gave a plug for BirdLife International, a group founded to save the world’s most threatened birds from extinction. Rovio Mobile showed its philanthropic side, promoting awareness of a group dedicated to the conservation of birds, habitats and biodiversity. This was definitely a good PR move, getting hundreds of Likes and positive comments on its blog post.

And for bonus points, Rovio Mobile left a clue on BirdLife’s website for a secret level to be revealed in an Angry Bird update. This definitely got fans excited to browse through BirdLife’s website, digging for the Easter egg.

4. Collaborate with the smartphone industry – Nokia N8 smarthphone

Rovio Mobile partnered with fellow Finnish company Nokia to promote the new N8 smartphone by holding an Angry Birds contest to be played on the new device. The events were a huge success, drawing over 2600 players with 32 finalists. The winner was a 19 year old student who received a new Nokia N8 smartphone and a trip to Hollywood to visit Fox studios, the producers of Rio the Movie.

This was indeed a win for both parties, mobilizing their dedicated Finnish fan base while promoting a new device for a company who desperately needed a boost in the smartphone market.

 

Through these examples, Rovio Mobile displayed creative ingenuity to form incredibly powerful and profitable partnerships with organizations with not much more than feathers in common (except the Nokia example). Again, I’m not saying this is something we can reproduce in government, but this does inspire me to think outside the box and look for collaborative opportunities that benefit all stakeholders.

Are App Contests Sustainable?

May 23, 2011 2 comments

On May 2, Government Technology published a great article called Apps Contest Winners Need Better Government Data to Sustain Innovative Services. It was a very well-written article about the challenges of sustaining the make-data-available-for- private-sector-innovators model.

By now, many of us are aware of events like Apps for Democracy, an app developing contest in Washington DC that yielded $2.3 million worth of applications at a cost of $50,000. These events have been highly successful because:

Government wins by

  • getting applications developed for free
  • building positive relationship with development community
  • gaining a PR win from the public for being innovative and transparent

Development Community wins by

  • Competing for cash prizes
  • getting their name out and showcasing their talents on a public stage

Public wins by

  • obtaining many applications to help them engage with government
  • gaining transparency into government

There’s no doubt valuable apps emerge from these contests, but what happens after the novelty of the contest wears off? This can’t be just a once and for all event, then everyone goes home and things revert back to the way they were. How do you sustain the viability of this relationship so value is still being created in the long term?

Before answering this question, there are several challenges that must be addressed:

1. Who is going to maintain these apps?

The GovTech article mentions that most of these apps don’t get updated after its release because government lacks the resources and developers lack the motivation. It doesn’t make sense for developers to keep playing if they can’t generate revenue and it’s very difficult to monetize off of apps given to the public.

2. How do we get through the “valley of disinterest”?

Former DC CTO Bryan Sivak believes open data has lost some of its luster from a few years ago, dropping from the “peak of inflated expectation” to the “valley of disinterest.” Now that the hype has subsided, are we still interested in this type of model?

3. Not enough data is being offered by government

Daniel Odio, CEO of a mobile Web consulting firm, envisions “dazzling possibilities for private-sector mash-ups… but doesn’t think enough open data is offered.” Ideally, data should be delivered to the public before they have to ask for it, but we’re still a long ways off from realizing that potential.

4. There’s a lot of “dirty data” out there

The article also cites a common frustration among developers trying to work with sloppy, inaccurate or unreliable data. A lot of times agencies are just pushing data out for data’s sake, and if it’s not carefully inspected for accuracy or if it’s not in a usable format, then developers can’t do much with it.

I’d like to add a few more challenges to this list

5. Cultural shift required

Technologically speaking, making data available is easy. There are plenty of tools available to help government push out data in formats that can be easily consumed by the public. The bigger challenge tends to be cultural. It requires a shift in the way government thinks about their data, and there are still a lot of agencies who aren’t ready for this shift.

6. People want quality, not quantity

It makes great PR to brag about hundreds of apps being developed with open data, but how many of them would actually be used by the public? Do we as consumers really want 52 apps telling us where the nearby bus stops are? Sure, it’s not up to government to decide what’s valuable or not, but if you get 300 apps from a contest and only a handful get used, the value of your efforts might be a bit overstated.

7. Can the networks support it?

One of the most frustrating things for a mobile user is to open up an app and wait and wait and wait. Carriers are promoting 4G, but many people don’t have devices that make it worth their time and battery life. For now, 3G is still predominant and if you have a data intensive app, waiting too long is one of the fastest ways to lose interested users.

8.  Are we creating the next wave of the digital divide?

Smartphones are increasing exponentially, but the overall market share of iOS, Android and Blackberry devices is still a minority. Obviously, certain demographics are adopting smartphones at a much faster rate than others, so if government is offering innovative ways to access data that can only be experienced by certain demographics, are we essentially creating a new digital divide?

In the long term, I think the general idea of open data with private partnerships is sustainable, but maybe not in the form of contests. It would have to be a concerted effort with long term incentives for all stakeholders involved. The challenges will make it more difficult, but if true value is being created, the benefits can overcome these challenges.