The Mountaintop Insights, Inspiration and Perspective for Enlightened Marketers

July 19, 2011

Action, not Trust, is Social Currency

After taking a short break from blogging/writing over the past several months I have spent the last week trying to come up to speed on current topics/trends/issues that my audience cares about. Recently i have been hearing a lot about “‘social currency” and that “trust is THE currency” of the day. But why trust? I mean we can’t measure trust, we can barely agree on a definition of what trust is in business. So why do we hang our hat on something so intangible? This has troubled me a fair bit and while I never would begin to express that I have “THE answer”, I will certainly put forward an interesting argument to reconsider what your social currency is and how you can develop a social economy based on it.

To begin we need to understand trust…

What is Trust?

The classic definition from Wikipedia put forward that trust has the following elements to it:

  • the willingness of one party (trustor) to rely on the actions of another party (trustee);
  • reasonable expectation (confidence) of the trustor that the trustee will behave in a way beneficial to the trustor;
  • risk of harm to the trustor if the trustee will not behave accordingly; and
  • the absence of trustor’s enforcement or control over actions performed by the trustee.

If we can agree that trust embodies the above elements, after all it does come from a highly reputable source, then we will be able to at the very least establish what trust is as a human construct and that it is based on action and behaviours; and behaviours, of course, drive action. So if trust can be gained through action and underlying behaviours, then we can also assume it can be lost through action and behaviour.

What is Currency?

The next step is to reach a common understanding on what a currency is… again, we turn to Wikipedia, that trusted source of human knowledge where the actions of hundreds and thousands of people have created the biggest repository of human knowledge; refined through countless iterations. Again we see actions building trust. Interesting… but I digress.

Back to currency. It seems, according to Wikipedia, that currency has several key attributes as well that help us shape our common understanding.

  • Currency is commonly held to be a medium of exchange.
  • Its essential function is that is a “measure of value” which means it needs a constant inherent value of its own and stable purchasing power.
  • Lastly, a currency is convertible requiring no restrictions on the amount of currency you can convert or no fixed/limiting value to it.

So shouldn’t a social currency have the same rough definition? It begs the question… What human construct can be a medium of exchange? Is trust even capable of being a currency?

In my mind trust doesn’t have these qualities, in fact trust has all the qualities of a product; it is something purchased via continuous action. We certainly can’t exchange trust. Trust is most likely one of the most difficult human constructs to measure and apply a value; it is ethereal and personal and therefore lacks the ability to have a constant inherent value past a single person. You simply cannot measure it regardless of what the social measurement folks like Tweetlevel, Empire Avenue, and Klout tell you.  Lastly, trust is not convertible; at least not in a way we could apply to being a currency.

So what do we have that makes a good social currency? In my mind it is action.

How Action Forms the Basis for a Social Currency

So if we look at action as a potential currency it to also needs to meet all of the criteria listed above that trust seemed unable to adequately fulfill.

  1. Action can be exchanged. Action, by its very nature, promotes exchange; action and reaction. Further, we know that action acquires or loses trust, again another exchange.
  2. Action is measurable and can have a constant inherent value. For decades we have been applying value to action. We know down the penny what a customer service phone call is worth not only from an actual dollar value but also from an action-reaction valuation. I mean, this is the basis for Net Promoter scoring – will you refer us to your family or friends? It is a system where every action has an inherent value to the point where enough trust is acquired to promote a new action/reaction – a referral. Further, action is infinitely measurable – its the one thing we can measure in social for example.
  3. Action is convertible. Action can be converted at anytime depending on how the person you are performing an action for both values and builds trust. Understanding human obligation enables us to further demystify how action can be converted for higher values or converted faster. Obligation simply means that if i do something nice for you, you will (eventually) do something nice for me. Continued action that builds obligation will drive

By performing actions for our customers, we build trust. Trust is a result of positive action; it is the product we purchase with action-based currency. Over time and depending on how the individual measures the value of your actions they convert it to trust on your behalf – a trust they transfer to your brand.

How Do We Acquire and Lose Trust with Action Currency

So if we assume that action is what we use to purchase trust; its is cause and affect. But now we need to determine where trust-building actions come from in the enterprise. It is my opinion that the divisions tasked with direct service to the customers that are the instruments to deliver action and directly affect the value of that currency.

  • Marketing: Marketing sets the stage for the base value of your social currency. The value of your base currency is directly equal to the integrity of the actions that marketing takes. If your marketing bends the truth, over promises or misleads then you devalue your currency. Each action marketing takes whether its an email communication, a mobile app or event has the opportunity to deliver positive action.
  • Sales: The relationship the customer develops with sales staff is the primary set of actions that either acquire or lose the trust. The key here is to make it easy to do business with you and simplify the process of becoming a customer. Lastly, do what you say you are going to do when you are going to do it. Harder than it sounds for many.
  • Customer Retention and Loyalty: Probably the one department that holds the most traction with customers and the least valued in the social strategy. Why companies commit all of their actions to acquiring rather than keeping customers, I will never know. To continue to reinforce/build trust the actions must give them a reason to continue to be a customer; rewards and simple shows of appreciation are great ways to do that.
  • Customer Service and Support: One of the biggest areas of negative action is customer service. Why do we put our lowest paid, least trained staff on the front line and then limit their ability to serve the customer with selfish SLA or customer service policies? Nothing erodes the value of your social currency faster than the inaction or negative action of customer service.
  • Billing/Finance: It escapes me why we don’t ever consider the impact of finance department’s actions in relation to the value of your currency. One poor interaction or dispute with billing and your value plummets. Always look to resolve in the best possible manner.

Brands that understand that the result of positive action is trust gradually improve the value of their “brand currency” or actions enabling them to apply arguably less effort for better results. As we apply positive action to a person, group of people or market, we increase the value of our “brand actions” thus enabling us to purchase more trust faster. Where a brand performs actions that are either low quality, contradictory, negative or selfish they devalue their currency.

Brand Currency

Much like the world’s nations have their own currency systems, I believe each brand has their own social currency and while the basis of that currency is action, the value can vary wildly depending on the value and qualities of each action the brand makes to its customers. This makes it easy for us to begin to understand how some brands can purchase trust so easily and others struggle constantly. It is the perceived quality of that brand’s “actions” that create the value of their social currency.

I have learned the following rules hold true for building and retaining value in your brand currency.

  1. Be customer-centric: There is no action better than that we do for the needs of others. Give to receive.
  2. Simplify everything you do: In age of ridiculous complexity, simplicity in your actions and the actions you ask customers to take builds incredible value. Simple actions have higher value than complex actions.
  3. Be friendly: You don’t have to be genuine, but you do have to be friendly. Friendly staff can a long way to maintaining the value of your currency even when they have to do things the customer may not like.
  4. Be fast: The first step to good service is acknowledgment and in an age of live social interactions, brands must be expedient in their response to customer inquiries. This further

As a student of human nature, I have also been able to develop a theory on obligation and its role in building a highly valued currency. Understanding human obligation enables us to further demystify how action can be converted for higher values or converted faster. Obligation simply means that if i do something nice for you, you will (eventually) do something nice for me. Continued action that builds obligation will drive the acquisition of trust and positive customer reaction on behalf of your brand. As you acquire more trust you will be able to exert more influence over that customer and guide their actions in a more meaningful way.

Whether your brand currency is a Peso or a Pound is a direct result of your ability to acquire trust through the actions your company takes.

How Social Currency Leads to Influence

I would be remiss if i didn’t tie this back to influence, a topic I hold near and dear to me heart. In my journey to uncover the Nature of Influence and its many forms, I believe that in the context of social currency, the higher the “value” of your brand currency or actions, the more influence you wield over customers. Again, I turn to human nature and the relationship between action, trust and influence.

Actions buy trust and trust buys inlfuence. The more we trust a brand, the more that consumer becomes susceptible to brand influence and the more we are able to guide a customers interactions with our brand. It is an integral part of trust to lower our defenses as part of our commitment. Once we lower our defenses, we become easier to influence. So long as you never betray or abuse that trust, you will continue to be able to apply influence using your currency.

A Poor Value Social Currency Can Lose Customers

The same relationship works to acquire new customers whose trust has been eroded by brands with poorly valued social currency. Telcos are a prime example in Canada. Never has there been an industry where trust has been more exploited than in telco. I will give a living, personal example. I am in my last year of a 3 year contract with a major Canadian telco for my business mobile service, no names but it begins with “R” and ends with “ogers Communictions Ltd.”.

In my second year, I had issues with my Blackberry and contacted Rogers tech/customer support for help. They proceeded to let me know that i was not eligible for any handset replacement, nor would they compensate me for a month of non-service. This continued for over 4 weeks and eventually i was able to get to customer retention whereby they agreed to replace my handset and credit my account $200 if i re-signed for another 3 year term. Not that i am anything special, but my account is worth over $4K per year and while its not a large amount, its not small for an individual either.

By the time they had given that unsavoury offer, their actions and seeming lack of positive action lost my trust. I found an old handset, turned down their offer, and to this day they have not credited a penny to my account or followed up in anyway. Their brand currency is valueless to me. But now the currency of rivals has much more value to me even if my current provider takes decisive action to resolve my dilemma. Its simply too late for them. It is a message I have shared with many friends and colleagues via professional and social networks thus impacting the value of “R’s” currency with those whom I am influential.

The moral of this story is that as brands, it is within our power to develop a social currency that delivers enormous success, eternal mediocrity, or miserable failure. Every action we take with our customers defines that value.

So the real question is… do you want a Peso or a Pound?

May 15, 2011

The Nature of Situational Influence

In 1610 Galileo, now considered the father of modern science and observational astronomy, began to publicly support the belief that the sun, not the earth, was the center of our universe. His heliocentric beliefs met with bitter opposition from his peers and the church who condemned him as a heretic. It was no coincidence, as it has always been, that those who benefit most from the status quo prove to be the most resistant to any kind of opposing thought, no matter how much sense it makes.

After a year of exploring the nature of influence, I firmly believe I am now, and have always been, inconsequential. That being said I also believe, like Galileo did about the sun and earth, that our view of influence is strongly based on the beliefs of those that benefit from it the most. This current self-centered view of influence puts man/woman as the center of the influence universe – a view I do not share and believe to be the exact opposite of the truth; a truth many would consider heresy.

So what if something else is the center and we all orbit around it? Perhaps its more than one thing where we are torn and pulled into different orbits as we near forms of influence with stronger gravity?

In my mind, a form of influence known as “Situational Influence” is the center of the universe we all orbit. I will be exploring this topic over the next while in a three part series; the first part of which is the Nature of Situational Influence..

The Power of Situational Influence

If we think deeply and track back our actions in life many of us would see a series of situations that propelled our actions and became the major influence in all of our big decisions. Indeed, if we look at the myriad of small decisions we make each and every day, we will see our priorities are affected and shaped by a series of interconnected events and situations that rise and fall as they collide against each other and challenge our values, beliefs and perceptions to drive behavior.

The basics keys on Situational Influence…

  1. Situations directly affect action.
  2. Situations rise in priority according to urgency.
  3. Urgency drives immediacy of action
  4. We are oblivious to all of it.

Now, with that in mind, I am going to illustrate how this works using a rain metaphor and will return to our planetary metaphor in Part 2 and 3 of this series. But for now, rain is an excellent way to understand Situational Influence in its simplest form.

The Coming Storm

Have you ever been caught in the rain or a sudden storm? Imagine back to how that affected what you were doing and how you changed your behavior to cope with the rain or escape the storm. Our actions changed according to how intense the rain or storm became. As it rose in intensity, it drove more immediate action in us.

The nature of situational influence works in much the same and is amplified by urgency.

In the above illustration, Situational Influence is represented by four distinct states of rain from Drizzle, Rain, Storm to a Flood. Underneath these is how the urgency of situation makes it rain harder thus creating a more directly influential situation. While the examples underneath give examples of what can be possible motivating situations at each stage of rain.

Obviously, it would also be best to represent rough percentages that each person would experience each form of situational influence. While I am no statistician, I have assigned some arbitrary values to each based on the loose definitions and examples from above.

Further, if we wanted to really explore this metaphor we can add another factor which would be duration of the situation. The interesting attribute to duration is that while a duration can vary wildly anywhere from instant to a whole lifetime such as an illness, it can be applied to any situation and any state of urgency. For example, you can be laid off and be out of work for a day or you can be out of work for years. An illness can be instant like food poisoning or a lifetime like cancer.

So what we have are 3 factors which help put basic boundaries of understanding around situational influence…

  • Type of Situation: Drizzle, Rain, Storm, and Flood.
  • Level of Urgency: Mild, Medium, High and Life Changing.
  • Duration: From Instant to Lifetime; a single second to decades.

With this in mind, let’s now explore how a situation affects a single person such as one of your customers, and for this purpose i will stick to a consumer, although Situational Influence affects businesses equally.

Of Umbrellas, Shelters and Arks

Again I am going to ask you to remember back to being caught in a sudden rain storm without any kind of shelter or way to keep the rain of you. How did that make you feel? For most people, its not a good experience. So, if we continue that imagining so as to now picture that person in the rain as a customer in a situation and let’s assume its a negative situation. Like anyone caught in rain, the customer is looking for something to protect them from the rain such as an umbrella.

For me, an umbrella is a great way to represent an experience a company can design to protect a customer from a rainy situation. The umbrella experience delivers the potential of several things:

  1. It is the opportunity to turn a negative situation quickly into a positive situation.
  2. It arms the customer with ability to endure, solve or minimize a negative situation.
  3. It gives the customer something they can share with another because who hasn’t at one time shared an umbrella?

A great example of a rain situation and an umbrella/no umbrella experience is the following:

No umbrella: A mobile customer is having issues with their mobile device and attempts to get hold of technical or customer support. The longer it takes to get resolution, the more rain falls on them and the more negative they become.

Umbrella: The same mobile customer is having issues with their mobile device and goes to the companies Twitter support channel (the umbrella experience) for fast, effective assistance. In this case, the customer is protected from the rain and is likely to share that “umbrella” with others who are in the rain.

Now an umbrella will do you no good in a serious storm or a flood which brings us to two stronger forms of experience; the Shelter experience and the Ark experience.

In bad times, give them shelter…

Now, we are going to increase the intensity to recall a time when we were caught in a fierce thunder storm with driving rains, lightning strikes and booming thunder. For me, I distinctly remember a fair amount of fear when I was a boy and which grew into respect for the power of storms as an adult.  But as a child, I had no way to deal with it until my mother taught me the counting game and I’m sure most everyone knows this one.  Basically, from the moment you see lightning you count Mississippis until you hear thunder. If the count gets higher between the two, the storm was lessening. If it the count gets lower, the storm was getting worse. Now here’s the thing, as a kid, I would keep counting until the storm lessened because I was given a way to cope with the fear it created in me. It didn’t matter that it lasted 6-7 hours, I would keep counting.

As a customer, there are situations in life where you need shelter from a lengthy or intense storm – the kind that disrupts your life and impacts your emotional well being. The Shelter experience is designed to help through more difficult or prolonged situations. Again, give them somewhere to go and someone or something to rely on.  In this case the shelter could be a no hassle service (shelter) on getting a customer who has been in a car accident back on track instead of giving them a hard time (no shelter). But the important thing to do is give them, at the very minimum, a shelter experience based on your own version of the counting game to get them through the storm. They need to know you are down the hall and the storm, while intense and scary now, will go away if they keep counting.

Or follow Noah’s example and build an Ark…

In the late summer/early fall of 1988 in lived in Edmonton Alberta, Canada – a polite agricultural part of Canada much like the US Mid West. Now, Alberta can get some pretty severe weather and it can come out of nowhere. This one particular day we experienced what would become to known as the worst tornado event in Canadian history. I was eighteen at the time and stuck in traffic on a highway outside Edmonton when the sky turned ominous, the winds picked up and the hail began. Up to this point, it was pretty status quo for Alberta storms, but the wind kept growing in ferocity. I will never forget the feeling I had when I saw the funnel come down about ten miles away and begin to rip through south eastern Edmonton. That Tornado went on to devastate a large part of the city and killed many people. The clean-up, which I volunteered to do with many, many others, hit home with me. These folks literally lost everything.

Now apply that kind of devastating situation metaphorically to one of your customers. When the absolute worst happens, you need to get that customer safely out of the way of the flood. Examples of these types of situations abound from the death of a loved one to losing your home. An Ark experience, while not likely to happen often, is a part of a more complex customer/advocacy support program.  If you can’t get them in the Ark, then build your Ark experience around helping them rebuild or build their lives after a major life-changing event. The Word of Mouth Marketing power that comes from Ark experiences is enough value in and of itself to strongly consider doing it. If you leave them stranded, not only will they never forget that, but someone else might save them.

Before it Rains, Hand out the Umbrellas

So understanding the basics of Situational Influence means we can begin to map out the types of common situations that affect our customers. Even starting at the lowest form, Drizzle situations – those mild, mostly inconvenient situations that eat time out of our already busy schedules, gives us the opportunity to create a simple, highly effective umbrella experiences to deal with many of those for our customers. The best place for it? Customer service by far. Here are the questions you need to answer:

  1. What situations affect my customers?
  2. How do these situations affect my customers?
  3. How do they resolve these situations now?
  4. How can we make this easier, faster for them?
  5. What is the umbrella experience?
  6. What do we need to do in order to fulfill/deliver/enable that umbrella experience?

The key to success before you start? Make sure the customer is involved in answering every single question! Without customer involvement you will fail. If however you follow this formula, you can start handing out umbrellas to your customers before it starts to rain. Chances are they will share that umbrella with others over and over.


That last question I have in my mind regarding Situational Influence in this post is: Once we hand out the umbrellas, can we find a way to make it rain? By that I mean, is there a way to increase urgency for positive situations? Customer fulfillment is an often overlooked way to not increase share of wallet but also improve customer referrals and Word of Mouth marketing. By encouraging more active participation in your umbrella experience, you naturally drive more mutual benefit.

The best example I can think of is Starbucks Customer Engagement program – My Starbucks Idea. If you haven’t checked it out, it is a shining example of how a company created an umbrella experience, delivered exclusively online, that  increases urgency for participation in the community by rewarding involvement with both recognition and rewards (Ideas in Action and Leader Board). The point is, by being customer-centric,  providing a community devoted to the experience the love, giving the customer a means to use their voice and see action, Starbucks has successfully improved the urgency to become involved actively in the brand.  They are essentially making it rain by creating a positively influential environment and situation for their customers.

To leave you with a thought… I can’t help but picture the scene of “Singing in the Rain” where Gene Kelly has his solo dance/song scene overwhelmed with the joy of having spent a fine evening with a lovely woman. His joy and energy are inspiring and fantastic to behold. It is a powerful reminder that rain can be enjoyed if you have the right attitude.

Let’s make sure we work hard to build that attitude in our customers.

March 3, 2011

The Twisted Reality of Influence Scoring

What compels us to believe in something even when we know deep down it is inherently flawed? What emotional need does it fulfill in us that we are willing to set aside our reason and embrace a vision of who we are that is not true or, at the very least, is a murky reflection of real life.

The current drive to measure influence reminds me very much of Plato’s Theory of Forms from The Republic in which he uses the “Allegory of The Cave”. Through “The Cave”  Plato theorizes the world we believe to be real is in fact illusion. Rather than subjecting you to Plato’s actual works (although I thoroughly encourage it on your own time), I will draw from that information wonder Wikipedia to help provide an understanding of the Allegory of the Cave

From Wikipedia:

“…imagine a cave inhabited by prisoners who have been chained and held immobile since childhood: not only are their arms and legs held in place, but their heads are also fixed, compelled to gaze at a wall in front of them. Behind the prisoners is an enormous fire, and between the fire and the prisoners is a raised walkway, along which people walk carrying things on their heads “including figures of men and animals made of wood, stone and other materials”. The prisoners watch the shadows cast by the men, not knowing they are shadows. There are also echoes off the wall from the noise produced from the walkway.

Socrates suggests the prisoners would take the shadows to be real things and the echoes to be real sounds, not just reflections of reality, since they are all they had ever seen or heard. They would praise as clever whoever could best guess which shadow would come next, as someone who understood the nature of the world, and the whole of their society would depend on the shadows on the wall.

Socrates next introduces something new to this scenario. Suppose that a prisoner is freed and permitted to stand up. If someone were to show him the things that had cast the shadows, he would not recognize them for what they were and could not name them; he would believe the shadows on the wall to be more real than what he sees.

“Suppose further,” Socrates says, “that the man was compelled to look at the fire: wouldn’t he be struck blind and try to turn his gaze back toward the shadows, as toward what he can see clearly and hold to be real? What if someone forcibly dragged such a man upward, out of the cave: wouldn’t the man be angry at the one doing this to him? And if dragged all the way out into the sunlight, wouldn’t he be distressed and unable to see “even one of the things now said to be true?”

So I ask you now, is what you see in front of reality or illusion? Do you really believe that your influence score is a realistic representation of your true influence or simply a distorted reflection on a cave wall?

Am I Chained to the Cave Wall?

I think what we struggle with most is how inconsequential we really are in the grand scheme of things. We all want to matter of course, but do we really?

What I have come to recognize is that influence is far more complex than we realize. That its forms, dozens to be precise, all represented by adaptive layers around us (within us really but that’s another post) all fight to control our perception based on our emotional and rational needs at that specific time and for a specific situation. These layers of influence drive how we interpret the world and define our own role within it. I refer to this as an “influence persona”.

An influence persona does two things:

  • It interprets outside influential factors and forms for me to reinforce my beliefs, values and perception of the world.
  • It projects my influence on others around me.


Add to this the next layer of complexity where we interact with others we begin to see a deeper, more complex form of dynamic influence where our influence persona conflicts, succumbs or consumes other people’s influence personas within a given situation.

What adds further complexity is our level of self-honesty. Is what influences us building or destroying our image of who we are or want to be perceived as by others? Is that self-image honest? I would put forward that if honesty is a filter through which all influence flows and is interpreted; then our ability to be honest with ourselves determines whether we are chained to the wall of the cave or whether we see the world as it really is.

So how does influence scoring affect our self-image and our ability to be  honest with ourselves?

My Score is My Worth

We have been trained since childhood to accept scoring as a reflection of how well we are doing in the world. From school grades, to finishing first in the race, we are given scores.  Indeed the root of all competition, is about the score. The team with the highest score wins. Now, as we all know, when we have a low score… our parents reprimand us “why didn’t you get that A?” and our coaches berate us “train harder and maybe next time you can be 1st”. So at every turn, we strive to improve our scores in life and business. I mean, who wants the shame of having a low score right?

Now, enter the influence scoring companies and their desire to have us compete for influence ratings. So what happens when we apply a score to something as complex and misunderstood as influence?

  • It changes how we perceive ourselves in relation to others because suddenly a score defines value within our social network.
  • We change our behaviours to improve our score.
  • Our honesty filter adapts to accept this score as a true reflection of us and our influence in the world.

In essence, we begin to lie to ourselves because a score is telling us we are something we are not thus artificially inflating the ego. I mean, who doesn’t want to be more important… So what’s the result?

We chain ourselves to the wall of the cave and believe the shadows and echoes to be our reality – that a score dictates how influential we are.

Is an Influence Score Emotional Crack or Feeding a God Complex?

So why do we do it? Why do we choose to believe that a score defines our value to others (and to ourselves)? I would put forward that it stems from unfulfilled emotional need and falsely inflated self-worth from having “followers”; a term I have serious issues with. There was a time when followers was a term used in history in reference to those who worshiped gods, deities or powerful men. Does having followers then warp how we see ourselves? Is it giving us a God complex? Are influence scoring companies the new deities?

Perhaps its simpler than that. Maybe its more like an addiction to crack-cocaine. In this case, the more we look to “escape” the reality that we are inconsequential, the more we need a score to validate and feed our ego until it becomes an obsession – a method we actively use to define our “false self” to others. I guess this would make the influence scoring companies crack dealers who are constantly finding ways to feed the addiction and create clever ways for you to lure your friends into buying. Much like dealers, they are promising escape – to take you from not mattering, to mattering.

Do We Continue to Avoid the Truth or Free Ourselves?

The question really boils down to this… Are we ready to accept that having a score is a shadow on a cave wall? That it is not a reflection of influence, but more a reflection of our relevance within our social network. The more we believe that our influence score is reality, the more we secure ourselves to that cave wall.

Me, I choose to leave the cave and look upon myself in the world as it really is. For the most part, I am someone of little consequence. In certain situations with certain people, I can influence thinking; sometimes actions. This is my reality. Can I change this? Of course. But a score has absolutely no bearing on this reality and will never be a measure of my impact nor of others impact on me.

We all make decisions to chain ourselves to that cave wall or not. Really it boils down to how we want to honestly measure ourselves.

In closing let me be clear, while we don’t matter to almost everyone in the world, there is a small group around us in business and life who we do matter to. And they’re not keep scoring.

February 14, 2011

To Rule or Not to Rule

“What chance gathers she easily scatters. A great person attracts great people and knows how to hold them together.”

Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

Much debate has arisen in the marketing community (and others) about rules in and ruling online communities. This is my cautionary tale to you.

But before you SM fans read on, grab your Prozac, “Pass the dutchie on the left hand side”, do some hot yoga, spoon a friend or whatever you need to calm your anxiety and open your mind to the concept that, brace yourselves… online community existed before social media. I know it’s hard to believe, but back before FaceBook and Twitter many, many years ago when the web was young, people gathered together in online communities and they have some excellent lessons to teach us.

Don’t Judge Me!

For those that don’t know, I am/was an avid online gamer. No, I don’t put on tights and strap on a sword and run around swinging it at my friends, at least, not anymore… But it is a passion I thoroughly enjoy for many reasons:

  • Competition – I love to win. That could be an understatement.
  • Human behaviour – I love the dynamics of human interaction
  • Competition – Did I mention I am competitive?
  • Community – Truly the difference for any great game.

Community, you see, is a huge part of online gaming and Gamers in particular are a special breed.

A Look Inside the Gaming Community World

My perspective is based on not only being a member of multiple communities but also being a moderator and head moderator in many cases (what you would refer to as a community manager) for numerous gaming communities; some quite large at 100k+ active members.

The gaming community is hierarchical in nature when it comes to how it structures itself – I call this the “rule of threes”.

3 types of communities:

Official gaming communities: The game company’s “official” gaming community they create for the players. Typically policed, but a free for all for players to interact with each other and the game designers.

For you marketers, this is Twitter.

Unofficial gaming communities: This is really where the action happens. These communities are created, paid for and managed by super fans of the game itself. They love the community and enable them to the extreme, but typically they do not actively lead. They deploy moderators from the community to keep things civil and enforce basic rules of human conduct (no racial slurs, no porn, etc…). Further, these communities can have millions of active members.

For you marketers, this would be #usguys, #b2bchat, #smmanners, #ungeeked, #blogchat, #custserv, etc…

Clan communities: Clan communities are small, focused and leader driven with a defined chain of command and even ranks for people joining. New members typically undergo rituals or time-based trials to “earn” their stripes. Everyone has roles and it is highly regulated, even self-regulated for fear of being expelled from the clan.

For you marketers, this would be akin to a spin off group that forms a business venture together for a specific defined purpose.

3 types of people for each:

In official and unofficial gaming communities the people hierarchy is: (passive leadership)

  • Founders – Enabling the vision setting guidelines for participation
  • Moderators – Enabling the community
  • Members – Equal contributors


In leader-based communities the people hierarchy is: (active leadership)

  • Dictator/Leader: – Pushes down a single vision and rules
  • Commanders – Enforce and organize the vision and rules
  • Grunts – Do what they were bloody told


What can we learn from them?

  • In my experience, the truly great communities enabled their members and lead without leading, while the truly great clans galvanized their members into a sole purpose with firm but fair treatment.
  • Where certain individuals tried to insert a leadership-style into open communities, they failed – fracturing the community so that it either disbanded or becomes a shadow of its former self.
  • Selfish people destroy communities if they get any kind of influence or power. They subvert it for their own means even though many times their intent was for the betterment of the community.
  • The most selfish people are excellent at masquerading as the most unselfish people while they manipulate the community from different angles.
  • Great communities have basic guidelines for conduct and enjoying the community
  • Clan communities had strictly enforced rules and roles. You didn’t comply, you are out. But you knew that getting into it so eyes wide open.

In both cases however, one core thing made each community function well – honesty without political correctness. And believe me, its damn refreshing.

Politically Correct Community is an Oxymoron

“For evil to flourish, all that is needed is for good people to do nothing.” – Edmund Burke

For the hyper sensitive, ultra politically correct marketing community you are in for a rude awakening. The communities I have seen crop up are unnatural to the way vibrant communities actually work and in fact, build up negative undercurrents of drama and resentment that only surface in grand volcanic style.

You see in these environments built on Twitter especially, no one is really honest with each other in the open for fear of offending or being judged by the community. So what we get is truth draped in so much honey that it sends ambiguous messages, easily interpreted as something else. Further, we feel forced to accept whatever people throw at us for the same group of fears mentioned above.

Now what happens when someone does say something direct and honest? It shocks and upsets creating a slippery emotional slope that usually leads to regretful actions. Leaders or moderators within these communities are then tasked with trying to not only repair damage to the community brand as a whole (especially in live environments like Twitter) but these events polarize the community which requires tremendous effort to resolve.

Much can be gained from civil, constructive honesty and at the same time that not everything can be solved with group hugs. In my mind communities based on Twitter are in danger of becoming cultures of avoidance because the political correctness pendulum has swung too far to the left.

Suck it up Buttercup!

There is no doubt that your sensibilities are going to be offended fairly regularly in online communities. It’s natural. You could misinterpret what someone said or interpret correctly in some cases. It often arises out of civil discussions that become debates where one side refuses to acknowledge the other point of view.

Your reaction to that creates a chain reaction that is emotionally driven; both for you and everyone witnessing the interaction.

The best solution lies in how you govern your own reactions to others. You can’t control them, but you can control how others affect you and subsequently how you react. This can go a long way to improving your experience and interactions.

Me personally, I have a hide like rhino when it comes to online behaviour. It is exceedingly difficult for even the most controversial or opinionated person to phase me. This doesn’t mean I am necessarily tolerant of undo amounts of crap, I have just learned not to react emotionally to it. In fact, I am quite outspoken at times, especially when someone is acting in a way that is inappropriate.

But the one thing I never do is take it personally. Once you take it personally, you have shifted control to that person and your reactions will be emotional, defensive and irrational.

As my farmer father would tell me, “Pull up your socks boy. The only thing that got hurt is your pride”.

When Rules Ruin a Community

Many times, as communities grow, there is thinking that new rules need to be created to “govern” the masses. This is usually the brainchild of a small group of people that believe, rightly or wrongly, their community needs leadership, specifically their leadership. The rules are meant to empower the leadership to have greater control and leverage over the participants.

While it is true that some communities do need rules, many do not and this is the difference between natural, largely unspoken rules based on common values of the community and rules designed to “direct” the community.

So what happens when rules are introduced to an open community like Twitter groups? Well, it’s simple – you get conflict, resentment, and abandonment.

Guidelines on the other hand, while usually unstated, can enable the community and help them to understand how to participate to the fullest.

The simplest and only rule to apply to online communities is: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”.

When Rulers Ruin a Community

So your community has grown, people are flocking and you have aspirations for leading them to glory! There is no bigger mistake you could make.

What I am going to give you are some questions to really acid test the true reasons for wanting to lead your community.

  1. Does the community believe they need leadership or are you projecting it?
  2. What are your true motives for leadership?
  3. Are you looking to make money off what the community has done?
  4. Does the community already have unspoken leaders and how are they doing?
  5. Will the community resent or disagree with the direction you want to take?
  6. Are you the best choice for leadership? Why?
  7. If you asked the community, would they agree with the answers you gave above?

The vast majority of my experience has been that when someone wants to lead, it’s for all the wrong reasons. Leadership in communities is granted by the community to those who prove they are worthy of it through exemplary behaviour.

True community leaders enable everyone around them. A good example is the leader who continually looks to improve the community via new programs and activities to improve collaboration, relationship building, attraction of new members and growth.

A true leader doesn’t seek praise, acknowledgment, titles or control. A true community leader selflessly and fairly empowers every person without expectation of return.

While a great leader can come from anywhere, not just anyone can lead. If you are considering trying to lead a community you are involved in consider what you risk if your intentions are not in the best interest of the community. What you stand to lose is far more than what you could potentially gain.

In the end, every action has a reaction. The more important the community is to the people that are part of it, the more change will be resisted unless it is driven by the people, for the people.

Communities govern themselves and are self-correcting.

Remember, “What chance gathers she easily scatters”.

Choose your path wisely…

As a follow-up to this post in the coming weeks, I will be looking at how this applies to branded customer communities. If you think they operate differently, think again.

January 20, 2011

Finding Inspiration to Write

Filed under: Editorial Schedule,Human Behavior,Personal — Jeff @ 7:35 pm

Today I was part of a great Twitter chat #SOBcon. Lots of smart folks and a question came up that I found intriguing because of the dialogue it stirred in everyone.

“Where do you find your inspiration to blog or write”

The stir came when it was suggested that inspiration and having an editorial schedule could be polar opposites. Many agreed with this notion, some did not and sliced it down the middle.

The issue came down to this conundrum:

1) If you have an editorial schedule you risk putting out drab content for content sake.

2) If however you wait for inspiration to write, you risk being unreliable for actually publishing content for your readers.

3) Which opened up a third question of accountability to your audience and to your company (for whom you blog).

Maybe its the simple farmer inside me, but I figure, “why can’t we marry the two and have inspired editorial schedules that produces superior, authentic works?” I have never created artificial boundaries for myself so this notion works for me.

I have always believed that limiting your perspective and beliefs are what hold you back in almost everything in life. To this end, I have always passionately clung to a child-like sense of wonder about everything around me, most especially human behavior. This perspective has enabled me to find inspiration absolutely everywhere I look and in every experience I have, both online and off. Does it all lead to writing? Of course not. But it all contributes.

So I wanted to share some of the ways I find and shape inspiration into my work and my writing.

Become an adventurer

Don’t sit and wait for inspiration, go explore and find it. Improving your sense of curiosity and asking good questions is a great way to begin this journey. Every single environment and interaction holds the potential for discovery if you think and act like an adventurer.

Rekindle your passions

This is important because in order to find external inspiration, you need to inspire within. Yes I know, the whole chicken and egg thing… I have found that being passionate about your writing is the best inspiration. This requires you to shift your beliefs a bit so that you can spark your passion at a moments notice. I have described it as the ability to create a positive charge in your mind, body and spirit. In short – its your energy.

Make a commitment

An editorial schedule is a commitment to yourself, your company and your audience. It gives you some accountability and process. It also helps create modest expectations.

This has been my biggest challenge while building my personal brand. As many know, I put a lot of effort, research and thinking into my writing and that takes time. Therefore, my posting has been irregular (to be kind). My #1 goal is to become regular – its about adding fibre to my writing diet to find that happy medium.

An inspired editorial schedule?

Does such an animal exist or is this another fabulous creature like the unicorn? For me, my editorial schedule is inspired and ever changing both to meet the needs of my audience and to fuel my passions. I write no less than ten posts at any given time, gradually contributing to each with new research or thinking. I use Evernote religiously online and listen to the folks on my Great Thinkers and Marketing Content Twitter lists. I use mind maps avidly to explore deep concepts and test my own logic. I actually hang a pen around my neck on a tether and carry a pocket sized moleskin to capture individual moments on paper. I also use a digital audio recorder when I am driving to capture and work through ideas.

I have given myself no excuses to not find, experience and capture inspiration when we meet – and it is often from the most unlikely of places. So the schedule? Hell, that just comes naturally out and helps to reaffirm my goals.

Changing your perspective

This is not only about how you see the world around you but how you present yourself to the world around you. It is also as simple as changing your surroundings out of your typical routines. Some of my best writing has been done in cafes and pubs. Whatever works.

A story to illustrate my point

I am blessed to have 3 beautiful, imaginative children and this story was inspired out of my commitment to being a Dad.

It starts with my adventure to build my first backyard skating rink for the kids. While doing so, I found myself overcome with inspiration for my social sales software and here is how…

My challenge was that I didn’t have the proper rink kit to make the skating rink and everyone told me i needed one. I was stuck. But in speaking with a friend, he suggested using the snow as the form. A great idea to be sure.

But wait a minute, if I use snow as a form, my rink is no longer constrained to the tired old rectangles of my youth right? Suddenly I could creatively use the entire backyard including a massive loop around my back garden to make a unique “skating experience” for my kids. The ability to shift from rigid thinking (I need forms) to abstract (snow creates any form) I was able to overcome a challenge and find inspiration. But it didn’t stop there.

What if I applied the same thinking to my software interface? What if I looked at it like snow and shaped it into a simpler, more powerful natural form that takes me away from “tired old tradition”. Since that point, I have been re-designing and simplifying the software.

To close it out, I believe inspiration is all around me and that boundaries only exist when I create them.

Are you limiting yourself? Try a being an adventurer for a day and see if inspiration can be found instead of waiting for it. Not only could this lead you to exciting new paths, but you may find you can keep a balance between inspired writing and keeping a schedule.

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