SmoothSpan Blog

For Executives, Entrepreneurs, and other Digerati who need to know about SaaS and Web 2.0.

Corporate Web Site Gives Way to Community: It Had to Happen

Posted by Bob Warfield on March 4, 2009

Fascinating story by Charlene Li (Groundswell author) and others about Skittles and their new approach to branding via Social Media.  Essentially, Skittles have modified their home page for www.skittles.com so that it consists largely of a mashup between various Social Media and a little bit of residual “normal” web site.  First they did it with Twitter, where they showed a continuous search of Tweets that referred to Skittles.  Today I notice they’re showing a feed from Facebook that again shows Skittles-related content from Facebook.  A floating dock in the top left corner lets you choose what to connect to.  Besides Twitter and Facebook there is YouTube and FlickR. 

This stuff is very gutsy, and quite brilliant.  What better way to say they’re hip with the demographic they want to reach?  Company spokesperson Ryan Bowling says:

“In this day and age, where the consumer is extremely influential, the content for our Web site is really based off consumer chatter and beliefs about our brand.”

Why gutsy?  It had to take some guts just to relinquish control even if they knew people were largely positive about the brand already.  Brand managers are some of the most extreme control freaks you’ll ever come across in the marketing world.  Customers can say anything in the Social Media, and Skittles can’t control it.  Techcrunch writer Mike Butcher tested the limits by Tweeting, “Skittles give you cancer and is the cause of all world evil.”  Sure enough, he has a screen shot of it appearing on the Skittle home page!

It took real conviction to go this route, and it will be interesting to watch it play out.  As Charlene puts it:

The brand managers are secure enough in their relationship with customers and also in their brand to let go of control. In fact, they recognize that they never really were in control of the brand. So why not let it go completely?

Skittles is the first major consumer products brand to really, truly let go of the traditional brand baggage. They retain some branding presence with the floating dock, but they have realized the new truth of branding in the brave new world of social media — that your customers own your brand.

I think Charlene has it right–the brand managers never had control.  It was always the customers.

I’ve watched a lot of companies try to harness Social Media to create value for their businesses.  Heck, my company Helpstream does this as its core competency.  The realization that your customers are in control is a common thread that most businesses don’t understand.  They work hard to control the customer, but at best they only influence them.  At worst, too much heavy-handed control results in lower customer satisfaction.  Have you noticed how the big satisfaction stories seemingly involve almost no control at all?  Take a look at Zappo’s.  There isn’t a lot of rhyme or reason to their customer service when you look at the anecdotes.  It’s one preposterous thing they’re doing for the customer after the other.  Consider this anecdote:

A woman found the perfect pair of shoes for her husband and she was waiting for her husband to come home so she could surprise him with the shoes and he unfortunately died in a car accident on the way home. So she called the company for help with the return process, and the rep she talked to sent her flowers. She was so touched, she told the story to everyone at the funeral. This type of situation doesn’t happen very often–we don’t have a process or procedure for that. But because we hire for culture, the rep just took it upon herself to send the flowers. She didn’t have to ask for approval–she was empowered to do that. She wasn’t thinking about what is the impact on our profits. She just knew this was the right thing to do.

Note that there was no playbook, they hired for culture (e.g. they hire people who will think of this stuff) and empowered that culture to do what they had to do without needing constant approval.  There’s that loss of control again, but it’s used to good benefit.

Customer love to be delighted, and you can’t delight them unless the customer feels like they are in control.  You can’t delight them unless the people meeting them are in control and able to do what it takes. 

I mentioned watching a lot of companies trying to harness Social Media.  Recently I was chatting with my fellow execs at Helpstream about how Salesforce executives seem to be fascinated with Facebook.  Whether we’re talking about Marc Benioff himself or Zuora’s TienTzuo (former Salesforce exec) on Z-Commerce, they want a connection to Facebook.  I don’t know how successful these particular efforts will be, but thinking about it, and reflecting on Skittles, there are some essential ingredients to keep in mind.

First, is you have to be authentic to succeed.  You’re in someone else’s patch.  You don’t have control.  Your only strength is your reputation and how you conduct yourself in those communities.  Authenticity is closely tied to reputation.  It creates reputation.  The web makes it easy to tell anyone anything.  Hence Authenticity is scarce.  But at the same time, the web also makes it easy to find out if you are not authentic. 

I hear a lot of nervous chuckling when the Salesforce’s of the world talk about Facebook.  Are they serious?  Are they just trying to grab some Facebook buzz?  How can this really work out for business?  Why didn’t they do LinkedIn, it’s for business?

Those kinds of comments are partially motivated by concerns about Authenticity.  Whether or not Salesforce really cares about Facebook and its denizens, or whether they’re just trying to use it for some unfair advantage.  BTW, I have no opinion on this.  I don’t know what inner feelings Benioff may have for Facebook, but I do understand what motivates these questions.  The younger demographic that grew up on the web had to develop unusually sensitive antennae for Authenticity.  They only have to be duped a few times before they’re hip to the idea that you have to be skeptically paranoid about everything on the web.  There are predators, viruses, phishers, Nigerian scam artists, and spoofers at every turn.  The web is a bad ‘hood.

This brings me to a second issue these companies face.  Different communities have different purposes.  Some are very much oriented to business–LinkedIn comes to mind.  Many blogs like this one are in that category.  Some are entirely about personal life.  MySpace, and perhaps to a lesser extent Facebook, are squarely in that category.  Some include both.  Twitter is my favorite example there, although we see it with YouTube as well.

I’ve talked to a lot of members of this younger demographic that grew up with the web, and noticed some interesting things.  These young folks go out of their way to separate their business and personal life.  That’s really no different than us older peeps, BTW.  It’s just harder for the young folk because the web breaks down the barriers.  I’ve talked to a number young people who are heavily into piercings and tattoos.  These are not compatible with a lot of professional environments.  No worries.  They have carefully, even artfully, arranged their body art so it is invisible when they wear work attire.  Perhaps they always wear a long sleeved shirt.  Perhaps they remove some of the rings from piercings during the work day.  This is very symbolic of the dual lives they lead.  Businesses have to be sure to respect that, because they’re working hard to keep their business and personal lives separate on the web, where barriers naturally are minimal. 

It’s no accident that Facebook has run afoul of it’s own users three separate times now when trying to changes its rules to facilitate its business model.  In each case, they failed to leave enough control with their users so that the users could maintain authenticity and separation of their professional and personal lives.  Think about these questions when you go to harness Social Media outside your own fences (the rules are different when you own a community, but that’s a subject for another post):

1.  What control are you ceding to that community to keep them delighted when they interact with you?  You had better be comfortable with the notion of ceding almost 100%.

2.  Are you respecting the separation of professional and personal properly given the focus of the community? 

3.  Are you presenting an Authentic presence for you business and products in the community?

There are a lot of other ramifications to the Skittles story and the value of giving control to you customers because they already have it.  It’s a deep topic and critical to gaining real value from the web channel.

Related Articles

A MySpace Credit Card?  You’ve Got to be Kidding!  This is one of those cases where the business need doesn’t match the personal life nature of an online community, and RWWeb calls them out on it.

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