Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Starting at the Back of the Pasture

This is just a story I have often told about how I decide to start a new product or business.

When my wife and I bought our first place - a little farm to be - we cleared the pasture sections and planted grass. We built our own barn. Now we were ready to fence the pasture.

I had never done any fencing. But I was excited and ready to go.

I loaded up the pickup truck at the feed store with all the fencing stuff I needed and pulled in to the head of the drive. Starting at the closest place I came to.

No surprise, the section of fence that I started with was the absolute ugliest and worst section I have ever put up. Every day when I went in and out of the drive I had to look at that awful job I had done.

Now I start everything at the back of the pasture. Fencing, new products, new businesses. I know I will make a mess in the learning process. I keep it hidden and out of sight. And I don't have to look at it every day after I do learn.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

More Thoughts on Digital Identity

Your thoughts on this will be particularly helpful.

Is your Digital Identity only able to move sideways?

Here is what I am trying to get a handle on. In the social networks I have used I am able to invite in friends or be invited. Then we can share things back and forth.

In a business setting this allows me to share with my co-workers. That way anyone who takes a call can help the customer. That is a good thing as far as it goes.

But what if I am responsible for the group. Can I see everything going on in my group without letting the group see everything I am doing?

To me that would be allowing Identity information to move sideways in the group and allowing it to move upward into the manager.

Now what if I wanted to allow access to part of my Digital Identity, but not all of it, to be shared with my group and one specific person not in my group. 

To me that would be moving Identity information sideways and down.

Do any of you who use social networks have any thoughts on this. Can the networks you use now do this type of thing?

Thanks for any feedback.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Automated Phone Calls

I am sitting in the library at home re-reading the ClueTrain Manifesto when the phone rings. It is a machine telling me "I am calling about the vehicle you currently have listed for sale. We can sell it for you faster and for a higher price".

First disturbing thing - I have no vehicle currently listed for sale.

Second disturbing thing - my home phone number is unlisted.

Third disturbing thing - my son does have a boat he is selling and listed it on Craigslist with this phone number.

Fourth and last disturbing thing - I hung up fast and the damn phone rang again with the automated call still talking. I hung up again and the phone rang immediately again with the automated message still talking. I could not hang up on this thing until it hung up on me. How did they do that?

Surely no real person would ever do business with a company so low as to have its computer call you and not allow you to hang up. These people deserve to be taken out back and have some convincing done.

But worst, now my beloved Craigslist is compromised in my mind. Some bot is out there pulling this data into its robot phone sales person and invading my life. I don't blame Craigslist but regardless I am now more circumspect about using them in the future. I suppose I will resort to proxy phone numbers but that will hurt my ability to interact with the people I want to call.

How appropriate that I was reading Cluetrain. Maybe the bot and its master should be required to read it also. Maybe a good Turing test for people to prove they are people not computers would be to be able to tell they can tell the people they are talking at were also people.

Digital Identity and Profile / Update Aggregators

I have been considering the concepts of digital identity and the way it is used in current social networks.

The idea of a digital identity seems to mostly have been implemented as a profile with name, address, web links, some media and a friends or followers list at this point. It is a start. Better than nothing.

Some services are trying to move the dime off of having to create a unique profile for every additional social network you join. This is the next obvious step. It seems to me that it runs into the beautiful irony that now you have to join the correct digital identity aggregator to match your networks. If you don't, now you have a new layer of aggregators you have to join.

This issue will generate a grand but fruitless debate about standards. The folks that develop a standard will see it as a solution to bring peace and harmony to the world. Plenty of others will see it as giving up a proprietary advantage. (Here comes the data portability gang) 

I am always reminded of the X-Files episode where Muldar was granted three wishes. He wished for world peace. He got a world where he was the last human on the planet.

If you have two people you are going to have two opinions and two motivations and disagreements. This is not a bad thing. 

Diversity is a strength that we need to embrace, not control.

Take much of the effort and resources used to try to mold the digital identity world to a single standard and apply it to understanding the reality - even the virtual reality - of differences and how to accommodate that with the goals of social.

I have tried to think of instances where standards have worked. I figured this would help show the limits of standards.

The first, as a web user, is the Internet Protocols or the World Wide Web core level structures. But, of course, after thinking about these I quickly come to the admission that this is only one existing standard among many for electronic communication.

Finding standards that work seems to always include finding definitions to severely limit the environment in which standards are sued. The smaller the environment - the more closed the environment -  the better chance standards can exist or succeed.

What are your examples?

After more thought I am down to standards such as human beings need food of some sort, air to breathe and water.

I guess that a better list might actually lead to world peace and harmony. But that list seems beyond my ability. How about you?

What is it that gives us the hubris to believe that even though we can not all speak the same language on this planet, share the same beliefs or have the same cell phone backbone we somehow think we can set standards that will give us this online?

Is our vision of the online world so much smaller than the reality of the physical world?

I think the story of the Tower of Babel is a story not of punishment, but of freeing the creative human experience. That freeing leads to the ability to test learning and growth in many more ways. The benign despot may well be the most successful form of government every conceived, but it would have put Charles Darwin out of the theory business.

It is going to be fascinating to watch as we - all of we - continue to address these basic human issues down the road of this online journey.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Who Owns the Data and Files on Yours Customers

I like the Twitter and former Flickr terms of use wording. More or less "What's yours is yours. You are responsible for it."

If you take a picture and upload it to Flickr, you own it - not Flickr.

If you upload the same picture with an application to an insurance company, they will tell you clearly they own it and they may, if they feel like it, let you view it, and maybe download it.

If you upload the same picture to most insurance agency management systems, they will tell you that you own it, but if you want to stop paying them a monthly fee, they will certainly take away your only means to ever see it again. Seems like they own it to me.

This is the question behind the current discussion o data portability.

Captive data has long been the main reason many software companies make money over time. Why do we keep falling for this?

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Your Personal Brand and My Flight With John Edwards

As I left the Admirals Club  at RDU, John Edwards - former Senator and serial Presidential Candidate - passed me on the way in. (BTW he is shorter than you would think, but still taller than Steven Seagal, the actor. I stood behind Seagal in the cashier line at a bookstore once. His head didn't come up to my chin. I felt like pulling his pony tail. Isn't it great to have a cheap and easy way to feel like you are superior to celebrities when you meet them - OK, sort of meet them. You knew who they were at least. I will refrain from telling you about standing at the urinal next to Kevin Costner.)

I digress.

I head on over to the gate for my flight and just before boarding, John - I feel we are on a first name basis now, and that is part of the point here - walks up, the airline staff knows he is coming and are all smiles greeting him. Other folks recognize him, he smiles at all, is incredibly comfortable, makes everyone he looks at feel like seeing them is the highlight of his day. Folks are just giddy.

Of course he is seated in first class so everyone boarding the plane walks by and he graciously acknowledges all. Gives himself to them as individuals.

I have never seen a flight crew in such a wonderful mood for a flight.

What would you give to get that reaction from any living creature other than your dog?

Now that is a powerful personal brand.

You do actually have a personal brand whether you know it or not. If you want to have one like my new bud John you need to cultivate it very consciously. You need to become more of a public presence. While you probably will not ever get exposure from endless coverage of a presidential campaign, you can expand your brand through everything you do. And, of course, as an online apostle, I suggest you use the web to do so.

Persistence pays off in this game. Let me know when your mere presence makes an airline crew giddy. I will want to be in your posse. It is completely possible you know. You just have to make the decision to pursue the goal and then the discipline to execute over time.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Social Network vs. Collaboration

I see social networks as a place to get to know folks and to interact with them. It's like meeting folks at school or at a recreational event.

Social networks let me get a feel for you and you get a feel for me. No more commitment than that. They are great for sharing information with a group of any size without having to email every body one at a time.

But sometimes after I meet someone, I may want to do something with just them.

In the physical world this would be like going to a restaurant for a meal. Not everybody, just two of you.

In business this would be like going back to your office to talk about things I really do not want everyone else involved in.

This is more what I think of as collaboration.

I know social networks have give you the ability to set up Groups and some other private area's, but I want to be able to move further away from the network than that. I want to be able to meet you through social network tools, but I want to be able to do business with you in the privacy of your office.

I think this is the giant missing piece in social networks currently.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

My Car Is a Social Network

In trying to understand social networks I have come to realize my car is a social network.

Let me explain why.

First, I have had many cars in my life and I have never had a car that I would have thought this about. I have had Porsche's, Pininfarina's, GMC 3500's, minivan's, Honda Accord's, Toyota Celia's, Chev Vega's, Ford F150's, Land Cruiser's, Peugeot's, VW's - including Herbie's Father, and Mercedes Benz's.

My current car is a social network because in the 18 months I have had it I still get people - OK strangers - coming up to me and wanting to talk about the car. The car creates a way for people to connect to me and for me to connect to them.

I have people come up to me in parking lots. I can understand that. Folks in drive thru's - I get that too. Dozens of times I have been pumping gas to have people pull off the road and park in front of me - not buying gas mind you - just to talk to about my car. I really can't see myself ever doing that. I took my son to several car dealerships to buy him a car and the sales folks all came out to see my car. In fact, we came back from a test drive and one of them was under the car looking at stuff. I can't imagine what.

As I think I understand things, that is what a good social network does. Creates a common connection that lets folks meet, greet and get to know in a non threatening way.

What do you think? I am getting close?

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Who Is Using Social Media

This was an very interesting overview of who uses social media


Thanks to Kipp Bodnar for his Twitter mention of this link.

Monday, July 14, 2008

RTP Startup Weekend

What a weekend!

I learned more about the value of social media than I knew there was to learn. The speed and impact was amazing.

On Friday night the new businesses we started had zero returns from a Google search.

By Monday afternoon this was the Google search result:

scanvenja.com - 268 returns

Dealcastr.com - 217 returns

Barsforus.com - 196 returns

Myfriessuck.com - 47 returns

That was the power of twitter, some new blogs with posts, some existing blogs with posts and a few Facebook accounts.

One thing I would have never thought about - each new business created a new twitter account in the business. Then they referenced the new business web site in a twitter post. If you do a search on Google notice how fast the twitter posts get found.

I know it did not hurt that the event got local media coverage. it will have national coverage on CNBC this Friday. The results count will be interesting then. But this early result seems to almost all be social media.

So much more to learn.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

What Comes to Your Mind When I Say Folsom?

Today I was referred to this article http://www.folsomtelegraph.com/detail/87778.html on the city of Folsom choosing to not name its new bridge after Johnny Cash.

My favorite part of this is this comment...

“We are known for a lot more things than the prison.”

Here is what I think. I sure don't have any idea what else Folsom is known for. I asked the guy sitting next to me and he didn't know either. So I am not alone.

I don't intend to sound mean. I grew up in the middle of nowhere. As a result, I recognize it in a flash. Sure, I knew lots of things the middle of nowhere town I grew up in was known for. But anyone who lived more than 30 miles away didn't have a clue about any of them.

Folsom had a chance to use a connection with which they are known all over the world. They didn't do it because they only saw the name as it related to their own feelings about who they are. Not the way basically every one else in the world sees them.

If you want to change the way people think about you it can be a good plan to get them to think about you at all as a first step.

When you are working to create the image and you do not understand what your current image is, it can be much harder to change that image to the one you want others to accept.

Monday, July 7, 2008

Making A Commodity Special

What could be more of a commodity than a hamburger and fires? Or car insurance?

But look at the enormous difference between how well local restaurants differentiate themselves from other local restaurants and national chains and how local insurance agencies differentiate themselves from other local agencies and national chains.

Here are some of the places in my hometown of Durham, NC I go to get a burger. These comparisons are for a CheeseBurger, Fires and a soda. No taxes.

Wimpy's - $7.15 - Just about everything at Wimpy's is homemade: fresh home-ground beef for the burgers. There's fresh baked banana pudding daily as well as some kind of cake. The draw back to Wimpy's is there is no drive through and no seating. Very low on the convenience factor.

Cook Out - $7.15 - Their burgers really do taste and look like burgers you would cook out yourself. But it is just a drive through, so I have to eat in the car or take it back to the office. Convenience to buy, inconvenient to eat.

Wendy's - $5.25 - They are just sort of a no mind habit. Cheap, the same everywhere. Impersonal. High on convenience.

Watts Grocery - $9.45 - Absolutely the best hamburger and bun I have ever eaten. This is a treat not because of the price, but because it is a nice, comfortable restaurant with a fine and friendly atmosphere. Takes longer than a fast food restaurant to have lunch.

Red Robin - $9.74 - When I have a crowd of youngsters, this is a first choice. They all like it. It is the "In" place for their age. Takes longer than a fast food, about as long as Watt's Grocery.

I rank these as favorites in this order:
  1. Watts Grocery
  2. Cook-Out
  3. Wimpy's
  4. Wendy's
  5. Red Robin

It is interesting that if I, a middle aged male, like the best burger and the slowest service. The Cook Out is a top choice when the family is out of town and I am feeding myself. Wimpy's is my choice when I want to remind myself I was born and raised here. Wendy's I eat mostly when I am traveling and need a fast stop off the Interstate. Red Robin is only for taking a crowd.

My son, a hungry young man, goes to Cook-Out most frequently. He also likes Hardees and Red Robin. He will not go to a Red Robin alone. He is more sensitive to price than I am.

Before I get to our local insurance agencies I am going to admit we all go to restaurants more often than we go to insurance agencies. That makes it easier for me to tell you how I feel about restaurants. Also, I go to several restaurants, but I will most likely only go to one insurance agency.

This lack of frequency of going to an insurance agency only makes your branding and my experience with you even more important in my way of thinking.

Back to insurance agencies. Here are the results i get from Google when I do a search for "insurance agency" + Durham, NC.

First I get "Local Business Results"

A. Mitchell Tom Insurance Agency - www.nationwide.com - (919) 286-4513 - more
B. Bull City Insurance Agency Inc - www.bullcityinsurance.com - (919) 596-0671 - more
C. State Farm Insurance Agents: Durham Agents - www.statefarm.com - (919) 477-7300 - more
D. Forrester & Associates Insurance Agency Inc: Durham-Pittsboro Area - www.forresterinsurance.com - (919) 383-8551 - more
E. Jessup Insurance Agency Inc - www.nationwide.com - (919) 479-6996 - more
F. Faircloth Insurance Agency - www.nationwide.com - (919) 383-6704 - more
G. Perry Insurance Agency - www.nationwide.com - (919) 471-1688 - more
H. Jones Andrew Insurance Agency - www.nationwide.com - (919) 493-2929 - more
I. Direct General Insurance Agency - www.direct-general.com - (919) 220-0887 - more
J. High & Rubish Insurance Agency - www.highandrubish.com - (919) 913-1144 - more

By the way, this Local Results is GREAT!

The Sponsored Search has:

Durham Car InsuranceFast Free Quotes. Save Over 20% onDurham Car Insurance Now!Durham.AutoInsure.orgNorth Carolina

Insurance AgencyLocal insurance providerInsurance to cover all your needs.www.E-Abacusinsurance.comRaleigh-Durham (Fayetteville), NC

Raleigh Insurance AgencyHomeowners, Auto, Life, and HealthInsurance. Get an Online Quote!www.CarterGlassInsurance.com

ABC Auto & Tricorp Ltd.Looking for a new insurance plan?Protect your family & investments.www.abctri.com

The non local, free search results has this...

Jason R. Redmond Insurance Agency - Durham, NC, 27712 - Citysearch
Come to Citysearch to get information, directions, and reviews on Jason R. Redmond Insurance Agency and other Life Insurance Companies, Consultants, Autos, ...triangle.citysearch.com/profile/45663635/durham_nc/jason_r_redmond_insurance_agency.html - 61k - Cached - Similar pages - Note this

Sizsiz Wong Insurance Agency, Durham NC 27713 -- MerchantCircle.com
Sizsiz Wong Insurance Agency, 105 W Nc Highway 54 Ste 279, Durham, NC. Tel: 919-544-7000. Come to MerchantCircle to get Sizsiz Wong Insurance Agency ...
var mb12=ManyBox.register('12',3,'W47l_ZHMfYsJ','','f3bf',14,'Show map of 105 W Nc Highway 54, Durham, NC 27713','Hide map of 105 W Nc Highway 54, Durham, NC 27713')
Show map of 105 W Nc Highway 54, Durham, NC 27713
www.merchantcircle.com/business/Sizsiz.Wong.Insurance.Agency.919-544-7000 - 30k - Cached - Similar pages - Note this

How To Select An Auto Insurance Agency Durham NC - Durham NC, car ...
You can have success in selecting auto insurance by choosing the right auto insurance agency – one that has your best interests in mind.articles.directorym.com/How_To_Select_An_Auto_Insurance_Agency_Durham_NC-r852276-Durham_NC.html - 68k - Cached - Similar pages - Note this

Payless Insurance Agency - Durham, NC - 27703
Listing for Payless Insurance Agency - Durham, NC - 27703 - includes address, phone number, map and areas of specialization.
var mb14=ManyBox.register('14',3,'o7hiqLqcsD0J','','83a5',14,'Show map of 3502 Holloway St, Durham, NC 27703','Hide map of 3502 Holloway St, Durham, NC 27703')
Show map of 3502 Holloway St, Durham, NC 27703
www.kanetix.com/profiles/payless-insurance-agency-in-durham-nc - 13k - Cached - Similar pages - Note this

Jason R. Redmond Insurance Agency - Durham, NC 27712 - Reviews ...
Read Reviews of Jason R. Redmond Insurance Agency in Durham, NC.
var mb15=ManyBox.register('15',3,'5T7v2gI-GxQJ','','600e',14,'Show map of 4223 Lazy River Dr, Durham, NC 27712','Hide map of 4223 Lazy River Dr, Durham, NC 27712')
Show map of 4223 Lazy River Dr, Durham, NC 27712
www.insiderpages.com/b/15240070986 - 25k - Cached - Similar pages - Note this

Dominick Huckabee Noblin & Trent Insurance Agency, Durham, NC ...
Get directions, reviews, payment information on Dominick Huckabee Noblin & Trent Insurance Agency located at Durham, NC. Search for other Business ...www.yellowpages.com/info-BS309253487/Dominick-Huckabee-Noblin-Trent-Insurance-Agency - 30k - Cached - Similar pages - Note this

Info for PAYLESS INSURANCE AGENCY powered by MBB YELLOWPAGES.COM Industrial Directory includes address, phone, map, . A specialist in INSURANCE, ...www.nexport.com/company.cfm?company=1326450_PAYLESS_INSURANCE_AGENCY_INSURANCE_DURHAM_NC - 20k - Cached - Similar pages - Note this

Faircloth Insurance Agency - Durham NC - Insurance - (919) 383 ...
Looking for information about Faircloth Insurance Agency in Durham NC? Open List offers business information, reviews, and recommendations about this ...www.openlist.com/durham-nc_faircloth-insurance-agency/202512465/ - 54k - Cached - Similar pages - Note this

Life Insurance Businesses in the Durham Yellow Pages
Faircloth Insurance Agency (919) 383-6704 3310 Croasdaile Dr Ste 800 Durham, NC 27705 Top Rated listings for "Life Insurance" ...www.hellodurham.com/Marketplace/Life_Insurance.Cfm - 104k - Cached - Similar pages - Note this

George Stevens Insurance Agency, Inc. - Insurance in Durham
Providing auto, home, life, business, and more in NC . Includes area info, insurance info, and online quotes.www.georgestevensinsurance.com/ - 15k - Cached - Similar pages - Note this

I know this is a lot of links.

For starters, can you tell from the results above what they offer? What is their specialty? Do you have any feel for the experience you will have with them?

Second, go to several of their web sites. When you visit the web site, can you then tell me the answers to the above questions?

Are any of these agencies going after the same customer types you are going after? If so, pay attention to what they are doing that makes you aware of that. Especially pay attention to things they are doing that you think successfully bring in new customers or keep existing customers. You will want to do these things also.

So, after a round about trip, here is my point, with all these links and comparisons. Even if you think you are not creating a brand - you are.

Even with commodities like hamburgers and insurance, you are different. You need to understand how you are seen as different. You need to decide if that is that way you want to be seen as different. You need to intentionally create the difference you want others to see, experience and understand.

Figure out the impression and experience you want to create for the customers you want to attract. You can learn this by seeing what the most successful agencies in your market are doing to get their results.

Friday, July 4, 2008

How Many Visitors Do You Need?

Robert Scoble has a greatpost on this question here http://scobleizer.com/2008/06/30/is-getting-more-traffic-your-real-goal/ .

This kid has had 45,000,000 visits. But how does he make any money?

You want targeted visitors who are interested in what you are doing.