Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Information overflow?

Between Frederic Fillioux, with his Monday Note proclaiming the demise
of traditional news organizations and the advent of Churnalism with its
low standard of journalistic rigor, and Jeff Jarvis, who embraces the
use of Twitter as a tool to break and verify stories, there's a war
raging over whether Twitter will be the savior or executioner of the
news industry. As always, when positions are polarized this way, there
is truth on both sides of the argument.

MG Siegler, frustrated by Facebook's PR machine, pointed me to some very
interesting statistics from John Sullivan at Propublica (PR industry
fills vacuum left by shrinking newsrooms ) that may
highlight what the problem is and what the outcome could be. In the
1980s, there were 0.36 journalists and 0.45 person working in the PR
industry per 100,000 people. In 2008, the rates shifted to 0.25
journalists and 0.90 PR persons per 100,000 people. Thus the ratio of
PR/journalist has nearly tripled in less than 30 years. I will leave the
rest of this article to you, the reader, because it is an interesting
point of view on how PR is taking over the conversation.

My point is a little bit different. In March 2011, Business Insiders ( ) observed that 15 million users were following 50 or more people on Twitter, and were, therefore, very active. If 1/3 of them are in the USA, then 1,630 users per 100,000 are now broadcasting information on Twitter, 2,000 times
more than PR persons and 8,000 times more than journalists. These numbers are probably far higher on Facebook.

As if it weren't already challenge enough for the news industry to keep
up with the PR industry, the emergence of Twitter and Facebook poses a
far more overwhelming challenge for journalists, both in terms of
opportunities as well as the possibility of getting lost. I daresay that
the challenge is even bigger for the PR industry, as they now have to
control far more conversations than they had to in the past, and they
are probably understaffed for the task at hand. If journalists and PR
persons face a big problem, what about you and me? We rely on those
experts to provide us with news that is highly relevant, yet we, as well
as they, are now confronted with an enormous information fire hose right
on the computer. As Laurent Haug points out, “from a world where the
problem was to add information, we now enter into a world where the
problem is to find which one can be ignored, hidden or deleted.” If the
early days of Web 2.0 were all about blogging and creating new and
interesting content, we are moving now in a world of curation.

The problem is the same in the data industry.
If you consider how you would gather information on a company or a
people today, you have three options:
1. websites or social networks managed by PR persons whose goals is to
manage the conversation for a specific outcome, such as recruiting,
increasing sales, and managing perceptions, rather than providing
2. commercial information providers, who may be hard to find or very
3. search engines and social networks to find an ocean of information,
but you don’t really know which information can be ignored, hidden or
And the problem is getting worse by the day as we are creating as much information in two days than we did up to 2003 according to Eric Schmidt.

There have been several attempts to create databases for specific
vertical industries. Some have been very successful, but none has
attempted to specifically address the problem of searching for
information about companies and people over the internet. Spoke wants to
be the one stop shop to find 90% of the information you need. We are
hoping to leverage this huge community of participants the same way
journalists are using them to validate information they receive. We will
be relying on you to provide us with information as you are searching
for your own information. It is going to be a give and take, and some of
you will be creating profiles that others will be able to use.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Turning your most aggressive detractors into your biggest advocates

One of the good things about working for a company like Spoke (which hasn't always had the best rep on the internet -- but don’t tell anybody) is that when a user isn't satisfied, they're usually pretty vocal about it -- and will usually stay in our face until their concerns are resolved. It sounds like a headache but we've actually grown to love it, realizing more and more that underneath emotion there is often valuable user-insight. And being receptive to this has not only helped us to turn a significant corner in consumer-perception, but we were able to leverage that same passionate displeasure when designing the strategy that is ultimately shaping our new site.

In the past months, not only did I talk to supporters, but made it a point to engage with dozens upon dozens of our most dissatisfied users:

-"I need this profile removed immediately"

-"Someone hacked my social media accounts and defaced my pages"

-"All I'm trying to do is make sure the proper information is being displayed"

-"If I need to draft a Cease & Desist letter I will"

At the beginning, these conversations were relatively one-way streets, with users sharing a grievance about our service. But in peeling back layers of frustration, we began to sense a common theme: people wanted more control. They wanted the ability to click and edit information without a long process to get there, and as the new site began to take shape, we were able to give more and more back to our users during this dialog -- describing what we were building and how their pain-point was, quite literally, about to become nonexistent.

Even better, we reached the point where we could give demo's and show screenshots:

It turns out people get pretty responsive when a company actively seeks out an unsatisfied user-base and says "you know you're right, that could be better -- and we've actually been working on it for months now".

We started to get feedback like:

-"Everything's resolved. I will definitely watch for the new webpage"

-"You guys were instrumental in building my business, excited to play with the new-site"

Over the course of a 15 minute conversation, a representative from an electronics manufacturer went from "delete all my information and my company's information now!" to "eager to play with the full site, keep me posted", and more than one person in a sales role described a unique application of the new site that I didn't even see at the beginning.

Moreover, the goodwill impact stretches beyond just the new product. Users who previously had a below-average impression started to respond to the entire company with positive comments, praising both our responsiveness and new direction. Just a couple weeks ago, a prominent investor who was trying to remove his entire online identity (and thus had approached us rather upset) encouraged me in a final email that he sees the benefit in what we're building and expects that giving our users this much control will not only satisfy them, but empower them.

Obviously, user-feedback is essential to any growing company. But depending on the trajectory of that growth, it can be useful to understand when certain types of feedback may bring more value. A supporter is very helpful to improving on a product that they already like -- assisting with incremental innovation; however for those major changes (the kind will soon be unveiling) sometimes it's necessary to give an extra ear to those who don't love what you're currently doing. By engaging these users and building on top of those strong feelings, they will not only help you make the biggest inroads, but who knows -- they may even become your biggest allies!