The Price and Prize of Social

When I read my friend Howlett’s blog on social enterprise – I had plans to write something on my blog too, but that feeling passed. I am not going to make any generalizations on social – just talking about my own case here. I will come back to the social enterprise topic some time in future.

Compared to many of my friends, I have been a late entrant to the whole social thing. And compared to many of them, I am still a lot less active on social media. Yet, I am way more advanced and active on social media than 99% of people I know. Has it helped me? yes, it has to some degree – both in my career and in my personal life ( and the distinction is lesser between the two today than even 3 years ago). But it has taken a toll too for sure in my personal life.

I started a personal blog around Christmas of 2010 – but became relatively active only about a year ago. I try to blog once a month at least – but have written about 8 posts in some months. Most of my posts have been in and around SAP and BI , but I have also written on politics, economics, food, sports and dogs. Pretty much any topic is fair game for me if there is a strong opinion I have on it.  And when it comes to opinions, I usually only have strong ones – for better or worse 🙂  .

I enjoy blogging as a medium to express my thoughts. And I have an explicit disclaimer that what I say is just personal opinion and not my employer’s opinion. But this does pose some challenges on occasion.

For example – at least partly due to blogging, SAP recognizes me as an influencer. And due to that I get some information earlier than others, and SAP picks up my T&E to attend some of their events, and I appreciate that. I try really hard to keep confidential info as confidential. But on the other hand it does not stop me from criticizing SAP on occasion.  The people who run the SAP influencer program, and senior SAP executives who talk to me have never told me what I should or should not write. But few others – including many friends – at SAP have often told me directly or indirectly that I am spreading too much negativity. I value their friendship – and I feel terrible when I hear this, since that is not my intention.

While I have no great  interest in happy talk  – I do say good things whenever I see it. And at least for HANA – me, John Appleby, Vitaliy, Harald Reiter and a few others do a lot for promoting and clarifying questions on Hana via our presence on twitter and SCN. And while I learn a lot from SAP during my interactions with them – I also pass on feedback from what I see on the field back to them. So hopefully things balance out some how from SAP’s perspective.

On career front, social in general has helped me. A large number of IBMers know me better via twitter and my blog , and it has helped me a lot in maintaining a very valuable network. I get to advise my clients better too since I have access to more people and information now due to social. I have won business in my day job thanks to name recognition from social media. And in general my managers have been quite supportive of me being active on social media. In return, I try hard to make sure there is no impact to my performance at work.

The biggest prize for me is the content I get from people like Jon Reed and Dennis Moore who curate the zillion tweets and blogs and send out high quality information. If it ever becomes a paid service, I would gladly pay for that. I would have never had a chance to get all this information without their feeds.

But for all the Prizes, I have a price to pay.  A day still has only 24 hours – and it means I am in front of a computer (or my phone) longer than I used to. And that takes time away from my family and my hobbies. That is NOT good – and is not sustainable.  So I have cut back on my social presence quite a bit. And I am sure I will overcompensate and will need a lot of time to find a good equilibrium.

If any one has a 12 step plan or something to find that equilibrium, please let me know.


Online Social Media – how much does it actually influence buying decisions ?

As a consumer, I am influenced by online social media. But the bigger the purchase, the less I am influenced by “online” social media, and more by “offline” social media.

I won’t try a new restaurant without checking yelp reviews.I won’t buy a book without reading what others say in Amazon. I won’t buy a widescreen TV without checking 15 sites and then talking to store clerks, friends etc. When I bought a house (the biggest purchase for me), I did comparisons online – but eventually I had to walk in and out of 50 or so houses before my wife and I agreed on a place. The bigger the purchase – the less I trusted social media, and the more I trusted “real” people and my own “physical experience.

When I say social media – I am typically thinking only of “online” media – twitter, facebook and sites like that. I am excluding other “offline” social things like hanging out with my buddies at the water cooler, chatting with other parents at my daughter’s swimming lessons, talking to others on phone and stuff like that which we don’t associate with “online”, despite being totally “social”.

It never fails to impress (ok, and scare) me when I log on to a site, and find context specific advertisements. I have seen a lot of SAP ads,Pet product ads, Cricket (the game, not the mobile phone thing, and not the creature ) and Tennis ads and so on when I use my yahoo email, google searches and facebook. Fantastic – yet in all these years, I have not clicked on even one link that these sites showed me. If anything, I get some pleasure in not clicking on them – since in my mind, I think of them intruding my private space.

And although not prolific by any stretch – I am fairly active in online social media, and spend some time every day on it. At best, it must be having an indirect effect on my buying decisions, since my gut feelings over time are surely influenced by what I read, and I read a lot of stuff online.

I started to think that maybe direct advertising is what is not working in social media – and that vendors can influence indirectly using social media by sharing information via blogs etc. But Forbes advoice single handedly ended that theory for me. I honestly cannot stand most of what gets published there by vendors and now it has gone to an extent that I don’t take any time to even glance at it when someone says “Forbes says” and point to an advoice link. No thank you.

TV advertisements influence me more than social media ads. I am not sure exactly why this happens. My hypothesis is that people have more experience making them and tuning them over years that it makes more impact. But even then – when it comes to big purchases, I still prefer the offline social media . It could also be that I grew up watching TV and not online social media, and hence am more influenced by TV. Others who are younger might not look at it the way I do. Yet another theory I have is that while video is more impressionable for me, since I consume most of the online content on my mobile device, low bandwidth decreases the user experience of video ads online, there by making me tune out quickly.

Enough about me as a consumer, what about me as a professional consultant and a seller of consulting services ?

All my clients know that I blog and tweet, and that I share some (hopefully useful) content with them – and some of their CXOs tease me on what I write. So, on the bright side – they do read what I write. I also have on occasion benefited from name recognition from my blogs, where I walk into a room and someone googles me and checks out the content that I have authored in past, and (so far) giving me some credit. But I cannot imagine (yet) any one who has given me business primarily because of what I have done in online social media. Not by a long shot.

Buying decisions for consulting services are still mostly influenced by past performance on delivery, trust,price, word of mouth publicity (even fierce competitors talk to each other when it comes to quality of consulting services or product maturity).
I am yet to see a multi-million dollar deal signed with a CXO saying – “it is your online ads that finally persuaded me”.

Even the big cloud players who sell the idea of “online sales” will readily go in person to meet the clients and sell them on their cloud wares. Sales people can be very superstitious. I have a friend who insists she needs to wear her “closing heels” to get ink on the contract, and another friend who insists on wearing his “deal making tie” for the same purpose. I keep wondering what will be the equivalents when it becomes virtual.

“Digital eminence” as my employer refers to it, is a big deal these days. Clients do google about consultants – and check out linkedin profiles and all that. And I have been rewarded to some extent in my career for my online social media activities. But when I think about it – I think what gave me some credibility in online social media is the experience I gained (and continue to gain) in the offline world. That outweighs the reverse situation of online credibility helping me in the offline world. It will be interesting to watch if this balance will ever shift in future. I am not holding my breath on it.

What about big companies who tried innovative online social media advertising? Couple of years back – Pepsi had such an initiative that I read about. I believe it was called “Refresh”. I am typing this on my flight to Portland, so I cannot google it to confirm. They took their foot off the gas pedal for TV and print ads, and focused heavily on online social media – primarily facebook I think. I do not follow superbowl, but I did hear they even pulled out of advertising there for that year. How did it work out for them ? They got tremendous coverage from analysts and marketing experts for being innovative and all that. But it did not exactly help them increase the sales of the pepsi softdrink. Not only did classic coca-cola remain the number one drink, pepsi lost the second spot it long held, and that spot was taken by diet coke. Pepsi went right back to heavy advertisements on TV etc quickly after that. The irony is not lost on me – since I followed this story using online social media 🙂

I am not saying that this experience will stay the same for other companies. It probably will improve over time. If I am a representative consumer – then companies will do well to pair TV and online social media to work together. I say this because I forgot the last time I watched TV without multi-tasking on an online device at the same time. In fact, I usually check out things I see on TV at real time on internet, and make buying decisions depending on size of purchase.

Now there is one last thing – I have no idea if my view is shared by any one else on the planet 🙂

The Social Media Giveth, And The Social Media Taketh Away

If you ask me what has had the biggest impact in my life for the last few years, I will say without exception that it is social media. And I am only a minor league bench quality player in social media , compared to the stalwarts. But even then – it has changed how I live and work.  On the personal front – I won’t go to a restaurant or buy a book at an airport without checking out reviews, or asking on twitter for a quick opinion . Without facebook, I would never have kept up with what is happening in the world of competitive dog shows, which is my hobby.  On the work front – twitter is a life saver. I have lost count of how many times others have helped me find information quickly, or offered help when I tweet out a question.  It is also rather  funny that I usually never get a timely response from most of these sources if I tried on email or phone.  I blog when I get an idea that I think more than one person would like to hear – and nothing has taught me more in these past years than clarifying thoughts in my own head when I settle down in a plane ride, and open my computer to post something on my blog.

But for all that it gives, social media also has a terrific/terrible way of taking away.  When President Obama was candidate Obama in the last elections, I had seen many of my friends on Facebook supporting the campaign there, and helping with fund raising.  I was pretty impressed that his campaign was smart enough to use social media to raise so much money and awareness. And this year – I see many other friends effectively use Facebook to attack Obama’s policies, and help his rivals to raise money.

I have lived in US for about a dozen years now – and have watched with amusement how polarized people are when it comes to political ideology. Some of the smartest people I know – people who provide very balanced and well thought out opinions on work related matters, and who are polite at kid’s soccer games – they tend to make extremely biased statements with no restraint when it comes to politics. This is true for people in both left and right wings of the political spectrum. And in these 12 years, I have only seen the partisan nature increase – not decrease, both by career politicians, and by common man . Watching Facebook and twitter, I have a feeling this partisan nature has accelerated since the last election. Social media gives information so quickly, and without any editorial intervention – that it permeates faster than any other information delivery mechanism of our times.

While I was growing up in India, most people there had no idea of US election politics. We knew who the American President was, and that there were 2 parties, and that was pretty much it. Now my cousins,  nieces and nephews in India know as much about US politics as people who live here. It was quite amusing for me to hear how they view American politics strictly based on what they see on social media.

This is not just an isolated thing that affects politicians alone. I see this all the time with enterprise software world too – affecting vendors, influencers, customers etc. Some software vendors have totally embraced social media. I have seen many email signatures that read “social media leader for blah blah” as the designation of the sender. People actually get paid to manage social media, and I don’t even find it funny any more. Admittedly, I was shocked and found it funny when I first saw it – but not any more. I have accepted it for a fact that vendors want to control social media some how.

Question is – is social media giving them sufficient bang for the buck? Every one I have asked so far from vendor side assures me it is hugely beneficial to them. It is not a secret that vendors like to “buy” influence some how. Some do it with finesse – and give influencers enough information, and then get out-of-the-way on how it gets interpreted and analyzed. Some are more blunt, and will use social media as a pure marketing platform and blast out tweets, and blogs that praise themselves and say nasty things about competitors.  Some times different parts of the same company take diverse approaches when it comes to use of social media, which probably just results in erosion of  brand credibility .

But how many buyers make a decision based on social media? very few that I have seen. There are a few exceptions, but largely the purchasing process in enterprises have not followed the shift that has happened in consumer side.  But there is a silver lining too – although ultimate buyers don’t value social media all that much, there are influencers to that buying decision who make up their minds based on what they have seen in social media. I have been surprised personally when I give out my business card, and someone I have not met before would say ” Ah I recognize you from twitter and your blog”. It has occasionally also helped me win business. So may be it is just a matter of time before social media becomes a big criteria for enterprise purchases . But at least for now and for near future, more weight is still given to quality of the product, price, references etc.

I am yet to see a CXO who told me ” I am impressed that you guys refuted your competitors’ mean comments in your sponsored blog. I am now convinced I should buy from you, let me cut a check for perpetual licenses. Looking forward to more content like this”.  But what I have seen is CIOs and others calling me and asking ” hey, my team just pointed this flurry of activity to me from this company. Why do you think these guys are suddenly saying all this stuff about the other guys? What are they really afraid of ?  Should I be worried?”.  In my mind – it is a  perfect example of social media back firing , despite good intentions.

Social media is a fantastic opportunity to listen to your ecosystem, as long as you also follow-up with some action.  Then you can use social media to point out the actions that you took.  Of course, you can also use it mostly as a platform to shout from – but then you carry the risk of your ecosystem tuning you out quickly.  Even before social media existed, it was not possible to get a second chance create a great first impression. With social media, it is next to impossible. People form opinions really quickly based on what you do in social media. If you mess up – it will be hard to earn back the trust.  It is a hard balance to strike, but now that the pundits have social media maturity models and best practices, I suppose this is all well covered.