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July 2011

The Birth Pains of A New Social Contract and Airbnb

Airbnb_800px-260x139 The web leaders are all abuzz (TechCrunch, Business Insider, Beta Beat, Gawker, Hacker News, Quora) over tech darling Airbnb's recent perceived product failure.  I would like to suggest that this is nothing new, but is rather part of a natural adjustment to how we interact with all emerging social platforms.  This is the formation of a new social contract. This process is never totally smooth.  That said, I would like to suggest that Airbnb is dealing with this exceptionally well.  Start ups and social marketers take note, this is how it's done.

The Marketer-Facebook Community Contract

Consider the early days of Facebook.  Just a couple of years ago, many major brands were concerned with entering Facebook, as fans could say inappropriate or off-message things on their walls, which they perceived as their marketing environments.  Many brand managers freaked out the first few times that this happened.  After a while however, people grew to realize that there is an implied social contract and learned to thrive in this environment.

The Merchant-GroupOn Social Contract

Fast forward a couple of years and GroupOn was in the same mess.  GroupOn stormed the market with the promise of attracting massive audiences to extreme deals.  After a couple of months of extreme hype, the first stories started to spread about merchants who bit off more than they could chew, in some cases destroying the partner businesses.  Over time, GroupOn (and others in the space) learned to better educate their partners and more clearly set expectations.

In both of these scenarios anyone with broader perspective could have seen these unintended consequences coming from a mile away.

The Quora-Scoble Social Contract

In the early days of any new social network, Robert Scoble reigns supreme.  He is the godfather of social.  Yet this brilliant leader who is arguably responsible for much of the success of Quora as a platform, took a serious lashing from this same community over his tweeting about his Quora activity.  There's nothing to say that this was an inappropriate behavior other than the community's response.  In this scenario the social contract had evolved.  And like the social master that he is, Scoble accepted the community response and changed his user behavior.

Airbnb's Emerging Social Contract Dispute

With this lens in mind, lets consider the latest news regarding Airbnb.  Airbnb is a beautifully designed platform that allows users to simply rent out their apartments or even spare a bedroom.  Someone rented out their house, and returned to find it trashed.  Utterly destroyed, walls broken and significant valuables stolen.  Who is responsible?

It shouldn't come as a surprise that there would be at least one or two disaster stories among Airbnb's incredible number of customer-to-customer interactions.  Not everyone is an angel and some people float towards the opposite extreme.  

While many commenters clearly believe that Airbnb should take responsibility for their guest's destructive actions, Airbnb and many others (including the host in question) believe that Airbnb's responsibility ends when the host checks the references for the guest applicant.  This is an incredible moral/philosophical/legal/practical debate with profound and significant outcomes.   This is the rough period that will naturally result in the formation of a new social contract.  

What's most interesting here is the debate regarding whether or not Airbnb's level of engagement in the discussion is sufficient.  While Michael Arrington over at TechCrunch believes that Airbnb is not communicating enough, Airbnb's customer service and CEO have been engaging in this incident and the resulting conversation.  CEO Brian Hughes is engaging the dialog over at Hacker News.  I would like to suggest that this is the best way to approach this highly contested space - with humility, honesty, active participation, and ears wide open.

This Case Is Different

Unlike the typical PR disaster, this isn't about a one-time product failure.  This is a question of liability and responsibility.  This isn't just about legality, it's about morality and the implied or even the accepted social contact.  

CraigsList faced a similar challenge.  Ebay faced a similar challenge.  Each took a radically different approach towards authentication and security.  But in today's highly social and connected world, Airbnb's challenges are more highly visible and therefor highly conversational.

I don't know that Airbnb needs to engage in every blog post or address every question out there on the web.  But it is imperative that they continue to their their side of the story, listen to real customer feedback and adapt appropriately.  

As much as this story may be led by the big name bloggers, the consensus won't come from the talking heads, but from those participating this in social contract - the hosts, guests and Airbnb.  I for one, would like to applaud everyone engaged in this dialog.  Here's to hoping everyone else it watching and learning.

Mythbusting - the 5 greatest myths of digital marketing culture

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  1. Identity
    People don't have and will not have only one identity online.  We all have have many identities.  Sometimes you are yourself.  Sometimes you are a fictitious name.  Sometimes you invest more in your fictitious name than your real name.  And sometimes some people represent other people, legitimately or illegitimately.  The nature of each platform or dynamic will vary greatly based on the cultural norms of the platform, principle among them being identity.  That said, brands must always be real and present if they want to be valued.  The mainstream is clearly to be trending towards "real people, real names", but this space is far from done evolving.  Calling this space as having arrived or completed evolving is arrogant and short-sighted.  My name is Jon Burg.  But sometimes it's just JB.  And sometimes it's JonDoeB.  And sometimes it's something totally different.  

    Think Facebook has this space cornered?  Just look at the comments on YouTube.
  2. Privacy
    While politicians and the mainstream media demand that stronger privacy laws be put in place, these laws will not create privacy where users don't recognize the need for it.  The digital privacy debate is over fifteen years old, yet most people are willing to forgo much of their privacy if it requires that they learn how to use advanced features in a browser or have to pay for their content.

    That said, there are two primary areas where people actually care about privacy:
    A. Most people want a degree of privacy when the subject is close to them on a personal level.  For example, this could include protecting pictures of one's children on Facebook
    B: People care a lot about security.  Privacy and security however, are not the same thing. For example, people expect that their private messages on Twitter and all of their email will remain private.  However, this is primarily a security concern, not a privacy concern.  These are two very different things.
  3. Gamification
    Gamification is a form of user experience design that often leverages certain mechanics.  This is not about the mechanics.  Not a week goes by that I don't hear at least three discussions that include "Let's make it into a viral game and add badges".  Badges don't make it a game, nor do they make it social.  If you think that little of your audience, they will think the same of your communications.  Gamification isn't a magic pill. Additionally, even the top social games have struggled to sustain their audiences beyond a 6-9 month window. 
  4. Relationships
    Most brands haven't done enough in social to deserve a meaningful relationship with their customers in social.  A Facebook fan isn't a real relationship yet, it's a possible subscription to additional information.  This is like a girl accepting an invitation for a first date.  It could be the start of something great.  However, if both of you don't value the relationship after those first few interactions/dates, there isn't much of a relationship.  Additionally, most brand-consumer relationships are less than monogamous (few brands have strong loyalty).  Relationships aren't a myth, but the strength and meaning claimed by many leaders in this space is far from reality far too much of the time. 
  5. Service
    Great service is fantastic, regardless of the channel.  People are likely seeking your service in social because they aren't getting it, or don't expect to get it via traditional channels.  Social service will no longer be a brilliant marketing play when everyone offers it.  Additionally, when everyone is offering decent social service, many will seek to differentiate themselves by offering stronger compensation, resulting in a post-purchase pricing war to the bottom.

    Social service must be a bridge into a relationship (see above) that leads to preference, loyalty and ultimately advocacy.  Additionally, social service must be properly setup both from a process and strategic positioning place.  For example, when social service is used as a diagnostic to learn about your business, product and service needs, you're helping the business.  When all you're doing is helping complainers, you're rewarding the loudest complainers and encouraging future public complaining.

You aren't paying a dime, but you're worth every penny

2198625320_47f0ce4c10_z Here's why you should expect fantastic product fulfilment and service from free digital products and service, even though you aren't paying a dime:

  • Your investment in using their platform or solution helps them attract further investment
  • Your usage of and feedback on their platform or solution helps them advance their offering
  • Your loyal eyeballs generate fractions of a penny on every ad they show.  Yes, they are selling your eyeballs.  
  • When your friends see that you use their product, they gain awareness and referral, and saving money on media.
  • Your positive stories about their great product or service will generate referrals.
  • Your continued patronage invites the upsell to a premium product or service.

In an era of incredible competition, attention is currency.  And we're paying with our attention.  Shoddy service will result in lost revenues, even when users aren't paying a dime.

My midweek without Y! Mail, can I expect more of free?

This week my family and I went on a blisteringly hot vacation in Pennsylvania.  I am as addicted to work email as the next guy.  Rather than keep my BlackBerry on hand, I gave out my personal email address to a handful of colleagues and told them I would keep my iPhone nearby (in case of emergency).  This would have worked fine... if it weren't for Yahoo! Mail's near complete product failure.  

The first morning of our vacation, I logged in to check my mail on my iPhone.  

Error shouted the screen in eary silence.  

Zounds! a fictional Scooby Doo villain shouted in my head.  

The prompt went on to explain that my password could not sync through the native mail client as my credentials were no longer valid.  While the cartoon characters in my head ran around in circles to the tune of the wicked witch of the west, I tried logging into Yahoo!'s mobile webmail client.  I was told my password was invalid.  I checked my BlackBerry and noticed that I had an alert from BlackBerry notifying me that my Yahoo! Mail account credentials were no longer valid.  HACKED screamed the alarm bells in my head.  Never would I have guessed that this was a routine security upgrade from Yahoo!.  One that they failed to notify me about.

You may think I'm just another blogger venting his inner anger due to a lack of a filter but trust me, I tried the appropriate channels.  

  • I filled out the web form in their help section and was told I would receive an update 24 hours later.  This update never came.
  • I followed @yahoocare on twitter and reached out politely asking for help.  I will not use this space to highlight their actions needed, and I hope that Patrick with their escalated care team is sharing the feedback I provided.  This team could use some help.

I hadn't gone into this vacation intending to spend a the mid-week without access to email.  I was actually counting on my YMail as my lifeline.  Oh Yahoo!  For years I have answered the inevitable "Why aren't you on Gmail?" question with a simple "I really like Yahoo!" (only to be honest, I didn't always say that name Yahoo! with the enthusiasm the ! implies).  

I can't say that I love Yahoo! Mail anymore.  

After a frustrating couple of days disconnected, I resorted to the dirtiest card in the book: tweeting that I would0 write a case study regarding my experience.  Only after playing dirty did I received access to the level of support all users should expect of their core service providers.  I sold my soul to gain access to a free mail system.  A system I have invested over 10 years of usage in.  Who's the loser now?

Yahoo!'s Concierge team explained that this password change was part of their security service, and that I should have received a prompt to change my password after logging into my email from my browser.  As I use Yahoo! Mail primarily via my mobile, this was an accidental but very real product failure.  I'm hoping they can get this fixed, as this was a truly frustrating experience.

And that brings us to today.  Am I crazy for staying with Yahoo!?  Am I nuts for expecting more?  Am I insane for asking for great customer service for a service I don't pay for?

I have a lot of respect for the team at Yahoo! overall.  I have a number of  both professional and personal relationships with the broader organization and team.  Is it time that I switched to Gmail?  To a paid service?  Or should I resign myself to the fact that nothing is perfect, and a decade with only a couple bumps in the road is a pretty good track record?

Can we expect more from free?

Do we really expect too much of everyone else to begin with?

When communities come together

2044642076_4a2a595cd9_o Two days ago a 9 year Jewish old boy heading home from camp went missing. Within hours his picture was broadly distributed and a frantic search began.  Early this morning we learned the horrific news of his murder.  My hearts and prayers are with his family and loved ones.

I would like to share the inspiration I drew from this experience.

Monday Night-Tuesday Afternoon

When I first read the news about a boy from two towns over who never made it home from camp, I wasn't incredibly concerned.  I assumed he was at a friend and forgot to tell his parents where he was going.  The next morning I checked out a couple of local blogs and was alarmed to learn that he still hadn't been located.  By 5PM yesterday, I had received about a dozen emails from friends and neighbors with this boys picture, a hot line, and a staging ground where they were galvanizing volunteers.  I was supposed to be attending a work-related event at Google but this seemed more important.

Tuesday Evening

Last night I made my way out to Boropark to join the search efforts.  What is usually a 15-20 minute drive took almost an hour.  18th avenue, a major thoroughfare, was blocked by hundreds of people surrounding a a police presence and what I later learned was a mobile command center.  I took a wide circle around these throngs and tried to make my way to the 15th Ave mobile command center mentioned in the community emails and blogs.  I couldn't get close to this side of the neighborhood by car due to the overwhelming number of volunteers streaming in and out.  These crows were massive.  I tried to circle and find parking, but there wasn't a single spot to be had in the general neighborhood.  

The Search, The Crowds

As I drove around I was amazed at the number of people that had gathered to assist in this search effort, many of them coming from far flung areas (many of them an hour or two away) to help find a little boy they had never previously known existed.  There were groups of teenage boys with massive flashlights, gaggles of teenage girls hanging up posters, young couples pushing babies in strollers, entire families out with their children and elderly couples shuffling along.  The streets were packed with cars coming in and out, but there was not a single honk that I can recall (other than the occasional emergency vehicle trying to get through).

Driving through this neighborhood felt more like trying to drive through an open market than a civilian street.  The streets were lit up with scores of flashlights and packed with strangers on a shared mission.  There were people literally everywhere, all carrying the same picture and calling the same name.  Doors, store window and trees all had the same poster.  People had even blown up the poster and taped it to the sides of their cars.  

As they seemed pretty busy at the command center, I followed some of the volunteers heading out to search for this boy in a nearby neighborhood.  The experience was unreal.  I drove for about thirty or forty blocks and did not pass a single area without volunteers searching high and low for this child.  Thousands of strangers, joined by a common mission.

Around 11:30 PM I decided to call it a night and head home.  My two boys (aged 1 and 4) were under the weather and my wife was doing her best to hold down the fort.  I stopped by a 24 hour grocery in my neighborhood, approximately 5 miles away from Boropark.  Not only were there signs on the street corners, but I'm pretty sure I saw volunteers further extending the search parameter.

This Morning - Conclusion

First thing this morning, I ran to check the news on this boy.  I was as stunned, shocked and disgusted as the rest of you.  While I cannot imagine the pain this boy's family is experiencing, the human mission this community and the broader Jewish community demonstrated last night is astounding.  

Reading the news and seeing that "thousands" of volunteers participated in a search doesn't begin to demonstrate the power or beauty of this shared effort.  This number belies the power that is a shared mission and true camaraderie among a people and a community in a time of need.  The piles of garbage bags holding cups of coffee and refreshments for volunteers standing a few feet high outside the command center, the streets packed with cars and people for blocks in every direction, the noise of hundreds of hopeful voices calling the same name, all of these speak to an incredibly powerful human mission.

Please take some inspiration from this horrible series of events.  Please take some inspiration from these selfless volunteers and do some good for a random stranger...  I don't know what else to say, so I'll end this post here.  

Please share your thoughts below.


Please email your thoughts and to condolences the Kletsky family at​ . We will get the notes to them as soon as we can. Ask 9 others to do the same, and if they all do it and pass it on as well, we will soon have 100,000 people who simply cared enough to take the time to write, reach out and express their horror, pain and support at the Kletsky's senseless loss.

When Google's Wizards Step Out From Behind Their Curtains

295023450_9f84e58c3a_b Earlier this year the pundits were puzzled when Google tied general employee compensation to Google's success in social.  Is it really fair to tie all employee's compensation packages to one team's success?  

This was a fundamental misunderstanding of Google's approach to social.  Let me illustrate:

About a year ago I had a fascinating discussion with an engineer at Google.  This was our fourth time spending a weekend together at a mutual friend's place, and I reluctantly admitted that I still wasn't using his product with much regularity. When he started discussing their iterative development approach I begged him to get into social and speak with the users of his product.  I was shocked to find out that he already was!

His team at Google was not building in a vacuum.  They had a community lead who was participating in a support forum, representing the broader Google team.  This community lead took questions from the community, provided answers and shared the community feedback with the engineers/developers.  All of this was happening within a defined forum. I had no idea that Google was doing this.

Astronomical numbers of people make the choice to use Google's products every day.  Before Plus, we interacted with Googlers through their products.  We never really thought about the wizard behind the curtain.  A product was experienced, not discussed (at least not with Google).

Google+ represents a fundamental shift in corporate communications and product development.  Google brought community managers and product representatives into Google+ from day one. Google hasn't just participated in the dialog, but has been and continues to be incredibly agile and transparent in addressing customer needs and requests.  This isn't a radically new model for Google, it's just far more scaled, present and transparent to the general public - and all the more meaningful for it.

THIS is why and how Google can hold the broader employee base responsible for the success of Google in social. Google's future is not just in product development, but social product communications and possibly even collaboration.  Google's was already social company, they just weren't yet engaging the rest of us.  If the rest of Google can attain the celebrity and responsiveness of Mark Striebeck and the Gmail team, this is going to change the way we view and interact with Google.  If my assumption is correct, nearly every employee in Google should be part of or otherwise supporting this dialog.

Few brands or corporations are ready for this level of employee engagement and collaboration with the general public.  This not only changes the game for Google, it creates a higher standard for the rest of us.

10 Tips for Brands on Google+ (and a list of brands on +)

Google Ford

UPDATE: Google has announced that a dedicated, richer business offering will be coming later this year.  In the interim, all non-real person accounts will be removed.

A number of brands have begun to experiment with Google+.  Early adopters are trying various tactics, some smart, some spammy.  In the limited time that I have spent with brands and celebrities (who are kind of like brands) I have noticed a few common areas where they could use some optimization.  

Please find my early recommendations below.  As always, please feel free to add you own thoughts in the comments section and I'll be sure to update.

10 Tips for Brands on Google+

  1. Don't publish too often.  This isn't Twitter and you don't need to post every single thought or story that you have available.  As brands will likely have a larger following, brands posts will resonate far louder than intended (as all post activity will bring the posts back to the top).  News outlets, please pay attention to this one.
  2. Educate.   This platform is very new to most users.  They may be confused or offended due to their inexperience in the platform.  Prepare sample posts and responses that can be used to address common complaints, such as Why is my stream all posts from you? and  How can I send you an email or DM?  For an example, see Robert Scoble's post on Plus here.
  3. Optimize your Hangout setup.  While you don't need a studio, decent lighting, a quiet setting, good bandwidth, and a decent quality webcam and microphone will help.  Don't over-think this, but remember that people should be able to clearly see and hear you.
  4. Make Hangouts worthwhile.  Access to senior leadership  is a fantastic surprise and delight that your early adopter fans will love.  Keep them as long as they are meaningful, but leave the community wanting more.  Alternative uses for Hangouts may include focus groups, Q&As and even just general jam sessions (provided this is of value to your community).
  5. Prepare for the unexpected.  Don't think that this will be just like everything you've done before.  Set expectations with management before jumping into an unknown and evolving social dynamic.
  6. Learn and adapt fast. This dynamic is evolving rapidly as new people come on board and those with a bit more experience under their belt begin to use Plus for things other than talking about Plus.  Be sure to capture these learnings in writing for future use and scale.
  7. Think through your service solutions.  Your in the conversation for your customers.  If service is something your facing in your other channels, be prepared for the implications of service in this channel.
  8. Get the right staff in place.  This isn't basic community management, this is a whole new experience.  This isn't for the newbies, yet.
  9. Listen.  Loudly.  Setup a Spark for your brand name and read it.  This is what your biggest fans and employees may have already done.  Demonstrate to the community that you are listening by replying to their posts.
  10. If you're doing it, talk about it.  Very few brands are playing in this space.  This is a great opportunity to position yourself as a leader and innovator.  


Caveat: Google has yet to unveil their API or brand marketer offering.  Early adopters may find themselves re-doing some of their early efforts to accommodate the formal offering.  Additionally, as more robust usage of features like photo uploading and tagging grows, new doors will be opened and new dynamics will emerge.


List of Brands on Google+

Please feel free to add a comment below and I will add it to the list.  Kudos to Noah Mallin and David Berkowitz for contributing to this list.