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Becoming a Social Retailer

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Becoming a Social Retailer

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One of the biggest issues with the label “social” is that it often gets misconstrued as the use of social media. So when I hear about an ecommerce site using social, I can almost always bet they’ve done things like putting a ‘pin-it’ button on their product pages and are using Facebook connect on some level to enable their customers to share their purchases. There is no problem with this behavior, of course. It’s par for the course of today’s web. But it is NOT being social.

The general definition of social is the gathering of people for mutual pleasure and benefit, which also translates to how it manifests online. Therefore, marketing activities that push the interests of a company doesn’t fall under the definition of social. There has to be mutual benefit. While the company benefits by selling a product, the customer should benefit as well.

A simple way to think of becoming a social retailer is to ask the following question as part of your overall strategy:

“What is that thing we can do to help make our customers’ lives simpler, less confusing, less alienating, more efficient, more meaningful and just plain better?”

By incorporating this into the core of your strategy, the mutual benefit manifests and the interaction is now social.

However, many companies engage in what I deem is incredibly anti-social strategy, some examples being:

  1. A recent email from a retailer I’m deeply engaged with on a buying and loving level that requested I go to their Facebook page and ‘like’ them.
  2. Asking me to spam my friends and followers for the promise of something free.

I receive and enjoy many emails from my favorite retailers. If done right, they get me to open the email, then click through to their website quite frequently. New products, sales, tutorials and interesting content in general are just some of the things that entice me. But when I received an email from one of my favorite retailers asking me to click on a link to ‘like’ them on Facebook when I’m already a card-carrying, email clicking frequent shopper, I had to unsubscribe.

In my view, this retailer was wasting a perfectly good open of an email to request a pointless behavior. They already have my email address, my purchase history and many other points of information (I have accumulated so many points on my loyalty card at this retailer that I raise eyebrows when I cash out). Why drive me to a Facebook page?

The second example is highly anti-social because it actually works...until it doesn’t. When a retailer asks people to promote an item on a social network in order to win something, many people tend to participate, which ruins everyone else’s experience of that social network. The more it works, the more case studies are shared and the more social network marketing pollution we experience.

Just check out the search results on Pinterest for ‘brown leather tote’:

I like this tote. I may have even pinned it naturally at some point, but now a perfectly cute tote is forever etched in my mind as spam. And the people who are filling up their friends’ feeds with this tote? They are irritating their friends, too, which is not good for their own reputation. This is the ultimate in anti-social. Not only is this retailer using a social tool to get someone else to do their marketing, but they are also creating distrust between their fans and their followers. Can I trust someone’s recommendations going forward if I know they ‘pin to win’?

This practice is a great example of a Tragedy of the Commons: a scenario in which individuals acting out of self interest deplete the value of a shared interest. In this case, the search results are less helpful because there are pages of the same bag to scroll through.

These are only two of the many examples of how retailers act anti-social through the use of social media tools in order to satisfy their own interests, but not necessarily their customers. But then, how can a retailer move from anti-social to social? What is the difference between an anti-social and a social retailer?

The core lies in whether or not you are acting in your self-interest and depleting the value of a network (i.e. spamming a feed) or are you acting in a way to:

...help make your customers’ lives simpler, less confusing, less alienating, more efficient, more meaningful and just plain better?

Being a social retailer doesn’t mean you leverage the social networking tools to your maximum ROI outcome. It means you provide value for your customers.

We have a funny saying in the startup world that goes something like, “A successful startup will help others get made, laid or paid (or all of the above).” Though a bit crass, it outlines ways in which we help our customers achieve their dreams and, in return, they help us achieve ours.

Retail and especially fashion is incredibly aspirational at its finest. If people only bought out of necessity, there would be no retail industry. Dressing well leaves a good impression with a potential employer. A sports car can impress a potential mate. A new laptop can unlock better income potential. A pair of Tom’s Shoes or Warby Parker glasses can be a conversation piece just about anywhere. Shopping and style are inherently social. No tweets, pins or likes necessary. But tweets, pins and likes come from people owning, loving and aspiring to own all of this.

Zappos and ASOS were both social companies before they even touched social media. They understood what made their customers’ lives more efficient: free fast shipping both ways and great customer service. Warby Parker and Tom’s Shoes don’t need social media managers in order to be social. They understand what made their customers lives more meaningful: buying products that look good AND give back. Apple has been said to not ‘get’ social. Really? Between the genius bar, Apple Care and a razor focus on creating seamless user experience, they made my life simpler when it came to technology. Even though C Wonder isn't tweeting or facebooking too much, I think of them as a social retailer. Their iPad roaming checkout process made my life way more efficient as I didn’t have to stand in a long line to buy a belt for a girlfriend. I’ll tell the world about that experience.

Social media tools may come and go, but your budgets should always remain focused on the bottom line:

“What is that thing we can do to help make our customers’ lives simpler, less confusing, less alienating, more efficient, more meaningful and just plain better?”

It really is that simple. And that’s how you become a social retailer...by being social.

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Mobile Ain't So Mobile

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Mobile Ain't So Mobile

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For 18 months, I rolled my eyes every time someone mentioned Instagram. Yes, it made for easy sharing of beautifully filtered photos...if you had an iPhone. And if your mobile phone wasn't crashing every 5 minutes. I rolled my eyes even harder when Instagram, finally available on Android (too bad I switched to iPhone a few months before this happened), was purchased by Facebook for a whopping $1B. "It's because Facebook won't survive without a mobile play," some surmised.

Now Facebook has it's own Instagram-like photo app, separate from it's sluggish, but meaty, main app. It also has a pages app. And I'm sure that there will be all sorts of Facebook mobile apps being launched that break up the main one into more useable bits.

Well, THERE is an experience I'm looking forward to (not). Actually, I shouldn't be sarcastic. It makes perfect sense. The Facebook app really does suck. It's huge and loads slowly and crashes all of the time and makes me want to throw my phone under a bus. But here is the thing...I'm getting really really eye rollingly tired of the whole mobile mobile mobile thing because, well, THE PHONES AND NETWORKS CAN'T SUPPORT THIS SO-CALLED REVOLUTION.

They can't. The hardware is getting better, true. With every new Android, iPhone, Windows Phone, Blackberry arms race, we are seeing big improvements in the hardware: nicer cameras, more memory, faster performance, better screens, etc. But with every improvement comes more people trying to do more stuff on those awfully sagging networks. And those aren't improving nearly as quickly.

Not to mention the screen sizes. It doesn't matter how much you design for mobile, when it comes to reading something meaty or watching a longer video or just keeping up with the news, there is only so much my eyes can take from that small screen before I put it down and decide to wait until I'm in front of my laptop again.

I used to be a mobile addict. I was one of those people in early Blackberry, then Palm Treo, then Blackberry again and finally iPhone days whose faces were constantly in my phone. At the first sign of boredom or discomfort, I pulled out the phone and found something to keep me entertained. This happened on the bus, at parties and even out with friends. It was okay. We were all phones on the table people.

But in the past couple of years, I've grown tired of being stuck to my phone and I'm more interested in interacting with the world around me. I still go to the phone when incredibly bored or uncomfortable (eating alone or in a waiting room) and I couldn't live without it for so many things (maps, checking in - love remembering where I've been, taking photos on the fly, coordinating with people, having the ability to Google something mid-conversation, etc), but I find myself keeping it in my bag more and more.

I'm also giving my boyfriend a harder time about his addiction. I've asked him to not reach for the phone as soon as he wakes up. Phones are a no-no when on dates unless there is something we absolutely need to keep on top of. If we are boring one another to reach for our phones, the problem is bigger than the lack of a phone, right?

Facebook aside, though, I'm not particularly fond of these mobile-only applications like Instagram. I use it, yes. It makes my pictures look better. But I post every single photo to Facebook AND Flickr. I want to be able to access it later: put it in a blog post or send it in an email to my parents. I like being able to tag and group and search my images. I've recently fallen in love with Memolane, a service that tells me what I was doing 1-2-3-4-5 years ago in daily emails. Today I found out that the very first Cupcake Camp took place at CitizenSpace (my old coworking space, sigh) 4 years ago today. The day I received the photo of myself 4 years prior in thankful tears right after I finished writing my book, I reminisced that amazing feeling.

What I'm saying is that I don't like the way the mobile web is separated from the web. It's the web, dammit. Yes, design for the small screen and to take advantages to the mobility the phone gives your customers, but don't ignore the fact that your customers live fluidly between mobile and desktop. And perhaps someday we'll be doing EVERYTHING mobile (I used to believe it was closer than I do now - just think of the processing power it takes to run most business programs! Instagram crashes my phone. I'd hate to see what Keynote or PowerPoint would do!), but today, we are not.

What mobile IS good for is:

  • applications that kill time - games, browsing, liking, poking and pinning, reading short snippets
  • applications that are real time only - time sensitive stuff that you won't need to dig up later (which most social networks THINK they are, but are not)
  • applications that are location driven - "I need coffee in a 10 block radius, stat!" (remember that Foursquare has always had a desktop interface to see your history)
  • applications that are enhanced by using a mobile camera - barcode scanners, food porn, etc.

Anything that requires a history or persistence or a way to connect people together at a later time require a web interface that can be viewed on your desktop. And no matter how powerful my phone gets, I see the need for this for a long time period to come.

And if you are still not convinced? I definitely would NOT have just typed 1000 words on my iPhone. I have a tough enough time typing 10 words on that thing. That consumer desire for simplicity and aesthetics is reason enough to know why the desktop isn't going to die anytime soon.

When people ask me about the Buyosphere mobile app, I tell them that we have a strategy, but are prioritizing our web experience. Many of them roll their eyes like I'm not with the program. Like I'm a dinosaur. What many people don't understand is how you need to use a mobile strategy to serve people when they are mobile. If your site isn't useful on a mobile screen or isn't a good real-time, time-killing, location-based experience, then that bandwagon is an expensive waste of time.

Of course we want to be mobile compatible (working on that now) and our mobile app will happen someday. It will be a different part of our strategy, where location-based and real-time matters to the user. The content will be available on the web, though. So when someone thinks, "Where was that great shoe store that I visited in Albuquerque? Oh yeah, it was recommended on Buyosphere!" they can pull up the information and send it to their distant cousin who has no use for Buyosphere, but needs to find a pair of shoes while traveling through Albuquerque.

I know that mobile is important and that we all need to think of how we give our users as much access to interact as possible, but it's not a silver bullet nor is it applicable for everything. We are still a long way from an entirely mobile world. Let's think about how we do it right, not rushed.

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I Instagram'd Your Dire Situation

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I Instagram'd Your Dire Situation

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photo taken in my Galaxy Tab in East Baltimore and 'prettified' with EyeEm

They call this increasingly popular middle-class ritual "Ghetto Tourism" and I was guilty of it a few weeks ago when I visited Baltimore for the amazing InSquared Conference. I was almost giddy about the idea of touring the poorest parts of East Baltimore brought to my attention by one of my favorite television shows of all-time, The Wire (also #85 in Stuff White People Like). I wanted to see the neighborhood with my own eyes. I couldn't wait to capture the 'No TrespassingIf Animal Is Trapped Inside Call ....' stencils on the boarded up houses. We drove around in a luxury SUV and captured poignant shots like the one above with our iPhones and Tablets. The irony wasn't lost on me.

I don't tell you this because I want to make anyone feel guilty, but there was something more poignant than pictures that I took away from this 'ghetto tour' and my entire time at the conference. That poignant thing that hit me is core to the problems of North America: the divide between the haves and have nots. And, until the is an overall awareness of privilege, it won't change.

A conversation on a gmail group I'm part of raised this point for me: Yes, we all have the ability to achieve success by working hard and smart, but some of us have more obstacles in our way. This is not an excuse by any means. The world is what it is for better or for worse, but there is an odd sense of entitlement in our cushy worlds that forgets that, yes, we work hard to achieve what we've achieved, but we have experienced privilege along the way to help us get there. Education, skin color, strong support systems, good manners, speaking the right native tongue, access to strong networks, the advantage of being a specific gender or orientation that is the normative, inheritance of wealth and many other leveragable assets give us a different starting point than those without these assets.

I was not born to a wealthy family. My father worked hard to build his business from a place of poverty. He worked his way through university, then he and my mother slowly, patiently, built his veterinarian practice, paying off student loans and slowly climbing up the ranks of comfortable living. We lived in a trailer on his family's land until I was 10. A second-hand, broken down trailer, but we had the privilege of having land passed down, which gave us more leverage than many of our neighbors. And we lived in a small town in Alberta, which was incredibly inexpensive to grow a business in. Another advantage.

But they gave me oodles of other privileges that helped me to start from a pretty advanced place of leverage. I attended university didn't have to take out too much for student loans because my parents supported me and post-secondary is subsidized in Canada. I always had enough. I also had my parents' example of a couple who sacrificed in the short term to make long term gains.

When I was in Baltimore, I saw a very different experience. Entire neighborhoods of abandoned houses, boarded up and falling down. Our guide described them as 'unburied corpses'. Most people in those neighborhoods are untouched by the lovely startup/angel/VC world we live in that afford us to be connected the way we are. I took photos of those rows of unburied corpses with my iPhone and tablet - and felt incredibly aware of the juxtaposition. Many of the inhabitants of this neighborhood have their mindspace occupied by survival, not how to get followers on Pinterest.

I'm not saying all of this to make anyone feel guilty or to downplay your or my struggles. I've struggled and worked hard. I've gone without being able to pay my rent. I've gone without eating many times. We are all given our lot in life, but I also know that there is a different starting line for everyone. Those that start from behind my position have to run harder, smarter and overcome lots of barriers before they even get to IMAGINE creating a social commerce platform that helps people make better buying decisions.

And yes, it's reality. There is no room in our world for whining or feeling sorry for ourselves.

But dammit. The arrogance of privilege really makes me hate the world we live in sometimes. And makes me question so much of what we deem as important or successful or admirable or inspirational. We spend so much time and money and energy and editorial space celebrating a certain type of person and funding a certain type of business. And yes, there are a few great funds (Good CapitalOmidyar Foundation, Google.org and Gates Foundation) and government programs and fundraising avenues, but all-in-all, I see more money lost on investing in the new shiny thing that doesn't work than goes into investing into our own communities.

On a positive note, gb.tc (Greater Baltimore Tech Council), the organization behind InSquared Conference, has the goal of bringing wealth to the area we toured. The organization's lead instigator Jason Hardebeck, who drove us around, is one of those guys who has examined his privilege and decided to use it to level the playing field for everyone, not just those who already have assets. As we speak, gb.tc, is creating innovative centers with tools, instruction and other resources in many of the poorest neighborhoods of Baltimore and reaching out to the inhabitants of those neighborhoods to offer them these resources at little to no cost. When I asked him how they plan to make money, he replied, "A rising tide lifts all boats." In other words, when the poorest people in Baltimore have stable income and futures, everybody will profit. I love this idea. And it's been shown that in cities like Philadelphia and New York, this is the case: reduced crime, increased local spending, cleaned up neighborhoods, better valued real estate, innovation and more come from these programs. It's something that we all need to be invested in.

As a final note, I'm aware that I'm not building a business that is going to help those neighborhoods get to a level playing field, but that doesn't mean I'm not trying to build something meaningful (I wouldn't work on a business that doesn't have a higher purpose). There is room in this world to build all sorts of businesses that serve all sorts of people. But I do want to live in a world where we are serving even the most 'unprofitable' looking business prospects because it's better for everybody.

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SXSW, BeautyBarX and the Quest to Create a Space for Women

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SXSW, BeautyBarX and the Quest to Create a Space for Women

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I've been attending SXSW Interactive since 2005. It's amazing and I've watched it grow from impressive to "OMFG where are all these people coming from?!" Last year, there were nearly 20,000 registered geeks in attendance, but many estimated that the event was also subsidized by an almost equivalent number of people who came to enjoy the festivities without a badge. Rough guesses estimated the population of Austin to increase by 40,000 just for SXSW Interactive. What I've also noticed that there are more and more women attending each year. I asked Hugh Forrest, the man in charge of the show, what his estimates on women last year were and he replied, "A VERY conservative reply is that 1/3rd of our signups are women." That's about 6,800 women if my math is right. Wowsers!

What I also noticed last year was that there wasn't much catering to that growing population. From what I could tell, the only women-focused event was Digitini, a really cool event honoring the women contributing to Tech. I've heard that it's probably not happening in 2012. :( Guy Kawasaki, Kirtsy and Alltop also did a fun event called Guy/Gal a couple of years back (I couldn't attend, but I heard it was great). But for 1/3rd of the population of SXSW, I would hope there would be more!

Sure, we're all equal here, right? An event is an event and it's non-gendered, right? Well...yes. Most events are neutral. In fact, life is neutral. Until you realize what neutral is...

Back in my cultural studies classes (where I have my degree), we examined the problem with the center and otherness. The center/neutral/sameness is the cultural pivot point. The idea that there is a characteristic or persona that is neutral makes everyone else necessarily conform. So think UNISEX t-shirts. They aren't really unisex are they? They are t-shirts designed for a male body that are a little bit more tapered. They end up looking boxy on women (and probably fit a very distinct version of a male physique). Think of neutral colors like beige. They work for muted, quiet designs. They don't offend, but they don't express either.

So here I was, running between meetings and panels and events and thinking, "Where can I get a good manicure?" and coming up short and knowing that there wasn't really a place where women could just BE WOMEN (and that doesn't mean anything in particular, but spaces that are built for women do feel different). So I decided there and then that I would create something in 2012 come hell or high water that would be THAT thing. Completely UNneutral.

So here it is:

Beauty Bar X

And I posted it to Eventbrite and Facebook and did mostly nothing with it yet, but am getting a steady stream of signups and messages like, "OMG...this is SO needed!"

But here is the rub...I got Buyosphere to sponsor it, but we have a wee bit of seed funding that cannot cover an event that costs $25,000 to put on (I've asked our amazing event planners if we could cut back and they tried, but SXSW makes the city uber costly). I squeezed $5,000 out of my company (my board and co-founders won't approve more - that's an entire month of runway!). I may be able to put a couple of grand into it from my own pocket as well...but we really need to raise $20,000 (or something close to it) to make this happen.

Crazy awesome part of this is that this is the PERFECT OPPORTUNITY for any brand focused on reaching influential women to do so. We will have a space catering to women at SXSW. Women from all over the world with tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands of followers. Not only that, we will be offering them a great space to be pampered in. Hello skincare companies! Hello nailcare companies! Hello health companies!

So...in order to make this happen, I've set up an IndieGoGo campaign:

http://www.indiegogo.com/Sponsor-The-BeautyBarX-Event

The goal is to raise $20,000 or as close to it as I possibly can so we can make this happen. The sponsorship levels are spelled out on IndieGoGo, but people that want to see it happen can also help out. I was ready to pull the plug last week, but something just made me want to push on. I know we can do this. I'd love to see it happen. Can we crowdsource it? I know it's needed. Let's make it happen!

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A Pink Collar Tech Ghetto?

So why is it so embarrassing to have so many women entering the startup world through such a lucrative entry point? Because, well, it's embarrassing because we are so few and there is so much hope pinned on our performance. We've been begging and screaming to get included and then we show up in high heels talking about designer snugglies and nailpolish.

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