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Mar 09

Last week I attended a fascinating two-day conference on marketing and branding called BRITE at the Columbia business school. The name stands for “Branding, Technology, Innovation” and the event brings together thought leaders from academia, business,  and the blogosphere to discuss how technology and innovation are changing the ways in which companies build and sustain their brand.

One of BRITE’s key themes this year was online communities. Since this is one of my main areas of focus as a venture investor, the insights provided by the conference speakers were directly relevant to my work.

Below are some of my key takeaways from BRITE. More comprehensive notes are available here. A nice summary of Day 1 from David Rogers is available here.

Before I begin, I would like to mention one of my favorite quotes by George Bernard Shaw which Yaron Samid mentioned during the conference:

The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.

1. Customer service is the new PR

A new generation is being created that will never dial a 1-800 number again. Customers expect their experience to be pleasant, fast, and free. If a company fails to meet their expectations (or exceeds them) the customers will blog, tweet, post comments, create facebook groups, and invent new ways to express their feedback using social media.

It is increasingly important for companies to pay full attention to that process and influence it positively by investing in proper customer service and in contributing to their own online communities. Today’s angry customers are very loud, and happy customers are a company’s best brand ambassadors.

“Your customers are your ad agency” (Jeff Jarvis)

2. Many more opportunities exist in crowdsourcing

We often think of online communities as a connected group of people brought together mostly for discussion, collaboration, or social interaction around a central topic. But today’s online communities are often a great mechanism of production.

Jeff Howe, who was the conference speaker on this topic, has published a new book called (you guessed it) Crowdsourcing. Interesting examples from his presentation included iStockPhoto’s crowdsourced photography, John Fluevog’s open source shoes project and Dell’s idea storm.

I will add uTest, a company in which Longworth Venture Partners has recently invested. uTest brings together a community of QA professionals, and allows companies in need of software testing to crowdsource the work using a pay per bug model.

There will be more processes currently residing within the enterprise that will eventually be successfully croudsourced. Which one is next?

Jeff Howe spoke about the coffee break worker, and the power of designing a crowdsourced model that allows people to produce/contribute in less than 15 minutes, while on a coffee break.

3. “Spray and pray” advertizing is dead

Seth Godin was among the speakers at the conference. He mostly spoke about his new book Tribes, but the main takeaway for me was: “the idea that you can interrupt people over and over is dead”.

Research using eye-tracking technology suggests that we have mastered the art of tuning out ads on a web page. Advertizing needs to work its way into the content if it is to be effective.

4. You don’t create online communities, you facilitate them

Francois Gossieaux gave an interesting talk about best practices for company-run online communities. According to him, the social platform of a community is more important than the technology platform: “if you can’t get your community to work on a bulletin board, you probably can’t get it to work regardless of the technology you use.” Examples given by Francois included Walmart’s eleven moms program and Fiskar’s Fisk-a-teers.

From Jeff Howe’s talk: “ask not what your community can do for you, ask what you can do for your community”.

5. A product launch is no longer an event but a process.

Companies need to shift from the build to last to the build to adapt paradigm. It is a far better strategy to get to a quick release of an early beta, collaborate with users and listen to them for improvement and innovation, than to spend much longer trying to build the “perfect” product. As Jeff Jarvis would say: what would Google do?

Random final remarks

  • Avner Ronen, CEO of Boxee, joked that “90% of social media users are either there to get laid or to get business!” His presentation was great, by the way.
  • Adam Nash, SVP of Product at LinkedIn, says professional recommendations on the network are up 65% since the beginning of the year, as members put in extra efforts to help their friends find new jobs.
  • Finally, I can’t remember why Seth Godin mentioned this, but the following building is the corporate office of Longaberger, a basket company. Pretty funny…

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