Tag Archive | "business"

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Amtrak Irresponsibility at Washington DC’s Union Station


Today, I’m taking a train to Williamsburg, VA from Washington, DC to attend a conference. Train #99, in fact, which was scheduled to depart Union Station at 5pm. In fact, it didn’t. As I type this we’re late, and still not moving.

Oh, I’m not writing about how an Amtrak regional train was late; I’ve been experiencing that pleasure since about 1993. What was interesting to observe was the way computer technology interacted with the actual train being late.

You see, a few weeks ago, someon installed new screens around Union Station that give gates and updated information about trains You know, “On Time,” “Boarding,” and so forth. They’re nice screens. You can find summary boards around the train station, and individual boards near the gates. They’re coordinated, and most likely run by some central software.

Sounds great, right? Well, anyone who’s taken trains knows that the big board says “On Time” until the second they switch it to something like “30 min late” (how can they not see that coming?). This doesn’t really happen with the Acela trains, but for the longer, slower regionals, they’re often off by a few minutes at least.

As we were running a few minutes late to board train #99 to Newport News, VA, the automatic screen at the gate (where I was standing at the front of the line) switched from “On Time” to “Boarding.”. Except we weren’t boarding at all. The attendant said it would be just a few minutes, and the door was shut with a fabric rope in from of that.

The attendant went in the back with his walkie talkie to check on something and we quietly stood by the gate, about a hundred of us. Jumbled. You know how these train lines go.

Suddenly, we hear a shriek. A middle-aged woman is running at us, yelling a bit about how her train is boarding, hurdling over people and their bags. “Where’s the train to Newport News?! My train is boarding!!” Before anyone could say two words to her, she quickly glanced at the sign that said “Boarding,” tore off the fabric barrier, barged through the door, and started running towards the escalator to the train.

Now, she bumped into the Amtrak attendant quickly, and he calmed her down and walked her back to us, and we all boarded a few minutes later. But what if this had happened on (say) October 15th, 2001? Would we have not taken this more seriously? Everyone was totally complacent today.

More importantly, this is a good example of how updated technology not only can be merely a cosmetic improvement (I don’t recall people asking for help reading the boards, or wandering aimlessly looking for gate E, before the new signs.) but also can be harmful when used improperly. In this case, Amtrak personnel clearly knew we were not boarding, yet the signs said we were.

In the minds of people these days, virtual boarding is as good as the truth, and we saw this with the middle-aged woman, who ran by a hundred people waiting to board because a digital display convinced her that her train was boarding. (We all must have been waiting for something else, maybe Balloon Boy?) This is a similar problem to the “celebrity death hoax” phenomena whereby Kanye West or a similar high-profile person is declared “RIP” by an enterprising Twitter user – and the information spreads like wildfire. Being dead on Twitter is now equivalent to actually being dead, unless you literally “resurrect” yourself via a YouTube video (Zach Braff) or a late-night TV appearance (Jeff Goldblum). How can we blame this pleasant woman for thinking she was going to miss her train?

So, I don’t know if Amtrak, Union Station, or some third party is working these signs, and I don’t care (It is a good question for a local journalist, though.). What I do know is that whomever is running this system doesn’t know what the fuck they’re doing, or even worse, does know what they’re doing but is too lazt to give a shit. After all, it’s just a Sunday afternoon; football’s on…what could possibly happen?

Amtrak is not totally immune from blame. Even if they’re not working the software running the signs, they have employees standing right next to them. Is checking the signs for accuracy in anybody’s job description? Today’s incident could have been prevented in a number of ways. It was very minor, but it serves as an example of what happens when half-assed technology is involuntarily injected into our daily lives by people we don’t know, who don’t care about us.

Boarding 10 minutes late may not seem like a lot, but to that woman it was. If we don’t have standards about making digital information match reality, where does that logically leave society? Working bathrooms declared closed? Incorrect pricing on lattes? Misleading highway directions during an emergency?

What I want to know is: Who’s going to be in charge of coordinating the digital and the real as our country moves toward a more technocratic future?

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Talking With a Real-Life Branded Avatar


Almost a year ago, I wrote a popular post for Mashable.com called Do Brands Belong on Twitter?, which turned out to be a controversial topic. The main thrust of my argument against brands with no names or photos attached tweeting was that it was very impersonal – brands have coupons, not conversations.

Well, I have more evidence for my argument, because last night I had the pleasure of meeting a branded avatar – in the form of a restaurant waiter. I was having dinner in the downstairs wine bar of the new J&G Steakhouse in the W Hotel in Washington, DC. My friend and I had a pleasant-enough waiter, but I knew there was something a little off with him. Sure enough, when discussing side orders to share, I asked if the potatoes au gratin were something really special, that we should try.  He replied, “Jean-Georges [Vongerichten] puts his heart into every dish at J&G Steakhouse.”

What? I just want to know about some potatoes! That was the funniest line, but the waiter’s demeanor was like that all evening. I commented to my friend that the experience was like ordering food from a PR firm!

Contrast that with Cyril Renaud, whose New York bistro Bar Breton I visited once, to get a hamburger (an amazing one, by the way) – he saw that I tweeted about the place and wrote me, and we’ve kept in touch a bit. He’s very authentic, and kept me thinking about the place long after I’d gone to it.Nobody likes talking with a nameless, faceless brand – on Twitter or in real life.

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Social Networking is the Means to Achieve Collaboration


Yesterday I live-blogged a bit from the terrific Government 2.0 event produced by FedScoop.com at the Newseum in Washington, DC. I wrote a post about how collaboration was not the means, but rather an end made possible by the means of social networking tools.  You can read my original writing and some initial comments here.  Below, I expand a bit on these ideas.

My post was initially inspired by one speaker’s (WFED’s Chris Dorobek) notion, shared by some others (Justin Houk commented that, “Taxpayers don’t want to think about those in government sitting around on twitter all day even thought that might be an effective way to collaborate.”), that social networking tools come across as too social or “fun” and that being social is not what people are truly doing (in the government) when they use them – they’re collaborating.  Thus, when marketing Government 2.0 to wider audiences, he feels that a term like “collaboration tools” is more appropriate.

In my opinion, while this might sound better to the traditionalist, untrained ear, I think it is factually wrong to say that things like Facebook or Intellipedia are collaboration tools.  True, collaboration often happens with these tools.  And perhaps one could argue that collaboration is mainly what people hope to accomplish with them in the workplace.  Fair enough.  But I think that collaboration is the end result of leveraging social networks, which is in actuality what the social networking tools are for.

In other words, social networks are the means by which to accomplish something.  This something might very well be collaboration.  It might also be putting together an office softball team, or a study group of employees all learning Arabic.  Is that “collaboration”?  I don’t think so.  There are many things that happen in workplaces based around social networks that are not strictly collaboration on work projects.  One big thing I’ve been thinking about lately is “leveraging social networking to accomplish important things” and no one can deny that personal relationships can influence collaboration.  How well you know someone, how much you identify with them, how much you trust them, their level of reliability or transparency – all of these are values derived from social networking that then, when leveraged, can influence collaboration.  Collaboration is not an end in itself, of course – it is a means to accomplish some end (finishing a draft report, etc.).  So, social networking is a means to collaboration, which is a means to achiving some work or personal goal.

I also completely reject the notion that there is something wrong with having some fun at work.  The idea that having fun with social software shouldn’t be allowed in serious workplaces is ridiculous.  And of course, anyone who’s ever passed around a joke-of-the-week email, celebrated a colleague’s birthday with a cake in the break room, or ended work at 4pm for an informal happy hour with the office would surely agree with me on this.  Work can be fun, and be productive, too.  The head of the OPM recently visited Google for a reason.

So, briefly, I think social networking tools are not necessarily collaboration tools.  They are social software that allows social networks to be leveraged to accomplish things you find important.  That might be collaboration on a National Intelligence Estimate, or arranging a carpool with people in your agency (getting to work, being more green), or finding a racquetball partner (staying healthy, living well) – all of which postitively influence the workplace, in government and in the private sector as well.   As Fred Wellman commented on my original post, “I can’t help but wonder if Chris [Dorobek] is seeking a more politically correct or business sounding name of the same tools with the goal of breaking down barriers to implementation and usage as opposed to a lack of understanding of the power of social networking applications in the business of government.”  I think there’s a lot of truth to that.  But I also think that, as an academic, this is actually not what we are doing.  This may sound esoteric, but from an academic standpoint I think it’s an important distinction.

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What good customer service looks like


I don’t let many strange men into my home, but this morning I received my first Peapod food delivery in a while. As usual, they were precisely on time, had everything I ordered, and the delivery guy was fun and friendly. I always contrast this with Comcast, the other place that frequently sends strange men into my home – they tend to be gruff, impersonal, independent contractors who don’t seem to care much about showing up at any particular time or really about my life at all.

Whether it’s Comcast versus Peapod or something like In ‘N’ Out (awesome service) versus McDonald’s (barely service), I blame the companies for creating that culture. I blame the strategists, the management, and the front-line people all. They do a terrible service for their brands. And conversely, the people with awesome front-line service that have a corporate culture of being awesome do a great service for their brands – here I am praising Peapod on a Sunday morning.

This is also why I think online customer service efforts like @comcastcares are fairly lame. Sure, it’s nice that they do it. But when a guy tracks muddy boots in my place and doesn’t give a crap about me, who cares what Comcast is doing on Twitter? Same for an airline that tweets me updated flight information but then greets me with a nasty, unhelpful person at check-in and charges me $25 for a simple bag. And anyone else too. Social media is about “social” and “media” – and most socializing still happens in person.

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Conversations Are Intelligence, Not Invitation


Fox’s recent experiment of overlaying live tweets on an episode of Fringe was an epic failure unwelcome to Twitter enthusiasts and traditional viewers alike.  It’s hard to imagine anyone who understands social technology thinking that this was a good idea. It’s almost impossible to imagine anyone working in entertainment thinking that this would add to, and not detract from, a fictional television drama. Conversations that happen via social media are not necessarily an invitation for businesses to join them. They are, however, business intelligence that can be collected, analyzed, and adapted to. In one of the best simple articles I’ve read on this topic, media and entertainment entrepreneur Patricia Handschiegel writes that,

If TV wants to have a presence online or integrate its offerings online, it needs to think like a user. Not BE a user, not be “part of the conversation,” but understand what is valuable to the user and deliver it. You all should be on Twitter telling us when your shows are going to air and what we can expect, showing trailers, driving us to YOUR website for contests, special footage, etc…Your job is to entertain and inform your audience. Nobody cares what people think of your shows but you, and nobody cares what people have to say about your shows but you… Just because you can “hear” the direct conversations about your brand via the web today doesn’t mean you have to go bananas with it. Listen, use it for insight, adapt your offerings around it, etc. Brands of all kinds are taking all of this way, way too seriously. Your message has always been reshaped and shared among people — the only difference now is that you can see and hear it. This is not something to be afraid of. This is something to use to your advantage.

This is related to what I’ve previously written about on O’Reilly Radar how for businesses and brands (including personal brands) Twitter should mainly be viewed not as a conversation to be involved in, but as a mechanism for providing great content to people. This can be derided by critics as “broadcasting” but there is a happy medium between being in a multiplex chatroom “engaging” with people and merely broadcasting. Listening, understanding, and some interacting is important – but it is not an end goal in itself. This is also related to what I’ve recently written about on PR 2.0, something I call proactive social media (or offensive social media) – filling the information space with great content that people will find if they’re looking for information about your area of expertise or your business sector. This is the strategy that I am beginning to talk about with individuals, government employees, and large and small companies that ask for my advice about how they should best be using social media to interact with the public.

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Proactive Social Media: Filling the Information Space With Great Content


I recently gave a talk titled Free the People! at the Potomac Forum’s Government 2.0 Leadership, Collaboration, and Public Engagement Symposium in Washington, DC that generated enough interest for me to post my slide deck and write a summary for a wider audience. These thoughts constitute some of my early ideas about “offensive social media” for organizations (this talk was particularly geared towards a government audience, but the fundamentals apply to the private and public sectors more broadly).

Read the rest of this article at the PR 2.0 blog!

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Would You Sign a One-Year Twitter Contract?


In a new post, tech blogger Robert Scoble posits that media darling Twitter is under-hyped and underappreciated as a business tool.  He suggests that Twitter is worth $5 billion based on the idea of selling business analytics and other professional services to clients, and has numerous, somewhat-hidden advantages over competition like Facebook.

It’s an interesting post to read.  But while it’s true that nightclubs, salons, bike stores and many other small and medium businesses are “using Twitter” that doesn’t mean they’re using it well, or it’s a priority, or generating revenue or word of mouth. And it doesn’t mean they’ll still be using it in 2010, or 2011.

Think about your subscriptions to cable television or mobile phone service, where you pay $50, or $80, or $130 per month and often commit to a three-month, one-year, etc. contract with Comcast or some other company.  Will a large number of businesses be willing to pay $100 or so a month for business analytic services from Twitter, Inc?  The real question for a business in my mind is, Would you commit to a one-year, $1200 contract with Twitter??

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Trashy Viral: Spreading Ideas That Don’t Matter


I’m coining the term Trashy Viral to describe the spread of thought-provoking let ultimately useless ideas.  These are memes that might be entertaining (like “chimpanzee riding on a Segway”) or just plain media-catchy with little underlying value (”Twitter is 40% useless babble”).

The aforementioned study by relatively unknown firm Pear Analytics went viral after a sensationalistic and completely uncritical Mashable story by Jennifer van Grove set the wheels in motion.   The incredibly unscientific, subjective study gave readers a list of unsatisfying out-of-context numbers that ultimately have no use to anyone with a serious interest – you know, like the color-coded Department of Homeland Security terror alert system.

Hey, good for the company – people like me are talking about them, I suppose.  And the blog and mainstream media love a controversial story that looks scientific, calls out something beloved, and has no concrete conclusions.  But if I were the CEO of a shop like Pear Analytics I would find this amount of negative criticism embarrassing rather than a “call for refinement of the research study.”  But I think there’s a mile of difference between something going viral because it’s deliberately useless and going viral because it’s accidentally so.

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Jeremiah Owyang, We Hardly Knew Thee Brand


jermiah-owyang

Numerous people have now written, and written well, about high-profile Web 2.0 and Enterprise 2.0 analyst Jeremiah Owyang leaving Forrester Research.  Many people look forward to seeing what his next endeavor is.

Marketing expert Dave Meerman Scott blogged about the interesting, modern conflict and cooperation between personal brands working at corporations, and corporate brands that benefit from their people.  There are no current answers.

But I heard Howard Kurtz say something to the effect of “we reported it, so the public should know” on his CNN show this weekend.  No, sorry.  The way most people learn now is not by watching a television channel like CNN (just look at the ratings of your average news show), but by talking to someone who talked with someone who had an opinion derived from watching one.  News, and all information, is now commonly filtered through our social networks before it gets to us.  That’s right – we don’t find the news, the news finds us.

Owyang is influential because he provides value and generates tremendous word of mouth, and empowers his information to find us.  He doesn’t broadcast and expect you to find it so much as consider himself part of a community that he wants to help.  To some degree, this is how entrepreneurs can beat the big dogs.  He is someone to emulate.

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Too Young To Be an Entrepreneur? Not.


In case you’ve got the entrepreneurial bug, but think that you’re too young, too inexperienced, etc. to succeed on your own, I suggest that you read a terrific essay by New York-based user interface designer Whitney Hess.  She looks back on her first year leaving a steady job and entering business on her own.  An excerpt is below.

Less than four years out of college, some people might have said that I lacked the experience necessary to be a successful business person, that I still needed to work within a larger team in order to continue my growth as a practitioner, to have direct supervision and built-in resources, that I’m just too “junior” and wet behind the ears. In fact, they did say it. I still have detractors. Some of them tell it to my face, and others hide behind pseudonyms and anonymity. What I don’t think they realize is that they give me even greater confidence to trust my instincts.

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