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Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Valeria Maltoni on Bridging New & Old - Social Media Series

This week's guest for Flooring The Consumer's Social Media Series: Bridging New & Old is Valeria Maltoni.

Valeria Maltoni - aka Conversation Agent - redefines conversation and community by connecting ideas and people. She carries those conversations over to a multitude of venues, both online and offline, further nurturing and developing them. Read her biography and you'll understand. Better yet, read her blog, Conversation Agent, learn What does Conversation Agent do? and you'll realize what an amazing Renaissance woman she is.

"How do You Say "Just Do It" in Marketing 2.0?" represents Valeria's chapter in The Age of Conversation 2 - Why Don't They Get It? - the book that 237 authors from around the world collaborated on to benefit Variety, the children's charity. [Per a previous post, The Age of Conversation 2 - Why Don't They Get It? is now available on Amazon for purchase.] The advice she shares in her chapter captures the essence of bridging new and old: "The one thing you can definitely control is how you relate to your customers and what actions you take to respond to their needs. That is Marketing 2.0."

Valeria brings an unique perspective to conversation -- not just because of her bi-cultural experiences -- but also because she is both corporate marketer and active in Marketing 2.0, epitomizing what bridging new & old is about.

C.B.: Valeria, how and why did you get involved in social media?

Valeria: I didn't really or specifically think bout the media part, to me it was about getting social and online was a way to do that. At the time I was working in Northern New Jersey and had this long commute to and from where I would have plenty of time to think about organizing my day's activities. Since I was driving the 80 or so miles each way, I would also listen to fiction books on tape. Remember this was almost 10 years ago.

I'd discovered Fast Company magazine through my managing director who then became CEO and is still my mentor. When it comes to learning I'm a sponge, and having so much actionable information was ideal to me. FC was also the first publication I read that really believed in the power of helping people make connections with each other. It was probably the work of a team, but Heath Row became the living proof that it could be done and the main contact for the community.

I got involved because to me learning is about putting skin in the game and growing up in a culture that values and encourages (at least at that time) conversation and the free exchange of ideas (have you ever talked to an Italian?) that was a natural step. Fast Company was new media in beta since 1995.

The rest, so to speak, is history. The social network I helped develop and then curate in Philadelphia grew to 500 people and 98 free events. Roundtables with idea people on technology and innovation, networking boot camps, conversations with authors like Ben McConnell, Dan Pink, Bill Taylor and Polly LaBarre, in depth visits with CEOs like Pernille Lopez of IKEA or Glenn Senk of Anthropologie kept things interesting. We partnered with local business schools - Villanova, The Fox School of Business at Temple U., LeBow College of Business at Drexel U., and even Wharton.

That's how I also developed an understanding of digital group dynamics, and learned about facilitating discussions with an online community. Starting my blog was a natural outcome of all of these activities. I wanted to share more information and content, and I love writing while I learn. The blog also allowed me to distribute what I know more widely so that more people can (hopefully) find what they are looking for - a connection to someone else, or to an idea that helps them execute on theirs.

C.B.: What do you like most about social media?

Valeria: In many ways social media has made it easier for us to be social, to share, learn, find information, communicate with each other, connect, etc. without boundaries. The freedom it gives us, which comes with some fundamental responsibilities, is liberating (no pun intended).

As a native Italian, relationships are very important to me - and they are for life. I'd also like to stress that it's not about the tools. I can give you lots of tips about how to use Twitter or LinkedIn but I cannot teach you how to bring the best out of people, or how to change your attitude if you want to or feel the need to adjust it. Those are decisions and choices you need to make.

That is also part of the beauty of the social Web. It brings out the potential of human kind and often the best way online is the best way offline - leading brands just lead.

C.B.: What do you like least about social media?

Valeria: Well, these are permanent digital records, and sometimes people forget that there are consequences to their actions. In the same way as positive gestures are amplified, so are negative ones. Peer pressure, or general dissatisfaction can manifest themselves in unpleasant ways online.

Lack of critical thinking, or not allowing fair discussion bother me. Then again, it's not my place to try and change others, all I can do is improve my own attitude and behavior.

C.B.: How has social media changed how you interact with the marketplace as a consumer or customer?

Valeria: I've become more frugal, actually. Maybe I'm going back to my roots. In Europe we have so much less of everything, or maybe it's that way in my family. And we don't resent it, we feel we have enough. I've always sought connections with people and with ideas and having more of those thanks to the social Web has made me realize I already have all I need.

As a marketer, I pay attention to how people like to receive information, when they seek to be educated or entertained, where they see value, which is not necessarily where the company projects it. I was always the odd duck in school and in corporate America - the one asking more whys than teachers and teams were willing or able to respond to. It's natural curiosity and I bring that to my job. So I question the official role and let relationships and what I learn in conversations with customers guide me on better approaches.

Then again, I was not trained as a traditional marketer. I come to the profession from communications, linguistics to be exact. The Liberal Arts education I received is worth gold today. Think about it - sociology, history of language and communications, philosophy, even anthropology and ethnographics and psychology all teach us about people, us.

Those companies that get my business long term are available to interaction. Period. You may not tweet or blog, like Apple, but if your product rocks and your customer support is superb I don't care. I think many companies are confusing the tools with the business they're in. If your business is to provide a product or service, then that is your starting point for interaction with customers. Social media is the cherry on the top, it's not going to make a product or service that is lacking better.

C.B.: What 5 suggestions do you have for companies to implement so they can more effectively bridge old media with new media and connect with end users?

Valeria: I should have held my advice for this question.

1. Start with your product or service - what do you need to do to make it a valuable use of your customers' budgets and time? If you feel you need to improve it, but do not know where to begin or what, do open up the communication lines with your customers. This is the same deal as the employee suggestion box, it cannot be just lip service, you'll need to walk the talk.

The main difference between old media and new media is the filter - with new media you have none. That can be really good, or really bad for you. You decide.

2. Integrate CRM with social to build long term relationships - the fundamental shift between your CRM system and the social Web to build relationships is that CRM is really a process where you capture and manage customer information. The social Web allows you to act publicly on that information to benefit your customers as well and not just you. Big shift in thinking.

If you want to connect with end users, begin by not seeing them as something you can use and broaden that definition to include how they can use your content to become smarter, do their job better, look good with their boss, etc.

3. Educate your company on new media - don't take for granted that just because everyone's on Facebook they know how to put these tools to good use for business. Set up training classes for your authors and content owners to help them see the possibilities. We're doing that in my organization as part of the media training program we offer. We share information on how we talk about what we do, our stories, what we've published in traditional media, what resonates with our audience (their readers). That kind of intelligence allows subject matter experts to build on existing conversations.

Teach people how to write for the Web and you'll be able to publish more content that is of value to your customer community. It's the old adage of teaching people how to fish. All those who are in customer-facing jobs should be empowered to assist customers wherever they choose to communicate with you.

4. Listen, test, adjust frequently - don't wait until you have the perfect answer. Start testing small initiatives by integrating them to existing programs and keeping them modest. What you want to do is set up realistic objectives, communicate them to your team, and measure against them. Keep listening for changes in behavior and adjust your tactics or strategies accordingly.

This may feel a bit squeamish for those who are classically trained in marketing. They tend to have very specific ideas of what needs to be done. Yes, gone are the days of perfect mass marketing campaigns. Today it's more about micro interactions - personal, relevant, and meaningful exchanges of value. You capture someone's attention when you stop thinking of them as eyeballs and start thinking in terms of exchange.

5. Know where your customers are and why they're there - you may think that having an ad on Facebook is a good idea, after all many of your customers are there. Before you go ahead and find a new way for them to ignore you or piss them off, do take the time to find out why they're there, what they do. Many of the customers I talked with say they signed up to share photos with their grandchildren and find old college room mates. That is a very personal reason and although personal and professional are bleeding into each other more and more, they are in the driver seat here, they decide.

Digital and online media by its very nature feels more personal. People have come to expect interaction and exchange. Instead of ignoring you, like they did off line when you interrupted them last, they may tell you what they think about your ad and they may tell all their friends, too.

C.B.: Any other thoughts to share about the effectiveness of social media in forging stronger relations with customers and how best to do so.

Valeria: Make things easier for your customers. Give them more ways to reach a human being at your company. Especially now that things are tight, whether you're in B2B or B2C, be responsive, get the whole organization on the same page on delivering superb customer experiences, wherever your customers decide they want to talk with you.

Social media is the modern version of the telephone. You've still got to deliver on your promises.

Thank you, Valeria!

Comments, questions, reactions?

I love Valeria's recommendations for educating your company on new media. Are you doing anything along those lines? How is your company using the information to improve the customer experience you offer?

For additional insights from participants in the Social Media Series: Bridging New & Old, please visit The Entire Bridging New & Old Series.

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Reminder: Please, no self-promotional or SPAM comments. Don't bother if you're simply trying to build inauthentic link juice. Finally, don't be anonymous: it's too hard to have a conversation. Thanks, CB

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