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Wednesday, April 30, 2008

BlogHer Business 2008: Hats Off To Wiggly Wigglers

Another fascinating aspect of social media is that it 'enables' the most unlikely businesses.

Take farming.

At first glance you might not think that farming and social media have much in common, until you start listening to Wiggly Wigglers' Heather Gorringe who, during the BlogHer Business 2008 social media creation case study, shared her story with us and Maria Niles, CEO of ConsumerPop Marketing and author of the [no longer available] Let It Out Blog™ for Kleenex® brand tissues.

It's all about "having a chat to save the world," in Heather's words. "Who doesn't want to do that?" she asks. I sure do. Especially with Heather who has the most disarming yet intense manner about her. Just listening to her [and talking with her over BlogHer Business 2008 and Blogger Social 2008], I want to get composting again [despite the bears]. She is passionate about farming and social media. She wants to engage people personally. Connect with them, find commonalities.

Heather and Wiggly Wigglers [a "UK-based gardening and farming e-commerce site"] hail from Herefordshire in the UK. Via social media, she has transformed her farming business into a global entity despite that it's located in a village of 63 people. Via social media, she brings everyone from Wiggly Wigglers into your life, "dear listener."

She got started with Wiggly Wigglers in 1990 with a worm composting kit. In 1995, she created a website to promote the company and the products, essentially creating markets because people weren't [yet] composting or doing natural gardening.

Heather talks about the current state of farming: 25,000 farmers are left in the UK. It's in a state of decline, with many farmers losing their sense of self-respect despite knowing so much about what affects every single one of us day in and day out.

Heather likes to talk [and she will have you in stitches]. She accepts that she's not much of a writer so has delegated the writing of the Wiggly blog to Karen Dowell in late 2007. However, she is a terrific podcaster. She has always been intrigued with the notion of a radio show, and, in June 2005, downloaded her first podcast. Unlike radio, she didn't have to fuss with licensing, censoring or control from the likes of the BBC. She shares commonalities across the world, information and perspectives. The shows are friendly, humorous, informative and really fun. As I listened, I visualized the Wiggly sofa, Ricardo, Heather and Farmer Phil. I felt the nasty unseasonal weather. I felt the humanity of the people around the sofa, and the relevance of the subjects they discussed. Every Thursday, Wiggly Wigglers produces a podcast. About whatever is relevant or happening. Perhaps with a guest, or simply the Wiggly experts.

As Heather points out, success is fully a function of using a medium that she loves and that farmers all around can relate to. Can she use it? What about others? Can they easily access it, and keep up? It has to be easy; the technology can't get in the way.

For that same reason, Facebook has been surprisingly effective. The Wiggly Wigglers FaceBook Group is active with over 500 members who help promote the podcast, the catalog and other Wiggly passions.

Heather has been surprised at the longevity of the podcasts, and how effective they are for building an audience. She has gone beyond podcasts into videos, having done 3 so far.

Interestingly, the Wiggly Catalog represents a collaboration between Wiggly's passionate supporters and customers - i.e., the Wiggly Wigglers' community - around the world. All done via Facebook. [Heather, is there any chance you might post a pdf of the catalog? Save paper costs and let more participate in the magic of this community creation?]

As Heather has gotten more immersed in social media, she has shifted how she spends money, gradually decreasing traditional paid advertising in favor of podcasts, or advertorial podcasts that support editorial coverage. The end result is a more equal relationship between advertiser and advertising vehicle whereby the unique Wiggly voice comes through. Imagine, via Facebook, a blog and podcast with 40,000 regular listeners.

Please spend time both listening to the Wiggly podcast, and visiting the Wiggly website. You will be amazed at how friendly and personable both are. You know who makes Wiggly Wigglers come to life; you know what the company is passionate about. You can identify with the energy each puts into meeting the needs of the Wiggly community.

This is not a cold, one-dimensional corporate entity uninterested in interacting with its customer base. Quite the contrary.

This is an example for all of us. No wonder that Wiggly Wigglers has been showcased as a Social Media Case Study. Here is one from Fortune magazine: Should your business be on Facebook? Ask FSB's experts help small business owners cut through the social-networking thicket. By Kathleen Ryan O'Connor.

From that article:
"Her company, Wiggly Wigglers, is all about making a farmer out of anyone, even if your land holdings amount to little more than a window box. Gorringe used to spend more than $220,000 per year on traditional advertising, but a simple podcast costing her only $200 per week to produce has been her most effective effort. Now nearly all of her advertising now falls under the umbrella of social media: the podcast, a blog, a Facebook page, and of course, a Web homepage. What started with little more than passion in 1990 has flourished into a million-dollar business, growing 10% per year and employing 20 staffers."

My hat is off to you, Wiggly Wigglers for turning social media into such a rich composty fertile medium where ideas and business grow so robustly!

[Christa from Christa in New York live blogged several of the BlogHer Business 2008 sessions. Check out her account of this and the other social media creation case studies.]

Additional Wiggly Information:
Wiggly Wigglers was UK Small Business Champion in 2005 and is the current holder of Mouse and Trowel award for best Gardening Podcast. Go vote!

Heather is a member of the Institute for Agricultural Management and a 2007 Nuffield Farming Scholar studying Web 2.0 and social media and the opportunities they bring to farming and rural communities. [Notice her blog descriptor: Heather Gorringe - Around the World in 80 Megabytes. One woman's journey around the World - with the aim to shake up farming using Web 2.0 and Social Media.]

She is also part of The Podcast Sisters with Anna Farmery from The Engaging Brand [recently profiled in Marketing Profs ] and Krishna De, the show that describes itself as "Web 2.0 for the Non Geek!"

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Monday, April 28, 2008

Carpetology Update - April 2008

With May almost starting up, it's time to update you about goings on over at The Carpetology Blog. If you are new to Flooring The Consumer, The Carpetology Blog is the official Wear-Dated blog about all things carpet... design, inspiration, care and stories carpet-related.

I would love for you to check it out and let me know what you think...

During the month of April, here's what has been posted.

First - I am very excited about this! Have you caught our new video series? Titled "A Foot's Perspective," it has already gone global -- with two episodes to date! Check out A Foot's Perspective - Episode 1 and A Foot's Perspective - Episode 2. [Hat tip to Matt Dickman, Techno/Marketer for his advice and inspiration.]

I'm thrilled to have you Meet Ann Hurley, Creativity Personified!

Wear-Dated is getting a great response in the marketplace to products made with our latest fiber brand extension: Wear-Dated Natural Nylon. Learn more about it in Wear-Dated Natural Nylon Makes for Stylish Carpet [note that I also inaugurate my first SlideShare!].

From a design perspective, I discuss stairs in Design Focus: Carpeted Stairs and had fun with What About Shag and Cable Carpets? Although, maybe Carpet as Clothing, Clothing as Carpet is more your style?

How did you celebrate Earth Day? In Earth Day 2008 - Making It Easier Being Green, we came across interesting ideas to get into the habit... My favorite is going shoeless inside the home.

I've discussed Pounding Las Vegas Pavements here, but never closely examined casino carpet. Learn more in Empty Pockets, Happy Feet & Casino Carpet.

Finally, for the kid in all of us - don't let carpet prevent you from having fun. Read all about it in Carpet In The News: Fun Slides Carpet Skates.

If you come across any intriguing carpet related stories, please do let me know.

In the meantime, I hope you enjoy these stories!

Thank you for reading!

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Friday, April 25, 2008

Meet Jenny Cross: Sr. Brand Manager, Mohawk Residential

Meet Jenny Cross.

She is senior brand manager for Mohawk Residential. She is also a friend, and an honorary Woman of Wear-Dated as she worked on the Wear-Dated side of the business not too long ago!

Given her fiber side experience, and now her intimate involvement on the carpet manufacturing side of the business, I thought you would enjoy Jenny's perspective on the flooring business.

CB: Jenny, please describe your role at Mohawk.

JC: As Senior Brand Manager for Mohawk Residential, I am responsible for brand and marketing strategy for the Mohawk residential carpet business which includes the Aladdin, Horizon and WundaWeve brands. The projects I manage go across all soft surface brands into builder programs and aligned dealer programs [e.g., programs that affect Floorscapes, ColorCenter, Floorz or any other Mohawk aligned retail programs].

CB: What's your background and how did you get started in the flooring business?

JC: I joined the carpet business right out of college, working for Queen carpet as supervisor in the Tifton, Ga. yarn plant. I then took over quality control. From there, I went to work for Monsanto [before the spinoff of Solutia in 1997] in Pensacola, Fl. in R&D. I then joined tech service [i.e., a role troubleshooting fiber performance in our customers' yarn plants], moved into the Wear-Dated mill merchandising role and then to Mohawk brand management into a newly created role. I've been in this role since 2004.

CB: What do you like most/least about the flooring business?

JC: What I like most? The people! It doesn't matter where in the distribution chain, but the industry is unique. As are the people serving it. This is a Southern hospitality type of business. From the plants to the corporate organizations, the people are down to earth, and committed to it for life. They know it well and they are proud of what they're doing.

What I like least? That this industry is overlooked at the consumer level. Flooring is the last thing consumers think about rather than the first. It's sexier to pick a Viking stove than it is to pick the tile underneath it! This is a challenge. Hard surface has done a better job being sexy with product concepts like "hand scraped." At some point, not that long ago, hard surfaces were unsexy and got covered by soft surfaces. Perhaps that will trend in the other direction.

CB: What do you like most about carpet?

JC: I love the physical and emotional interaction with carpet. It's a big advantage for soft surface. Think of it! Which one do I want to take my shoes off on or lie down on? Carpet and rugs create more opportunities to physically interact with product in a sensual way than hard surface does. Carpet is unique; it's comfortable. From a styling perspective, it also has lots to offer visually.

CB: What 5 things could we do differently to create a better retail experience in flooring?

JC: 1. It's important at the retail level to eliminate clutter. The mentality that more is more is not true when it comes to carpet. You don't see the proliferation of styles/choices in hard surface as you do in soft surface. So, not only will you have 1000 choices of similar textures to choose from, but they will all be beige. It's overwhelming. Intimidating. Much better to postpone making a decision.

2. It's critical to understand the markets in which you retail. For example, compare the North East to Florida: will the balance of hard vs. soft be the same? Do you understand who's coming into your store and what their expectations are? It's similar to the story of the Three Bears: what's right and what works differs depending on which bear you want to appeal to.

3. The idea of the tough sell is wrong. You have to give her time to make up her mind. If -as a consumer- you are visiting 2 to 3 stores and the Internet, you need time to absorb all of that information. So, let her peruse, don't turn her off. Pressure at the initial point of sale is big mistake.

4. Sales associates and owners need to have their story straight. As a retailer, you must assume that consumers aren't walking into a store clueless. She knows something. And, if she asks you about something she saw on your website and you answer wrong, you will lose. Salespeople have to educate themselves all the time. They need to really know what they are doing. Our industry gets criticized for not knowing what it's doing. That's embarrassing.

5. Lighting in stores is often overlooked. Whether a specialty store or a big box, any retail environment selling carpet must not be lit as if it were in a box. Stores need to show off the product and create magical Aha! moments!

We have done a lot of work internally to pull together merchandising so it looks cohesive at retail. Although it's unrealistic to expect that a retailer will carry only one manufacturer's products, it is not unreasonable to offer consumers a cohesive and logical flow [e.g., Floorscapes] to draw them into the store. Have what is most important to the consumer; that will drive your business.

I'm seeing more people go out of business right now than coming in. Those are the people who aren't focusing on their customers and creating a store that draws consumers in. When times are slow, it's time to look at what you could improve. And, if you're not sure, then take courses from Mohawk University to learn about how to better run your business long term.

CB: Would you talk about your involvement in the Greenworks blog; what it's about, how it's working, etc?

JC: As a whole, the Mohawk Greenworks Blog has been a great learning process. The blog is a group blog and includes Lindsey Waldrep, Frank Endreymi, Randy Waskul and me. We launched it in May of last year in anticipation of launching Mohawk GreenWorks, to start a dialog. The consumer is not the target. Rather, it's the trade. We want to put the right and real information out there because there is so much marketing greenwash murking up the waters. We are trying to think and present information in an open format as a consumer would expect it.

CB: any other comments about how you use blogs, social media and its significance to the industry....

JC: I recently sat in on focus groups for the Carpet & Rug Institute of women who had recently or were soon to purchase flooring. They are thirsty for information! Their attitudes about carpet improved considerably once given accurate and objective information about the benefits of carpet. As consumers get more technologically savvy, and more used to working off of blogs, YouTubes, etc. and develop communities, word of mouth becomes the number one driver, affecting purchase decisions.

Flooring is a confusing purchase! Start talking twist, pile, weight.... Argh! It's too much. But, done well, with proper segmentation and the right information from the right sources, blogs and forums can really become a worthy information resource to choose from. Beware though. Don't BS me! If I catch you, you are done!

That means that it is up to us to put the right information out there and let her feel confident about her choices.

[Note: this article from the Feb. 11/18, 2008 issue of Floor Covering News by Steven Feldman titled "Mohawk: New merchandising is female friendly" discusses Jenny's new merchandising program. To better appeal to women consumers, the new merchandising displays are low enough to not block her sight lines; swatches are larger, and the displays have been segmented by product to make the shopping experience easier.]

Thank you, Jenny!

Other Women In Flooring Posts:
Meet Kim Gavin, Editor, Floor Covering Weekly
WFCA's Floor Talk! Blog: Meet Shannon Bilby

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Thursday, April 24, 2008

My Media Diet

Book Cell originally uploaded by Clear As Crystal.
What have you been doing in your spare time?

It's an intriguing question, isn't it? Especially when you apply it specifically to your media consumption - which is what Lolly tagged me with in early February, in My Media Week.

When I first read the tag, I felt mixed emotions. On one hand, I pride myself on absorbing an intense yet wide range of media. On the other hand, I have felt overwhelmed with how much wonderful stuff there is out there, and how preciously limited my time is. At that moment in early February, absorbing any kind of media was so far from possible, that I despaired of ever reestablishing my media equilibrium. Let alone being able to discuss it in a post!

Although media snacking can be deliciously satisfying [definitely read through the comments to Connie Reece's post, too], I notice that it doesn't work for me in the long term: I graze, take a nibble here and a bite there, but never fully internalize the information. Or, perhaps I do with some of it, but I don't make much progress getting through the other stuff. Perhaps I'm too easily distracted?

Is it the same for you?

Maintaining a healthy diet is more critical than ever before, which means I must take control over the flow of possibilities and balance them. Otherwise, I lose objectivity and the ability to make serendipitous associations. Yes, I accept that I will permanently be behind in my feeds [although I now have them better arranged in folders]...

Lolly, did you ever expect your tag to generate such deep thoughts? Its timing [on the heels of two almost back-t0-back week long conventions] was perfect; the delay has afforded me greater perspective. Merci!

Back to the tag. It asks that I detail:
+ What I have read,
+ What I have watched,
+ What I have listened to.

What I have read:
Although I have a multitude of terrific social media, marketing to women, retail experience and marketing books either in process or on standby, I prefer to focus here on fiction.

More specifically, I have rediscovered Georgette Heyer and her regency period novels. These are gems - well written, filled with unexpected details and witty dialogue. I heartily recommend Arabella, Faro's Daughter, Friday's Child, These Old Shades and others. They transport and delight, and totally engage your imagination.

It's funny - and this came up during Blogger Social with David Polinchock - it used to be that I couldn't absorb enough science fiction. Books like Stranger In A Strange Land or The Mote In God's Eye. I desperately needed to have my assumptions challenged and my expectations raised. But now, thanks to the magic of social media, of conversational marketing, many aspects of science fiction have become real.

Making conversation more compelling. Books that celebrate traditional conversation and social interaction are ones that draw my attention. Imagine in the world of Jane Austen or that of Georgette Heyer's stories how individuals communicated... via the written word, in missives filled with as many nuances as a tweet might. Perhaps not as immediate, but as effective.

What I have watched.
Let's see if you can sense a pattern: Ratatouille. Hannah Montana/Miley Cyrus Movie - Best of Both Worlds in 3d. And, airplane movies. We don't do many movies, and I had never seen a 3d movie before! Ratatouille was great fun, including the visualizations of differences in taste perceptions. I almost forgot, we also experienced our local high school's performance on Into The Woods.

What I have listened to.
Although I watched this, I loved Robert Plant and Alison Krauss' performance on CMT Crossroads.

Thanks to David Reich - pictured above the day after his blog - My 2 Cents - one year anniversary, and with me on the same day - I have listened to Edwin McCain's Lost In America and Scream and Whisper, and Gretchen Witt's Six.

In turn, I'd love to hear from:

+ David Reich
+ David Polinchock
+ Gene DeWitt with whom I also shared a similar discussion about books we are reading.
+ Tangerine Toad

Thank you, Lolly!

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Monday, April 21, 2008

BlogHer Business 2008: The Diva & The Fashionista

To me, the ultimate in marketing turns convention on its head, elegantly repositioning what others consider permanently wedged and impossible to change, with limited funds.

Which is what my favorite marketer in the blogosphere - Marketing Diva Toby Bloomberg - showcased during BlogHer Business 2008 as she verbally created a runway backdrop for DC Goodwill's Fashionista blogger, Em Hall, to describe her successful social media creation case study.

Em is the Retail Marketing Manager for Goodwill of Greater Washington, D.C., as well as the genius behind the DC Goodwill Fashion Blog where, as the Fashionista, she "provides detailed knowledge and insight on vintage and contemporary clothing and accessories that are valuable to fashionable and cost-conscious shoppers."

Launched in July 2007, the DC Goodwill Fashion Blog is part of a larger strategy developed with Geoff Livingston [author of a terrific social media primer Now Is Gone: A Primer on New Media for Executives and Entrepreneurs] to help DC Goodwill broaden its customer base and create buzz. The larger strategy includes a virtual runway and a dedicated eBay store.

Em explained that the blog helps to promote the mission of DC Goodwill [you'll note on the blog the statement about Goodwill's Mission: "Goodwill provides job training and employment services to people with disadvantages and disabilities.."] The mission, though, can sometimes be hard to convey.

In examining its organization and business, DC Goodwill discovered that most people connect with Goodwill via the Goodwill stores - either by shopping there, or donating to them. The stores are the links to the mission and people. In thinking further, it determined that Fashion could be the language to draw people in and start a conversation about the mission. More specifically, fashion that transforms thrift into vintage.

The blog strategy called for treating the blog as a product of DC Goodwill, complete with persona, its own mission - providing fashion at one's fingertips - and schedule, so that the product can survive beyond one person's tenure. For example, Tuesdays is all about Goodwill [e.g., As I Was Saying...] when the Fashionista specifically describes Goodwill clothing items.

On Thursdays, she pontificates [e.g., The Missing Models] about fashion related topics. And, on Fridays, she blogs the blogger, promoting other fashion bloggers [e.g., Blog the Blogger: Polished by tu-anh ].

It's a fully integrated strategy that DC Goodwill kicked off with a virtual fashion show [see The Fashion of Goodwill: Virtual Runway Show and Online Auction]. Interestingly, 2 years ago the fashion show was live. But, last year with no budget available, DC Goodwill decided to pursue a virtual fashion show.

Amazingly, in going virtual, DC Goodwill broadened the reach of the fashion show. That's right! As a result [see eBay update and YouTube video!], 22,000 people have seen it online compared to a few hundred seeing the live show. All products were sold on eBay.

In addition, DC Goodwill holds trunk shows in the building lobbies of fashion show sponsors. All in all, the increased awareness is driving more traffic to the stores, including more clothing swaps where unswapped clothes are donated to Goodwill stores, and definitely reaching new customers.

Fashionista Em targets the DC community through the blog. She learns about events through meetups, other blogs, word-of-mouth. She wears local clothes and jewelry from local artists [or local Goodwill stores]; she is treated as press at fashion events and absolutely takes part in the local fashion blog scene.

From the audience came an interesting question: how to extend this successful Fashionista model beyond DC to other Goodwill organizations. Although Goodwill has an international website presence, if you Google Goodwill, you'll notice links to the various local Goodwill organizations. In fact, the Orange County Goodwill organization has created shopgoodwill.com with an online store presence, but no whimsical Fashionista.

The solution is not an easy one as it touches on the issues of how to remain faithfully and authentically local while bringing under one's wings a multitude of uniquely local voices, without losing any of that uniqueness...

In the meantime, how delightful to experience this exchange between the Diva and the Fashionista and witness the transformation of used or thrift into vintage, and of abstract goodwill into active, participatory involvement.

Thank you, Em and Toby!

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Friday, April 18, 2008

Citibank: Are You Listening?

My bank is Citibank.

I've been a faithful Citibank customer for many years - close to fifteen. I became one when my Dad convinced me to start tracking my finances with Quicken and he sold me on Citibank's seamless - and free - integration into Quicken.

What I like most about my Citibank relationship is its virtuality: I originally set up the account via phone, I pay bills online and have easy access around the world to my accounts via ATMs. I'm not dependent on bank hours or bank tellers for most transactions although I have used - and been satisfied - with in-person services.

[My husband, on the other hand, despises Citibank. He was subjected to dreadful treatment over fraudulent credit card charges. He discovered over the six+ month timeframe that it took to bring closure to the matter that customer service had absolutely no interest in providing a minimal level of helpfulness, waiting multiple months to respond, not properly documenting conversations, being unwilling to bundle what were obviously related abuses, etc. Imagine how angry he became when he received an unrequested credit card from Citibank after his ordeal!]

This recent experience with Citibank made me wish the bank weren't so massive, and that it listened and anticipated customers' needs better.

In preparation for a trip to Mexico, I needed Pesos. I regularly make use of ATMs to obtain foreign currency. But, I also like to have some foreign currency in my pocket as I get off the plane in case I can't find an ATM at the airport.

I - naturally - went online to get information. The last time I needed foreign currency [yes, a while ago], I made use of a major 5th Avenue Citibank branch where a special ATM dispensed a handful of different currencies. No trace of that online or in conversation!

I searched the Citibank site and came across a reference to World Wallet Services.... It looked intriguing and convenient: seems I could order money and pick it up at a branch. The info was general. It offered a phone number.

Since I knew I would be in NYC for BlogHer [see BlogHer Business 2008: Blogging Goes Mainstream], I located a branch close to the conference location. Details for that branch indicated "Foreign Currency (Order Only)." Was that World Wallet Services? Possibly. I called the number associated with the branch location....

And didn't get the actual branch, but rather a generic, foreign sounding customer service call center. I asked questions. For each question, I was placed on hold. I asked specifically about currency conversion and could he assure me that the branch I was considering could provide me with Pesos.

His response [after multiple 'on hold' sessions]: the original branch I identified did NOT have currency exchange available. He gave me another location that would assist me. I had a few more questions that he wasn't able to fully answer, but at least I had a location to go to.

Just to be clear, not once did he mention World Wallet.

Back online to locate that branch and find cross streets. I checked the services offered and noted that it, too, said "Foreign Currency (Order Only)." The branch phone number was the same I had called [and spent too much time on]. I was not ready to call again, and I couldn't locate the World Wallet page [Note: the website search function is clunky. 'Convert Money' gave me nothing useful. 'Dollars to Pesos' didn't either. 'Foreign Currency' and 'Currency Conversion' gave me good leads, but - I was multi-tasking - and couldn't remember what terms had brought up World Wallet originally. Nothing worthwhile came up via Google; I had to search within the Citibank US site.]

Although I had a plan of action [walk during BlogHer's lunch hour to the branch], I was curious what kind of response I would get by going through my online account site. There, I decided to send an email explaining my situation and asking for a recommendation...

Equally frustrating.

First, I had to specifically select a subject from a listing of possibilities. I could not write in my own description.

I took 2 days for the response to come back to me - and I had already walked to a branch and interacted with people.

Note that although the message acknowledges my need for Pesos, nowhere does it refer to World Wallet services...

Also, the three branches that my friend 'John' recommends are nowhere near my original location request [i.e, one was at JFK airport].

Oh, and the phone number he suggests is the customer service number I called originally.

And, now for the lowdown on converting Dollars to Pesos via Citibank.

At Citibank branch located on 22 West 32nd Street, NYC, 10001, two lovely women immediately helped me with my request. No problem converting Dollars to Pesos, although I would need to return the next day to complete the transaction. Perfect.

They informed me that EVERY branch offers this service.

In other words, the customer service center people are misinformed. The email customer service people are misinformed.

Is it a matter of being too big? Of one hand not knowing what the other is doing? Poor communication? All of the above?

My observations:
- Have better online search functionality.
- Ensure that your web site details refer consistently to the services you offer.
- Offer more and better information online, especially to customers who want to interact with you online.
- Improve the service experience with more self-directed querying. What about online chat with customer service?
- What about phone numbers that connect with the branches? They sure seem to know what's going on. Let me interact with competence.
- Make sure call center customer service people know more about your services.
- Monitor email messages from your long term customers and RESPOND quickly and with accurate information.

Citibank, are you listening? Please make it better. If I must speak with a call center, let it be with representatives whom you have fully engaged in your business and services and empowered with knowledge. If I have a local branch question, offer me a means of connecting with them. The branch people know their business. Let me benefit from that.

Forget global, get local and listen.

And, that goes for any retail business. Experience your services. All of them. Make sure your service is competent, knowledgeable and helpful across the board. Understand how your customers search for information, how they ask questions, and -then- get them the information they need!

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Back From Blogger Social 2008 - NYC

I confess. I'm still somewhat awed by Blogger Social, and surprised that it's over.

For so long, it was something to anticipate and look forward to. Then, it became somewhat more tangible with the Countdown to Blogger Social '08 and even a countdown clock. A week or so before, reality set in with directions for arrangements and meetups, amazing documentation in emails from CK.

And, now, it's over. I haven't fully absorbed all of the interactions and conversations - although I have uploaded my Blogger Social 2008 set to Flickr - and marvelous bits come back to me, clicking and connecting with other amazing moments to create more Aha!s.

I'm particularly glad that it took place on the heels of BlogHer Business 2008, giving me added time with Connie Reece, Tara Anderson, Toby Bloomberg, Anna Farmery, Heather Gorringe, Kaitlyn Wilkins, Virginia Miracle, and Lori Magno, as well as Yvonne DiVita and Mary Hunt.

Friday night at the Perfect Pint was unreal. I walked into a big hug from Gavin Heaton, and then onto CK, Valeria Maltoni, Ann Handley, Luc Debaisieux, Drew McLellan, Geoff Livingston, Kris Hoet, Paul Dunay, David Reich, Greg Verdino, Doug Meacham, Todd Andrlik, Matt Dickman, Chris Kieff, Mack Collier and David Armano.

The Circle Line tour around half of Manhattan was a blast with an opportunity to spend time with CeCe Lee, Mark Goren, Jason Falls, Roberta Rosenberg, Thomas Clifford, Marshall Sponder, Cam Beck, Shashi Bellamkonda, and Tim McHale while absorbing the views of my favorite urban island.

CB, Arun and Toby originally uploaded by mvellandi.

Dinner was filled with inspiring [and often too short] discussions with Arun Rajagopal, Ryan Barrett, Sean Howard, Katie Chatfield [you are amazing, Shouty!], Kristin Gorski, Scott Monty, Terry Starbucker, Steve Roesler, Lewis Green, Darryl Ohrt, Joe Kutchera, David Berkowitz, Paul McEnany, Neil Vineberg, Vahe Habeshian and Rohit Bhargava. Gene DeWitt and David Polinchock had me thinking about literature [ranging from russian lit to science fiction] and social media.

I wish I had had more time to speak with Seni Thomas, Mike Arauz, Matthew Bailey, Jennifer Berk, Tim Brunelle, Saul Colt, Amanda Gravel, Kevin Horne, Jennifer Laycock, Matthew McDonald, Rita Perea, Marilyn Pratt, Jane Quigley, Cathleen Rittereiser, John Rosen, Tamar Weinberg, John Wall, Paul Soldera, Nathan Snell and Linda Sherman.

Thank you, Steve Woodruff, for welcoming us into your home on Sunday, where I enjoyed more conversation with Susan Bird, Ryan Karpeles, Mario Vellandi and Tangerine Toad.

I really missed Mike Sansone, Gianandrea Facchini, Joseph Jaffe [or was he there?], Susan Reynolds and Marianne Richmond.

This event makes real the essence of social media. Each individually brought unique knowledge, experience and perspective to this community meetup, creating additional meaning for everyone. Each has so much passion to share, you can't help but learn. As a result, the individual becomes stronger and wiser, making the community that much better off.

Age is irrelevant. Location doesn't matter. What does matter is how authentic and genuine you are, and how much passion you share.

Thank you. Long Live Blogger Social 2008!

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Wednesday, April 09, 2008

BlogHer Business 2008: Blogging Goes Mainstream

I'm back from BlogHer Business '08 [and Blogger Social - subject for a separate post] and I'm still reeling from the intensity of the sessions and the richness of the examples and case studies.

The big news from this year's conference has to do with blogging going mainstream, and with women - in general and BlogHer women more specifically - being more than comfortable obtaining information and advice [including purchase recommendations] via social media.

As with the first ever BlogHer Business last year, this year's event attracted an interesting cross-section of marketers and social media experts, many known to one another only virtually --until now. That's the magic of social media.

For example, I got to meet Anna Farmery from The Engaging Brand who interviewed me in Engaging Brands For Consumers and Employees and Heather Gorringe from Wiggly Wigglers [more about her in a separate post].

From Day 1 Opening Session came the following [live blogging of the opening session is here]:

+ Blogging officially went mainstream in 2007 with corporate blogs and formal blogger outreach programs being established. There's a new paradigm now of "user-generated publishing" with editorial standards and professional partnerships among blogs.

+ Beware of reaching out with traditional mass market approaches to bloggers. Heavy handed, push, interruption based methods will be punished [i.e., if social media is about being invited in for a conversation in one's living room or around the kitchen table, then don't just barge in].

+ It's important to monitor the digital conversations taking place wherever they might occur:
- Via Twitter feeds for mentions of brands
- Second Life [BlogHer 2007 took place in both]
- Widgets [beneficial if you find out what your audience wants? BlogHer uses widgets to promote others' work]
- Reviews [e.g., Amazon...]
- flickr photos [I'll upload my BlogHer photos in May as I used my 100mb monthly allotment on Blogger Social pictures.]

Another example: BlogHer created a fascinating conversation starter with the Letter to my Body campaign, getting bloggers to discuss body image. It resonated with so many that it became a meme. They have also had success showcasing via a widget menus for food bloggers, mentioning blogger recipes [with sponsorship from Boca Foods].

For this year's conference, BlogHer commissioned a major research project to better understand online behavior. Past observations based on 2006 Pew Internet survey claiming that only "Eight percent of internet users, or about 12 million American adults, keep a blog. Thirty-nine percent of internet users, or about 57 million American adults, read blogs – a significant increase since the fall of 2005" [this is based on men and women internet users].

Further, that awareness is low and not mainstream.

Susan Wright, managing director of Compass Partners, presented the results of this new study. I urge you to read through the 2008 social media study to better understand women's online behavior.

Overall, in the U.S., there are 104 million women aged 18 to 75; Internet penetration is 70% [i.e., 73 million women]. The population breaks down by age as follows:

+ 14.1 million Millenials [18 to 24]
+ 34.3 million GenX [25 to 41]
+ 39.3 million Boomers [42 to 60]
+ 16.2 million Matures [61 to 75]

Blogging has become a mainstream method of communication for women - either publishing at least one post weekly [15.1 million women] or reading/posting comments weekly [21.1 million women]. That's a total of 36.2 million women or 35% of the female population actively involved with blogs.

Compared to general population behaviors, the BlogHer community is more heavily concentrated in the 25 to 41 age group [68% vs. 42%], has more children at home, is better educated and has higher income, and more involved in social media.

Blogs are considered a reliable source of information, advice and recommendations. Described as the equivalent of 'kitchen table conversations,' they come across as authentic and credible and influence purchase decisions. Bloggers are passionate; their passion comes across and connects with readers. The result is a network or community where the members trust one another before they trust an institution or faceless corporate entity.

The rest of BlogHer Business 2008 consisted of breakout sessions and case studies organized around successful social media creation and outreach.

Videos and interviews of the entire BlogHer Business 2008 conference are available including live blogs. I plan to address in separate posts the case studies or discussions that particularly resonated for their creative use of social media.

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Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Book Review: Threshold Resistance by A. Alfred Taubman

In my last post, A. Alfred Taubman: Overcoming Threshold Resistance, I didn't get a chance to explore with you Taubman's book, Threshold Resistance: The Extraordinary Career of a Luxury Retailing Pioneer. I will do so here.

First off, this book is a fascinating read. It captures a truly extraordinary career, during an extraordinary time. Taubman describes a Wild West of retailing and business that puts where we are today into better perspective.

I particularly enjoyed the retail experience related parts of the book. They reinforced many of the points Taubman made in his presentation.

More specifically, these chapters caught my fancy.

Chapter 4 - The Evolution of the Arcade
It offers an historical perspective on malls - from fabric bazaars in Isfahan, the bazaars of Istanbul [also see Authenticity At Retail], the Galeries de Bois of the Palais Royal in France, Milan's Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, to London's Burlington Arcade and the Philadelphia Arcade.

He introduces the concept of the "people pump" [e.g,. churches at mass-time, train stations, department stores] that efficiently draw concentrated groups of people in as potential retail consumers, and explains that the "earliest department stores were born as arcades" where "the landlord would take over the space to make sure all merchandise categories were represented sufficiently"... "offering customers the resulting advantages of consistent return policies, predictable hours of operation, and store wide promotions."

Chapter 5: Creating 100 Percent Locations
Taubman's 100% locations consist of locations that can "count on the highest level of pedestrian traffic passing by their front doors day after day, and benefit the most from impulse buying." These are prime retail [i.e., high rent locations] spots. According to a Leonardo da Vinci study "a person feels comfortable walking only about three blocks, or 1000 feet, from his or her home for discretionary trips. Beyond that, one senses a need to return home." Isn't that fascinating?

He also brings up Townscape [or The Concise Townscape] by Gordon Cullen as a critical influence for mall interior design. More specifically, he describes the notion of "serial vision in planning productive, stimulating spaces" that draws the visitor in because not only does it show existing views, but it also allows glimpses of "emerging views" that turn into existing views. I immediately thought of Disney World's Main Street and how perspective and architecture effectively move visitors through to the Magic Kingdom.

According to Taubman, "the objective [in a mall] was to give every retailer a good chance of attracting the shopper into the store, to make every location a 100 percent location." The chapter addresses all of the mall elements [creating multi-levels, opening the levels to draw the eye to the other floor, parking lots, ring roads around the malls, adjacencies, surface and flooring decisions, ceilings, lighting...] and how they together facilitate interaction between customer and merchandise. They encourage shoppers to spend time, relax and buy. Appealing to every sense ranks high!

I love the attention to details like adding a tenant to the shopping center which is like "mixing a new element into a chemical formula. The addition changes the experience for the shopper and the merchants. That's one of the reasons the Taubman Company negotiates the shortest leases in the industry... Lease renewals always mandate store renovation, and if a retail concept has lost its appeal, we want the store out of the center...." These are critical to the success of a mall, but often aren't strategically managed.

Chapter 8: Minding the Store
Lots of good advice in this chapter: "Every good retailer understands that the customer... lacks confidence. ... While this inherent insecurity contributes to threshold resistance, it also presents the good retailer with a golden opportunity. By earning the trust and confidence of your shoppers -- through product knowledge, service, taste level, and consistency -- you can win a customer's loyalty for life."

He further describes how much more fun shopping is "if you are guided and supported in your decisions by a professional, courteous salesperson who wants to help you... And it's even better if the store in which you are buying the apparel stands for something important to you and meshes with your self-image." [Note: replace apparel with flooring, or carpet.]

Here's another gem: "A clearly defined brand bolsters a customer's confidence. So does a good salesperson."

Chapter 9: Fashion Statement
Taubman states that "it's difficult for department stores and other large retailers to compete if they stake out the middle ground." This brings to mind the Trading Up and Treasure Hunt world that Michael Silverstein describes where the middle ground has disappeared!

He refers to luxury retailers and how they have grown and expanded [see my interview with Chris Ramey]. In fact, Taubman's organization has made a point of appealing to that luxury retail customer and specifically ensures that Taubman malls only feature 'fashion' retailers [e.g., Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue vs. Sears or JC Penney].

He says that "the fundamental quality that elevates anything into the fashion category is design. Not just any design: good design that appeals to your taste. Fashion is added-value through design."

This is not limited to apparel. It certainly includes flooring, as well as tea pots [think Michael Graves at Target] and citrus squeezers [like the one from Williams Sonoma] or even an Oxo mango peeler!

The focus on fashion and design elevates all categories. The only ones to lose are those focusing entirely on price .

Chapter 12: Selling Art and Root Beer
This chapter offers Taubman's four personal precepts presented during a Harvard Business School session.

1. "Our consumer society, not driven by the satisfaction of basic needs, is fueled by the fantasy, flight, and excitement of a possible purchase..."

2. "You can sell almost anything once. But repeat business is built on consumer confidence, perceived quality and value, excitement, and a rich mix of customer opportunities, as well as convenience and service."

3. "The biggest mistake you can make is to price your product or plan your development based on what others are doing, rather than on how you see the opportunity. Study the consumer. Work for that part of the market that's there for the taking, with a creative new idea or an old idea made better, not just different."

4. "Become an expert in one fundamental area of your market or business. No one starts out as a generalist. In my case, I started as a store planner and learned the basics of successful retail design. Through that discipline, I sharpened my understanding of the customer."

Lots of wisdom there relevant to delivering a better retail experience for today's consumer!

I haven't touched on Taubman's effect on Sotheby's and the auction house world. Nonetheless, the success of that venture illustrates the benefit that comes from bringing integrity and transparency to a process and industry, creating an exciting experience and opening it up [i.e., breaking down that "Threshold Resistance"] so that all feel welcome within.

Which is what today's retail experience is all about.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

A. Alfred Taubman: Overcoming Threshold Resistance

The New York City Chapter of the Luxury Marketing Council held an event titled Overcoming Threshold Resistance: Luxury Retailing Pioneer Alfred Taubman Shares His Secrets to Getting Shoppers Over Your Threshold.

The event held instant appeal because it discussed the retail experience and how to get consumers to enter your store. In other words, how to overcome "Threshold Resistance" - that strong sense of inertia coupled with a sense of foreboding that makes you quickly walk by and avoid a store entryway.

It certainly didn't hurt that A. Alfred Taubman himself -- entrepreneur, real estate developer, author of the New York Times Bestseller, Threshold Resistance: The Extraordinary Career of a Luxury Retailing Pioneer', and legend in his own time -- was present to share his perspectives.

From the Luxury Council's writeup:

"Author Malcolm Gladwell credits A. Alfred Taubman with “perfecting” the modern shopping mall. Retailer Les Wexner states that “every retailer in America wants to be in a Taubman center, and the reasons are pretty simple - Al demands excellence,”... "

Here follow my notes from the event. You'll note that he covered lots of ground. The format was one of questions that Taubman answered using examples from his life [and book].

"Threshold Resistance" [R] exists everywhere you turn: in business and in life. It's not just store design. It's also psychological, physical, cultural, social and economic, and it's always there.

When Taubman first got started, he objected to how store windows were done. Essentially, everything you could find within the store was featured in the store window. That contributed to Threshold Resistance. If you didn't see what you were looking for in the window [and good luck finding it amidst all of the stuff there], you wouldn't enter.

He discussed the impact of regional malls. Many people blame the mall for the demise of American downtowns. That is a distortion of history. Post World War II led to the construction of highways which meant that people could drive to work.

Taubman explained that retailing follows population and many malls were built in anticipation of highway construction.

The earliest department stores were born as downtown arcades and the first malls or arcades happened in Europe, not America. Noble lands featured strips of stores and many Paris department stores were built with the expectation that the owner would rent out space to individual retailers.

With goods being first manufactured in the late 1800s, department stores became exciting outlets that combined branding power and salesmanship. They were better than any other concept in existence.

Using the example of outlet malls and Costco vs. full price stores, Taubman explained that there can be no off price if there isn't full price. These need to balance against one another.

Everybody shops everywhere. A lot of people can afford to do some shopping at Tiffany's or Neiman Marcus. Few people can afford only to shop at Neiman Marcus. Luxury brands are treasured by everyone.

What is fashion? Fashion is added value through design. Not just in apparel. Design makes something useful, interesting, and better.

Every good retailer discovers that customers lack confidence. This inherent insecurity contributes to threshold resistance yet it represents a golden opportunity for retailers to offer advice and add value with sales people. Wal-mart does not equal fashion. Rather, it represents price and promises about prices. Price is less critical to fashion.

Consistent mediocrity is the MacDonald's and Holiday Inn promise. Don't ever underestimate its power especially at lower price points.

The biggest issue with Internet shopping: no fitting rooms. The more expensive the item, the more critical it is that it fit well. Each color/shade works differently for each individual. For example, did you know that Neiman Marcus shoes can only be purchased in-store. Better products need to be tried on first. Taubman advocates 360 degree retailing where the relationship can take place both online and via a brick/mortar store.

We must all go Beyond Needs Satisfaction. No one needs another shoe. People shop because they want fantasy, entertainment, fun. Shopping is experience! The purchase is truly secondary to the experience.

Changing the Art Market - Taubman was instrumental is changing Sotheby's from a closed, wholesale, insider, illegal business to an inviting retail business, thereby revolutionizing art market and opening it up to more consumers. He bought in 1983 and encouraged customers, schools, and others to learn about art via luncheons and other educational venues. [Be sure to explore the Sotheby's website as it, too, educates.] Look at what Tiger Woods did to open up the golf world and totally change the interest level.

Integrity, transparency in how products sold is critical.

Taubman says that lifestyle centers can't beat major enclosed malls. They offer no definition of traffic. They may be good with local traffic, but create no concentration of traffic to deliver large consistent groups of shoppers.

The event description also stated that "few individuals have had a greater influence on today’s luxury consumer market than Alfred Taubman. The company he founded in 1950 introduced many of the architectural and business innovations that characterize the best high-end shopping environments in the world. To this day, Taubman Centers, Inc. owns and operates the most productive portfolio of retail properties in the nation, with such landmark marketplaces as The Mall at Short Hills in the New York area, Beverly Center in Los Angeles, Denver’s Cherry Creek, and The Mall at Millenia in Orlando."

I certainly left the event thinking carefully on what I had heard, more appreciative of overcoming threshold resistance and eager to read through the signed copy of Taubman's book that I received.

I will detail more about the retail experience from his book in a separate post.

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