11/07/2012 Surf Free or Die? It's Time to Pay for What We Consume.

Today, we have a wealth of opportunities to do things digitally, through our mobile devices or on our computers. We have content to read or watch, friends to chat or message with, pictures to posts, and snark to tweet. For most of those, we’re able to do so by purchasing a device and Internet connection. Few of us actually pay for all of that activity or content. No one is paying for all of it. Some of us pay for a few things but not others. 

Is that our fault or is it the fault of companies making these things?  A lot of digital businesses still rest on the concept of monetizing “eyeballs,” that famous dot.com era term. In the best sense that meant you’d make your money on advertising. In the worst sense it meant that your business really didn’t have any business strategy, only a hope that some other company would eventually buy you out. The Instagram owners famously admitted that they had no plan to make money. Mark Zuckerberg figured out a way for them by buying the company for $715 million. 

Even if we don’t pay for using sites and service, free isn’t free, though. The price of free is advertising. There are very few instances where advertising doesn’t make the product worse; since most digital advertising has little to do with the reason we use the products in the first place. Digital advertising relies on advanced targeting which means part of the price people pay is divulging some private information about themselves and their habits.

I struggle to find “free” advertising based content where the advertising makes sense from a user perspective. An old example is Stardoll, although I have to admit that most of the information about their advertising strategy is three or four years old. They offered a smart advertising platform that integrated with game play. I’m hard pressed to find other good native content examples. Instead digital companies shoehorn advertising onto sites with poor results for advertisers and consumers. No one on Facebook is complaining that they see too few ads. 

So, digital companies are changing the way they work so they can make more money on advertising. Both Facebook and Google have implemented changes over the last few years so that you see less content unless someone pays for it (i.e. an advertiser). 

Imagine, instead, if we actually paid for the sites, channels and apps we used.  I pay for some of these, such as Spotify and Evernote. I pay the New York Times digital subscription as well. It’s not a lot but paying for the extra services is worth it. I’d pay for Instagram, Twitter and Facebook as long as they charged modest fees. 

Take Facebook for example, with its billion users. If they charged everyone $4/year to use it, about the price of one Starbucks Grande Latte, it would triple or quadruple its income. Of course, not everyone would pay. Even if half of all users dropped out (even 2/3, actually) they’d still make more money than they do on advertising. The people who would stay are probably the ones who use it best, like it most, and get the most value out of it.

Young digital companies don’t want to charge users right away, they want to grow a following as big and fast as possible. Pinterest and Instagram keep breaking records for the fastest growing sites or social channels. If they charged people right away, they most likely would never have achieved such growth.

Now that they have grown and proved their worth, is it too much to ask people to pay to use the services? I think not. I think it’s a choice business can reasonably offer its customers: Will you pay us to allow us to keep making this experience better for you? Or would you rather we find some ways to interrupt your experience with targeted or non-targeted advertising? I would be willing to bet that the most valuable customers would agree to the former. The overall numbers of user accounts would go down but we’re already seeing a high number of fake or dormant accounts that populate both Facebook and Twitter.

At a recent tech event here, two young start-ups displayed their wares next to each other. One was a gaming company that charged people to download and play the game. The other was a social startup that was giving away its software with the hope that people would use it. Guess who the VCs are more interested in?

Is paying for a good service the only solution?

If VC companies could only make money on operations and not by selling companies, we would see a radical re-alignment of digital investment and probably more digital properties that charged for services. If we saw more native advertising combined with great digital ad creative, we might not mind the interruption. But neither is likely to happen in the near term, despite the many discussions to the contrary.

Face it, if you started a chocolate chip cookie company that aimed to give away your product free in order to grow your customer base, every bank, VC company and angel investor would laugh in your face. If it was a digital chocolate chip cookie company, probably not. 


I admit, that I love creating great online advertising (yes, it’s happened more than a few times). But a look at the digital landscape’s advertising is just a depressing and irritating exercise.

Maybe it’s time to kill Free. Let’s pay for the good stuff and force the bad staff to improve or go away. Advertising won’t disappear but maybe this would force it to be as good as the paid platforms it exists on.

10/26/2012 Why You Need a Social Media Policy, Even If You’re @HubSpot

The discussions about social media policies moved from the “nice-to-have” guidelines to the necessary legalistic, corporate documents a few years ago. Most companies who engage in social media now have some type of policy outlining guidelines and expected behavior from their employees. Some brands have a link to their policies from their Facebook “About” tabs.

The need for having an internal social policy is simple: it reduces risk. In reality, the social policy is most likely a variation on other internal, employee documents. One advantage it does have is that it clearly states what behavior is allowed and forbidden in specific social channels.

Legal teams like social policies. Social media scares them to start with, so having some type of protection is necessary for them. It’s also a good for all of the employees. The clearer companies are with their employees, the fewer misunderstandings and mistakes will happen in the social channels. Social policies won’t stop all poor behavior. But they will cause some people to pause and think before they act socially. And if companies need to take disciplinary action, employees can’t say they haven't been warned. 

Do all companies need a social media policy? Maybe. But there are certain types of companies that do themselves a disservice by not having one.

Take HubSpot, for example. HubSpot is one of the bright social media stars out of Boston. It’s seen strong growth and has assembled one of the best teams of social media thinkers in the country. It offers a suite of inbound marketing tools along with training and is a boon for both newbie social companies and more mature ones. It’s one of the reasons we at the #BTVSMB invited Rick Burnes to come to Burlington a few years back. 

Which is why I was quite surprised to see this pop-up online in a comment stream:


It made me wonder: Does HubSpot, who teaches others how to act socially, have a social policy themselves? Here is a clearly self identified HubSpot employee, a supposed social media pro, talking about minors and “Over The Pants Hand Jobs.” Posting on company time no less. 

Now maybe I missed the post where some of my social media favorites like Laura Fitton, Dan Zarella and Brian Halligan, all HubSpot gurus and some of the smartest people in the business, write about social media masturbation (although you could make the case that this IS what social media is all about. But that’s another post.). I can’t remember them tweeting about encouraging employees to make highly inappropriate comments with the brand name attached. 

Actually I’ll bet the opposite is true, given the recent examples from Chrysler and Kitchen Aid.

The super smart Mike Volpe wrote an opinion piece a few years ago arguing that having a social media policies was stupid . I think Mike only got it half right that time. You need to hire smart people AND have a social policy. I think Brian Halligan’s gang went 0 for 2 this time.

Insurance companies are risk averse industry sector. That’s an understatement. Their business is based on risk avoidance. That might be one of the reasons why many of them have been late to online and social media.

Yet in that same comment stream referenced above, there are comments from an employee of William Gallagher Associates, a company who describes themselves as “a leading provider of insurance brokerage, risk management and employee benefit services to companies with complex risks and dynamic needs.”

In the comments the young man expresses great support for the risky behavior of underage and binge drinking.  Now, I’m not an insurance guy but shouldn’t they be promoting less risk, not more? While the guy is not as easily identifiable as a William Gallagher Associates employee as the HubSpot guy, it doesn’t take much effort to find out, or to see that he too is commenting on company time.

I’ve worked with a few insurance companies in Massachusetts and I know it’s a tough, competitive environment. I’m not sure promoting binge, underage drinking is the right brand message for William Gallagher Associates. Insurance companies place a great emphasis on building trust between their sales people and their customers. Maybe saying impetous comments builds trust for some people. But I’d rather not buy my insurance from someone like that.

WGA does participate in social media: they have a very good blog, a small Twitter presence and a pretty good Web site. I bet that they don’t have a social policy either. As a risk management company, they probably should. 

I may be missing something though. WGA CEO Philip Edmundson also tweets under the name PoliticsOfObesity. It's a great stream, by the way. Could it be that he's starting a new focus, Politics of Binge Drinking, and using some of his staff for research?

None of this really comes close to the Chrysler debacle. Maybe I am picking on HubSpot, but it’s only because they’re big guns that can take it. But both of these comments are so off brand as to raise some serious questions.

What do you think?

[If you want to actually dig into the comment stream I reference put on your waders because there’s a lot of garbage there. Another example of how broken online newspapers comment sections are.]

09/24/2012 Are you buying what Facebook is selling?

My favorite social media profile these days is one called Condescending Corporate Branding. It satires how major brands manage their Facebook pages. The philosophy is simple: In social media, brands treat people like they’re idiots, and most people don’t seem to mind. 

The beauty of Condescending Corporate Brand is how they share photos posted by major multinational brands. Of course none of these posts has anything remotely in common with what the the brand sells. Which is why they’re so absurd.


The bigger question in all of this is: why are brands doing this? The reason is simple. Brands on social media have chosen to measure their success through metrics that have nothing to do with the brand or its business.

Brands on Facebook focus on “engagement.” That means that you want as many people responding to your posts as possible. The solution for doing that is formulaic

  1. Get as many followers on Facebook by any means possible.
  2. Post anything that will get likes or comments. Pictures of cats, for example.

Now, this strategy might be smart if you’re Pet Food Warehouse. But for anything else, it seems like a complete waste of energy. I’m waiting for the data that shows that liking stupid stock photography increases sales. 

I think brands do this for a number of reasons. Truly integrating your business into social media is hard. It takes work and internal change is very difficult. Finding pictures of cats or waterfalls on Shutterstock is easy (and cheaper).  Getting lots of likes and interactions looks good on monthly reports. When you show the marketing director and senior management those numbers, they fell pleased, even proud, that they’ve been so smart to approve the social initiative.

Smarter brands, though, are looking more closely at how social impacts the business. For example, American Eagle added a Like button next to every product on its site and found that Facebook referred visitors spent and average of 57% more money than non-Facebook referred visitors. I’m betting the referral wasn’t a cute picture of a Mom and a kid.

One of the biggest drivers for brands missing the focus and opportunity here is that Facebook itself is the biggest influencer in promoting Likes and Engagement. That’s really the main currency Facebook has; when it sells itself to brands, it’s selling Likes and Engagement metrics. Unsophisticated consumers that they are, brands and marketers snap this up faster than TV viewers snap up Sham Wows.


The other big driver, in my opinion, is the reliance on social media agencies to run big brands social presences. The outside agency will never have the internal, on the ground intelligence that you get from working within a company. The relationship itself makes it impossible for the vendor to push for meaningful social business inside the company. Instead, social agencies take the easy way out, getting clients hooked on Likes and Engagement and then feeding that habit through fill in the blank posts and word puzzles.

Someone once said: to change your vision of success, change what you measure.

That’s why every social marketer should be watching Condescending Corporate Branding Facebook page. All social marketers should pledge to do the opposite of what you're seeing there.

06/27/2012 Listening has never been easier. So why don’t we do it?

I was at a meeting a while back when someone exclaimed “I think we’re doing great. Why can’t everyone see that?”

It’s a common enough sentiment. You can hear that on the client side or on the agency side. It’s what happens when people become so highly focused on their own work that they lose any outside perspective. At work we concentrate on getting our work done, perfecting our internal systems, navigating through internal politics and improving our products. Most all of that is within our control, or at least it feels like it is.

The challenge is that most other people can’t see you doing that because they’re either not that interested or because they’re focused on their own needs. But if what you’re “doing” is supposed to meet the needs of other people, you may be in trouble. One thing that continues to astound me is the lack of interest or desire in actually listening to what your audience needs and says.

Listening has never been easier than it is today. Social media has turned into a powerful tool to connect with and listen to people. The brands that stop overly obsessing about selling stuff on Facebook and use the channels to listen and to build stronger connections to their customers end up doing better. We’re (thankfully) moving past straight-up focus groups and market research as a way of gathering intelligence and moving toward design-thinking and ethnographic collaborations with customers instead.

The super power of social is that people love receiving attention and love knowing that someone is listening to them. That’s a human super power too. It doesn’t take much for companies to take some time and listen to their clients or customers; to ask them what matters to them; to inquire how you’re doing serving them. 

Why don’t we listen more? Probably because we’re afraid of hearing bad news. “I think we’re doing great” might be code for “I don’t want to hear what I’m doing wrong.” Face it; we’re all people here, with our thin skins and sensitive egos.

Rather than desensitizing yourself, cloak yourself in “listening” disguise. Pretend you’re putting on a lab coat and geeky glasses, or a pith helmet and jungle boots. Pretend you’re a scientist or an ethnographer out on a mission. Whatever you hear and see, you probably won’t take it personally.

Here’s what I’ll guarantee: Even if after asking and listening you don’t hear anything earthshattering or breathtaking, you will hear enough from customers that will cause you to rethink at least a few of the things you’re doing in your normal, day-to-day work. Those things might help you improve a service or product, or might allow you to improve the way your company deals with customers.

Listening changes people. It changes the person telling and it changes the person hearing. After listening you won’t have to “think” you’re doing great, you’ll know.

06/12/2012 David vs. Mega-Goliath

A few months ago a friend of mine approached me about a business his wife worked at. The business was a local bookstore that was planning on expanding (not moving) into downtown Burlington, Vermont. When Borders closed its doors, it left our city center without a new bookstore. When Borders moved in, it helped doom a great local store, Chasmen and Benn.

The store owners Renee and Mike were looking for PR help to get the word out about the new Phoenix Bookstore. They also wanted to see if they could sell store memberships, kind of like a CSA or Farm Share for business, to support their expansion.

After speaking with them, they agreed to try something different. We would develop a focus for their store launch marketing that they could use in their store, in the media, and online.

Renee and Mike were very aware of the effect Amazon has on local bookstores and local stores in general. At their Essex, Vermont store, they’ve created an oasis in a shopping mall of outlet stores.  When they talk about Amazon, let’s just say they’re not always so friendly.

We decided to explore how could leverage this. A David vs. Goliath strategy can be fun. What we found, though, was that the people we were trying to attract were a little uncomfortable with a confrontational approach. They wanted to support local stores, but they liked ordering lots of different things from Amazon.

Out of that was born our “A Little Less Amazon” approach with our tag line: “We’re not asking you to stop loving Amazon. We’re just asking you to love it a little less.”

We created a series of posters to take advantage of the store windows and attract attention. We developed print ads for our local papers since they reached our target audiences. We ran some Facebook ads and helped organize the grand opening. 

Source: digalicious.com via Rich on Pinterest


We drove everything to either the store or a registration Website, JoinPhoenix.com.  At the site you could sign up for membership and send a Dear Jeff (as opposed to a Dear John) e-mail to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos where you tried to let him down lightly. 

Nate Orshan, the friend who originally connected me to the Phoenix Bookstore, wrote and performed a song at the grand opening “Get Along Amazon.” The last time Burlington saw Nate perform was when he provided some serious mojo to now Mayor Miro Weinberger.

Here’s the best part of this story: All of the people who worked on this took their payment as a membership. We knew that Renee and Mike didn’t have a lot of money to spend on marketing but we wanted to help in a unique way. We also wanted to put our money where our mouths were. Since we were asking people to sign up, we felt we should all be members too. So all of us put in lots of time without charging for anything except a membership.

Bill Drew of Cottage 10 was the Creative Director, Jason Routhier was Art Director, Dave Barron was Graphic Designer, Eric Olsen was Web Developer, Borealis PR did the PR and Leigh Samuels provided Business Strategy.

It just goes to show local business here in Vermont what you can do when you approach a challenge with a high level of talent and creativity.

And wouldn't you know it, only a few days went by before reporters from our hip, local weekly Seven Days spotted and wrote about the posters. It showed our "coupon" offer - bring in an Amazon box and get 25% off of your first book.


03/28/2012 Vermont's First Social Media Election

Earlier this month, Vermont's largest city, Burlington, held a mayoral election that featured two non-incumbents vying for the top municipal job in the state. Voters went to the polls on March 6 to choose between Democrat Miro Weinberger and Republican Kurt Wright. When Weinberger won a decisive 57 percent to 37 percent victory, that ended a campaign that had run for six months and what should be described as Vermont's first social media election.

Just to be clear, other campaigns had used social media before in Vermont. And social media wasn't the only media: Classics like print and database marketing played a huge role in the campaign. No, what was different this time was the focus, engagement and the amount of activity. It's a role that will only grow over the coming years.

Social media has had a foothold in Burlington politics for three years. In early 2009, three city councilors Karen Paul (I), Nancy Kaplan (D) and Ed Adrian (D) set up Twitter accounts and started tweeting from city council meetings. It was a successful experiment. Since most of us here in town don't want to spend hours at those meetings, it gave residents a way to follow what was actually happening at these meetings from the comfort of their homes. More importantly, it gave people a chance to reach out or ask one of those councilors a question, in real time. From a democracy standpoint, it looked like a good way to increase citizen participation in municipal issues.

The act of using social media caused conflict within the city council itself. Some councilors didn't like the fact that their peers were sending social updates on their phones or computers. They felt that the social councilors were not showing proper respect to people who had actually shown up for the meetings. A number of the non-social councilors put forth a resolution banning electronics (and thus social media) from city council meetings. The resolution lost. One of sponsors of the resolution was Mayoral candidate Kurt Wright.

The mayoral social campaign started in earnest at one of the first Democratic primary debates in September 2011 when area journalists and tweeters agreed on using a singular hash tag, #btvmayor, for the campaign. What followed was a combination of reporting, campaigning, connections and tussles.

Of the six mayoral candidates (four Democrat primary contenders, one Republican, one Independent) only one had a credible presence in social media beforehand: Jason Lorber (D) who had set up and used his Twitter account as state representative (@VTJason) several years before. Once the others got into the race they, or their campaigns, quickly followed suit. For the primary months, most of the #btvmayor chatter was descriptions from the many public debates held between Democratic contenders.

Then at the Democratic caucus everything changed. The four round, single elimination primary battle between the contenders came down to the third round where, mano-a-mano, Miro Weinberger faced off with Tim Ashe. And the result was tie! The problem was that a ton of people had already left the premises, which meant that they couldn't vote in the unprecedented tie-breaking round.

Twitter and Facebook went wild. Those still in the building called out on social media, on email and on the phone to bring everyone back. Outside the building, traffic chaos ensued. In the end, the pols decided to reschedule the final round for another day. But that one, short crazy hour showed everyone that they ignored social in campaigns at their own risk.

As the two-man Weinberger/Wright campaign kicked in the social media activity ramped up (Wanda Hines was also a candidate, but she did very little campaigning, no social media work, and wound up with a very small percentage of the vote).

Weinberger's team was quick to start using and promoting its social channels. They made a big push into Facebook and used Twitter aggressively in order to dominate the #btvmayor stream. The Wright campaign jumped in too, finally setting up profiles for their candidate, although he had been an established politician on the state (representative) and local (city council) level for over a dozen years. They also started producing YouTube videos. On Twitter, the battle for hashtag dominance had begun.

The most interesting part of the #btvmayor hashtag was that it brought in people who normally weren't active or connected to the Burlington social media world. This included journalists, politically active citizen, and just regular Joes and Janes. To be clear, the political teams dominated the stream but that obscures a broader picture.

Another difference this time around was that we introduced social media as a key part to live debates. For the past three years, my organization #BTVSMB has hosted social media breakfast events here in Burlington. Now, we partnered with debate hosts to open up the social channels to increase debate participation. In the first debate we worked with the Burlington Business Association to take candidate questions from social media. In the penultimate debate, we helped the Burlington Free Press as the local paper hosted a complete social media debate where ALL of the questions came from social. That had never been done in Vermont before. I think it was the most interesting debate of the entire six-month campaign.

In the end, the candidate with the best social team won. Weinberger had surrounded himself with Internet professionals from the get-go as he realized how important online could be in his campaign. As he moved through the campaign, his staff beefed up participation from people with a strong social presence. Wright relied on a few young Web developers and interns. They faced an uphill battle online and never caught up.

Both teams desire to dominate the stream often led to pitched political battles. Most ended with personal insults and attacks. Which maybe proves the point that Twitter streams, like online message boards, are not always the best place for detailed, nuanced discussions. What the social streams did have was the political passion and engagement that was often lacking on both the street and in the candidate debates themselves.

One thing that's clear from the #btvmayor social campaign is that it did a great job in solidifying relationships within political teams. Whether it brought in any new votes is another question.

For once, though, the social media activity in the mayoral election accurately reflected the final Burlington vote tally. Perhaps that clearly points to social media moving away from early adopters and more solidly into the mainstream. At least in this little corner of Vermont. One thing is clear though: social media as a part of major Vermont political campaigns is here to stay. And that is a very good thing.

03/12/2012 Is Your Web Site About You or Your Customers?

Whenever people complain about navigating Web sites, it’s usually because they can’t find what they’re looking for. Usually people have a specific idea in mind when they surf. Most often, Google has provided a list of sites based on idea or word. When people get to the recommended corporate or organizational sites, they’re stumped. While people surf with an idea in their heads, what they most often find are sites reflective of an internal organizational structure, rather than customer needs. 

Here’s a test: see how many corporate sites have navigation titles of Products and Services?

Let’s take a step back. Organizations start to serve specific customer needs. As they grow larger, they find they need more internal structure. They form divisions, sub-groups and other bureaucratic functions. They reason that they must do so in order to make the growing business more efficient.

The problem, as you can probably see, is that serving customer needs now takes a back seat to internal efficiencies. Perhaps this is a necessary evil. But when it comes to Web sites, too many organizations create one of their most important marketing channels to mirror their internal organization.

Most people really don’t give a hoot how companies organize themselves. What seems like a logical structure to people working inside a company can seem confusing and downright bizarre to outsiders.

One challenge is that companies often offer a variety of “products and services” to customers. Why not organize them that way?

Amazon.com offers a lot as well. But their navigation is very customer focused. They’re not talking about themselves. JetBlue.com, with a much simpler offering, has the same customer focus.

Here’s what I think is the biggest issue: Organizations who like to describe themselves usually have the worst Web sites. Organizations who focus on solving customers’ problems quickly, online, usually have the best Web sites. The latter are the ones moving into the social channels so well.

Rebuilding a corporate Web site with a new approach is a big task for many. Perhaps one way to start shifting the thinking within an organization is to take a leap into the social channels with the goal of quickly solving people’s problems. Organizations can then take that experience and knowledge and apply it to revamping the Web site.

While this may sound backwards, it may be the most efficient way to prove, internally, that focusing on your customer, not your structure, works.

02/22/2012 Social Media Training is the Secret Ingredient

One thing that always strikes me at social media training and certification is seeing the reactions of experienced social marketers. Even though these people have spent months, some years, working on social channels, most of them have little opportunity to discuss what they do and even to ask some really basic questions.

For the newbies, I usually see a huge sigh of relief at the end of the trainings as if to recognize “I can do this. I know what’s expected of me.”

I’ve come to realize that ongoing social media training is the missing secret ingredient in most brands social efforts. Despite all of the buzz of “social business” most businesses are not. They are still siloed and focused. Social marketing is a key, growing part of their marketing, but it’s still not so well integrated.

Social training and certification serves two purposes. First, it sets the groundwork for the dos and don’ts for the brands social marketing. We talk about best practices and we talk about the company social policies. We look at case studies including a lot of negative ones. Most importantly, we give people on the team a chance to ask questions to each other or to internal company representatives, like the legal team.

For some clients we create an online test to make sure they’ve read through the materials. But I find the unscripted part of the training critical to a brands social success. We talk about the need of company integration for social media. But often there’s little integration among the social team itself or between the social team and other key parts of the business.

The training is in essence modeling a behavior we want social marketers to continue with once they go back to their “real jobs.”


Image from VariationsOnNormal.com

It doesn’t always work, though. I’ve had clients who did the exact opposite of what they were trained to do. I’ve had clients who almost copied to a T one of the negative case studies we reviewed.

Most succeed though. And they are able to also make personal connection that make the brands social marketing more successful. It helps when ongoing training brings these people back together to reinforce the in-person connections.

Social media isn’t rocket science. Social media training can fill a critical role if a brand is looking to have social play a key role in business success.

02/07/2012 #btvsmb Social Hack Recap

What a day: 72 talented and creative people spent a Friday together at Champlain College’s Emergent Media Center trying to reimagine Vermont’s localvore world through the lens of mobile and social technology. With little or no preparation six teams of twelve people each had less than four hours to come up with an idea. And what ideas they came up with!

We started the day listening and watching Richard Ting of R/GA and Liz Gerber of Design for America. Richard took us through some amazing examples he and his team have worked on, such as USAID’s FWD or Nike+ GPS. It was heady stuff but it made us start thinking of raising the bar on our own ideas. Liz talked about the idea of design thinking and the approach to start reimagining, well, everything. It’s just amazing to see what her students are up to. And that laid down a challenge to all of us “professionals”: If her students could do it, shouldn’t we be able to?


After that, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture laid out some of the basic goals of the Farm to Plate initiative. A recurring theme was how far ahead we were in Vermont (Liz even claimed that Vermont was “perfect”) but that it still wasn’t good enough.

We then broke into groups and, using a design thinking process, had to come up with one group idea in less than four hours. Each group was a combination of designers, developers, businesspeople, students, social marketers and well, anyone else who got their ticket in time. Very few were Localvore experts (there were one or two in all). 


When the groups worked in small teams of two, the energy was through the roof. When they had to come to consensus and all work together, well some did better than others. It was interesting to see the effect of group dynamics on people and ideas. There was a LOT of learning moments all through this experiment, to be honest. One group actually splintered into two when they refused to agree on a common approach.

At the end of the day, we had some clear favorites. Team Arugula created a new business model, Beet Route, for delivering CSA farmshares to people too busy to prepare meals during the week. They reimagined the milkman, gave it a modern twist, and enabled it through mobile and social apps. The back end used the data to provide larger customer trends and preferences back to the farmers and producers. Don’t be surprised to see this one come to life in one form or another as a startup.

Team Kale went the gamification route, turning support of local farmers and consumption of local produced into a mobile and social game Ate02 (a play on our ONE Vermont area code 802). The idea was to allow people to compete (and brag) through their phone and to increase consumption of healthy, locally produced food.  There’s a good chance that we might see Champlain College produce that for the Agency of Agriculture.


Team Beet created a system called The Core Card. It turned healthy eating habits into points. The points then led to both rewards for consumers and data for employers and insurance companies. Our one representative from the insurance industry was on this team and you could feel his influence on this one.The idea was that the card would lead to better health and lower insurance costs through the use of mobile and social technology. 

There were LOTS of other great ideas. Right now we’re going through them and working on prioritizing the ideas with the Agency of Agriculture and Champlain College. We may end up extending this to some of the Startup Vermont initiatives. At least one break out group told me that they were so pissed that their idea wasn’t chosen by their group that they’re going to pitch it to the Agency of Ag themselves (Yay!) 


Liz Gerber told me before the event that in an experiment, 50% of what you do will fail, you just don’t know which 50%. I think our percentage of success was a lot higher. This was a great experiment and it showed:

  1. We have a lot of cool people in Vermont
  2. You can do great things when you get out of your own way
  3. There should be enough smarts and energy to innovate our way into business growth. The big question is whether we have the structure for it.
  4. Sometimes you have to plan randomness.

My plan is to figure out a way to do more of these. We asked a lot for all of these talented people to take the day off and think with each other. Most, but not all of course, had a blast.

My biggest regret? It was that I didn’t really get to participate in the actual ideation and work, since I was running the day. That’s where I spent my energy. And it was worth it.

01/30/2012 #BTVSMB Social Hack

This Friday, February 3rd, the Burlington Social Media Breakfast series takes a new twist. We’re still bringing in great, smart, national speakers, like R/GA’s social and mobile executive creative director Richard Ting, and Design for America founder Liz Gerber.  As with our past events, we want to inspire area marketers and digital folk. 

We also want to do something beside listening, learning and networking. While that’s good, it doesn’t feel like it’s enough. So on Friday, we’re combining the inspiration part with a Social Hack. We’re going to focus our collective brainpower on a key issue in Vermont and see if we can come up with a mobile or social technology solution to help.

You can’t do that without some smart, creative people around the table.  Luckily that’s what we have. Between 60 and 70 of us, with designers, developers and marketers from some of the most innovative companies in Vermont, will spend the day trying to hack a social issue. We have marketers and developers from My Web Grocer, Select Design, Green Mountain Coffee Roasters and Burton. We’re doing this event together with Champlain College’s emergent media center so we’ll have MFA and gaming students working with us as well.

Friday’s event is one of the smaller ones we’ve had, from a participant standpoint. But it should be the largest one from an idea standpoint. At the end of the day we’ll choose the best idea. Champlain College will look to fund and produce the idea so that we can give it to the people of Vermont to use.

My hope, though, is that there are a number of other ideas where people say, “screw it, this one was really the best, so I’m going to go create it on my own!”

Actually, that’s really the point of this #BTVSMB. We, like a lot of other organizations, want to make Vermont a better place for entrepreneurs and technical/creative people. We don’t have a lot of embedded industries here to drive that part of the economy. We also don’t have a natural feeder city for economic development, the way, say Boston supports southern New Hampshire, or the way Denver fed Boulder. The Montreal connection isn’t really working for us.

So we’re going to have to innovate and build our way out of this ourselves. I think the most exciting part of the event is the connections between all of these smart people; most have never met each other before. Typical Vermont! Hopefully we can sustain and support this day of creation and random connections with more events like this.

Actually, this event connects back to the first #BTVSMB. Back in June of 2009, Todd Defren and C.C. Chapman spoke to a packed house at Champlain College. Afterwards, we regrouped and worked at helping the non-profit Grounds for Health develop social media ideas. I think it’s important for those of us in the social marketing business to spend time using our ideas for people who need it, rather than those who just need us to help them sell things.

The idea for doing the hack came from a number of personal inspirations. Back in the summer I was one of the judges for My Web Grocer’s Vermont Hackathon. It was a very cool, odd collection of people and ideas. It was very different from what I’m used to seeing here in Vermont. I loved it.

The Cusp Conference in Chicago also inspired me around risk, design and social issues. It simply was the best conference I’ve ever been to. I left with the desire to have that same type of energy and passion at a Vermont event. I also met Liz Gerber there who turned out to have gone to the same high school and college as I did.

I also spent time talking to Edward Boches about the event. My goal was to get Edward to come up here but this time, #brandbowl got in the way. In any event, my brief, intermittent discussions with Edward helped me formulate the event both conceptually and practically. With a little luck, we’ll get him up here next time.

I’m glad to partner with Champlain College again. I think their Emergent Media and Gaming programs are some of the best-kept secrets in the industry. I believe that very soon, they’ll be on the level of Boulder Digital Works and Hyper Island. 

If you get a chance to come to this Friday’s #BTVSMB social hack, great. If not, keep your eyes open for more of these types of event throughout 2012, although various organizations will probably take turns hosting them.

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