When a Brand Ambassador Takes Control

They say that you can’t control social media. They say that the message is in the hands of your customers. But is it really? What happens when that customer is on your side. And which side, exactly, is that?

During the US summer, Target received a range of online complaints about gender focused signage. In response, the company decided to take on the feedback and transform the shopping experience, making it more gender neutral.

In making this kind of change, Target no doubt, expected some response on social media. But it seems they didn’t expect a customer advocate to step in and take control of the conversation. But that’s exactly what one brand fan did.

Over a period of about 16 hours, a fake account setup with the Target logo and the name “Ask ForHelp” trolled the commenters on the official Target Facebook page. Provocatively arguing with other customers, the account was eventually suspended.

This kind of activity has occurred in the past. Two comedians from Atlanta, Ben Palmer and Nick Price setup an account with the name “Customer Service” and spent time randomly arguing with customers on various brand pages. And while all this makes for light entertainment, no doubt, there are social media managers working furiuosly behind the scenes to clean up the fallout.

While the Target page has been cleaned up, there are plenty of screen captures circulating. Here are a few samples. But the question is – how would you respond? What would you say to your CEO. And where do you go from here?




How IBM and AusOpen Tennis are rethinking the “sportacular”

The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.
— Guy DeBord, Society of the Spectacle

One of the most transformative trends of the last decade has been the shift from inside-out to outside-in thinking. It can be applied to almost any industry or area of expertise. Think, for example, about technology innovation. Up until recently, new ideas and inventions were the province of internal business and technology teams. Research and development funds and resources would be sunk into various teams and programs – some official and others operating in the shadows. Eventually these ideas would emerge as new products. As innovation made flesh (or wires or software). But over the last decade this has shifted. With more open platforms like Salesforce1, the growth of developer communities for software platforms from SAP to Marketo, Jive to Atlassian, innovation has breached the firewall and has taken on a life of its own.

The combination of open-ish platforms and abundant data is creating new opportunities for businesses and their customers alike. But the benefits are not limited to an in-your-face direct-to-your-phone coupon or BOGOF offer. By combining technology and matching it to human behaviour, we are beginning to explore a whole new world of experiences. And the testing ground for this innovation is not a lab in the middle of the Nevada Desert, but right here, at one of Australia’s largest sporting events – the Australian Open Tennis.

IBM and the Australian Open Tennis have been partners for decades. Many years ago, my extended team worked on IBM’s large scale sports events like the Olympics, NBA, Super Bowl and the Australian Open – so I had the opportunity to see – from the inside – how the technology and services were brought together. There has been a lot of water under the bridge in that time, so when I was invited to go “behind the scenes” and learn how things had changed, I jumped at the chance.

As has always been the case, the technology and services that IBM provides are deeply embedded in the running of the event.  But it’s not just the outward facing systems and technology. These days, the technology and business process integration taps into the way that the grand slam tournament is run and reported – it’s “hard wired” or should I say “wirelessly” into the fabric of the business, event management and fan experience. This partnership stretches from the electronic impulses of the web to the real time provisioning of servers, to the deployment of onsite security personnel, management of player timetables and grand slam rules and the amplification of fan experiences via social media.

Big Data on the Centre Court

Ian Wong from IBM’s interactive experiences team stepped the technology through its paces, revealing court data for each of the games. There were enough high level statistics to excite the armchair observer – from fastest serve to win ratios and more. All of this data was being captured by a combination of on-court technology and human observation. The umpire’s scoring PDA  fed directly into the system, managing scoring, counting strokes and helping to keep the games moving to time. High up in the stands were also other observers who were cross-checking and monitoring the on-court action.

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The data capture sounds impressive – to a point – but the big data activity underlying is where it becomes fascinating. Each game, each point, each stroke is captured and stored. This information is then processed and analysed – and builds upon the same data going back over eight years. This massive data store allows the IBM team and Australian Open to profile players and particular matches and to use a matching algorithm to unlock the “keys to the match”.

For example, say Martina Hingis was playing Serena Williams. The system could pull all previous match data and reveal aspects of match play that each had to achieve in order to win. The “keys to the match” could be “successful first serve 76% of the time” or “serving to the opponent’s backhand 65% of the time for second serves” and so on. Interestingly, this information and analytics power is made available to coaches and players through interactive panels – though not to the general public.

From off-court big data to real world big data

While the spectacle of on-court action is the drawcard, in true “Society of the Spectacle” form, a just as important aspect of the Australian Open Tennis is the fan experience. Tennis Australia CIO, Samir Mahir, has put together a massive sense and respond network that not only connects fans – it responds to their needs – matching expectation and demand with services and resources just-in-time. As Samir explained, “it’s about getting more people to come to the Tennis”.

Ingeniously, providing free wifi for all attendees means that fans are always connected – with a fat pipe of data ready and available at all times. AusOpen have established “Selfie Zones” around the stadium where people are encouraged to take photos and share via Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. And when tagged, can be displayed on the big screens on the centre court for all to see.

But this is just the start of the big data story. As people move around the stadium, routers count the number of connections to wifi points of presence. This data is then fed in real time to the logistics engines which can determine whether there are sufficient security personnel, adequate ticketing booths open and available or enough food and drink vendors in the right location. If necessary, food and drink or security personnel are notified and redeployed to ensure levels of service and safety are maintained across the massive complex.

Similarly, social media is monitored for volume and velocity. This information is then crunched by IBM’s Watson natural language processor. Realising that an increase in social media activity creates increased demand on the AusOpen website, IBM is then able to use social media velocity to predict and trigger on-demand webserver provisioning.

From sport to sportacular

By placing the fan – the consumer of sport – at the centre of the tennis experience, IBM and the Australian Open are transforming what was once a spectator event to a “sportacular”. They are combining and showcasing the gladiatorial contest on court, the preparations on the practise courts and an experience for fans that connects the location and their own experience in an event that is part of a global grand slam series.

In an instant these messages, are captured, multiplied, beamed around the world and brought back to the individual one selfie at a time.

The basically tautological character of the spectacle flows from the simple fact that its means are simultaneously its ends. It is the sun which never sets over the empire of modern passivity. It covers the entire surface of the world and bathes endlessly in its own glory.
— De Bord, Society of the Spectacle.

Note: travel and accommodation were courtesy of IBM.


A Collection of Social Media Case Studies

Some organisations are well ahead of the digital innovation curve – and are maturing their digital business practices. Others, however, are in the early stages, feeling their way, gathering information and trying to figure out just HOW digital can be part of their businesses.

If you (or your organisation) are in the early stages, it sometimes helps to learn from others. It can help expand your thinking, validate your approach and provide justification to your senior executives. So I thought I’d share a few case studies that you might find useful. If there are studies that I have missed, leave a note and a link in the comments below! Note: some of these are premium content.

Name Category Year Topic/Focus
Tough Mudder Events 2013 Facebook, Brand building, Community building
Various (Hotels) Travel 2013 Integrated marketing, Twitter, Facebook
US Navy Defence / Government 2013 Communications
ASOS Retail 2013 Sales, Community engagement
Queensland Police Service Government / Services 2010 Disaster management
Evalueserve Market Research 2011 Brand building, lead generation
UK Marketing Lounge Jobs board 2012 LinkedIn
Whole Foods Retail 2010 Awareness, community building
Social Media Week Conferences 2012 Community building
Volkswagen Automotive 2011 Awareness, LinkedIn
H&M Retail 2012 Content marketing, Search
Dollar Shave Club Retail 2012 Video, Content marketing, New product launch
Ford Fiestagram Automotive 2012 New product launch, Instagram
SmartPak Equine Retail 2012 Email, Marketing automation
Five Years in the Cloud with Workday HR 2013 Cloud, Human capital management
DocuSign eSignature transactions 2012 Marketing automation, Demand generation

Belinha has more than good looks Francisco Martins via Compfight

Putting Experience Back into Customer Experience

Yesterday I wrote about the importance of reading mean tweets. It’s a post about the rough and tumble nature of online conversation and what can happen when you step out into the gaze (and full throttle voice) of the social web. And then today, almost on cue, comes what BuzzFeed calls the most epic brand meltdown on Facebook ever.

It began with an appearance on Gordon Ramsey’s reality TV show, Kitchen Nightmares. As you can see from the footage from the show, the episode did not play well for the owners of Amy’s Baking Company Bakery Boutique & Bistro in Scottsdale, Arizona.


No doubt, BuzzFeed did a great job of amplifying an already hot story. But a story can only take you so far. It needs to be stoked. Fed. It needs to be cultivated, fanned and coaxed to become a raging fire.

And that’s exactly what is continuing to happen.

With each comment on Reddit, Yelp or even BuzzFeed, for every tweet and mention on Facebook, owners Samy and Amy step into the breach to fan the flames of this conversation. They continue to take brand experience to a new level with each and every comment or tweet. Take a look at some of the Facebook comments and conversations captured on the BuzzFeed page by way of example.

I am always fascinated at the way that people behave under pressure. Some deal with scrutiny gracefully. But not all of us are able or willing to. And I admit, I was drawn to this unfolding drama … to the flaming tentacles that lashed at every passing message. And then suddenly, the kraken appeared and I became part of the story. A small moment where the story was not part of someone else’s drama, but part of my own.


And I must admit I was a little flattered. To be singled out here, on the other side of the planet, for my limited cameo appearance. But all jokes aside, there are salient lessons here – not just about social media, crisis communications and brand management.

What intrigues me is that certain point where the social media experience eclipsed the brand experience.

I can already imagine this restaurant becoming a Mecca for an inverted kind of customer experience where diners choose to expose themselves to the Samy and Amy experience unplugged. It has happened before and can happen again. But maintaining this level of performance comes with a cost. And there are precious few who can continue to operate at that level indefinitely.

Where will this go? Who knows. But it is a brand performance that few will forget in a hurry.

The Long Trail of Digital’s Long Tail

For the last couple of months I have been researching the digital marketing automation market – speaking with vendors, watching demos, listening to customers and analysing features, statistics and case studies. It’s a crowded market with a wide variety of feature sets and capabilities.

But if there is one thing that is obvious in all the noise, it is this: while the technology has matured, digital marketing skills, capabilities and processes are comparatively immature.

Marketing automation software delivers impressive outcomes:

  • ROI: Identifying, nurturing and delivering warm leads into your sales funnel gives your marketing a direct line to ROI. This path to revenue provides marketers with the confidence and knowledge to understand what works and what doesn’t when it comes to digital marketing investment
  • Accelerate marketing maturity: marketing automation requires a certain level of process maturity in your marketing. For businesses where process has been lacking or alignment with sales has been ambivalent, marketing automation can deliver a relatively quick win
  • Generate uplift through omni-channel integration: many marketers focus on “last click attribution”. But we rarely make single click decisions – especially on more expensive purchases or when we are in a B2B situation. Integrated or omni-channel marketing has been shown to significantly impact revenue and pipeline.

The presentation below is a case study of one of Marketo’s own omni-channel campaigns. It reveals that the digital long tail is indeed, a very long trail. But careful planning and management can, with targeted content, deliver value across your marketing programs – not only for your digital work.

Interested in marketing automation? If you are interested in my upcoming marketing automation report, contact me here or sign-up for access to the Constellation Research Library.


Go Where Others Don’t – The Digital Newsroom of Medecins Sans Frontieres Australia

msftv There is a lot of talk about brands becoming publishers – as if it was a simple transformation achieved by the stroke of a budget making biro. But what does it really take?

In Australia, Medicins Sans Frontieres or “doctors without borders” aim to put this to the test.

Médecins Sans Frontières is the world’s leading independent organisation for medical humanitarian aid, providing relief after natural disasters, helping victims of conflict and running emergency feeding programs. Working in war zones much of their work happens far from the eyes of the world.

And while MSF are known as a “below the radar” organisation – this poses real challenges for sharing stories, building awareness and engaging with potential sponsors, donors and the interested public.

For the month of October, MSF TV aims to address this challenge head on, creating a digital newsroom to bring stories directly to the public. There are:

  • Seven channels of video content aimed to stimulate conversation
  • Conversations amplified through the #msftv hashtag on Twitter
  • Live updates and headlines from around the world
  • Interviews from those on-the-ground
  • Hosted debates on Facebook and on MSF TV
  • YouTube channel with an archive of episodes and issues from the MSF TV site

The rise of digital opens new opportunities for brands to go peer-to-peer

Marketers generally think in terms of business-to-business or business-to-consumer communications. But the rise of digital has changed the landscape. It’s not one-to-many but one-FOR-many communications. The old B2B and B2C distinctions are crumbling under the weight of social media – with communicators now working in a peer-to-peer conversation.

Very few organisations have followed this path thus far. It’s complicated, challenging and exciting. MSF and their partner agency, Republic of Everyone, are trailblazing. They truly are going where others don’t. But we can only expect more to follow.

What Qantas Will Learn from its Social Customers

Or an alternative title: What Qantas Will Learn from its Former Customers Because they are Social

I can still remember the smell of the lithographic duplicator machines that were used in my primary school. The light purple writing would hold that odour long after the ink dried. And one day – I think it was in 5th class – I remember learning about the Queensland and Northern Territory Air Service. What today we call Qantas.

Back then – in the 1970s – school children would learn about Qantas as part of the school curriculum. We would read the teacher’s notes and then write neatly formed sentences into our brown paper covered school books. I dutifully etched red and brown pencil lines into my book, showing the shop and the sign over the Qantas booking office in Longreach. I was proud. I’d done a good job. And with every stroke of the pencil, I was also marking this brand deep into my psyche.

But over the weekend I watched the Qantas CEO, Alan Joyce – with the full support of his Board – trash one of Australia’s most loved brands. In grounding the entire domestic and international fleet, Joyce threw the travel and business plans of thousands into chaos – and those passengers reacted by tweeting in record numbers.


A usually quiet social brand, mentions of Qantas spiked on Saturday as the news of the groundings spread around the globe. The graph from Trendistic, when extended back 30, 90 and 180 days barely rises off the base line. And while mentions tailed off on Sunday and earlier today, mentions of the name Qantas are still ranking well beyond its normal zone. Jenni Beattie from Digital Democracy tracked the Qantas conversations across a number of other social platforms – from a Facebook protest page to off-brand forums like Golf and Vogue Fashion.

CEO Alan Joyce doesn’t appear concerned, stating in the Wall Street Journal “I think the Qantas brand is an amazingly resilient brand and we've gone through very significant industrial disputes before”. But for the Australian public, this wasn’t a matter of industrial relations – it was a matter of national pride. The actions of Joyce and the Board severed a bond of trust.

Now, much has changed since the 70s. OK – maybe not the trade unions that Joyce is arguing with. But the ticket buying, holiday making, business travelling customer that contributes to Qantas’ record breaking profits is a whole different beast. These are “social customers” and they are different. And brands – even brands as big as Qantas – no longer operate in isolation.

Essentially, your customers pwn your brand – and if they can’t, they go to where they can. This is especially the case with emotionally charged brands (and travel/holiday related brands certainly are). In the days and weeks ahead, Qantas will learn more about the social customer, including:

  • The social customer is ubiquitous: it’s not just Facebook or Twitter. They write blogs, publish stories and photographs. They share these with hundreds – if not thousands – of friends with the click of a mouse and a glare of disdain
  • The social customer wields influence with a swagger: they have grown up with the internet and have more tools at their disposal than you let through your firewall. They move fast and do so with intent. If they can impact the decisions of others (to not purchase with you) they will do so.
  • The social customer is not your friend: they don’t want a platitude and they won’t go quietly. They will remember your words and your actions and they will choose their purchases carefully and with deliberation.
  • The social customer is the 99%: they can smell inequity at a hundred paces. You’ve just given them a reason to chose another brand who understands their lifestyle and their priorities.
  • The social customer is developing a social conscience: it’s taken decades, but it is forming. Just take a look at the Edelman Trust Barometer. Brands will be judged by their actions.

What impact will this have? Here are some thoughts:

  • Long term brand value is impacted, causing re-evaluation of the Qantas credit rating
  • Fed up customers move to other carriers such as Virgin – impacting short term and mid term advanced bookings
  • New customers, aware of the disruption, steer away from Qantas towards competitors – or avoid Australian destinations altogether
  • The angriest of travellers contact their superannuation fund managers to remove Qantas from their super portfolios
  • Companies, reliant on travel, strengthen relationships with Qantas competitors

What else? Is there another impact coming? What else do you see?

Don’t Waste Your Search Budget Like the Easter Show

As the Chair of not-for-profit youth media organisation, Vibewire, I know the budgetary, sponsorship and resourcing challenges faced by groups who are dedicated to what I call “good works” in our society. So whenever I look at the work of not-for-profit organisations or community groups, it always disappoints me to see them wasting the resources that they have available to them. 

So when I started looking for information on Sydney Royal Easter Show, I was disappointed to see paid search being thrown away as follows.


Considering the strength of the organic placement (I used a clean browser for this), this paid piece is like throwing money away. It’s like they ticked the box for “paid search” and moved on to the next piece of their digital presence.

Clearly the Royal Easter Show folks could have spent the paid search budget on the iPhone app that is advertised on their site (can’t be found in the App Store) or in a beefed up community presence on Facebook where the links between website activities and show-based events/promotions could have been easily orchestrated.

While it is great to see people explaining how mums can download colouring-in pages from the website and take them along for entry in a competition – these on/offline activities are the no-brainers that drive loyalty and action. They simply make life easier for your event participants.

And that should be the goal of any digital strategy. Because ease of use drives action. And the best action is ticket sales.

Young People, Brands, Banks and Advocacy

Great case study from Graham Brown and YouthResearchPartners.com on South Africa’s Nedbank advocacy efforts around their student-focused financial products. Not only did they gain in-depth student insights into banking trends and preferences – they generated 8,000 sales leads. Not bad.

This is what happens when you have young people representing a brand and creating a fun atmosphere.

Innovation, Leadership and Transformation

Imagine …

You have one great customer … a shoe manufacturer. They create shoes that are worn by the world’s great athletes. I’m talking Michael Jordan. I’m talking Tiger Woods. I’m talking Serena Williams. Cathy Freeman. But there’s more. Many more. It’s like a star-studded cast of top tier athletes that are not just "at the top of their game", they are making history.

And this customer, working with these sporting icons, these star athletes, have transformed the way that we look at sport. They have transformed our own participation.

These days we treat our own fitness as if we were professionals. We spend hundreds, thousands and even tens of thousands of dollars on equipment. If we have the money we can dress the part. Even if we can’t BE the part.

These brands, their ambassadors and their customers have changed the game. They have blurred the line.

Gavin speaking 2Last week – as part of the Hargraves Institute’s Innovation, Leadership and Transformation conference – I delivered a keynote address on Open Innovation: Using Social Media to Build and Maintain Momentum. I shared the approach that we are taking with the SAP Premier Customer Network – to not just think or talk about open innovation, but the concrete steps that we are putting in place to enable and facilitate it.

“Blurring the line” is a fundamental tenet of this approach and what I am increasingly calling The Social Way. Where once organisational performance was achieved through a co-opetition framework, we’re now seeing (and supporting) new models of innovation that closely resemble the social networks that we use at home, at work and in the places in-between.

It’s still early days for the programs that we have in place. But one thing is clear. We need to cling to our stories. And we need to tell them passionately and persuasively. For if we just rely only on the facts and figures, we miss out on the hearts and the minds who drive any innovation within our businesses.

The hard part with any business program is getting to the start line. Many believe that’s where the project ends – but in the social world – and the world of open innovation – the launch is the start of everyone else’s journey. And that is perhaps as it should be.