To Mob the Web Fantastic: Mobile- and Social Media Confluence Strategies for Brick-and-Mortars

There is as much blood in a Bloody Mary, as there is actual resolve in the average New Year’s resolution. Today is January 24, and the pavement on the road to hell never looked so resplendent in abandoned self-betterment. Take a notion that struck you as clever just a few short months ago (Zumba dancers with nicotine patches, anyone?), douse it in a bucket of forward absolution, and sprinkle a light dusting of discipline on top. Bring to a quick boil on New Year’s Day and let the stir simmer for the twelve months to come. A worthy three weeks into it, and I can assure you, both the novelty and nobility of forcing changes unto life’s design will have worn as thin as a Nicki Minaj character. (Last seen inside a gym when the British left Palestine, your blogger, as a case in point, is tiring admittedly of the thrill of carb counting while spending more time with his family – blaming the waning enthusiasm for wanting to look less like a Care Bear on the two pre-adolescent sodium sales people which the Kraft Foods company has so insidiously installed in his own home. And predictably, he sides with Oscar Wilde – whom else? –, for “good resolutions are simply checks that men draw on a bank where they have no account.”)

In a professional context, I have noticed that IT leaders are ringing in the New Year with two items seemingly topping the list of their department’s make-it-happen resolutions: the respective implementation of a mobile strategy and a social media strategy for their businesses. While every business may have unique objectives and requirements for how to capture an increasingly mobile and social network-based audience, there are a number of common themes unfolding. Here I shall highlight one that has garnered strong interest in particular from a number of our clients in the retail sector: the “fusing” of the physical and the virtual worlds. In short, 2011 may yet be the year that will see the blending of brick-and-mortar with bits-and-bytes, as many consumers today are “glued to their smartphones and living on Facebook,” as a CIO client of mine recently put it.

Here’s what’s having the CIOs at global retail companies as excited as the residents of Wisteria Lane at the arrival of the UPS delivery man: today, shoppers with their smartphones in hand are browsing the aisles of brick-and-mortar (B&M) retailers with the ability to look up any product information on the spot, including competitive pricing typically from Amazon.com. However, not all paths lead to Amazon; with powerful new mobile applications, merchants now have viable marketing tools to attract and entice customers with in-store specials tailored to the individual. For B&M retailers the future of one-to-one marketing may just have arrived. And if you’ve seen the movie “Minority Report,” you’ll know what I mean.

Think of the smartphone as a “bridge” between the physical and the virtual worlds. Terms like “mobile tagging” or “object hyperlinking” refer to smartphones’ ability to recognize an object and to call up information from the Internet that is specific to that object. This is accomplished through image recognition (a computer science technique that is becoming ever more effective), the reading of a QR code (a format that is fast gaining in popularity, especially in Europe and Japan, and is promoted by Microsoft in the U.S.), or the scanning of the ubiquitous barcode.

For example, when you see something of interest in the “real” world – say a product or an ad – you can take a snapshot with your camera phone, and the phone, equipped with the right app, can recognize the product and allow you to “interact” with “it” right then and there. Scanning a barcode while in a store, can give a shopper real-time access to price-comparison data; reading the QR code printed on a magazine ad can bring up the advertiser’s web page directly on the handheld; and a number of apps can visually recognize book covers and other items just to bring up the corresponding shopping cart at your e-tailer of choice. Regardless of whether this interaction is enabled through image recognition or code scanning (or other emerging techniques for object identification), it is my belief that people will increasingly use their smartphones to take pictures of physical objects (shopping goods, print ads, display windows, movie posters, showcases, billboards, etc.) or “check in” at physical locations (à la Foursquare, Gowalla, and shopkick) in order to instantly obtain object- or place-specific information from the web.

With a purpose-built mobile app, a person’s smartphone will not only “know” the shopper’s location but also “carry” detailed, yet hopefully anonymized consumer data which can be used by nearby merchants to issue precisely targeted specials and preferred pricing offers by sending coupons to the phone. These digital coupons are then scanned from the phone’s screen at checkout and thus redeemed. And for extra credit, every time a consumer snaps an item or registers at a location, there is an opportunity to capture a meaningful piece of marketing data: the voluntary and self-motivated signal of interest at the time and place of encounter with any particular merchandise, commercial, or store location. Marketers consider a compilation of such indications of interest a powerful predictor of future consumer behavior, second perhaps only to a shopper’s past purchase history. And, of course, with access to such consumer information in real time – i.e., if products, ads, and storefronts “knew” something about you – that encounter becomes that much more meaningful, as the product pitch can now be tailored to your preferences.

Finally, who knew Coleridge (Jr. nonetheless) had a thing for IT budgets which are customarily cut at the beginning of the year: “The merry year is born like the bright berry from the naked thorn.” Beautiful, of course. Perhaps just as beautiful as being able to stretch your budget to do more with less and to implement some impressive mobile- and social media strategies without going for broke already in the first quarter. Our company Talent Trust (http://www.talenttrust.com/) has helped many traditional, brick-and-mortar firms devise and cost-effectively implement such strategies – with flexible access to highly skilled IT professionals located offshore. Please feel free to contact me (christophe.kolb@talenttrust.com) should you be thinking about building mobile apps and social media platforms to influence and captivate consumer audiences. Talent Trust has a ten-year history of creating successful technology solutions for delighted clients such as Accenture, Agilent, Autodesk, Brady, CMA CGM, CompuCom, Continuous Computing, Critical Mass, Elan Computing, eMeter, Euro RSCG, GE, IBM, Major League Baseball, Manpower, McAfee, Medtronic, Suzuki, Taylor Corporation, Verizon, Zynga, and many more.

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The Man Who Mistook His Life for a Game

When your mother told you that life was neither a fairy tale nor a game, she was certainly right about the former and probably wrong about the latter. In fact, there’ve been a few notable thinkers since the mid-1800s who claimed that life was nothing but a game. The notion that people are Pokémon on the great board game of Life first vaulted into the halls of science and took hold of public imagination with the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859, followed only one year later by the release of The Checkered Game of Life, courtesy of the fine and inventive people at Milton Bradley. Since then some games have indeed become more serious than life itself (sorry, I’m not talking about Dancing with the Stars); and with the advent of game theory (a formalized, mathematical treatment, if you will, of social science) countless advances have been made in manifold fields such of evolutionary biology, political science, international relations, and of course computer science. You’ll really like game theory if you made it through Theoretical Econ 101, you can still stomach your applied math, or you’ve had the hots for Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind. For that matter, game theory will come in very handy should you ever find yourself incarcerated with a fellow inmate named Johnny von Neumann, and you’re wondering whether to betray that strange man to the warden or to only say as much as the acteurs in The Blair Witch Project.

The Prisoner’s Dilemma (a formal study, again, of why two people might not cooperate even if it’s in both their best interest) and, conversely, other counterintuitive behavioral models that attempt to explain for instance why people might collaborate (to contribute, say, intellectual “property” into the intellectual commons) even if it’s not in their best interests, have become intellectual staple diet for Social Web connoisseurs. Our company Talent Trust (http://www.talenttrust.com/) does a lot of work for Fortune 1000 companies that wish to implement effective “Web 2.0 strategies.” I put that term in parentheses for no one really knows what it means, except for Tim O’Reilly (who invented it) or Carl Jung (who would have described it as the act of individuation through socialization by means of solidarity networks, but Carl unfortunately is long dead).

Most our enterprise clients wish to harness the web’s social-media sphere as a way to expand their business (be it to grow their brand, widen their customer reach, or deepen their relationships with business stakeholders). If you think you can do that by just sticking a “Share it on Facebook” or “Digg it” button up on your corporate site you belong in a fossil collection, a Barock shrine, or a Tibetan monastery. It’s ironic for me to say so (for our company provides the technical talent behind many a successful Web 2.0 implementation), but Web 2.0 has a lot less to do with technology than with psychology (no, not psychiatry, and apologies, Oliver Sacks). If you want to make your brand attractive to millions and millions of people who live the Social Web, if you want to connect with them, to garner their attention, and to take them on a journey towards your product or your service offering, you must start to play the game. For starters, throw out your Ajax For Dummies (or say “asynchronous JavaScript and XML” three times in a row), and pack your Nash equilibrium, The Collected Works of C. G. Jung, and your favorite body piercing jewelry and head over to our friends at social gaming powerhouse Zynga (http://www.zynga.com/). They’ve just changed their company slogan from “More Fun Than Robert Downey, Jr.” to “Connecting the World Through Games.” There you go. I promise you: play one of their fabulous games and you’ll get what Web 2.0 is all about.

Don’t worry – you don’t even have to like “computer games.” Try out Zynga’s Mafia Wars, and yes, you’ll just either love it or hate it (there’s no in-between, just like with anchovies, the London Tube, or Michelle “Bombshell” McGee). You might not even stand for the glorification of violence, vindicta, and organized crime, although the theme of the game is of less interest to us here, and it might as well be about finding seashells on a beach or blue helmets in a Sri Lankan refugee camp. What’s impressive is that Zynga has just nailed the psychological underpinning of the individual as an integral part of a social network. There’s an amazingly effective reward system. There’s compensation for everything. Behavioral modification and forced decision-making against the ever-present timer. There are rituals and archetypes. There’s always the “mob” (the collective unconscious) and the Complex (do I have enough friends / Mafia members, enough stamina / energy to kill, enough money / reward points, etc.?). The process of individuation is particularly powerful, where players become literally more “whole” by virtue of strengthening their profiles, attaining special powers, and recruiting more players. And yes, there is also the fetish which can be cared for or cured, as the case may be, by – in any event – buying lots and lots of little items from Zynga.

And the lesson here? Needless to say, without state-of-the-art web technology, none of this would be possible. But technology is just the enabler. Psychology – as in the psychological substrate of a successful social game such as Mafia Wars – is the driver behind any viable Web 2.0 strategy. The overlap between social gaming behavior and social media marketing is just striking. Imagine: getting your customers to self-select a particular affinity group, to connect with like-minded individuals, and to recruit them in significant numbers to make for geometric growth; or, for your customers to enhance their profiles (invaluable marketing data) for the purpose of sheer self-expression, validation in front of their peers, or to earn reward or “reputation” points. If you want to connect with millions of customers, forget about your social media icons (we’ll stick ‘em up for you later) and focus on what drives the individual in the social setting. Learn from the leader in the social gaming arena and play some more of Zynga’s Mafia Wars or contact me (christophe.kolb@talenttrust.com) if we at Talent Trust can help bring some cutting-edge expertise to your Web 2.0 marketing initiative.

The Death of Distance

His capacity for industrial-strength enlightenment and satirical polemicism (against both church dogma and state institutions) never in doubt, Voltaire nonetheless could be a bit of wuss: “It is dangerous to be right in matters on which the established authorities are wrong.” Now, who would say such a thing in IT? Of course, if you were a prolific pamphletist and public intellectual in mid-18th century France, and an outspoken supporter of social reform and free trade and other revolutionary vices, you’d be hedging your prose and poetry, too, sufficient to make the chief-topiarian of Versailles blush. Think of some of the more benignly erroneous misproclamations by established authorities in the field of technology:

  • “This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.” – Western Union internal memo, 1876
  • “The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?” – David Sarnoff’s associates (obviously prior to pioneering American commercial radio) in the 1920s
  • “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” – Thomas Watson of IBM, 1943
  • “Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons.” – Popular Mechanics on the relentless march of computer science, 1949
  • “I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and talked with the best people, and I can assure you that data processing is a fad that won’t last out the year.” – Prentice Hall editor-in-chief, 1957
  • “640K ought to be enough for anybody.” – Bill Gates, 1981

We get the point. Though I feel compelled for the purpose of this blog to add one more mispronouncement, this one from John Doe, Chief Information Officer at DJI, Inc. in the mid-1990s: “Getting IT done means everybody must sit in the same office.” And, truth be told, this one is perhaps the hardest myth to debunk, even with the relative passage of time that saw “India Inc.” vaulting onto the world stage a decade ago as the remote fix-it destination for all-things-Y2K (and without whose legions of highly skilled coders and bug-fixers, even mighty Microsoft’s Windows 2000 may have only shipped in the second quarter of 1901).

Let us first settle on some familiar terminology. The notion that you, as an IT manager sitting in an office in say Bloomington, Indiana could be working with a programmer sitting in an office in say Bangalore, India, I call (for the sake of simplicity) “remote staff augmentation.” This programmer could be working for your firm’s Indian subsidiary or for an Indian software house, or he or she could be a freelancer – what matters is that you will be managing and collaborating with that particular resource as if he or she was sitting in the cubicle down the hall with you in Bloomington. The only difference between another local, Bloomington-based colleague (the employment mode set aside) is, and as the blog title would imply, “distance.”

There’s an immediate, important distinction between this form of remote staff augmentation and (to use the catch-all phrase) ‘outsourcing.’ When you outsource an IT project (and to simplify greatly), you write up requirements for what needs to be done, and you give these requirements to somebody else, typically a professional IT Services firm, and then this firm “goes off and does it” and only comes back to you when the job is done to deliver the finished project. Where these outsourcers go to do the work is really up to them, but they could be staying on your premises, they could be driving back to their head office in Indianapolis, or – like most do – they could be “shipping” the work to their own colleagues in India. Again, what matters is not where the work is executed, but that you, the client, has asked a services provider to do it for you. Now ironically, although outsourcing is in everyday parlance and popular opinion inextricably linked with the concept of ‘offshoring’ (thank you, Lou Dobbs!), outsourcing a project, even if the project is executed for the most part offshore, has little to do with “working remotely.” If you wish to successfully outsource a project, you must understand vendor management; if you wish to successfully engage remote staff, you must be able to work with another human being who is in a different physical location than you.

Managing across distances – including geographic, time-zone, and cultural ones – can at first be thorny and outright costly for the uninitiated. The catchy phrase “Death of Distance” used to express the industry’s conviction that ever-falling telecom prices and the whole-sale commoditization of the communications sector would level the playing field for the global world of work. If the cost of pipes (or rather fiber optic cable) was cheap and the price of piping bits from place A to place B nominal, then surely, and voilà, moving work to people, as opposed to moving people to work, was feasible now that distance had succumbed to high-speed fiber.

However, even though communication infrastructure is essentially no longer an explicit cost item in the “remote working” equation, other key factors constitute ‘implicit’ cost items (also sometimes referred to as the “hidden costs of offshoring”). These steps in the engagement process or links in the sourcing chain are: counter-party discovery (individual / facility), HR and system setup, knowledge and work transition, as well as resource and project coordination. Since these are components that take up – at a minimum, that is to say if nothing goes wrong – time and know-how (in other words: money), we can now fathom a ‘true cost’ equation for what it costs an IT manager at place A (e.g., Bloomington, Indiana) to engage a programmer at place B (e.g., Bangalore, India), namely:

  • Programmer’s wage at place B + discovery cost + setup cost + transition cost + coordination cost.

As a commonsensical look at the above ‘cost stack’ would reveal, these implicit costs – in the absence of significant process capabilities and/or efficiencies of scale – might render an otherwise inexpensive (say offshore) resource as, if not more expensive than say an onshore IT worker. Common sense (and believe me, ten years of experience) would also suggest that you might want to seek a process expert or a volume aggregator to help ‘squash down’ each of the cost stack items  so as to optimize the value of remote (and often onshore-offshore) staff augmentation. Ah, but then common sense, as Voltaire used to observe, may just not be so common.

In my next blog I shall introduce two additional variables that will impact the overall cost of engaging a remote staff: first, whether the collaboration is synchronous vs. asynchronous (i.e., whether there is meaningful time-zone overlap or not), and second, whether the remote resources are being managed ‘stand-alone’ vs. as part of an onsite-offsite distributed team.