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.

Final Destination: Localizing Games

I close my eyes, and I’m in Sicily again, oh childhood memories. The air is stifling on that summer day, filled with the sweetly-pungent smell of pine, wild rosemary, and plum tomatoes soaking in the rays of a cruel Sicilian sun; in the distance, in defiance of the arid soil, the ancient olive grove; crickets chirping stridently in concert, and the sad sound of a mandolin barely audible from afar. A rare afternoon of playtime with my father, a Cosa Nostra pioneer and leading light in the nascent field of organized crime, who’s sounding strangely muffled though as if he’s got cotton balls stuffed inside his cheeks; he’s not croaking down the clothes line, is he? My father, if there ever was a wise guy, taught me (among many other things): keep your friends close but your enemies closer. But, I say, who needs enemies with friends like the ones I have on Facebook? Listen paisano, don’t you mess with the Kolbone family!

I open my eyes, and I’m back to playing Mafia Wars, the Webby Awards-winning multiplayer browser game from Zynga, the most fun, addictive, and outright wicked game I’ve played online (bringing back fond memories of the fishing trip I took to Lake Tahoe with my older, slightly useless brother). As far as the game’s character ‘builds’ go, I’ve stared down the face of fear (Fearless), thrown fits of maniacal rage (Maniac), and experienced the joys of moguldom (Mogul). Ever since Tony Soprano, Sr. went off the air, there’s been little public excitement around criminal empire building and thanks to the good folks at Zynga, I – the aspiring delinquent and social gaming novice – am now headquartered in Little Italy (trust me, a lot more scenic and authentic than New Jersey, and you spare yourself the Turnpike hassle).

On my pleasantly rapid ascent to criminal mastermind, Mafia Wars had me passing through such helpfully formative stages as: Street Thug, Associate, Soldier, Enforcer, Hitman, Capo, Consigliere, Underboss, and Boss – yes, capo di tutti capi to all my fellow social-networking-site mafiosos – having attained my rightful standing by virtue of various acts of racketeering, grand larceny (stealing other player’s virtual currency), “robbing,” “icing” as well as further assorted felonies (although I understand that spading, polonium poisoning, and all manners of eye-gouging are frowned upon unless, of course, you’ve managed to move onto Moscow station to join the Russkaya Mafiya or Bratva, as these hoodlums are known). There’s a strong educational element that reinforces basic household economics, such as saving money or collecting your “take” and always paying the piper (i.e., making lots and lots of micropayments to “the Godfather,” that is Zynga’s exchequer).

If you haven’t tried out Mafia Wars, do yourself a favor and play it today (http://www.zynga.com/games/index.php?game=mafiawars) – and as far as this blogger’s opinion is concerned, and in keeping with popular phraseology, “Zynga rules”!

Homo Ludens (the Playing Man) is a remarkable account of the societal and global pervasiveness of gaming by noted medievalists and cultural theorist Johan Huizinga, written back in 1938, asserting that things like Mafia Wars are necessary (though not sufficient) conditions to our cultural evolution. Chess is neither an Indian nor a Persian game but rather a global one. Similarly, Zynga has vaulted onto the world stage with a portfolio of social games which the company “localizes” for universal adoption. And since Facebook, everyone’s main artery of social media reach, is now available in: Afrikaans, Albanian, Arabic, Azeri, Basque, Bengali, Bosnian, Bulgarian, Catalan, Chinese, Croatian, Czech, Danish, Dutch, English, Esperanto, Estonian, Faroese, Filipino, Finnish, French, Galician, Georgian, German, Greek, Hebrew, Hindi, Hungarian, Icelandic, Indonesian, Irish, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Latin, Latvian Lithuanian, Macedonian, Malay, Malayalam, Maltese, Nepali, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Persian, Punjabi, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Slovak, Slovene, Spanish, Swahili, Swedish, Tamil, Telugu, Thai, Turkish, Ukrainian, Vietnamese, and Welsh, Zynga and other gaming companies have their hands full with localization work.

Localization is about a lot more than translating the language-of-origin (mostly English) to the language-of-destination. It requires an understanding of (and really a passion for) the game to be localized, a sound familiarity with the destination culture, and above all some storytelling ability (yes, as in “once upon a time,” “boy meets girl at a dance,” character, dialogue, plot, and story arc). What’s compelling about games like Mafia Wars is that you enter an online fantasy world together with your friends as willing participants in the suspension of disbelief, and even the slightest disruption at the game level such as a botched translation will ruin the effect of the immersion. I’m not sure Salvatore “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero would be buying his knuckle rings at “A store for murder tools of all kinds” but rather at “A store selling weapons of all kinds.” Or, in another example of localization gone awry (though mind you, not at Zynga which does an excellent job localizing their games!), players would surely raise a brow at the “Prick of death,” thinking that they just acquired in that charming aforementioned store an instrument called the “Spike of death.”

The subtlety with which a narrative must be translated to reach the player on an emotional basis far exceeds the minimum level of linguistic competency. To achieve success in game localization I recommend splitting the process into translation, adding contextual meaning, quality assurance of language and meaning, as well as having regular and collaborative “check-ins” with the game publisher. Since speed-to-market and cost control are close second and third considerations right after player delight, game creators should look at a distributed team configuration with broad access to diverse talent in all their target destination countries in addition to tight workflow control to optimize turnaround. In fact, multi-country localization at breakneck-speed is a perfect application for remote staff augmentation. With access to multiple offshore talent pools and a tight communication link between onshore and offshore teams, social gaming firms can be on their way to pan-planetary domination with remote staffing as a high-quality, low-cost, and variable-expense solution.