Lorton Data's Blog

Trying to be Young Again

September 8th, 2010 by Joel Ingersoll

If I don’t put my shopping lists into an Excel spreadsheet, I find myself mumbling at the store about not remembering what I went there to buy. I have not yet reached a point where I am telling hooligans to get off my lawn, but I have shifted ungracefully out of the 25-34 marketing age demographic. However, after looking at the results of a recent Epsilon marketing survey, I find that I may have more in common with today’s whippersnappers than I expected. Just like the college kid at the dinner table, I am tied to my Blackberry 24/7/365 looking at Twitter updates and reading my email. However, I am like the younger generation in a more unexpected way; like them, I am much more likely to read my monthly Microcenter paper advertisement than I am my daily TigerDirect email. Interestingly, last week a survey came out that might have explained why.

The survey, from Epsilon’s ICOM division, discovered that “fifty-three percent of all respondents say they pay closer attention to information they receive by postal mail, compared with email.” The study also suggests consumers in the 18-34 demographic prefer to receive and trust postal and newspaper marketing over online messages in the US and Canada by a 2-1 or whopping 3-1 margin based on various criteria in the study.

After sharing this information with my coworkers, quite a few of them were taken aback. I know that I too was surprised by these results. I’ve worked on some very successful email campaigns, and our organization is looking to social media as an avenue for future revenue growth. I’d have thought individuals who had something more technologically advanced than a Commodore 64 as their first computer would be more open to electronic communication as their primary source of receiving marketing information. Based on this study, I would have been wrong. It was then actually a conversation with The Wife that got me thinking about this and I have a couple of reasons I think this might be the case.

Too Much Email

Epsilon learned that “consumers are receiving more email than ever, and in many cases not opening it at all.” It didn’t occur to me, but this is absolutely true—especially for businesses where I have an existing relationship. This may be excessive but I have four email accounts: my work email, Gmail for personal use, Hotmail for paying the bills, and Yahoo for signing up for things. Without exaggeration I get hundreds of emails on a daily basis and I know I am not the only one. If all four of these accounts were synched to my Blackberry, that little red light of doom would never stop blinking at me. I check my Yahoo account roughly once a week and I always find at least seven emails each from TigerDirect, Borders, Amazon, Delta, Continental Airlines, Papa John’s and multiple Las Vegas casinos. Not to mention the emails about taking online courses, selling my valuable metals and government grants. Much like the historical perspective that all postal solicitations are junk mail, it’s really easy to bucket all email offers as spam.

This isn’t always the case though. Email can be a very successful avenue for marketing products and services. The key is to properly target your message, have a good offer, etc… Professional marketing managers know all of this already, but I think that sometimes gets forgotten when it comes to email campaigns. Timely isn’t a synonym for daily. Also, Delta Airlines, I already have your Amex (and you know it), stop asking me to sign up for one weekly.

Don’t Click This Link

The study also brought the following information to light regarding the reliability of information received through electronic communication, “blogs, Facebook and online forums each ranked with 8 percent, while YouTube, Twitter and other social media outlets had 7 and 6 percent, respectively. Email attracted 12 percent.” Email at 12 percent is rather low, and while I do think it is a very effective avenue for marketing when the message is accurate, it still has it challenges. When you consider the historical concerns of people in regard to phishing scams and other scamming techniques used in electronic communication, it can be a challenge to differentiate between a legitimate offer and an attempt to collect your personal information for nefarious purposes.

To do it right, social media marketing is a real challenge. Engaging your community while being entertaining and interesting is difficult. However, there are so many sources just pushing out the next white paper link to improve your business, make thousands of dollars from the comfort of your own home, or in the instance where I received an unsolicited offer to buy socks in threes instead of pairs, we are surrounded by the noise of inappropriate or unprofessional attempts to get us to click. Postal mail doesn’t have the same sense of noise. Since the cost of postal mail is consistently going up, we do get less marketing mail daily, so it gets more attention. Other than Discover, I don’t get weekly credit card solicitations anymore. Most of my mail now advertises local companies or unique services and typically people do take the time to look and examine the offers because quite simply, there are fewer of them.

Interestingly, “consumers who earn an annual income of less than $60,000, as well as shoppers aged 18-34, are more likely to say receiving direct mail from a company makes them feel like a valued customer.” There is a perceived effort involved in direct mail that may not have been apparent before the proliferation of online marketing and advertising. Beyond interesting copy and a good offer, the piece has to be printed and someone has to deliver it. With this sense of work involved (imagined or real), direct mail subconsciously gets priority over electronic communications.

Finally, the study proposes two things. The first being that “good relationships are built on trust, so it is not surprising that most consumers depend on flesh and blood over modems and monitors.” While I agree with this statement, organizations like Comcast have done an excellent job developing trust using platforms like Twitter and if an organization is utilizing social media effectively online, trust can be developed with a user community. The second is essential for any organization to understand. “The upshot is that regardless of the demographic, marketers need to employ a multichannel campaign for topmost customer engagement. Social media, like many forms of communication, should be incorporated as one component of a broader strategy.” In other words, email can be successful, social media can be successful, but without postal marketing you are probably missing out on your full audience.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to head out to Denny’s for a Grand Slam breakfast for dinner.

Don’t Give Us The Pickle

June 10th, 2010 by Joel Ingersoll

I’ve been railing against pickles since early this morning. I’ve been waving my hands in the air, wild-eyed, with my hair an absolute mess over something that really isn’t important. Pickles! Those vinegary cucumbers are the bane of my existence. It shouldn’t be a shock to anyone that knows me that I enjoy going to the local watering hole for a cold one with a burger and fries. I’ll pore over the menu carefully to ensure I get the appropriate vegetables and cheeses for the best possible dining experience. More importantly, I look to see if they serve a pickle with the burger, so I can ask them to hold it. I don’t even want one on the plate. When I go to an establishment and pickles aren’t on the menu, and yet one of those evil little things arrives on my plate, I am a little upset. You see, I know it sounds weird, but I can still taste them. Surprising me with a pickle isn’t a gift at all—instead, it is a source of frustration.

Of course, I am not really here to tell you about my strange dietary habits, but instead would like to touch on the recent behavior of many internet organizations to force us to opt-out of things we don’t want. I would assume that many, if not all of you are aware of Thursday’s change to the Google main web page. For me, I was visually assaulted with a bright contrast of colors before my first cup of coffee. I understand this isn’t some paramount issue, or a place to draw a line in the sand, but I think this illustrates a growing trend that is generating massive amounts of frustration in the user community. The trend is ‘the pickle on the plate,’ so to speak. We may or may not want new and exciting (or in this case, relatively mundane) features, but we do want to choose for ourselves if this is something we want. It isn’t the security damaging changes made to the privacy policies of Facebook, or the error laden launch of Google Buzz, but it shows a disconnect between application users and the people designing and rolling out these features. The fact that Google turned off the forced adoption of backgrounds to the main page after only a few hours, shows how they again misjudged their customers.

Another parallel for the office environment is how every single iteration of Microsoft Word gets significantly more complex. The added features may or may not be nice, but now that I need to click my mouse sixty times to double space a paper, I get a little annoyed.

*Deep Breath*

On one hand, this really isn’t something to get too worked up about. Maybe I am overreacting–just a hair. On the other hand, if we don’t complain about being forced to opt-out of every single service, every single day with some new company, then the practice will continue. When Twitter rolled out geo-location for tweets, they were nice enough to ask me if I wanted it included. While I decided against it, many of my friends decided to share where they were tweeting from. It’s cool to be able to actively make that choice, and not be part of the driving force on Google search trends for “remove Google background.”

So as you market your products and roll out new services, try to keep in mind there is apparently a very fine line between “value-add” and “value-annoy,” and forcing your customers to adopt something you think is “neat” may not be the best course of action. Now if you’ll excuse me while I send this pickle back to the kitchen.

What do Rockets, Missiles and Cloud Services have in common?

May 25th, 2010 by Nita Estrem

The answer is that they have each played a part in the history of the mailing industry.

February 23, 1936 – two rockets were launched in an attempt to transport mail 2,000 feet across a frozen lake. These rockets crash-landed on the ice and the postmaster had to drag the bags of mail across the frozen lake to the post office.

On June 8, 1959 – a navy submarine fired a guided missile carrying 3,000 letters towards a naval air station in Mayport, FL. At that time the postmaster general stated, “Before man reaches the moon mail will be delivered within hours from New York to California by guided missile.”

On January 7, 2010 – Lorton Data announced the release of “Aqua-Mailer”, a complete, on-demand suite of direct mail services. These “in the cloud” services enable direct mailers to streamline their processes and save on software costs therefore increasing their bottom line profit.

Mailing technology has come a long way………..the sky’s the limit!

Social Influence of Social Media

April 19th, 2010 by Mary Calahan

In response to Joel’s social media blog entitled Is Anyone Out There?, I just have to put in my two cents. If the available social and psychological research is correct, it is possible to change behavior by purposefully doing – just about anything! Not just one time, but first trying something, and then trying again, and then again, and before you are aware, that thing you are doing is something that you DO! The next step we take from this new habit is to influence others and we do this unwittingly most of the time.

I recall in the late 1980’s, yes, I am that old, when my husband got his first cell phone (size – 8″x2″x3″). I mean the thing was HUGE! This was the offspring of the car phone that stayed in the car but didn’t have to be connected to a cord – ingenious. Of course I looked at it as a leash, so refused my own for several years. I finally accepted the inevitable leash when my friends started getting them and were so excited about the benefits. I am sure my husband said the same things, but coming from him was I going to listen?? Today, I can’t even imagine my life without my phone, and I email people to let them know that I don’t have it if for some reason I leave it plugged in at home when I leave for work…far cry from the leash I was afraid of 20 years ago.

This isn’t just the stuff of social media, this influence ability is prevalent on every level of our communication with others, and it passes from people we know to people we don’t know through our life stream. Something like – Susie talks to Francine about her friend who just started taking yoga at a local center. Francine has been thinking about taking yoga for a long time, and this information about Susie’s friend in this conversation triggers that desire in Francine who convinces her husband and they both finally start taking yoga classes. Then Francine’s husband, over the water cooler, talks about how great the yoga class was and how much harder it was then he thought it would be. His colleague takes this information home, and a few weeks later, that couple decides to try this out as something they can do together where they are both getting the benefit of exercise along with spending some much needed time together. On the surface from any other point of view, Francine has been thinking about this for a long time, and the actual taking of classes was inevitable, but actually the tie to Susie’s friend, the social influence, was the impetus to take the desire from a thought to an action. And the link to the colleague and spouse/partner behavior could also be traced to Susie’s friend. From an article in Science News Magazine, Rachel Zelkowitz reviews the research of Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler. They propose “it is possible that … even strangers may impact how you live, love and, yes, gain weight.”

So, if these assertions can be translated to the use of social media, as we use blogs, tweets, Facebook connections as informational and educational and conversational platforms, some number of our connections will do the same. In turn, their connections will do the same, and the seemingly small network will grow appendages beyond our current comprehension. Just think of it now, with my two offspring grown to college age individuals, I communicate with them through the year almost entirely by text and email, and most recently, they have both allowed me to be friends on Facebook. I follow blogs and download podcasts of my favorite NPR programs, I listen to MPR on my iPhone when I take my dogs for walks, I contact people on LinkedIn or Facebook regularly, and I am a member of UrbanSpoon, among other social based programs that offer information that may help others when traveling, etc. In short, I just can’t imagine my life without my social media, and my expectation of others, either through work or private life, is that they feel the same. If they don’t, you can bet I will talk it up and hook them in!

404 Email Not Found

April 15th, 2010 by Joel Ingersoll

The Wife and I got fancy new Blackberry phones this week and I am in love. I told The Wife that I still loved her more than our new phones, but it’s close. This type of positive reinforcement nearly had me sleeping on the couch in the basement for a few days, but there’s a TV, a beer fridge, a PS3 and my Rock Band gear down there, so it’s cool. Why do I love my new Blackberry so much? Integration! I now have direct access to my Hotmail, Gmail, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and text messaging accounts all from a device that is smaller than an iPad! I know, y’all are thinking, “welcome to 2008 Joel, I already have a Droid that contributes processing power to the SETI project when I am not doing advanced calculus.” I had the Pearl for the last two years, and really, it just felt like a fancy-pants phone and not an integrated mobile communication device. I now have enough technology to transmit instructions to the Mars Rover. Huzzah!

As always the next question is; what the heck does this have to do with direct marketing and what not? I know you love your geek toys but why should I care? It’s simple. I’ve been working with a whole slew (if that’s the appropriate collective noun) of email marketing gurus on some customer campaigns and we’ve talked quite a bit about development and deployment and how something appears correct on one platform but can be completely off on another. You might make excellent copy for Outlook that comes out blank on Hotmail even though they are both from the same company. You might have something that looks awesome on an iPhone but just doesn’t work for the Blackberry. I cannot stress how important it is to understand that people interact with communication technologies differently and that it is essential to be as agnostic as possible when using email as a marketing tool.

Right before the tax deadline, the Wife and I signed up for a Roth IRA for 2009. Although we were under the gun to get it completed for taxes, we set it up online in minutes. It was really slick. Minutes later my phone buzzed with my email confirmation from the company managing our account. Header information is there, but the body of each note (there were two of them) was completely blank. On the hotmail account all the necessary information was there—but on ye olde Blackberry not a scrap of text—or even an image. In this scenario it isn’t a problem, but if you want to market to someone that accesses their email on a phone, you could have huge problems.

If you are renting a list and running a campaign to potential new customers, you really only have one shot to market to me via email and that is when I check my inbox. If I am sitting on the couch Monday night watching Chuck (please renew this show, NBC) and an email comes in, I am going to check it immediately—unless something cool is going on and then I’ll wait until the commercials. If that message is from someone I don’t have an existing relationship with and it’s blank, I am going to select “delete on handheld & mailbox” and it’s gone. Let’s be honest, does anyone really think “oh, I am curious what this blank advertisement is for, I had better head right over to a computer and see what it says.” So while you have spent money on acquiring a list, money on developing an enticing message and creative offer, and money for deployment, if you don’t understand deliverability you are going to lose customers right off the bat. It would be like sending a postcard mailer and not running NCOALink® on a file before mailing. A bunch of your customers just won’t get the message.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I gotta email this guy about a Nigerian wire transfer deal I just got on my phone.

Is Anyone Out There?

April 5th, 2010 by Joel Ingersoll

Someday soon someone will retweet one of my mildly coherent musings on Twitter and what an amazingly glorious day that will be. The birds will sing (and tweet ha-ha) and maybe even land on my shoulder as in a live-action Disney movie. I might even pop the top on that special bottle of Champagne (of beers) I’ve been saving for a very special occasion. It’s similar to the decibel breaking w00t I emit every time a real human being comments on the blog—there’s a call to action in that last statement people!

The other day I had a discussion with the boss about social media marketing, which stimulated my somewhat humbling comments above. Our talk focused the frustration business folks can feel with trying to implement a social media strategy for their organization and the perceived successes and failures of those actions. Be it a blog, Facebook. Twitter or LinkedIn, the expectation with Web 2.0 technology is that there should be an immediate response to information shared through these communication vehicles. The rub is that it takes time to build a community of followers and participants and, depending on how much time your organization wants to spend building that community, you’ll need to be patient as that online community develops. In other words, not only will your mileage vary with social media, the time it takes for people to start to interact with you can be lengthy as well.

Traditional direct marketing methods are well defined. Determine your market and develop your marketing contact list. Create a message with a specific offer and call to action. Mail your design piece and track the response and then measure your return on investment. If you got a 2% return rate on the mailing and it is profitable you can do a little happy dance before modifying your next campaign based on what worked and didn’t work with your current offer. In contrast, people are still trying to figure out how to measure ROI on social media. A company’s number of Facebook friends or hits to the blog doesn’t necessarily translate into hard factorable cash.

Let’s assume you have a blog. Weekly, you spend two hours putting together a post to share with your customers. Then when you post it, an undefined number of people read it. Nearly all of your readers won’t comment regardless of how compelling the writing or information is—that’s just the nature of blogs. However, if people are finding your blog and reading it, it is likely that it’s influencing them. Blogging or Tweeting is a lot more amorphous than using a promo code to track an offer, but it is likely you are having an impact. You just need time and focus to help build your community.

You also need time to build credibility. Just because some dude in business casual writes something and sticks it on the wide-wide-world-of-web does not make it gospel (I’m looking in a mirror right now), but over a period of time a collection of posts or tweets or rambling somewhat viable ideas can develop trust in your audience and/or customers. There’s an opportunity to prove yourself an expert through your body of work and allows you to develop a level of trust with current and potential customers. It isn’t a Field of Dreams, “if you post it, they will buy” scenario. You can’t just cut out a cornfield and expect new customers (but it would be pretty darn cool if you could). Instead it requires persistence and desire to be successful.

Personally, I’ll keep blogging until they pry the keyboard out of my rigid, firmly clutching fingers—or ask me nicely to stop. Eventually, I’ll reach that critical mass that illustrates there is a valuable return on investment. At some point, people will retweet my tweets (the fools!) and the time I’ve spent babbling will be worth it. My advice to any organization experiencing frustration while dipping their toes into the social media ocean is to hang in there. Measure the time investment you are putting into social media to see if what you are doing makes sense, adjust your commitments if necessary and understand that community building takes time. Now if you’ll excuse me while I go check my twitter account.

Please read carefully, here are your rules (I think):

March 31st, 2010 by Joel Ingersoll

1. You may check in online for your flight 24 hours in advance and print your boarding pass.

2. If your connecting flight is more than an undetermined length after your first flight, you will not be able to check in for your second flight prior to your first flight.

3. Even though you’ve taken your first flight and landed, you may not check in for your connecting flight at the airport unless it is within an undetermined length of your first flight.

4. However, once you’ve left home and boarded a plane, you can nonetheless check in online and print your boarding pass for your second flight. Of course, you are no longer at home, so you’ll need to find a printer to do this. Remember, you can’t use the check-in kiosk, though.

5. Of course, if your second flight was to take off within the undetermined length of your first flight, you’d have been able to check online at home.

6. The automated kiosk won’t tell you this information when you try to check in for your second flight. Instead it will ask you to stand in the mile long line at 3 AM to talk with the poor customer service representative who has to deal with all these angry customers who have no idea why they can’t check in.

7. None of these rules appear anywhere on your website, which, in fact, clearly states you can check-in online for any flight within 24 hours of its departure time.

8. There is no way the rules above can be understood and communicated by one person at the airline. You must interact with the company three different ways over the course of at minimum 24 hours, to get these answers.

9. At least one representative of the airline must get these rules wrong when you communicate with them. Especially when all you want to do is make sure you can finish the flight you started.

My local airline communicates to me a lot. It’s intentional that I wrote “to me” rather than “with me” because right now I really feel like this is a one-way street. Daily I received a plethora of offers to fly from Kansas City to Salt Lake City or Toledo to Jacksonville. Rarely do they send me offers from the Twin Cities to somewhere I’d want to go. To be completely honest though, a discounted flight offer has never compelled me to hop on a plane to a vacation destination. What would compel me to fly an airline, and *gasp* actually pay a little more for a ticket would be information. Real information about my flight! Over the last few years, airlines have received extensive amounts of negative publicity and quiet honestly a lot of it is deserved.

The Wife and I were lucky enough to spend some time in Hawaii a week ago (I know how many people were sad there was no blog post last week) and while I don’t have a legitimate horror story about being stuck on the tarmac for 18 hours while being fed a single cracker that’s been on the plane since 1982, I did manage to make it to Hawaii significantly more angry and frustrated than I should have been. And that had nothing to do with my right knee fusing with the seat in front of me on the flight to LAX. It all had to do with the appropriate flow of information and the airlines’ continued failure to understand what is really of value to their customers.

Twenty-four hours before our flight to Maui began we hopped online to check in and print off our boarding passes. Because we had a short overnight layover of about eight hours in LA before we completed our journey, the airline didn’t consider it a layover and we were unable to use online check in for our second flight. We were a little concerned, especially since this airline is notorious for overbooking, but we figured we’d make a call to make sure there wasn’t an issue with the tickets (I don’t know about you, but I don’t feel particularly comfortable hopping a flight across the country and expect the airline to actually put us on our next flight.) The Wife called and they told us we’d be able to check in at the airport when we landed. We take off, I cross my fingers for the whole four-hour flight (disrupting proper digital blood flow), and, once we land at LAX, we hustle to an automated kiosk: uh oh! No go.

We can’t check in for the flight and we get a “see attendant” error code. Nothing more than that. No, “you can only check in at a kiosk four or less hours before your flight.” Nothing told us this at 1 AM (3 AM our time). So we get into the line with dozens of other disheveled travelers. Fortunately, someone with a nametag walked by after a short time and my wife launched into the “will this line actually help us get what we need?” question. The answer was no. The service desk wouldn’t be able to help us for a couple of more hours, but if we wanted to we could check in online. After counting to ten, twice, I had to remind myself the situation wasn’t the fault of the individual that answered my question. Instead, it arose from the airline’s chosen customer-service structure, which fails to actually provide passengers access to helpful information to make travel easier, less stressful and an all around slightly more pleasant experience.

The Wife and I are diligent and experienced travelers. We are the people in line with our boarding pass and IDs out and our liquids, shoes and laptops at the ready to be binned. We aren’t the ones that hold up the security line as we dig through 180 days’ worth of stuff for an overnight trip just to get the ID we knew we had to have at the ready when we got into the line. So if we have a general issue and can’t get a real answer, I can say with complete confidence the problem rests with the airlines and not with us.

After our trip, I looked up the five most frequently asked travel questions on the airline’s website and shook my head. I understand this list isn’t actually compiled from real user questions, but a sense of reality would be nice.

1. How can I change my ticket? – Okay this one seems pretty reasonable. I bet this is a question that is actually asked by travelers fairly frequently.

2. How can I get my electronic ticket receipt e-mailed to me? – Really? It’s emailed to you with your confirmation. This just seems to me that very few people actually ask this. (Perhaps travelers used to ask this question, but e-tickets have been the norm for more than a decade.) Time to update the FAQs with actual real-world questions.

3. What do I do if I need help with ***.com? – That’s not really a travel FAQ, nor is it relevant since there’s a huge “CONTACT US” link at the top of the page

4. Can I get information about special fares and discounts at ***.com by sending an e-mail? – I get this one from the airline’s perspective, but again it really isn’t a travel tip. This is simply an attempt to hawk marketing e-mails rather than actually provide answers to real questions.

5. Can I get a copy of my itinerary by e-mail? – Again that is already emailed to you when you book and I would hope that the average person would know their itinerary because they PICKED IT WHEN THEY PAID FOR IT. Sorry, didn’t mean to get worked up there.

Since I am getting fired up let’s link this back to your business. One of the really nifty things about the interwebs is that people will actually look on your website for answers before calling. *Gasp* So if you understand what your customers are actually asking, you can help them help themselves. As I said to a coworker recently, “it is cheaper to make a small change to the website than to take twenty help desk calls,” and I firmly believe that’s true. Some people are always going to call, just like some people are not going to take their boarding pass out from the depths of their bag before getting to the TSA agent—despite watching two thousand people in front of them doing it. But for those customers that just want a simple answer, make it easy for them to find it. Your FAQs are an opportunity to improve customer service for folks that can generally help themselves. Make those frequently asked questions real questions and update them often. If you are struggling with effective customer service, here’s an easy way to reduce workload and increase customer satisfaction. Let your customer service agents focus on the folks that really need assistance, and I can go to my hotel near LAX. Excuse me while I go stretch my legs back into their natural shape.

Will You Be Fired For Commenting On This At Work?

March 10th, 2010 by Joel Ingersoll

I’ve been an active member of various internet communities dating back to the fall of 2000. In full disclosure, when I had a lot more anonymity on the web, I posted a lot of things that might fall into a grey area in terms of appropriate communication for 2010 where social media has blurred the lines between private and work life. Fortunately, my internet handle back then was pretty general, and, given the volume of internet chatter, it would be exceedingly hard and time consuming to attribute that “bad” stuff to me. While my membership and participation in multiple social media sites has increased dramatically since 2008, my internet presence has been consolidated. With one quick search, you can find me at Twitter, Facebook, Linked In, this work blog, and hopefully in the near future, my personal blog with The Wife. It’s a far cry from posting on forums where the only thing to narrow me down was my self-listed location the “the best location in the nation.”

I know that part of the hiring process at Lorton Data involved a general search of my internet presence and what type of image my digital self portrays to the world. Today, beyond a few pictures of me at Halloween playing Rock Band with my hair dyed green, I can’t think of anything too questionable. Maybe there’s a political rant on Facebook, or a photo of me enjoying a tasty adult beverage in a legally approved setting. However, if Skynet is watching closely, I could be one ill-advised tweet away from employment oblivion (queue dramatic music). Each time I post to Twitter or Facebook I have to be aware that there could be business ramifications to what I have to say. While I highly doubt I’ll do anything to jeopardize my career, I need to be cognizant of my words before I click send.

Do a quick search on Google for the words ‘Facebook” and “Fired.” It’s okay, I’ll wait. You’ll see at least 16,000,000 hits. That’s a lot of words dedicated to the topic. You can read everything from posts about people being fired for using Facebook at work, to employers screening job applicants on social media sites, to advice on whether to add your boss as a friend. On a side note, I did friend my boss on Facebook and the only problem I have is the application keeps suggesting I reconnect with him. No offense Ray, but the 8-9 hours a day I spend with you is ample! Regardless, there’s a significant gap between the expectations of businesses and individuals when it comes to social media and how people interact outside of work.

I’ve dropped over 400 words without discussing anything really useful or new to the conversation, so it’s time to switch gears. We have three conflicting issues that need to be addressed as businesses and individuals adapt to the ever-changing landscape of the internet and social media applications.

1. Anonymity

We are no longer talking about issues of privacy in the new digital landscape. We gave that up when we agreed to the terms of Facebook, Twitter and Linked In. Maybe we didn’t with Google Buzz, but I’ve addressed that already. Instead, most people are looking for internet anonymity. We want to be able to communicate with our friends, family and a limited number co-workers without being noticed by the outside world. Based on the volume of ones and zeros dedicated to this topic, anonymity isn’t necessarily working out as we might have assumed.

2. Social Media Policies for Businesses and Organizations

Let’s not talk about usage at work, but rather what the business feels is appropriate for promoting their image. The rules don’t have to be Draconian, but if you want to give a pink slip to someone for inappropriate online behavior, don’t play “guess what’s behind my back.” It shouldn’t be a moving target. I understand it isn’t necessarily obvious what rules need to be in place, but build a framework. That way everyone is on the same page and there are no surprises when a policy is violated. If an organization doesn’t have a social media policy in place, they should be hands off on what people do on the web when they aren’t at work. That seems pretty reasonable to me.

3. Monitoring Employee Twitter, Facebook, Linked In and Blogs

Monitoring these social marketing tools that people use outside of work brings up a myriad of philosophical and ethical questions. While someone blowing off steam about work on Facebook might not be appropriate, does it really warrant a discussion or an immediate axing? The Philadelphia Eagles fired a stadium gate employee for using Facebook to complain about letting a player go to another team. Based the Eagles’ response, clearly this guy was an important media influencer. Maybe a short discussion would have been more appropriate? Of course it depends on the situation, but employers having carte blanche over an employee’s personal life really reeks of a Big Brother mentality.

Many organizations are making the rules up as they go along, and that is okay. A little ambiguity doesn’t hurt. Just make sure to have some type of policy in place and that it is clearly communicated to your teams. If you are an employee wondering about something you want to share on Facebook, Linked In or Twitter—think about whether the end result would likely be a call from your mother guilting you for your behavior. If it would, don’t do it. A little common sense by individuals, and appropriate organization guidelines can function cohesively to reduce problems while standards and norms develop in regard to social media in a corporate context.

I won’t let you friend me on Facebook if I don’t know you, but you can connect to me on Linked In. If you aren’t into the whole professional thing, follow me on Twitter @ FlyoverJoel where I assure you I won’t be talking about work.

Take My Wife Money. Please!

March 4th, 2010 by Joel Ingersoll

It’s a simple premise. You are doing something good and I want to give you money or time to help your cause. Make it easy for me to do so. Since the Wife and I can’t afford to be professional philanthropists, we donate time or money when we can to help worthwhile causes. We’ve found several in the last year that we wanted to help, but our offers seemed to have fallen into the giant black hole of the internet.

I talk quite a bit about finding customers on this blog, but I haven’t spent much time discussing what to do when you find them. Getting the worm on the hook is actually the hard part. Don’t stare blankly at the fish when you get it out of the water.

At Christmas time every year, one of the Twin Cities emergency response groups takes underprivileged children to the local Target stores for some holiday shopping and cheer. The Wife and I believe this is a good cause for two reasons. First, it helps children that might not have a holiday to experience the joys of giving. Second, it gets those workers into the community and interacting with their constituents in a positive situation. Community interaction and good PR can’t hurt any group in their position.

Two years ago we donated directly to the fund, when we were at Target. It was easy to hand over some money and get our names added to their mailing list with the thought that we could annually contribute to these activities. Next holiday season no mailing came to us. There was no information on the web about it. We still wanted to help, so I did the next best thing. I sent an email to their general inquiry email address asking to be directed to an appropriate resource so I could find out more information. Since this address isn’t used to report fires or muggings, I assumed, incorrectly it turned out, that someone would take the time to help get me to where I need. I expected it might take a few days to get response, but I was sure we would get some type of reply – after all we were going to give them money. A year later I am still waiting to hear back.

Another example is a little more current. Recently, one of my favorite professors from my undergraduate institution passed away. The alumni office set up a memorial fund in his honor, and since I hadn’t really been able to donate to my college in the past, I figured this would be a good time to start. I sent a quick email on 2/11/2010 to alumni relations asking on how I could give to the memorial fund. Over two weeks later I am still waiting on a response. As most of us can agree, an Alumni office at every institution in the country is looking for more ways to increase donations, why won’t they tell me how they can take my money?

Take a quick mental inventory of your company. What procedures do you have in place to take care of general inquires? What importance do you place on your info@, sales@ or support@ email addresses? Or your feedback and contact forms? Do you get so few emails to those addresses that no one remembers to check them? Are you so focused on outbound marketing that you forget to collect the communications reaching out to you, seeking your services, your products?

When you institute an email policy for general mailboxes keep the following things in mind:
1. Are you forwarding those notes to a group of people, or are you relying on one individual to monitor those communications? If they take a vacation do they have a backup?
2. Do the individuals responding to those emails have a stake in the questions being asked? Are they willing to route communications to the appropriate resources?
3. Is the in-box so inundated with spam that legitimate requests are missed?

I could probably ask a hundred more questions, but I implore you to think about how your organization has implemented general inquiry email addresses. Taking the time to implement a smart system for inbound inquiries makes good business sense. A potential customer that declines to do business when you first reach out to them may nonetheless do business with you in the future. If you fail to respond to a potential customer, when they reach out to you – that customer is likely lost forever.

The point is simple. Any avenue of communication your potential customers or donors have to reach you is important. Let me give you my money. Seriously. All you have to do is hit reply.

A Bark Worse Than the Bite?

February 22nd, 2010 by Joel Ingersoll

Or should I say the Buzz is worse than the Sting? Sorry for the bad pun. On the drive in this morning it was the snappiest lead-in I could conjure other than FizzyFuzzy Big & Buzzy. And I know the reference to a one-hit-wonder band from 1996 would probably be lost on nearly everyone.

If you’ve spent any time on the interwebs in the last week you have to be aware of the controversy surrounding Google Buzz and the serious complaints regarding the privacy violations of Gmail users. This includes a class action lawsuit filed on Wednesday. If you have been under a rock, or only get your news from the Lorton Data Blog (unlikely) here is a quick summary. Google released a product called Google Buzz to directly compete with social media products like Facebook, Twitter and MySpace (okay, there really isn’t a need to compete with MySpace). Since social media products only look snazzy when you have lots of interaction, Google automatically opted in every single Gmail account and made their contact lists public! That’s 31.2 million users. To put this in perspective, it’s as if Google released the names and contact information for every single person in Canada over the age of five and to whom they communicate. That’s family, friends, business associates, current and former significant others, association members, your kid’s hockey team, curling buddies, attorneys and everyone else you can think of. It’s an understatement to say that those are pretty serious privacy and security principles to overlook. Normally, I’d make a reference to SkyNet here, but The Consumerist beat me to the punch.

Here’s what I don’t get. At Lorton Data, I get worried if I go fifteen minutes without hearing the words: ‘security,’ ‘privacy,’ ‘coffee’ and ‘more.’ As an organization, we are trusted with private and confidential information all day long, and often late into the night. With our recently completed SAS 70 process, security and privacy discussions have become even more focused. If you have private information on a population the size of Canada, how do you overlook the basic idea that it would be nice to allow people to consent before their private communication lists are nakedly exposed to the rest of the country? If I get itchy running National Change of Address on a mailing list for the International Red Swingline Enthusiasts of Walla Walla, Washington, how come no one at Google thought this might be a bad idea?

With Facebook, I don’t always appreciate, but I do understand their attitude toward privacy. Notions of privacy have changed and what was once considered strictly private is now welcome in the public sphere. We’ve opted in to Facebook with the understanding that we can share information with others in our network, and with their ever-evolving privacy policy we’ll continue to share more than we may have anticipated originally. That’s an inherent risk we have to accept to play Bejeweled Blitz and look at photos of our friends’ new babies.

Google and Gmail are a different entity entirely. While Facebook tightropes the line between private and public spaces, we have an assumed anonymity and privacy with email. We expect our communication to go from the sender to the receiver without anyone else peeking in to that communication. We also expect that when we click send, no one else knows who we are writing to unless we choose to tell someone about it. That’s normally over a beer at the bar, not shared with enough people to replace nearly everyone up north. While I love my soccer, kickball and broomball teammates, the people the wife and I invited to our wedding, my Brown’s Backers Club, my city, state and county government contacts and the myriad of attorneys I know; you don’t need to know that I am emailing them. If you want to know who I am connected to, friend me on Facebook or on LinkedIn. At least then, I’ll know and understand the social contract we are entering.

I am happy to use Gmail for my email. Google is really good at that. But given what’s happened with their first foray into competitive social media, I’d say they aren’t very good at understanding that there are still expected limits on privacy and confidentiality in these digital times.