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How To Mismanage Your Community The EMusic Way

Since 2005, I’ve been a loyal member of eMusic, a monthly music subscription service. What initially attracted me to eMusic was their terrific catalog of DRM-free indie music from bands like Mogwai, Mates of State, Spoon, and Pretty Girls Make Graves. And the subscription rate was a great value.

However, in the past couple of years, eMusic clearly started to shift its emphasis toward competing with iTunes. They started to bring in more major labels and subtly raised the subscription fees. At first it sounded like a good idea…who wouldn’t want to have access to some White Stripes and Foo Fighters along with their New Pornographers and Metric? But as eMusic transitioned, the member forums started to show signs of discontent. Then last month eMusic completed a deal with Universal Music Group to add several thousand new tracks from mainstream artists. That’s when things took a turn toward the ugly side.

Nowhere has the ugly become more obvious than on eMusic’s member forums. Here are five things eMusic is doing that you can’t afford to do if you want a thriving member community:

1. Not address issues raised by members
You don’t have to dig very far to see just how pissed members are with eMusic. Here’s a sample of post titles from the forums:

  • Have credit, can’t download; lousy customer service
  • Well, it ain’t an improved service we’re paying for…
  • Goodbye emusic
  • Money taken but no credit.
  • How to destroy customer loyalty

Want to know how many times a rep from eMusic responded to these particular posts? Zip. Zero. Zilch. Review the forum and you’ll see that most of the interaction is members consoling other members and lamenting how things have changed for the worse. When it comes to actually addressing the issues raised by members, eMusic most often chooses the silent but deadly route.

Here’s a better way: Hopefully, it’s crystal clear. Deal with your members’ issues as openly and quickly as possible. Yes, sometimes an instant response isn’t the appropriate thing to do (particularly where investigation or research is necessary), but people will tolerate bad news a lot better when they’re treated like intelligent adults.

2. Speak mainly in PR-ese
When someone from eMusic does bother to communicate with members, its usually their VP of Corporate Communications, Cathy Nevins. I don’t know Ms. Nevins but what I can tell by her background and her interactions on the forums is that she clearly doesn’t understand the differences of PR, customer service, and community management. Find any post or response she writes and it oozes with PR-ese, rarely addressing the actual issue and sometimes providing misinformation. Case in point is this question regarding a change in service: http://www.emusic.com/messageboard/viewTopic.html?topicId=263393#1487316. After Cathy does offer a response, notice how many subscribers call her out on offering a less-than-truthful explanation. There’s also an interesting related conversation going on at non-affiliated emusers.org.

Here’s a better way: Talk to your members like they’re people you give a damn about. Be specific as often as possible. Apologize for screwing up. If you feel the overwhelming urge to spin and micromanage a situation, you need to nip that in the bud. Communities of passionate members are built around relationships of respect and honesty. PR-ese isn’t part of that equation.

3. Allow VPs to run the community
I hope my criticism of Ms. Nevins isn’t seen as personal. It’s not. (In some ways, I do feel bad for her. It’s horribly apparent that she’s in way over her head, perhaps even close to burnout.) But what I find curious is that eMusic puts the responsibility of interacting with paying members in the hands of a VP whose background is public relations. Know what this tells me? That eMusic executive management doesn’t really know what the hell it’s doing, and definitely doesn’t know how to maintain an online community.

Want further proof that this company has a deaf ear toward online interaction? All posts at eMusic’s blog, 17 dots, written by their CEO, Adam Klein, have the comment function disabled (though notice all other posts have no problems with comments). And yet more proof is on their Twitter account where they mostly RT and respond to positive tweets, but ignore respectfully critical questions, issues, and comments.

If eMusic really understood the importance of a positive, thriving community, they’d realize that talking with their members – even if they are pissed off members – would help. It would also be a good idea to hire a community manager immediately who knew how to communicate openly with people, listen with empathy, and calm tensions by providing needed information (on the other hand, the lack of a true community manager and the impact on eMusic’s member satisfaction isn’t a new issue).

Here’s a better way: Nothing against VPs or execs managing communities, but often they’re not in the right place to do it well. It’s vital to maintain their buy-in and keep them involved when necessary. However, managing a community is work that takes focus and a wide variety of skillsets. If your online community is foundering, hire an experienced community management professional.

4. Allow critical issues to escalate
By not immediately and adequately dealing with those tensions expressed by members who felt cheated and ignored, eMusic lost their shot at quelling the criticism. These issues didn’t just arise overnight…they were slowly percolating over the last several months. One could almost argue it started last summer during a particularly significant subscription rate hike when eMusic added Sony to their catalog.

Here’s a better way: It’s a no-brainer but it’s so easy to let problems snowball until they turn into full out avalanches. Then, it takes a herculean effort to dig your company out of the pileup. Don’t let the avalanche occur. Build an issue escalation plan that includes a clearly defined process for what to do when a significant issue arises within the community. Know who will handle the situation, the timeframe for handling it, and the various communication points for response.

5. Treat your longtime members with lack of respect
For what it’s worth, I’m probably leaving eMusic after five years of membership. I can’t say how much I appreciate what eMusic did to expand my musical horizons. But like many members who’ve been with the service for years, I’ve hit my breaking point. It finally came when indie labels like Matador exposed eMusic’s new terms that seem to benefit the big media conglomerates over the companies that made eMusic great once upon a time.

One of the most reasoned responses came from fellow longtime member EVDebs:

Much of the anger expressed at 17dots and elsewhere flows from the rampant dishonesty that has marked emusic’s communication strategy regarding this price increase and the seeming contempt with which you have treated your longtime subscribers. You have made it much, much harder for yourselves to make a convincing argument that this price increase was anything but a result of your questionable decision to focus on bringing major labels on board. The problem with any strategy built on lies is that even the truth ends up sounding like a lie once everyone has caught on to the fact that you’ve been lying.

Here’s a better way: Your longtime members are the ones who likely saw your community through the tough times and probably evangelized your brand to spread the good word-of-mouth. Why in the world would you kick them to the curb, even if the focus of your community changes? Don’t be arrogant enough to think you can just go and get more members like they grow on some kind of magical tree. Instead of pushing them further away, draw them closer to your community and business. They contributed to your success. Thank them accordingly.

image credit: Crawdaddy! Magazine

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Don’t Blame The Office – Let’s Recreate Our Workplace

To open his opinion piece on CNN called Why the office is the worst place to work, Jason Fried writes,

Companies spend billions on rent, offices, and office equipment so their employees will have a great place to work. However, when you ask people where they go when they really need to get something done, you’ll rarely hear them say it’s the office.

Further, he writes,

I don’t blame people for not wanting to be at the office. I blame the office. The modern office has become an interruption factory. You can’t get work done at work anymore.

Sorry Jason but you completely wimped out in this article. “The office” is an inanimate object and an easy target for scorn. Why not call out your peers in the executive suite for their apparent lack of interest and commitment in making the workplace better? Why not at least start to address the real reasons for why many offices don’t work right now? Maybe that’s not fair to ask considering that CNN probably asked for a typical fluff piece.

The “office” is just a container for all the human interactions and emotions that take place within it. If the office is seen as nothing more than a place for constant interruptions, for unproductive meetings, and for pointless interactions, is that really the fault of a place…or the fault of those individuals who inhabit it?

Here’s another thought: instead of just dumping on the workplace experience, let’s be more adventurous in how we try to fix it.

1. Let’s stop with the idiotic band-aids. Electing to skip a meeting, spend a day not talking to anyone, and collaborating solely through IM isn’t going to solve anything – short- or long-term. Actually, it just makes a mockery of the real issues that keep business from functioning full throttle.

2. Let’s realize what the workplace actually is. From the C-Level down, there must be a renewal in how we think about the value of employee interactions in business. What we’ve come to know as the “workplace” is an organic community, not a machine that can be engineered, where employees are just simple cogs. But that’s what most execs and managers have been trained to believe through decades of traditional organizational thought.

3. Let’s start dealing with the real problem. Improving the workplace isn’t merely a matter of action, it involves a change in thinking. But if we ignore the problems of poor communications, ineffectual relationships, and meaningless work, they’ll continue to persist. So what do we want to see more of in our workplaces? It’s time to stop putting on the band-aids, folks. Are you with me?

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Want To Increase Your Email Subscribers? Easy Does It

Growing your email newsletter subscriber list or prospect housefile takes patience and planning. In addition to some of the usual good advice about subscription form placement (every webpage), email delivery (send consistently around the same time every day, week, month, etc.), and strategy (have goals for goodness sake), I have a couple of others:

Suggestion #1: Make it as easy as possible for someone to subscribe. Don’t ask for oodles of information from them at the outset. All you really need is a name and email address. I’ve seen far too many clients ask for fields of personal data only to get a high bounce rate. If you want to glean more demographic data from your subscribers, ask for a little to get them through the door and then gradually ask for more data over time.

Suggestion #2: Create enewsletters that are as personalized as possible. Sometimes what *you* believe is of value may not be valuable to your whole subscriber base. If you find that your content is starting to cover lots of different topics, consider either creating multiple newsletters that are more topic-focused. Or, find an email delivery platform that allows you to serve up blocks of content that’s personalized based on what your subscriber tells you what they want to read.

What other ways have you found success in building your email subscriber list?

Join the conversation at Forum Q&A

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Mind Your Traditional Customer Service Channels

Still trying to figure out whether to give higher precedence to resolving customer service issues via social channels (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) or stick with traditional methods (phone, email, etc.)?

I think there’s a hypothetical, “perfect world” answer and there’s also a more realistic, “down to business” answer. The perfect world answer is they should be dealt with at the same level of precedence. When a customer has a problem, their primary – if not only – focus is that it gets resolved. The only difference is the method they choose for communicating with the company.

Where it starts to veer in some strange, uncharted territories is now customers can share their complaints for all to see via social channels. If I complain about a lousy service on Twitter or my blog, not only will my followers and readers see it, but it can be instantly and easily shared far beyond my first-level network. And it’s that very public airing of grievances that scares most companies into focusing more on resolving problems raised on social channels than those raised on more traditional channels.

However, here’s another reality that all companies must grapple with…and why they need to give each customer complaint the same precedence regardless of the communication channel. If I make a call and get no satisfaction, I’m going to blog about that experience. If it’s my father or grandmother or friend who has had a lousy customer service experience, I’m going to Tweet about it. But if a business effectively deals with the situation in whatever way it first arises, there’s no need to complain publicly. Rather, I might just tell my network about the wonderful customer service offered to make up for a problem.

My bottom line is: train all your employees to deal with a customer problem in whatever way it shows up because you never know how it will escalate beyond that moment.

Join the conversation at Forum Q&A

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What Stops Us From Practicing Soulful Work?

Yesterday, I sat in a workshop led by Tom Zender and based on his book, God Goes to Work: New Thought Paths to Prosperity and Profits. If you’ve been with me for a while, you might remember I used to write a blog called Alchemy of Soulful Work. As a matter of fact, I still own www.alchemyofsoulfulwork.com for the day when I get off my rear to write the book I’ve long planned to write.

It was an engaging and inspiring workshop where we were challenged to think how we could bring more of our spirituality to the workplace. Now before you get all squeamish that we participants were being prodded to proselytize, let me ease your concerns. In the workshop (and in my own personal belief) spirituality is not the same as religion – they are two very different animals. In fact, spirituality is a cornerstone to my philosophy behind soulful work.

I can speak from personal example that I’m a much better leader when I’m spiritually centered. I’m a better manager when I choose to see the inherent goodness and potential of my employees. I’m a much better employee when I operate from a we-focused mentality and not get caught up in the politics that sometimes appear around me. See, it’s not about beating people over the head with prayer and Jesus and religion. It’s all about being a positive yet non-invasive source of light in an environment that often desperately needs it.

All of which leads to a question: what stops us from practicing soulful work? Why do we choose to believe we have to divorce our spiritual life from our working life? Let’s start a dialogue and feel free to debate these questions.

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Tales from Waikiki: Imprinting and the Power to Change

Earlier this month, my extended family and I spent a week vacationing in Hawaii. Out of that experience exploring the wonders of Oahu came some juicy ideas well worth sharing over the next few weeks. So, here we go…

We stayed at the Hilton Hawaiian Village at Waikiki based on a spot-on recommendation that it was a great hotel for families. Besides the beachfront access and several pools for my daughters to swim in daily, (not to mention all the shopping for my mother and sister), the Hilton had a waddle of tropical penguins. The birds were conveniently located right outside our particular hotel tower so we stopped to visit them pretty much every time we passed. These Hilton penguins are called African Penguins so they’re adapted for tropical environments. Over the week we learned a lot about them as a species (endangered) and some of their quirks (they sound like braying donkeys which is why they’re sometimes called Jackass Penguins).

We also learned about something called imprinting. Turns out penguins – as well as many other birds – learn how to be birds shortly after birth by observing the characteristics of the other birds around them. It’s a rapid process…and it’s fairly permanent, meaning what is learned through this process cannot easily be undone. So if a young hatchling observes not a bird but a human, they’re going to be imprinted with human characteristics. In other words, you’re going to have a rather confused bird who is going to try and act like a human. One penguin at the Hilton named Icarus had this sort of human imprinting, which is immediately noticeable because she (yes, she…these penguins are also notoriously difficult to sex) is fairly tame by penguin standards. Icarus will also never mate because she’s not attracted to other penguins; case in point: she mercilessly attacked the last male who tried to get it on with her because he was too penguiny.

Where am I going with all this? Let me ask a question: how many times do we behave like we’ve been imprinted by our past? Except we’re not holding on to the actions of others we’ve observed, but our own actions. We say – either openly or quietly to ourselves – that we’re a failure or stupid or not talented enough for what looks like a great job opportunity. Every time we do this, we’ve essentially confirmed our own imprinting by not letting go of that past behavior. The good news is that we’re not easily imprinted birds, but humans capable of flexible thought. We can retrain ourselves to think differently about who we are and what we’re capable of achieving in our lives. We can reimprint ourselves whenever we choose.

Notice what’s holding you back. The key is self-awareness. Get mindful of thoughts that contain images involving past failures and weaknesses. Listen for words like can’t and never. If it feels like a barrier, then it probably is. Say you’re holding on to an image of failing at starting a business or bombing an assignment. Now imagine taking the picture out of your head and tossing it into the fire. You’re not forgetting the lessons learned…instead, you’re torching their power to hold you in your present position. You’re claiming your right to be free of all the past crap that’s simply not serving you right now.

Re-envision what you want. Time to re-imprint our thinking and behavior with something different. You’re free to be as creative as you want now. Imagine vividly yourself as successful. What would it look like? And perhaps more importantly, what would it feel like? Imprinting isn’t a logical, rational process; it’s a visceral, emotional one. The stronger you can cement the images in your body, the better you’ll be able to hold on to these newly imprinted images.

Maintain awareness. Even though we can change how we think and feel, it’s still not a walk in the park. Change takes dedication and commitment. Remain vigilant when it comes to how old imprinted behavior reenters your thought process. Remember: you’re not a penguin…you can do this.

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Anthropology And Freelancing

Last week, I delivered a presentation to Freelance Austin called, Being A Margaret Mead For Your Freelance Business…Or, If Margaret Mead Had To File A 1099. I argue that the toolset we anthropologists use can provide useful ideas for helping freelancers improve their business.

Thanks to the good folks at Freelance Austin for offering me a stage to talk to their members.

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Best Consumer Intel Found In The Wild

My regular readers know how much I love talking about market research where consumer intelligence is gathered “out in the wild” rather than through artificially contrived environments and methods (e.g., focus groups). I argue strongly that it yields far more reliable information about interests, needs, and desires.

All of which is why Joshua Black’s post, 5 Sneaky Ways to Find Out What Customers Really Want… Without Asking Them, over at Men with Pens is a real keeper.

See item #2:

Go to Wal-Mart: This expression means you should get out there and eavesdrop on your customers in their natural environment. Hang around the lions while they’re kicking back in their den complaining about their biggest problems to other lions (like who left their dirty undies lying around the cave).

Customers will never really tell you their problems if you ask directly. They often don’t exactly know what their problems are.

Listen to what customers say. Are they complaining? About what? Are they sighing over something they wish they had? What is it? What problems keep them from getting the results they want?

Don’t say a word. Take copious amounts of notes and quietly leave the scene like an entrepreneurial ninja. I like to hang out at coffee shops and use my Blackberry for this kind of covert operation, because it just looks like I’m texting someone and being oblivious to people at other tables.

And as a smart commenter responded, another method for gathering similar intel is to run Twitter searches for keywords and themes related to your product or business.

What other ways of uncovering consumer intelligence out in the wild have you found most beneficial to your business?

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The Greatest Threat To Innovation? Our Impatience

I’ve worked with customers and around technology long enough to see something disturbing happen. I’m not sure when it all started. Maybe it was always there but only exacerbated by the 24/7, always-on nature of today’s news machines. But regardless of how it began, this trend right now has the potential to destroy everything it touches. What is this trend?

Our impatience and cynical criticism of anything new that isn’t absolutely perfect.

We’re like Statler and Walforf from The Muppet Show whose sole role was to throw barbs at the performers (except most of us armchair pundits are not quite as witty or endearing as our Muppet counterparts). Oh and I’m not throwing my own criticism out to everyone else but me. I’m putting myself squarely in the middle of this trend. As an anthropologist, I can see the fingerprints of cultural entanglement all over this problem. None of us are immune from feeling impatient with technology (or really any customer-related experience) that doesn’t meet our ever increasingly high expectations. And therein lies the key problem.

We’ve assumed a sense of entitlement which is nothing more than consumer empowerment gone awry and to the extremes. We think we’re entitled to a perfect first product with no flaws. Witness Exhibit A: Dell’s try at building their first tablet, the Streak. Yes, I was a beta tester and have been using the Streak for a few months so can attest it has some significant issues. But I hope Dell doesn’t pull up stakes and quit because of all the fierce condemnations they’ve received from several tech publications. Instead, I hope they have guts and a long-term strategy that sees this as a building block.

Exhibit B (and actually what provoked this post) is how fast we’ve decided that Apple’s Ping is a failure. Dammit, it just started…and yet here’s a perfect example of how quickly the critics will descend on anything new. Anyone who has started to look at Ping should have instantly recognized it is an emerging work in progress. And whether it ultimately works or not, it deserves a chance to try and make it.

And here’s another one about Ping as a spammers delight. Yeah, Apple’s engineers should have foreseen this. But anyone who knows how tech products get to market also knows the challenges of sealing up every single hole in a first release. The beauty of web-based apps is how quickly things can get resolved once they are put out into the wild.

And lest you think I’m defending Apple and Ping, I’m actually defending the product’s right to get itself into the consumers’ hands and make necessary adjustments through time. And to do that, we have to be patient as consumers and not expect demand perfection from the get-go. If we can’t manage to do this, we’re looking at a very unattractive future possibility:

The idea of new takes on a different, ever increasingly derogatory meaning. Fewer and fewer companies will decide to take risks and build new technologies for fear of getting blasted (at best) or ignored (at worst) because they didn’t meet increasing standards that become nearly impossible to meet in first iterations. And then we are only the poorer for our own lack of patience.

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Plan Ahead To Your Next Job

Last week I started a new job as a marketing manager for a software company here in Austin (which I hope offers a sort of apologetic explanation for my hiatus). The first week is always a mix of excitement, bewilderment, and high anxiety. It was also a chance to practice some ethnographic techniques which I’ll explain in greater detail in an upcoming post. But as I experienced the full rush of being back in steady employment for the first time in 20 months, I was constantly reminded of this bit of conventional wisdom:

Start looking for your next job as soon as you start your current job.

In my younger, more naive days, I thought this advice was tantamount to disloyalty to my new employer and a sure way of getting myself blackballed from the get-go. Now, as a (late) thirtysomething professional who has been through the fire and smart enough to see wisdom when it appears, there’s quite a lot of good we can gain by heeding this guidance.

First, let’s be honest…this isn’t our grandpa’s professional world and loyalty in employment doesn’t exist like it did two generations ago. So we have to take care of ourselves and be constantly vigilant with our careers and employment. This last economic downturn should have made that 100% crystal clear. Sadly, it’s a realistic and somewhat cynical perspective. On the other hand…

Here’s where we can take a more positive and forward-focused view. I’ve started to think clearly about:

  • what kind of tangible experiences I want to include in my professional portfolio
  • what kind of stories I want to tell at an upcoming interview
  • What kind of kickass results I want to market on my resume

By imagining into the future, we practice the kind of goal-setting we typically do with any sort of project: we begin with the end in mind and work backward. What this encourages us to do is frequently think about our resume and focus our actions toward remarkable results. And it’s not at all disloyal: we can’t build experiences, create stories, and generate results without completing our objectives for our current employers.

photo credit: Alexandre Moreau Photography (via Flickr)

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