What To Work On At The Airport? Here’s How To Decide

Some days at work you’re a productivity powerhouse. You’re cranking through projects, e-mails, to-dos like Paul Bunyan at a Christmas tree farm in December. Maybe you didn’t even check Facebook even once. You’re in the zone. But trying to figure out what to work on at the airport is usually a study in the opposite. Your ability to focus is right up there with your ability to sweet talk that car rental agent into giving you a Camaro even though you paid for a Kia.

Switching Environments Makes It Impossible To Decide What To Work On At The Airport

Why does this happen? When traveling, you’re constantly switching environments, and have only a vague idea of how much time you’ll be spending in each. Finding out what to work on at the airport is a project in of itself. Does this look familiar?

Office -> Car -> Security -> Airport Gate 1 -> Airplane 1 -> Airport Gate 2 -> Airplane 2 -> Airport 3 -> Taxi Stand -> Taxi -> Hotel, etc., etc.,

In a typical trip, you might switch environments nearly a dozen times. Not including the smaller changes, like having to turn your laptop off during takeoff, or stopping to pay for some healthy food a bag of Tropical Starburst.

For some reason I believe that no one felt this way when traveling in say, the 1980s, when people still smoked during flights, and didn’t even know to ask “should I use Prodigy or CompuServe?” But today, it’s ultra easy to get stuck in a “technology loop” while fleeting across the country. All you need is a iPhone, or perhaps a laptop with a just poor wi-fi connection at the airport (especially if the wi-fi connection is poor).

The Environment Is Rife With Distractions

Armed with the latest gadgets and 14 productivity apps, you think, “There’s no reason why my work pattern should be any different today, even though a baby is crying next to me and the man sitting next to me just had to take his call on speakerphone.”  Which is both false and impossible. But here’s what happens anyway:

10:07 – Check mail on phone. See 37 unread messages. Delete one that looks like spam. So productive!

10:09 – Start to read a thread that looks  important. Fail as the full message content refuses to load. Stare at the screen for 30 seconds while your phone makes up its mind about whether it has an internet connection or not.

10:11 – Let phone do it’s thing while you try the airport wifi on your laptop.

10:15 – Finally get your computer to connect to the “free” Boingo wireless hotspot. Wonder what their ridiculous looking guy with the grey suit and red bag is running from.

10:17 – Load the same 37 unread messages on your laptop. Including the same spam message you thought you just deleted on your phone.

10:20 – Read that email thread you thought needed attention.

10:21 – Start to write a thoughtful response.

10:22 – Hear on the PA, “Ladies and gentleman, we are now boarding Zone 1…”

10:23 – Cry inside

There, you just spent 16 of your life in a very busy but utterly unfruitful attempt to Get Something Done. Your plans to optimize what to work on at the airport, lasted about five minutes. And you’ve actually made yourself worse off, because you’ve depleted a good deal of mental energy reserves hassling with everything.

Don’t Try To Force The Office Routine When You’re Out Of The Office

This happened to you not because you’re not being productive enough, or because your using the wrong tools, or because AT&T’s coverage sucks (which, it does). It happened because you fell into the trap of trying to replicate your office workflow while in a very different context. You’re like the person that tech companies like to feature in their commercials, who believe that we all want the ability to check email while climbing a mountain.

Ask This Once Question To Decide What To Work On At The Airport

So how do you actually decide what to work on at the airport? The idea isn’t to ignore your work, not to travel, or use this as an excuse to buy the latest phone. Instead, ask yourself this one question every time you face a disruptive environment:

What can I do right now that I can perform at 100% effectiveness?

The answer is usually not the thing you’re attempting to do at the time. Writing email while waiting to board the plane? You’re maybe 25% as effective. Working on your marketing strategy while in the back of a taxi? I’ll give you 15%. Working on that presentation when you have 10 minutes left to use your laptop? You’ll barely get warmed up before you have to stop.

Instead of trying to do what you would normally be doing at 10:17 in the morning, flip your approach around and find the thing that you can do the absolute best, right now.

The answers will vary from person to person. For me, I can listen an audiobook at full attention in nearly any environment (Audible is my friend). I can actually do spreadsheets quite well on a plane. And taxis are a great place for me to make phone calls. Airport security line? Still working on that one.

Try keeping this question in mind next time you are trying to figure out what to work on at the airport. You may not get as much pure office work done during  travel, but you’ll end the day with greater mental energy and an increased ability to focus on the more challenging things. Like writing a blog post.

Got any more thoughts on how to make the best of a travel day? I’d love to hear them.

Why Isn’t Non-Profit Failure Allowed?

For-profit businesses publicly fail all the time. When they do, it’s not the end of the world – learning from one’s mistakes (and those of others) can be an enormous factor in long-term success. In the non-profit world, though, failures are often swept under the rug. But since charities could especially benefit from learning through failure, why isn’t non-profit failure more widely accepted?

A new service called Admitting Failure wants to change that. In this post, we’ll look at what the business world is able to learn from failure, and examine what Admitting Failure is doing to help the non-profit world achieve the same thing.

Failure Is Natural In Business

When Apple came out with the $700 Newton PDA in 1993, it didn’t exactly vault the company to success. In fact, it was one of the company’s most ridiculed products. And when Pepsi launched a massive marketing campaign to convince us to drink Crystal Pepsi, the clear cola didn’t live long. But even successful companies prepare to fail from time to time. What makes failure such a natural part of the business world?

Reward for taking risk. Trying something new is often what allows companies to achieve breakthrough success, and that requires risk and the occasional failure. Sometimes “playing it safe” by not taking any risks is a sure way to slowly kill a company.

Investors tolerate failure. A good investor diversifies his portfolio, knowing that some companies will yield negative returns. It’s an expected outcome that factors into any good investor’s calculations.

Failures are made public. Talk show hosts and business blogs alike love to poke fun at “game changing” products that no one bought. Business schools thrive on doing case studies on corporate mistakes. Since everyone is exposed to failures in business, they’re not always a surprise. And even better, there’s a wealth of information out there for anyone who wants to learn from the past.

Charity Executives Have To Avoid Non-Profit Failure

If the world’s most successful companies fail from time to time, it goes without saying the even the world’s best non-profits are going to make mistakes too. But unfortunately, non-profits aren’t allowed to fail publicly the way businesses are. For one, there isn’t a massive reward for taking massive risk, so non-profits aren’t as encouraged to experiment.

Secondly, donors aren’t yet comfortable with their dollars being used for experiments, which means non-profits are less likely to try unproven ideas. And there’s no forum for failures to be widely publicized, so logistically, sharing failures in the non-profit community would be hard to pull off anyway.

Can Admitting Failure Change The Status Quo?

Admitting Failure addresses the problem of “private failures” in the non-profit community primarily by addressing the logistical issue – no common forum for non-profit failures to be disclosed and discussed. The platform is a good start; take a look at this post from charity: water about the failure of one of their metrics:

…you have probably heard us say, Tweet or write: $20 can provide clean and safe drinking water to one person for 20 years. But earlier this year, we removed the “20 years” part from that messaging.

As with any retraction, this sparked a discussion with our staff about how we deal with failure… we knew that if we continued to promise that each $20 donation would provide one person access to water for two decades, we’d be using a number we’re not certain about. In effect, we’d be failing the faith of the public and our mission to “reinvent charity”—to restore peoples’ trust in charitable work…

In a way, showing the public where we’ve messed up or why we want to suddenly move in a new direction is like taking a deep sigh of relief. We’ve given ourselves the chance to share the hard stuff. We’re sparking important conversations and welcoming scrutiny because we really have nothing to hide.

Donors Need To Think Like Investors

charity: water deserves praise for taking the lead on admitting their own mistakes. But public acceptance of non-profit failure won’t happen until donors begin to act differently. In  business, executives try to disclose failure more readily because investors demand it, especially in the startup space.

So while example like charity:water are fine, non-profit failure won’t be widely disclosed until donors begin taking the approach of an investor. Donors need to encourage the non-profits they support to experiment, make mistakes, and share their learnings. They need to diversify their donations, to improve the odds of them supporting a truly successful project. And most of all, they need to let non-profits know that it’s OK to fail once in a while. Here are three ways Admitting Failure could help them do this:

  1. Give donors tools to encourage their favorite non-profits to participate on the site. They could even take a page from Invisible Children‘s playbook and give users a one-click method to target high-profile non-profits on Twitter.
  2. Rate charities, in the fashion of Charity Navigator, based on the knowledge they’ve contributed to the non-profit community. Messaged correctly, charities who developed a reputation for being honest could benefit from additional donor support.
  3. Allow aid recipients themselves to share their perspective on a non-profit’s work. No one has a more authentic experience than the person who was targeted by an aid program. This would be a great way to build a 360-degree perspective of a non-profit.

What do you think – would executives discuss non-profit failure more readily, if only given the right tools? Or do donors need to become more involved before any real change can take place?

Pricing Lessons from Humble Bundle

What would your reaction be if you walked into Starbucks and the barista told you that you could pay whatever you wanted for your coffee? Oh, and if you wanted all the money to go to charity instead, that’d be cool, too? In addition to buying 17 carmel macchiatos with the 13 cents you found in your pocket, you’d also probably wonder who in Seattle lost their sanity. Well, that’s exactly the pricing model Humble Bundle offers.

They provide limited-time offers on bundles of video games, in which buyers set their own price, and then choose how much goes to charity. The latest bundle, simply called “The Humble Bundle for Android 2”, was released just this week. How does it work? Take a look at this video:

 

Here are some stats on their success: 2 years old, 2 million transactions, and $12.6 million raised for developers, charity, and themselves (the exact breakdown to each party isn’t made publicly available). It’s an interesting pricing model that’s likely raised a handsome sum for charity, but could it be applied to other types of products as well? Let’s take a look at what makes the Humble pricing system tick and see where that leaves us:

Humble Bundle Acts Like The Boss

When you learn that your boss at your new job doesn’t come into the office until 10:00 AM, you learn that’s OK if you don’t want to arrive until after 9:00. When he shows up in jeans, you can confidently come back to work the next day in that acid washed denim that’s been in your closet for 26 years (right?). He sets the norm; you feel better because you know what’s expected. Humble Bundle does the same thing. They start buyers off with a default split of 55% to developers, 30% to charity, and 15% to Humble Bundle. Hard to feel anxious about getting the allocation wrong, when a strong suggestion is made for you.

Humble Bundle has a unique pricing model.

A Gentle Guilt Trip

Humble Bundle does a couple smart things to encourage you to pay a legit price. First, they show real-time data for the average purchase amount. If you decide to pay less then that, they’ll remind you with a nice blue warning banner before you pay. Secondly, if you pay more than average, you actually get an extra game. It’s a slick combination of guilt and rewards to keep buyers honest.

Unusual Pricing But Standard Products

Downloading video games is becoming pretty standard. You do have Angry Birds, yes? Even though the pricing model is strange and new, everything other aspect of the promotion is standard fare. That’s important, because if potential buyers are asked to digest too many unfamiliar pieces, they’ll leave.

$0 Marginal Cost of Distribution

This one’s pretty boring, but it’s one of the most important. Downloadable digital goods cost next to nothing to distribute. Each copy sold costs about $0.00 to make and deliver. So if a user pays a mere penny, no one is any poorer for it.

Exposure for Indie Developers

It’s indie developers who submit games to these bundles – newer companies who are relatively unknown. Even if these developers don’t make much per copy sold, they still benefit from the increased exposure and gross sales. Gamers benefit, too, by being exposed to quality games they may not have discovered otherwise.

Limited time

If “set your own pricing” were available all the time, then that would customers to expect such treatment all of the time. That’s not sustainable, and it certainly won’t make developers happy. (Is there any reason why an “add your own donation” piece couldn’t stick around forever, though?)

Can Humble Bundle’s Model Work Elsewhere?

This unique pricing model is certainly an interesting marketing strategy. Could this work elsewhere? Not at Starbucks, but I think there’s plenty of ideas here that could be applied to online retail, for one. Where else do you think a Hunble-esque offering would do well? Let’s hope that Humble Bundle continues to be successful, raise gobs of money for charity, and encourages others to follow suit.

Will Causes.com End Up The Yahoo! Of Web Philanthropy?

Causes.com was one of the more exciting things to happen in the online philanthropic space when it launched in 2007. Here was a charitable platform that offered something truly unique at the time – deep integration with Facebook – just as the social network’s user growth started to chart skyward. Moreover, Causes.com founders Joe Green and Sean Parker had close ties with the early Facebook team, giving them a strong connection that any startup would envy.

But these things do not a successful startup make. Causes.com did accomplish some amazing numbers – over 170 million people have used Causes.com at some point, and they’ve raised over $40 million for charity. Those numbers are nothing to sneeze at. But where is Causes.com headed form here? Take a look at their monthly active users since September 2009, and the answer isn’t pretty:

Causes.com has seen nothing short of an exodus of users.

A Stale Causes.com User Base And A Weak Product: Sounds A Lot Like Yahoo!

A massive user base, impressive numbers, but users headed out the door. Remind you of anyone? How about Yahoo!? There’s more than one similarity that the two platforms share:

  • Identify crisis – like the purple web giant, Causes.com doesn’t seem to be sure of what it wants to be. Is it a site for non-profits to raise money? A platform for individuals to raise awareness? A better way to share your philanthropic activity with your friends? A campaign tool for corporations and non-profits to deliver messaging? It’s tried all of these things. It does some of them well, but none of them better than anyone else.
  • Scattered content strategy – Yahoo! was all over the board here, publishing content from its partners, producing material itself, and even allowing its users to generate and share content. Causes.com isn’t much different. Thoughtful, well-produced campaigns lie right alongside spammy calls to “Abolish the Band Nickelback”. And that material is mashed together with features that Causes.com develops itself, often with corporate messaging involved as well. The result is a confusing mix with highly diverging styles, purpose, and quality.
  • A “big but cheap” user base – nearly 300 million people are active users of Yahoo!’s services. That’s an asset nearly any web company would kill to have. But what are those users worth to Yahoo!? Are they actively engaging in (or even paying for) a product? Or are they just inactive names in a database? It’s not clear if is a long-term asset for Yahoo!, or just a number. With 170 million users of its own, but declining usage over the past couple years, Causes.com should question the value of its own user base.
  • Poor UI – do you remember what websites looked like ten years ago? No? Just go to yahoo.com and you’ll see. Causes.com’s UI suffered a different fate. It wasn’t outdated, it was just plain awkward. It felt like each part of the site was designed by individuals working in nearly complete isolation from each other, only to come together at the last minute to make things consistent.

Is There Light Ahead for Causes.com?

Fortunately, Causes.com is midway through a makeover. The platform has some great things going for it, and it would be fantastic to see it take off again. How are they doing?

Good – The user experience is far more streamlined – each page now feels like it’s a part of the same app. Causes.com now hosts the entire site itself (except for payment processing) externally from Facebook. Earlier versions of Causes.com were just Facebook apps veiled as websites, and they gave you this uneasy feeling of not knowing where you were on the web. The new standalone site feels much more solid.

Caution – The whole issue about hosting/publishing/creating content still exists. Causes.com still needs some streamlining here. And since there are still about a dozen “causes” related to abolishing Nickelback, no one has been done much about elevating the level of quality, either.

Warning – The site still suffers from an identity crisis. Until Causes.com can focus on doing one thing better than anyone else, I don’t believe users are going to stick around. Who is the site really made for, and for what purpose? I don’t feel like I can answer this question well, and that doesn’t bode well for any web product.

Causes.com will definitely be worth watching this year. This should’t be the last of its improvements. But there is no shortage of other cause-based startups who’d like to bite off a large chuck of its users for good. Stick around, there’s plenty more to come.

What do you think – will Causes.com turn into a the Yahoo! of philanthropy, or can it turn itself around?

Why did SwipeGood fail?

I’ve been following SwipeGood for a while, as I always liked how easy they made it to for consumers to set aside a little money for charity. But why did SwipeGood fail? They will be shutting their doors soon, evidenced by this message they sent to their users recently:

Hey SwipeGoods,

It’s with a heavy heart that I say SwipeGood is shutting its doors soon. No new users will be able to sign up. However, existing users will be able to log into their accounts and see their previous donations for several months.

While you may not be able to give your change, please keep up the great support of organizations such as Room To Read by giving to them directly at http://www.roomtoread.org/.

Team SwipeGood

A Poor Business Model Helped SwipeGood Fail

SwipeGood’s failure wasn’t for lack of exposure. They had plenty of coverage, from Mashable, TechCrunch, Simon Mainwaring, Good.is, and Fast Company, to name a few. Backed by the well-connected incubator Y Combinator, endorsed by Ashton Kutcher (right on the home page, no less), and founded by what look like some pretty bright guys, SwipeGood certainly had the financial and human capital needed to get off the ground.

An easy answer might be that their business model wasn’t well thought-out. But I think it was. Here’s some simple math: Let’s assume that the average user charges their credit card 40x per month. Assuming an average “round up” of $0.50, that would equate to $20 of monthly donations. SwipeGood takes out 2.5% for credit card fees and 5% for operating costs, so 5% x $20 equals $1. Each user would be worth $1/month, or $12/year. Now, let’s make some assumptions about SwipeGood’s operating costs. I counted three employees – let’s pretend that the cost of salaries, taxes, etc. for each is $100,000, for a total of $300,000/year. Now let’s assume another $200,000/year for things like office space, legal work, servers, insurance, etc. SwipeGood would need $500,000 each year just to cover costs. Now let’s give them a meager 10% profit margin; they’d then need to rake in $550,000 each year.

Have you done the math already? With those assumptions, SwipeGood would need 45,833 users to make a small profit. Hardly an insurmountable user base to achieve. That is, of course, assuming  you have a compelling product. Obviously it wasn’t, so here are my thoughts as to why.

More Expensive To Donate

Getting users to try something new requires one of two things: it must allow them to do something they already do, but cheaper, or it must allow them to do something they want to, but can’t. SwipeGood did neither.

To the first point, SwipeGood actually made it more expensive to give to charity: by taking a 7.5% cut, SwipeGood’s model was necessarily more costly than giving directly to a charity. At best, a user might know that non-profits have to pay credit card fees too. But that doesn’t mean he’d be willing to pay additional fees on top of that. At worst, the user assumes that all of the 7.5% cut is money that a non-profit would have received otherwise.

Regardless of what the user thinks, he’s not left feeling any better in either situation. Witness another new fundraising startup: rally.org, whose 4.5% fee charged to non-profits covers everything, including credit card fees. It will be interesting to see if they fare any better. At least they are up front about the costs – it is listed right on the homepage, instead of buried in the FAQs on SwipeGood’s page. Anyway, SwipeGood hardly made it cheaper to donate.

All Mechanics, No Brand Connections

To the second point, the giving experience through SwipeGood was neither new nor better. Donors can already sign up for recurring donations nearly anywhere else, so this feature wasn’t novel. But here’s the real kicker – SwipeGood offered no real way for users to build relationships with charities. Instead, it was static experience – it could never improve, regardless of how much a donor gave. To me, the fact that SwipeGood didn’t allow users to further connect with charities reflects a deep misunderstanding of why people choose to donate at all. Giving isn’t a purely mechanical action that one simply turns on and off. It’s an emotional, altruistic action that requires real human connections to work well.

A non-profit isn’t necessarily successful at fundraising because it offers the easiest donation process on its website. Instead, successful charities know how to build relationships with their donors, and they are able to create a bond between the giver and the receiver. They know how to thank donors for their support. And they know how to make them feel good about the experience so they continue to give. SwipeGood offered none of this, and left users with a sliver of the giving experience that they deserved and could easily find elsewhere.

Good Intentions, But An Incomplete Experience

SwipeGood wouldn’t be a bad idea if it were part of a larger service that cultivated relationships between donors and charities. In that case, it could be a GREAT idea. But on its own, it failed to provide the human connectivity that fuels philanthropy at its core. Hopefully the SwipeGood team will come up with something more compelling next time around – at least their intentions are in the right place.

What do you think – why did SwipeGood fail? And what could SwipeGood have done to create a more engaging giving experience?

Is Asking or Engaging More Effective Marketing?

I’m starting to realize how important personal relevancy is when charities try to develop effective marketing. In fact, I believe that a donation appeal from a brand that hasn’t made itself relevant to donors would have to be 10x as effective as an appeal from an engaged brand, in order to have the same result.

Case in point: I received two solicitation letters in the mail this week – both of them mediocre. One was from the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS); the other from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC).

Effective Marketing Means Avoiding the Trash Can

The LLS mailer was hardly effective marketing.The letter from the LLS had a nickel taped to it (what?) and some cheesy Christmas-themed return address labels. I’m not sure what the tactic was, but I think that the money and labels were supposed to make me feel obligated to help the LLS in return. Maybe that’s some tried-and-true tactic in the direct-mail world, but to me it just felt manipulative. Hardly effective marketing, at least not long term.

The letter from the ATC wasn’t much better. It relied mainly on a four-page, single-spaced letter; who has team to read that? And despite the fact that the Appalachian Trail is one of the most beautiful parts of the East Coast, the appeal was surprisingly lacking of photos. That’s like dating a supermodel but only telling your friends how your girlfriend is a really safe driver. Kind of missing some key points.

So what did I do with each letter? I threw the one from the in Leukemia & Lymphoma Society the trash and put the nickel they sent me in the change bowl. Meanwhile, I wrote the Appalachian Trail Conservancy a nice fat check. Why such different treatment? It all comes down to relevancy.

When You Connect With People First, Your Don’t Have To Ask As Hard

I’ve hiked every foot of the 2175-mile Appalachian Trail. So I have plenty of personal interest in keeping it protected for future hikers. I’ve even visited the headquarters of the ATC, and I know first hand how important their efforts are. And while I’m sure the LLS does great work, I know no one whose been affected by those diseases, so I don’t have nearly the same connection.

The ATC could have sent me a cardboard postcard asking me for money, and the LLS could have delivered as glossy, well-produced report (free of money and address labels) and my actions wouldn’t have been much different. So I don’t think that these organizations are even looking at this the right way. Effective marketing has much more to do with engaging people first, and asking later. Instead of coming up with fancy ways to mail me junk I don’t want or won’t read, these organizations need to first focus their efforts on getting people connected with their work. Anything else is probably just wasted effort.

What do you think? Should charities go straight for the ask? Orshould they focus on engaging people with their brands and their programs first?

3 Ways Zynga’s CastleVille Promo Could Integrate Causes Better

Zynga, the heavy hitter in the social gaming space, announced a new cause-promotion last week for one of their new games, CastleVille. While Zynga should be commended for trying to integrate causes into its product, they haven’t pulled off the promotion as well as they could have.

Here’s how the promo works: visit the CastleVille page on Facebook and “Like” the game. Then, select one of three non-profits to whom you’d like to designate a donation from Zynga. If CastleVille reaches 5 million “Likes”, then Zynga will donate $100,000 to these causes. The non-profit with the most votes will receive $40,000, while the other two each receive $30,000.

Again, it’s great that Zynga has decided to integrate charitable support into the promotion of a new game. But they could have done a much better job on making the integration with causes more meaningful. Here are three ways they could have turned a single into a home run:

Integrate Causes With The Product

Three causes are presented for voting: clean water (via water.org), disaster relief (via Direct Relief International), and Education (via Save the Children). Try to find any relationship with the game, which is about exploring a medieval world with your friends, and you won’t find much of a connection. Not that there has to be an overt link (is there even such a think as a medieval-based non-profit?), but some attempt integrate causes more directly would have made the experience much more relevant. For example, are there characters in the game that Zynga could have associated with each non-profit? Even a loose connection would have been better than nothing at all; instead, the causes feel tacked on to the promotion, without much thought.

Provide Context

You might have expected that Zynga would have provided some further background information about the three non-profits they’ve presented. But there’s almost nothing to provide any context around these causes. For clean water, for example, all users see is a generic water icon, which turns into a water.org logo when the moused over. Users don’t need a complicated set of information to read through, but some additional background would have added some real meaning. How about a picture of the people who are being helped? Or maybe a tidbit of information about where in the world the money is being used? Taking a page from Donorschoose.org or GlobalGiving.org would have made the causes much more real.

Allow Users To Step It Up

Liking content on Facebook is a sure-fire way to allow users to show their support of something. Great. But what if someone really wants to see that $100,000 get donated? Short of spamming their friends to Like the CastleVille page, there’s not much else a cause-advocate can do. So how about allowing users to buy more Likes buy pre-purchasing virtual items in CastleVille? Or give fans a CastleVille character to use as their Facebook profile pic to drive further awareness? At the very least, Zynga could have offered users the chance to donate to those charities directly, by providing links to each non-profit’s site right on the Facebook page.

Will Zynga’s latest cause campaign obtain the 5 million Likes they’re striving for? It’s too early to say, but at the time of this writing (about a week into the promo), there were about 300,000 fans. What do you think? What are some ways Zynga could have done a better in its efforts to integrate causes into its game?

Why Culture Matters In Building Online Community

Punk rock bands. Star Trek enthusiasts. World Cup soccer fans. Communities of real people, each of which have their own set of behaviors and norms. Anthropologists call this “culture”. But  does an online community have a culture, too? Let’s take a look at Quora, TED, Google+ established a culture early on, and what this means for new online communities that are hoping to thrive:

Quora: Be Helpful

Two former Facebook employees founded the Q&A site Quora in 2009. Quora is all about thoroughness. Why? First, Quora encourages using your real identity, not an alias, so you’re accountable for your work. Second, users vote up or down answers based on their quality. Finally, many early adopters were from the tech industry, where meritocracy rules. Glib contributions don’t get you far in that field. The combinations of these three factors, established early on, meant that Quora became a place where meaningful information is the norm. You can imagine what the site might like otherwise – just take a look at the comments under any YouTube video. Want to hear what happened when these norms were broken? Read this post by Robert Scoble.

TED: Being Open To New Ideas

TED Conversations was developed just earlier this year. It’s a debate forum for TED enthusiasts. This online community strongly encourages quality discussion. The “TED community” is very much a reflection of the TED talks that have been taking place for several years – intellectual, well thought-out, and poignant discussion around complex issues. As you might expect, TED Conversations is a very polite place, a behavior no doubt influenced by the fact that TED talks encourage sharing and appreciating different viewpoints. Take a look at TED’s guidelines, and you’ll see plenty of statements like “if you choose to start (or join) an Idea conversation, it’s important to maintain a polite attitude toward what’s working and what needs fine-tuning.” This community will obviously be a place where intellectuals thrive.

Google+: Still Coming Together

Finally, Google+ is a nascent online community whose culture is still being developed. See if you can imagine where it’s headed, though: “Circles” allows you to arrange your contacts into relevant groups. “Hangouts” and “Huddles” are features that allow groups to easily video chat or IM together. And “Sparks” is a way for users to find content relevant to them, particularly if it’s shared by people within their Circles. It’s too early to tell exactly what Google+’s culture will look like, but it’s obvious that informal group sharing will be at the core. My guess is that Google will allow its users to establish the sites culture as much as Google will itself.

The Culture of Your Online Community Is Unlikely To Change

So why make a point of understanding these online “cultures”? Each of them has been successful (in their own way), by being very intentional about how users behave within each community. Think about how difficult it would be to change any of these cultures, after norms were already established. Having trouble? Just review the negative feedback Facebook dealt with when it changed its privacy settings.

If you are planning to build your own online community, sites like these are worth paying attention to. The culture you build for your community is primarily defined by the norms you establish early on. Since it’s much easier to do this right the first time, ask yourself: “What kind of culture do I want to establish? How do I want users to interact with each other and with my organization?” Pick whatever behaviors you’re looking for, and set those as the default way for taking part in the community. Don’t pay attention to this, and you may as well not even start!

What do you think – how does establishing the right norms early on establish the long-term behavior of an online community? What are some other examples that have a done a particularly good (or bad) job of this?

Why Corporate Values Don’t Actually Exist

Did BP lack good values, or did Tony Hayward?

You don’t have to look far to find plenty of discussion around corporate values and how they can positively affect society. There are “socially responsible companies“, “eco-conscious companies“, “socially conscious businesses“, and of course, the most “sustainable companies“. Whatever that means. Writers about these subjects tend ask why more companies aren’t acting responsibly: what they should or should not be doing, how they should change, what their values should be, and so on.

However, these discussions are missing the point. Companies can’t and won’t change themselves. But we talk about about ideas like “corporate values”, as if they existed in some independent space. But there really isn’t such thing as corporate values. There are only individual values. We seem to ignore that fact that corporations are made entirely of, and run exclusively by, individuals.

Individual Values Lead to Corporate Actions

So if we are going to have a discussion about the behavior of corporations and the promises they make, we necessarily have to have a talk about individual values. The effect a corporation has on society is a direct result of the values possessed by the people running that company. In other words, corporate behavior is a reflection of the combined values, influence, and behavior of each individual within. So why don’t we discuss individual values more often? Why don’t we hear about the “500 Most Socially Conscious Managers”, or the “100 Most Responsible Board Members”?

I’ll admit that we do hear a great deal about celebrity individuals – the all-star CEOs, the point guards, the pop music stars, and the politicians. But these don’t count – their celebrity persona may not reflect the real individual, and too much of what we see is filtered by the media.

But it’s still easier for us to praise or vilify the celebrities, because they won’t do the same to us. It’s a one-way communication. We feel free to chastise someone like Tony Hayward, because he’ll never engage in a quid pro quo. So should we turn to criticizing our peers instead? Not if we want to risk destroying our relationships and are willing to open ourselves to the same critique. Are you willing to do this?

How Do We Change Corporate Values?

So where does this leave us? Who do we turn to if we want to improve ourselves and society? Socrates said, “A self examined life is not worth living”. I’ll extend that further, but saying “A self-examined life is the only way we can hope to have companies that are better stewards of society.” If individuals don’t change, nothing else will. We have to be willing find our faults from within! I know that’s not an easy proposition. But it’s the only way we can really hope for any change, in my view.

If this point resonates with you, I’d recommend checking out Sam Davidson’s blog. He articulates ideas about self-examination far better than I can. In fact, one of his recent articles inspired this post in the first place.

What role do you think individual values play in setting the behavior of corporations?

3 Ways to Improve Cause Marketing At Checkout

I love the idea of joining retail purchases with charitable donations, it’s a version of cause marketing we’ve all come across at some point. This type of cause marketing is great because provides shoppers with both the prompt and the opportunity to give, creating an easy donation transaction. Here are a few examples you may have come across: purchase (RED) coffee from Starbucks, and some of the proceeds are donated to the Global Fund; check out at Kroger and donate $1 to a local charity; buy a bottle of Merlot at onehopewine.com and they send few dollars to the charity of your choice.

These examples have raised a great deal of money for charity: (RED) alone has garnered over $170 MM since 2006. But does that mean cause marketing at checkout is executed as well as it could be? I don’t think so. The “make a purchase/make a donation” model is still relatively new, and sometimes a bit awkward. Here are three suggestions on how to improve it:

Add value, not price

As a business, if you’re going to donate 10% of a product’s sale price to charity, don’t just mark up the price by 10% and expect me to buy it. You’re not adding anything to the equation. Instead, add value in some other way. Tell me that because you donate half of your profits to charity, you can sell your product at a competitive price and give 10% to charity. Or offer a matching donation from a third-party, so shoppers feel like that their donated dollars go further. Be creative. Have some skin in the game. But don’t simply pass the buck to the customer in your cause marketing efforts.

Give me some credit

Hey, I just bought your product, and I supported a charity! But so what?! If you want customers to feel really good about what they’ve done, show them you appreciate it. Talk about the customers who’ve done the most to support causes on your Facebook or Twitter feed. Give customers who participate in your cause marketing campaigns discounts on future purchases, or special access to sale events. A ‘small thank’ you can go a long way.

Don’t overwhelm me with cause marketing

Are you asking customers to make a donation every time they interact with your business? Maybe I already made a donation earlier in the day, and I’m tapped out. So I might get a little annoyed if I feel like I’m getting shaken down each time I pick up a bag of groceries. If you ask me too often, or make me feel guilty if I decline, then I’ll just shop somewhere else. Make me feel good for giving, but not bad for saying no.

These are just three ideas on how to improve cause marketing at check out- what other ways it be improved?