My Twitter Encounter with ‘Groundswell’ Authors

Over the weekend, I have an interesting encounter with Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff, authors of the book, Groundswell – Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies (Harvard Business Press, 2008), on Twitter. While reading, I was twittering ideas extracted from the book and thoughts that bubbled up (see below – extracted from ‘twitter.com/limyh’):

While I was tweeting on Groundswell, quite unexpectedly Josh Bernoff tweet’ed me. Then, he was scanning tweet conversations on ‘Groundswell’. A few hours later, Charlene Li messaged me: “I loved your chapter by chapter tweets.” How unexpected! (See below)

This is an interesting case of how authors (and businesses, celebrities, etc.) can easily scan tweet conversations, with apps such as Summize and Twitscoop, and feel the ‘social pulse’ and listen to opinions about their products, brands, etc. Tools such as Twitter and Technorati are powerful tools to understand the mind of your customers.

Li and Bernoff wrote in Groundswell, “in the era of groundswell, listening is easy. Not listening, on the other hand, is criminal” (p. 93). They went on: “Listeners inevitably feel the temptation to respond by talking within the groundswell, by publishing blogs, contributing to user-generated content sites, and setting up communities” (p. 98). Both Groundswell authors certainly walk their talk!

Groundswell is an excellent how-to book. It offers insights into how enterprises can leverage the ‘social’ forces to build brand, create & sustain customer relationships and innovate offerings. It provides interesting perspective on the emerging nature of producer-consumer relationship. Additionally, the case studies presented in the book are both engrossing and enlightening. For those who are interested to understanding social technologies and its impact on the way you ‘listen’ and ‘talk’ to your customers, do yourself a favor and read the book!


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The Maze of Social Platforms: Why Being Social Means Losing Yourself

I’ve subscribed to quite a handful Web 2.0 sites, such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, FriendFeed, TotSpot, Flickr, Last.fm, YouTube, Digg, and Goodread. With the dizzying array of cool social apps emerging each day, we happily signed up with our personal contents on these social platforms. We are, after all, Runciman’s Social Animals.

Most of social platforms only work for you if you divulge ‘true’ data about yourself. Sites like TotSpot acts as a social networking sites for your kids. It acts as your children’s scrapbook, diary and social networking site. It encourages you to enter information like your child’s Firsts (e.g. when is the first time she claps her hand, smile, etc.). The same applies to LinkedIn, Facebook and many others.

I can’t help but wonder what will happen if these social platforms closed down someday. After spending efforts and time generating the user-generated contents, it is quite natural for one to impose meanings and assign values to the social contents.

However, I find it’s all not all sunny in Land of SocialMe. Some nagging questions, which I’m still seeking satisfactory answers:

  1. Why social networking sites don’t offer us facility to easily back-up the social contents we’ve generated?
  2. Once a social platform ceased to exist, what will happen to all the generated social data? Does the social platform operators have the rights to ‘sell’ the data?
  3. Who is the rightful owners of the contents we’ve generated on social platforms? We’re using the social services for free and in return, we’re surrendering our rights to the contents we’ve generated. Is this worth surrendering our privacy?

Of course, we have the rights not to subscribe to the social platforms. However, these applications are social utility. Being a Web Luddite is not an answer. I’m hoping for a communal regulatory body, which to take the side of the users of social platforms. This can served to placate the repressed fears of many in the Age of Social Web.

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Understanding Social Apps Adoption

StumbleUpon, Del.icio.us, Faviki, LoopLinks, Instapaper, LinkRiver, Diigo. These are some of the bookmarking web applications. Such market niche with so many choices for users. How do these app merchants stand out and make themselves, well, “special”? How to encourage take-up among the digital dwellers? This article aims to describe the imperatives of social apps and key competitive factors to thrive in the dynamic web marketspace. The imperatives are presented in the form of Social App Adoption Equation.

Social App Adoption Equation

Social App Adoption equation, Adoption = f (Cost, Utility, Social Effect), where Adoption refers to the propensity and motivation to use a particular web app

Cost is expended, which refers to the time, effort and dollars spent during the period of adopting and assimilating the web app into one’s life. At his talk at the recent Netbash @WCIT 2008 in Kuala Lumpur, Vinton Cerf mentioned about the creation of risk-free environment for your prospects and customers to try out your products/services. He gave the examples of Google and Xerox. Google created AdWord, which customers don’t get charged until their text ads were clicked. Xerox charged its customers on per-copy print. Both Google and Xerox lowered the adoption barrier.

Web apps can be offered as free and thus, minimize or eliminate the cost factor. It is common for many web-based startups to let users use their products and services for free. Think Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, Lastfm, Plurk, and many, many more. Generally, these providers launch first, build a critical mass of users, and eventually, discover later the right revenue model. Only quite recently Facebook start monetize its user-base with ‘social ads’

Another flavor of free is the versioning strategy, where software/service are chunked into different versions. The ‘free’ edition usually with limited features compared to its ‘pro’ version. Of course, there is also the try-out strategy, where companies offer limited trial period e.g. 30-days and allow users to freely try out the products. After the trial period, users will need to purchase license to continue using it. Also, the web apps must come with built-in simplicity.. from sign-up process to mastering the product. Tedious sign-up process can discourage users. The rule is, as little effort as possible to master the app.

Utility is experienced and derived by exploiting the capabilities and features of a particular web app. In the Age of Dot-Com (1995 to 2001), web apps focused on functional aspects for enabling self-service. Key metrics include number of eyeballs and critical mass of users. The Age of Social Web (2001 – present) focus on interaction, relationships and shared meanings & experiences. ‘Web apps’ added with social-ness. This is not to suggest that social-centric sites didn’t exist prior the Social Web age. SixDegrees, a social network service, was formed in 1997 and was shut down in 2001. SixDegrees is ahead of the market’s adoption curve.

Eventually, sites like Friendster (founded in 2001), MySpace (2003), Orkut (2004), Facebook (2004), Bebo (2005) emerged and ignited the social networking wildfire. The functional utility, which can be derived by exploiting the capabilities of the web app. Bookmarking web app provides bookmarking, search engine provides search function, so on and so forth

Social Effect refers to the network effect of a particular web. The value of a social app is dependent on the number of people using the apps. The more people using a social app, the more ‘valuable’ the app becomes. Users also extracted value via experiencing of ‘social ties’ forged within the community. The social ties, in turn, emotional bonds, a user forged within a community act as a form of barrier to entry or lock-in for social app providers. First-mover advantage provide head-start but no guarantee of winning.

‘Social ties’ can be sticky. A user who has created a profile on Facebook with considerable number of friends is quite unlikely to move to MySpace. A user with hundreds of followers on Twitter is reluctant to move over to Plurk. This stickiness is good for the creation sustainable community of users.

Social App Adoption equation provides a simplistic conception of the critical components, which are utility, cost and social effect. The lower the cost, the higher the utility, the more robust the social effect will lead to higher adoption rate, fueled by positive feedback. The consideration of these elements is critical for merchants of social apps. Of the three elements, Cost is probably the element within the total control of the app merchants. Next is utility derived, which may differ from one individual from the other. Different users assign different perceive value to each function. The Social Effect element is beyond the control of the merchants.

Free is Never Enough

Free (Cost) is a commodity these days. The Free factor helps in getting users to try-out a web app but it’s not a compelling enough to develop social stickiness. For example, the growth of Facebook. The social networking site is certainly not the first one in the marketplace. Before Facebook, there are already established players like MySpace and Friendster.

However, Facebook managed to grab the spotlight and is showing impressive growth, mainly due to its innovative flair. The company open up its platform to the third-party developers in May 24 2007. To date, there are about 400,000 developers (e.g. Microsoft, Amazon, Slide, Rock You, iLike, etc.) have developed over 24,000 applications on the Facebook platform. Recently, it launched Facebook Open Platform, FbOpen, to make the developer platform open source. By opening up its platform, Facebook can swiftly enhance the value (Utility) of its site, at a speed it couldn’t have done if it goes alone. MySpace used to ‘dislike’ independent developers for its social networking site and usually either shut them down or buy them out.

The platform strategy worked well for Facebook and it is one of the key reasons it managed to grow at impressive rate (Social Effect), despite being late to the social networking scene. Such innovation makes Facebook the coolest kid on the block!

The Facebook example is a reminder to social apps merchants that lowering of adoption barrier is prerequisite in the Web world. Innovation that leads to better user experience and generation of social effect around the web app determines success.

Becoming Sticky Social Platforms

Here’s the simplistic steps of how social platforms evolve:

  1. Imagineering Sit under a tree (or wherever) and think of the next crazy, sexy, cool social app to do and engineer it!
  2. Set it Free Roll-out the social app and make it free (it’s more like a free beer, rather than free speech).
  3. Scale the Crowd Entice the Web mortals to your virtual social world with your refreshing’ community context and concept (e.g. Zebo with people listing the stuff they owned) and ‘tools’ (web applets).
  4. Swirl the Loop Get on that positive feedback loop by getting on the TIPPING POINT
  5. Monetize the Social Streams Remember, the purpose of a business is to generate profit. So, monetize your crowd to foot your bills, finance your next project, etc
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In Search of Competition 2.0

Tim O’Reilly, in “Microhoo: corporate penis envy?,” (O’Reilly Radar, May 24 2008) advised Microsoft to outsource its search to Google and “Compete where you have ideas that can really change the game, but don’t play me-too.”

Michael Arrington disagreed with O’Reilly assertions in his article “The Importance of A Competitive Search Market” (TechCrunch, May 25 2008). He believed that competition is crucial to the evolution and improvement of the search technology and business models. According to Arrington, if Google is allowed to assume the dominant role in search, “little effort is put into innovation, and the not enough revenue flows to companies that add value to the system…. the entire ecosystem is put at risk.”

O’Reilly countered with “Why search competition isn’t the point” (O’Reilly Radar, May 25 2008). He asserted that the focus shouldn’t be on Web 2.0 applications or search, what he termed as subsystems of a much bigger Internet Operating System. He went on to argued that Google’s monopoly will be short-lived because “it’s rare for a company that led with one generation of technology to also win at the next.”

O’Reilly also pointed out that Web 2.0 applications tend to slide into monopolistic behaviors, fuel by network effects. The network effects already in play for Google and its search business. So, unless Microsoft is taking the search concept to the next level and make its “search services that are more open, re-usable and re-deployable than Google’s search services”, it should walk-away from the search business. He argued that “there’s so much yet to invent.” He believed Google dominance in search will be toppled by disruptive forces coming from outside the current system, not from playing catch-ups at the same game (as adopted by Microsoft).

I agreed with Arrington’s position. Competition is important to create a sustainable and healthy Web Ecosystem. O’Reilly equates web applications like search to subsystems of a more grandeur system, named Internet OS. Competition at even the subsystem-level is crucial for evolution. Any lock-in by a particular species in a particular subsystem is risky for the entire Ecosystem, as the Whole System is only as good as its sub-systems.

I agreed with O’Reilly that network effects, in the favor of Google search, is almost an Everest for Microsoft to climb. BUT we have see many instances where companies overcoming the undercurrent of network effects. Search engines like Altavista and Hotbot have lock-in in the search marketplace and Google, a relatively late-comer, dislodged the incumbents. Google is evolutionary (rather than revolutionary) improvement over Hotbot or Altavista. Google managed to develop new sort of algorithms and methodologies to deliver better search results compared to its predecessors. What if then we asked Google not to pour their resources to compete in the search subsystem, as this area already been taken care by Hotbot?

The same applies for the social networking marketspace. Friendster and MySpace practically captured this marketspace before Facebook comes marching in. Should we advice Facebook to do something else other than social networking business when they started operation?

There should be competition in every subsystems. We see competitions in practically every niche of the today’s Web 2.0 market – bookmarking segment (e.g. Del.icio.us, StumbleUpon, Diigo), books (Goodread, Shelfari, Library Thing), photos (e.g. Flickr, Picasa), etc. Through competition, innovative ideas like Google PageRank and Facebook Platform can emerge. The Web 2.0 is a thriving and dynamic ecosystem, mainly because array of species are emerging every day to bring something ‘special’ to the evolution of the entire Web Ecosystem.

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Emergence of the Agile Enterprise

The emerging global, digital economy is forcing businesses to devise new strategies, develop new capabilities, design new organizational structures and deploy new business models. The disruptive effect of fast technological innovations and adoptions redefine the essence of today’s competitiveness. Traditional forms of organization can no longer respond effectively to the new marketplace dynamics. Businesses cannot compete with inflexible infrastructures, outmoded business models, and fixed products and services. Across the business landscape, we are witnessing the emergence of Agile Enterprise. In order to thrive successfully, these enterprises adopt new visions & values, embrace breakthrough culture, cultivate entrepreneurial team and construct adaptive infrastructure. We use the concept to accentuate the imperativeness of today’s organizations to anticipate changes, adapt swiftly to the changes and assert effectively for strategic gains. This book chapter elaborates and explores Agile Enterprise within the context of today’s marketplace.

NOTE “Emergence of the Agile Enterprise” by Nirmal Pal and (Michael) Lim Yung-Hui, appeared in the book “The Agile Enterprise: Reinventing your Organization for Success in an On-Demand World” (New York: Springer-Verlag, 2005)

Read this document on Scribd: Emergence of the Agile Enterprise
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