[Toby Bloomberg. Photo from her file.]
This brands vs. people debate that has evolved into a new chapter called, "Who want to chat with a Coke bottle," brought me back to Naked Conversations. Then the issue was character blogs--creating fictitious characters who wrote blogs. We spotlighted one called Moosetopia, which seems to have been abandoned in 2007, perhaps to avoid the advent of Sarah Palin.
We also spotlighted Toby Bloomberg, an online marketing maven in Atlanta, Ga., who has since become my friend. But that did not stop us from seeing this issue from different sides. Bloomberg saw blogs as a new marketing tool. Then, as now--I saw blogs and social media as conversational tools of use to a great many more parts of an organization than the marketers. Toby was also behind GourmetStation, a character blog featuring a fictitious woman, named "T. Alexander" who seemed to spend her life enjoying wine and food and good times, while so many of us real people had to work and commute and maybe change some diapers.
More than three years have passed since I interviewed Bloomberg for Naked Conversations. I thought I'd swing back and see if her views had budged and to find out what happened to that fictitious entity she had created.
1. Whatever happened to Gourmet Station? Is it still around? Are you still working with them? Do you still believe in character blogs vs real people blogs.
GourmetStation is very much alive, as is its accompanying blog, Delicious Destinations. I’m happy to report the brand’s icon T. Alexander - remains the main voice of the blog. It has been a rewarding and successful initiative. As has been our approach since the blog launched in 2005, we believe that transparency is critical and the following is included directly below the blog title:
Through the character of T. Alexander and occasional real-life guests, our aim is to share with you light-hearted fun ideas about food, gift giving, entertaining and culture.
Although the T. Alexander character continues to be the lead “author” the blog now incorporates eight “real people” as on-going contributing guest bloggers including the owner of a B&B in Tuscany, a former butler from England and a travel writer living in Paris. GourmetStation’s community does not appear to be confused or put off by incorporating the imagined with the real. So Shel, perhaps we have pushed the envelope a notch again.
I still believe IF the strategy supports the brand and long-term objectives, then a character’s voice can successfully work to tell the stories.
In retrospect, although there are benefits to using a character there may be limitations. One challenge facing a character blog is some people maybe less inclined to hold serious conversations with an icon. If GourmetStation were a business-to-business brand instead of business-to-consumer or if Donna Lyons-Miller, the founder, wanted to talk about operations, a character blog strategy might not be the best direction. However, the content direction for Delicious Destinations focuses on entertainment e.g., travel, food, wine, cultures and in that genre T. Alexander adds a whimsical touch.
2. Do you still see social media tools as part of the marketing tool arsenal or has your thinking. umm... evolved from that perspective?
My philosophy is that marketing is the doorway to the customer and, from that perspective, social media plays an important role in reaching and keeping in contact with a brand’s community. However, I’ve seen companies such as Zappos, Comcast and Dell successfully use social media to support customer service so perhaps there are more “homes” where social media can reside than in marketing. I think customer services should be a part of marketing but that’s another topic for another day. In addition, technical support reps have been blogging for many years yet another residence for social media.
One of the lessons that I’ve learned is social media initiatives have the best chance of success if there is a champion who is responsible for the implementation and also understands and believes that social media is a new way of conducting business. Social media not only influences the way we interact with customers but with people within the enterprise. Developing cross silo communication processes are critical to ensuring that information derived from on-going listening and talking with customers reaches the right internal people. Equally important is letting customers know they have been heard and responding appropriately.
What I’d like to see is social media holding a place of its own at the c-suite table. I envision a Chief Social Media Officer who helps orchestrate the initiatives; where the position is structured more as a jazz leader than a classical conductor. If you know of any organization looking for a “social media jazz leader” let me know!
3. When it comes to Twitter, what is your view? Do you think companies would be wise, like Frank Eliason at Comcast and RichardatDell to show real people representing themselves as part of a corporate brand--or do you think it makes more sense to tweet anonymously behind a corporate brand?
I vote for the people stepping out of the brand shadows and sharing their true identities. You’ll be pleased to know that Donna Lyons-Miller, GourmetStation, is on Twitter as herself and not T. Alexander. It was a decision that we made in a New York minute.
4. So do you object to character tweeting? How about tweeting as a brand name instead of person?
I don't mind a character tweeting IF I know the person behind the icon. What I feel uncomfortable with a group tweet where everyone is mashed into one identify. I have no idea who is talking. It then becomes the "voice" of the enterprise and not the "voice" of the individual. In my humble opinion the power of Twitter is diluted.
Hiding behind a traditional sales pitch is a shame if that’s the major focus of a brand’s use of Twitter. With only 140 characters continuing brand messaging becomes a dull yawn. The newest darling of social media can be a powerful digital relationship building strategy when the person behind the tweet shares little pieces of herself along with information and develops conversations with tweet friends. It feels odd to me if that type of tweet is not associated with a person.
It's interesting that while Bloomberg and I still disagree on character blogs, we are both less strident in our views and have found a great deal of common ground. I agree with he that the future org chart needs a space of for a c-level social media officer. She agrees with me that social media transcends marketing.
I wonder if we will have anything at all to fight over three years from today.