Carmax, Twitter, and the open conversation

carmax-logoMy wife needs a new car. After nearly ten years in the salt-slicked Winter streets of Chicago, her current car is rusted out and destined for the scrap heap.

It’s been over ten years since I’ve bought a car, and while chatting with her about our options she brought up CarMax, the “no haggle” used car lot that seems to be redefining used car-buying. I did a little research and like what they’re saying. They do a 125-point inspection on everything they sell, they flat-price their cars at something that appears average about 10-15% premium over the car’s private-buyer blue book value (which seems reasonable, and half the premium of a standard dealership), and they don’t commission their employees based on individual car sales. Sounds pretty good, but why not ask Twitter? I posed the following question to people that follow me on Twitter:

Me: Anyone have experience with CarMax – good/bad/gotchas? Going to hit them up this weekend.

And the generous Twitter folks got right back to me. Here were the responses:

Dukethug: @DougWick buddy of mine got burned by some BS from carmax a few years ago. Should be interesting to see how desperate they are.

Baldman: @DougWick We bought Sarah’s car at CarMax and loved the experience, including the trade-in of her old one. We’ll buy our next car there.

ScottIngram: @dougwick My CarMax experiences have been positive. Sold a car to them a couple weeks ago. My in-laws bought their car there and are happy.

Atxryan: @DougWick My friend @atxkat bought a car from CarMax and the clutch went out less than a month later. Was not covered by their warranty.

Doogsatx: @DougWick sold my 2002 Protege5 there for the same price I bought it for a year earlier (from diff dealer), so I can’t complain too much…

Ok, so three positive, two negative. I messaged my friend Josh (Dukethug) to get a little more detail on his friend who got burned:

Me: @Dukethug what was the nature of the burning? bad car? pricing? financing? just want to know where to keep my eye . . .

Dukethug: @dougwick iirc, it was a promised service arrangement that was not honored.

Dukethug: @dougwick as in, the car ended up having some problems carmax refused to fix.

It seems like both Dukethug’s and Atxryan’s friends got saddled with a car that probably shouldn’t have passed the 125 point inspection. Well this is where things got really interesting. At this point I receive a message – “CarMax Chris Wilmore (@CarMaxChris) is following you on Twitter.”

Clicking through to @CarMaxChris’s profile, Chris’ Bio reads “CarMax PR rep interested in sharing information about the nation’s largest retailer of used cars, car buying info, automotive content and social media trends.” Wow, so someone from CarMax “heard” me talking about them and reached out to me. So I take advantage of this access:

Me: @CarMaxChris Does CarMax allow inspection of vehicles by third party mechanics prior to purchase?

CarMaxChris: @DougWick Not prior to purchase, but all used CarMax cars can be returned for any reason within a 5-day period with our money-back guarantee

Well that seems reasonable, and plenty of time to get the car to a mechanic for our own third party inspection.

In the end, I got five great pieces of feedback from my network and a connection to the service I’m thinking about using who took the opportunity to address my concerns. I already like CarMax even though I haven’t set foot in one of their stores. This all transpired in the course of just about 3-4 hours.

This is a practical example of how an open publish:subscribe model for the world can become extremely powerful, and why it might be worth it to join Twitter.

Now think about if a mechanic in Austin had heard me mention “mechanic” and checked my location data to know that I live in Austin? They could have chimed in and potentially won some business. Or someone from my local CarMax to ask which car I’m looking at? Insurance providers? Financing? The DMV? They might all someday add value to this conversation because I raised my hand started talking about needing to buy a car. Good marketing – the kind I want to hear because of what my needs are right now.

The cardinal rule of Twitter is that you show your network some gratitude when they help you out:

Me: Thank you @atxkat @atxryan @doogsatx @dukethug @ScottIngram @baldman and of course @CarMaxChris for the CarMax feedback. Twitter FTW!

CarMaxChris: @DougWick You’re most welcome. Hope to see you in soon.

Atxkat: @Dougwick I would definitely recomend having a third party give it the once over… @drosko would agree

Now while I was going to go to CarMax anyway, and it was nice that he answered my question, there is a big opportunity for CarMaxChris to go above and beyond. He could track down @atxkat, @drosko, and @dukethug’s friend (it would just take a few minutes) and try to win them back as customers. That is where the real power of listening into the network, from a company perspective, is so powerful – and could change everything about how companies market in the future.

Facebook Connect: An Open Invitation to the Party

mashable_sxsw_v1_posterThis post was originally published over on the Powered Blog, The Engaged Consumer.

Have you ever been so steeped in something that you see it everywhere you look? Standing in the middle of the Powered-sponsored Mashable party during South by Southwest Interactive, beer in hand and exploring the various rooms of the Six night club, I started to think about Facebook Connect. Yeah, this is how bad it’s gotten.

Facebook is a party. It’s a huge place where you can share content and news, play games together, engaging in many of the activities you do with friends in the offline world. The problem is that the party, up until now, has really just been for Facebook itself and its users. If you were any entity with commercial interests, the best you could do is give Facebook a banner to hang somewhere for you. This would be like if Powered sponsored the Mashable party but we could only hang a banner inside the bar. How effective would that be for our marketing, over the din of the music and rumble of conversation?

With Facebook Pages, now you can attend the party. You’re just like I was at Six, a sponsor floating around the crowd, having a few conversations and talking about Powered. This is much more effective marketing-wise than a few banners (at least I think so!), but still I’m just one guy and although there were a few other Powered employees our impact at the event was still limited. This was compounded by the reality that people didn’t always want to talk about Powered, a fact that is even truer in the personal-conversation world of Facebook – which is about as far away from an industry party as you can get.

Facebook Connect is really where things get interesting. It allows you, as a brand, to have your own room in the bar. By that I mean you can build your own communal experience and attach it in a meaningful way to the Facebook experience. People can walk into your room, find the people they already know, and message people outside the room about the cool things going on there.

Word-of-Mouth Traffic Flow

This doesn’t absolve brands from creating an engaging experience in their own community environment. You still need to populate your room with interesting content, people, and programming. But it really helps with one of the main problems branded communities have, which is getting people in the door. There is only so much you can do with email marketing, media promotion, and search. Here, Facebook runs the party, and you just hook into their flow. You are instantly rewarded for creating engagement, versus having to create engagement and then work hard to get the word out.

The Power of Context

The reasons why you would build your own room (Facebook Connect) versus just attend the party (Pages) are similar in both the online and offline world. With Connect, you gain context. Everything that happens in your community is in the world of your brand, versus the world of Facebook. Context is extremely powerful in the user’s mind, and it has a lot to do with building people’s brand affinity, advocacy, and loyalty. Does reading this blog entry on the Powered blog make you attribute the value to Powered, or to me (Wick, Doug Wick)? How would that change if you read it on my personal blog? If you walked into the Powered Room at the Mashable Party, how would this be different than just meeting someone from Powered?

Learning Ability

Also, with Connect comes data. Your ability to listen and learn as an organization is significantly enhanced when the technical handoff between Facebook servers and yours happens. What if the Mashable party went on indefinitely (I felt like it might at some points) and you never adapted your room to be more reflective of partier’s preferences or need – or even just freshened things up a bit? If you don’t have the data, you won’t have the visibility into individual behavior on a quantitative or qualitative level. You won’t learn or adapt as effectively, and you’ll start sounding like that boorish guy who’s always at the party saying the same things. Yes, we’ve heard that story about how you went bungee-jumping in Cancun eight times, thank you very much.

So now that you’ve been invited to the party, will you get in there? Or will you sit at home and let other brands have all the fun?

A solution looking for a problem

oldtelephoneIf you were living in the early 1900′s and someone handed you one of the first telephones, I’d bet you stare blankly at that person and say “now how would I use this?”

You’d be so used to communicating by letter, telegraph, or simply in person that you wouldn’t really know how to get any value out of a phone. That is, until you called someone. Then you might realize that there are tremendous opportunities for getting value out of a phone.

I often describe Twitter in the same way. Earlier I blogged about Why It Matters, and I still think bringing the publish:subscribe model to human communication systems will be revolutionary in its own right – whether that communication happens at twitter.com or on some other service.

But for now, people use Twitter in hundreds of different ways and everyone has constructed their own individual value proposition for using it. I use it to track my professional network and my local Austin network. It’s my virtual business card. I think it’s a great way to organize your deep network (the people you don’t know as well and don’t share as much with as your Facebook network).

I’d encourage you to pick up “the phone” and see how you can make Twitter valuable for you.

The secret to musical mastery: women

This post is to celebrate the lead-up to South by Southwest, one of the best music events on the planet.

billyandchristieWomen are responsible for the vast majority of music ever created. Either they were creating it themselves, or they were inspiring young men to do the same.

Most women are shocked by this revelation. “You mean all men learn to play guitar in order to increase their chance of scoring?”

Yes.

“But they say it’s because it speaks to their soul.”

They’re lying.

There are two reasons why wooing the ladies is the main reason men gravitate toward musicianship. First, it works. I could go into why I think it works but it really doesn’t matter. The supporting data are overwhelming. Second, learning to play an instrument is difficult. After a few weeks, it seems like you’ll never get to any level of proficiency. Without the promise of a woman’s attention dangling out there, most men give up. Of course, the promise of a woman’s attention motivates a great deal of what we men do (working out, making money, etc.).

I’ve been a musician my whole life, and I do love music for reasons that have nothing to do with getting lucky. But those reasons came later, way after I started learning how to play. Even in 5th grade, where I changed from piano to saxophone, I did it to play an instrument that was “cooler.” This is really just a fifth-grader’s way of identifying a more girl-friendly strategy before he’s even figured out that he likes girls.

The problem is that most men fail to acknowledge the real reason why they should learn to play an instrument, even to themselves. As a result, they don’t optimize their approach to get the results they are after. This can lead to things like playing the oboe. No one ever got a date by playing the oboe. Sorry.

Men, it’s at this point that you need to look at yourselves in the mirror and be honest. Music is a wonderful, beautiful, artistic thing, but if you really want to become a good musician you need to focus on the possibility of one thing: groupies.

As in the earlier oboe-playing example, the point where most guys go astray is the point of instrument choice. If you choose a bad instrument, the ladies will ignore your efforts and you will quickly stop playing. You might even wonder why those harp lessons never stuck. But really, you were done before you started.

So to help you, I have included below a list of what I consider are the ten best instruments to woo the ladies – gathered from years of observing their effectiveness. You can play any of them, based on your personal taste and the type of women that interest you, but I wouldn’t stray too far from this list.

1. Guitar – A good guitar player is like superman, from the arena stage to the campfire. There is a reason why “Guitar Hero” is one of the most popular video games of all time.

2. Vocals – A man that can sing well can speak in ways the rest of us can’t. He also carries his instrument with him wherever he goes. The only reason he isn’t number 1 is because he doesn’t have the mystique of the guitar player (If you need to understand this dynamic better, see Cameron Crowe’s seminal movie Almost Famous).

3. Drums – The drummer is the working man of the rock band, the captain of the rhythm section. As such, even though he is further from the women in the front row than other musicians, the fact that he lays down the beats means his connection with them is more primal. Women will sometimes walk right past the lead guitarist and front man to talk to the drummer right after a show. Laying down the beat lays down the groundwork.

4. Bass Guitar / Stand-up Bass - In certain instances the man on bass can hop over the drummer, but in most cases bass guitar offers the least opportunity for expressiveness in terms of your traditional rock band instruments. But it’s still a powerful combination of rhythm and proximity to the audience. A Stand-Up Bass can earn you a little extra mojo if you work in a few full spins.

5. Piano / Keyboards – Piano is, in my opinion, the most legitimately romantic instrument behind vocals. This is why the hair bands of the 80′s, who were the least coy about their motivations for picking up instruments, would occasionally roll out a piano ballad to further their efforts (See “Something to Believe In”, Poison, 1990).

6. Saxophone – When I throw sax out there, most people think Kenny G. Stop it. This is not the sax I’m talking about. Sax is #6 for one reason, and that’s jazz. The jazz saxophone is the closest instrument to the human voice, and can nearly match its expressiveness. The weakness for the sax, as with other wind instruments, is that you cannot roll a combo with instrument+vocals. (For good sax, see Michael Brecker)

Before I go on, that’s an important note about instruments 1-5 above. Instruments like bass guitar or piano can shoot to the top of the list when paired with vocals. This is the only way a guy who looks like Billy Joel could marry Christie Brinkley (and he’s now married to 28-year-old Katie Lee – no judging, how you wield the power is your choice).

7. Trumpet – Ok, trumpet is a little bit of a stretch at #7 but I put it in not only because it’s another great jazz solo instrument, but also because it’s arguably the manliest instrument in the symphony orchestra (I know I’m reaching, but in the same room with men playing bassoon and viola, this guy is a rock star).

8. Violin / Fiddle – Violin is another cross-over instrument, because although it’s the prima donna of the symphony, it’s a great solo instrument for country/western/bluegrass/celtic. Unfortunately, fiddle-style violin just isn’t that sexy in most cases. But you can’t say Charlie Daniels didn’t considerably increase his luck every time he rolled out “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” (1979)

9. Trombone – Trombone brings it in at #9, as it too can be a powerful jazz or orchestral instrument. Though it’s a little pokier than its brass cousin the trumpet, it makes up for it a bit with deeper, manlier timbre.

10. Bagpipes – I personally think women get freaky when they hear the bagpipes. But I might be alone in this opinion. I mean, they play the bagpipes before Irish battles and at the funerals of policemen and firemen, for pete’s sake. This is a much better choice if you are looking for something non-traditional than say, the dreaded accordion.

So men, I hope my list will help you budding musicians out there in the early choices that can mean the difference between virtuosity and obscurity. And if you try them all and find that you have no musical talent whatsoever, remember that you can always grow a mustache.

Watch out for the “Nell” effect

nellToday at work we were discussing the prep for a big presentation next week, and getting into some pretty esoteric discussions (as we usually do) about how to communicate the vision and direction of our company.

One of the issues with what we do is that we are not only in the marketing world, but we are also in a subdomain of marketing (“social marketing,” or basically building communities online for marketing purposes). The social marketing world deals with a lot of pretty innovative web tools and a lot of specialized terminology that many people, even professional interactive marketers, don’t understand completely yet. In prepping for any presentation outside Powered’s four walls, we have to be cognizant of that. If we don’t constantly stay vigilant we run the risk of speaking in a language our audience can’t understand.

In more general terms, this is the “Nell” Effect, referring to the 1994 movie starring Jodie Foster that received mixed reviews like “Stunningly awful on almost every level.” But useful for a blog post!

In the movie, Jodie plays this woman who basically grows up in complete isolation from the world. As a result, she has invented her own language and built a completely unique world view. Neither of these translate to the world we know very well. Of course, in Hollywood fashion the movie tries to show us that our world view isn’t as beautiful as Nell’s, but Nell isn’t trying to make it in the private sector either.

I think we’ve all experienced the Nell Effect before, though, in various places where we’ve had an immersive, shared experience. When I graduated with my MBA, it was extremely difficult to get to where I was talking and writing like a normal person again – and not using terms like “sustainable competitive advantage” when talking about my favorite places to eat. Of course, my MBA classmates would know exactly what I was talking about!

While it’s important to internalize the learnings from each of these closed environments, you have to find new ways to express them once that environment has fallen away. When have you experienced the Nell Effect? Are there still traces of it in the way you talk, or the way that you write?

The three big questions in sales

There are three questions I think a salesperson has to answer for a potential buyer:

  • What is it that I’m buying? (Understanding)
  • How is it relevant or valuable to me specifically? (Relevancy)
  • How risky is it to buy? (Risk)

The difficulty of answering these questions can vary widely depending on what you are selling and to whom you are talking. But they all have to be addressed before someone will buy.

For a salesperson, understanding which question seems to be the most challenging to answer most of the time can be key to focusing your message. Also, experience in answering these questions in order, while choosing just the right words to answer each question quickly and effectively is key.

For a marketer, by choosing potential buyer segments that easily understand what you are selling, find what you are selling very relevant, and feel that it is less risky than others do, you will likely make things much easier on yourself. With each successive sale, understanding and relevancy will be better understood by tougher targets – while risk will be perceived as lower.

For a businessperson, you can rate the worthiness of a business on these three dimensions. If one out of the three is a real barrier, you can probably find a way around it and capitalize on doing so. But if what you are thinking of providing to buyers is confusing, lacks wide relevancy, and is a risky thing to buy, it’s clearly not a wise investment.

A final point: most salespeople, and most websites, ignore the first question. Then they wonder why they just can’t get past the second or third one.