Full Nelson: A Web Presence Needs Sizzle, For Shizzle - InformationWeek

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Full Nelson: A Web Presence Needs Sizzle, For Shizzle

Customer engagement is the future of the Web. For the bold and the willing, successful ideas are there for the trying -- just don’t try too hard.

On the Web, entire economies and cultures emerge with surprise. The less creative or visionary watch and try to follow, as if there's a secret formula to be revealed to the most astute observer. People look at the NetFlix corporate culture Google free lunch program, and Obama open government mantra and say: It worked for them, it will work for us. There's some truth in that, but the success variables are never the same. Ultimately, each business must create its own wave.

Success on the Web, like The White Rabbit, is alluring in its urgency and its insistence on its path. Words like "crowdsourced," "social," and "sticky" are simple labels for complicated ingenuity. Anyone who sets out to create The Next Big Thing invariably fails compared with those who create something out of real social need, or passion. There's no hidden button for "Go Viral" on the Web, and there's no magic formula to replicate what happens when something does. Take new social media buzz factories, FarmVille and FourSquare.

Zynga's FarmVille for you city folk who continue to ignore the electronic social world, is a Facebook game whose perplexing popularity is rivaled only by Zynga's $150 million in revenue. FarmVille users plant crops, sell the output, and earn FarmVille money, which they can use to buy more land, seed, livestock, farming equipment, and other goods and services. FarmVille makes money through micropayments -- millions of users making tiny purchases of items to accumulate more, faster. Seriously. FarmVille's popularity has soared since its June launch; it's now at 60 million users per month.

For those who subscribe to the Slow Food Movement or pine for the days before factory farms stamped out steroid-injected chickens like boxes of Cocoa Crispies, FarmVille's success just might be insulting: The country sways to the virtual world of antiquated farming but can hardly be bothered with the real thing. Soon enough, Congressional bills will emerge that subsidize the hoarding of virtual grain or the growth of virtual cornfields. Thrifty Facebookers will pile virtual illegal migrant workers into their virtual trunks to pick their suddenly prosperous strawberry fields.

FourSquare is equally baffling. This crowdsourced city guide uses location-based services to find its users when they "check in" to a place, and then let them know what others (the entirety of FourSquare users, or just that user's select friends) thought about an area or, say, a restaurant. Users provide very specific tips and recommendations. Everyone knows where everyone else in their network is. FourSquare provides rewards for frequent visits, even bestowing the title of mayor for a particular spot. In an odd mix of the physical and virtual worlds, some spots have gained a measure of fame, thanks to FourSquare, and have been giving their own rewards back to FourSquare users (like free cups of coffee to mayors). Unlike FarmVille, FourSquare is barely a blip at 60,000 or so users, but it sure has generated a buzz.

Enthusiasts say these experiences are addicting. But so are narcotics, TMZ and these hair styles, but none of them is good for you.

How To Exploit Engagement

Despite the inanity, there are interesting ideas here. Who knows why farming worked rather than, say, assembling your own race car or quilt. There are, however, interesting lessons, lessons that assume a business already believes in using the Web to listen to, follow, and engage customers -- and most important, get them to act.

We have perfectly good examples in the physical world. Anyone who's ever attended Oracle World, SAPPHIRE, IBM's Lotusphere or Impact, or Cisco Networkers knows that those companies' customers come in droves to sit captive to marketing muscle and messaging, face-to-face with the supplier. The hosts sometimes hear the best anecdotes and customer feedback, forge new relationships, strengthen existing ones, and even conduct transactions. These events happen in nearly every market segment, but they are costly to attend and even costlier to maintain, even if the payback is measurable.

Take that now to the Web. Comcast has famously used Twitter as a customer service channel, fixing problems, answering questions, feeding its pipeline of knowledge. CNN created iReports, where viewers create video or photos of local happenings, and these are organized on CNN's site and even displayed on national television. At last check, there had been 380,000 iReports filed, and nearly 20,000 of them CNN-vetted.

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