Creating Community

A few weeks back I was able to attend a couple of different conferences and at each time I was struck by the welcoming groups I was surrounded by. Despite never having met or engaged with many of the attendees, organisers, or presenters in each case, we found reasons to discuss ideas and master new skills and concepts in a safe space through shared experience.

Erin Burrell Community of Practice
Creating Communities

It is this movement towards shared experiences that turn strangers into friends across demographics and time zones. What was most surprising to me was not the differences, but instead the similarities in each conference despite them being from totally polar parts of my life.

A community is something that we all belong to regardless of our level of participation. While some may seek to just read a product review, coach a sport, or to present best practices at a global conference each level of contribution helps to make the community function.

In digital strategy, we often discuss the need to create an engaged and empowered group of consumers, clients, and vendors. Our digital community

In business, we focus on developing best practices inside each discipline so we can share ideas and learn from one another. A community of practitioners

In education, we work within our scholarly groups to develop research and further the knowledge we can contribute back. Our scholarly community

In sports, we work with coaches to grow our skills so that some day we can be just like that talented professional that we have posters of on our wall. A fitness community


Each scenario is unique in its output but is ultimately responsible for the same thing. All versions show a community of like-minded individuals with each segment contributing their knowledge and experiences for the betterment of the wider group.

Is Social Media the Answer?

Erin Burrell-Is Social Media the Answer
Defining strategies for social media in business

Each day I come across businesses that are trying to grow their engagement with their customers and employees and the first thing they come to the table with is the need for a Social Media Strategy.  I love and believe in social media, but I don’t believe that it is the best channel for every business or employee relations challenge that you are presented with.

In order to validate if a social media approach is right for a specific business challenge I have started to ask a few specific questions that help to get each brand on the right path.

Is the customer you are trying to reach in the demographic that uses the particular platform?

If you create a Twitter feed for a group that are loyal to Tumblr you may be wasting your time. Social media is a great tool to grow your business but you have to be relevant.  If the platform is not a match to the customers, then don’t bother, but if the answer is yes keep going.

Are you going to commit resources to write content and respond to questions or posts that arrive on the different platforms?

If the answer is no, then maybe you should re-think the idea of being in social media.  Responses that aren’t timely can turn into PR nightmares quickly on most platforms so what could have begun as a question about hours of service could spiral out of control and become damaging to your brand.  It is better not to be in the social space, than to do it badly.

Are you hoping to engage internal employees?

If you want to have an associate Facebook page and they can’t access Facebook from your internal network, you have likely created an obstacle to your own success.  Make sure your team can access your content from their workplace.  Hoping that they will go home and like your brand after a long day is a lot to ask of anyone.

Additionally, if your business includes employees that may not have great internet and/or cellular coverage because they work in remote locations, you may be spending time talking to yourself.

Ok, so you are going to staff the venture and you are committed to making sure everyone can access the content in the channel that fits them best, so what next?

You likely need a social media strategy.  Before you move forward and invest in the project make sure you know what you want to accomplish, and are willing to test it for a reasonable amount of time.  Most social media projects need at least six months to really build up steam, and don’t really hit their stride until at least a year of content and customer engagement has been completed.

When building your plan, include key milestones that will define success of the program as it builds and grows.  Try to be realistic about followers, circlers or likes that you want  for the first few months of the program.  Remember, just because you now have a presence doesn’t mean that everyone will seek out your page tomorrow.

Social media may have what seems like an immediate return on your investment, but you need people to care about what you have to say, before they will trust you with their time.  Be engaging, whatever your platform of choice and make sure that your social brand stays true to your existing non-social customer.

Are you making promises that your content can’t deliver?

Search marketing is hard work.

Writing good ads, getting them approved.  Sending the customer to the right location.  All work, but you are tracking that.  Likely every day.  Watching conversions, tweaking, adjusting correcting.

What about search engine optimization?  SEO has been a sexy topic for quite some time now, but just because your site is optimized, DOES NOT mean that your customer is going to get to where they want.

Are you writing keyword rich well tagged blogs about products?  Great!

Now… are you doing this before you actually write good quality product content?


Do Not Pass GO.

DO not collect $200.

Start writing good product content.



Do not wait for more resources, do not bother questioning the time it takes to write (and translate) better product content.

Start with the answer your customers questions.  Give them information and images they didn’t even know they wanted to see until you showed them.  Tag the products.  Tag the images.  Offer more information on the product warranty and specifications.  Offer links to relevant accessories.  Offer them product reviews and ratings.

This will give them what they want first.  The product itself is so much more relevant than your blog post on hot new products, or the stuff FILL IN THE BLANK celebrity is using.

Now go write your blog.  Link the blog to the products and services that are relevant so that the customer who gets to the blog first can still reach the product they want.

NOW…If you want to be really fancy add a bullet to your product content to talk about your blog and link it back there too.

Give your customers value in multiple ways and locations and they will see you more times in what Google or Bing or Yahoo serves in the organic search results, but they will have an opportunity to chose their own adventure about how they get to your stuff.

Maybe..just maybe they will add something to cart in the end and become a real conversion to your store.  If they decide not to buy something today at least you won’t have a 100% bounce rate because what you give them will be closer to meeting their needs, and they might just be back.

Want to know what makes a complete product?  Check out this post.

There’s No Swearing in “Good” Content (but maybe there should be)

I love content.  I am the first person to credit a site that finds that perfect balance of words and images for their brand.  That being said, I think too many of the little guys are afraid of really shouting out what makes them special and instead sound like a dirty little brother of the big sites.

Unfortunately they don’t have the budgets that big brands have for SEM and digital marketing so they find themselves on page 4 of the search results because while their content sounds just like everyone else, their site has less links and credibilty.

While the socially acceptable way to approach both product and site content is to think about telling the customer your story while weaving in responsible SEO and deep links; is that the best way to address every brand?

Some pretty successful small/medium businesses make their brand by specifically being clear and concise in their copy.  Sometimes that means the use of words or phrases that a lot of us shy away from.

A great example of this use of light profanity comes in some great blogger/web/copywriting talents likeRedheaded Writing and The Middle Finger Project.

Their specialties are not just about helping your brand sell its stuff, but also about defining a voice for your brand.  If your brand is “The Shit!” and you are afraid to tell people you risk becoming another bland voice in an ocean of bland voices.

I understand that most big corporations need to focus on their voice and their customers expectations, but if you are a small or medium business that is designed as clever and cheeky don’t be afraid to use a bit of real language to get your message out there.

Translate your passion about your level of awesome in your content.

Differentiate yourself and define your own online voice.  Don’t let the big guys define you.

I can tell you I am personally more likely to click on a link claiming that this widget is “the best fucking widget on the planet!” before I click through to another beige sounding widget.

eCommerce is Hard

We live in an environment where every known fact is up for a new release any day.

If we were high school science teachers the only significant change in the space of an entire career is the fact that a new element was added to the periodic table, or a planet is no longer a planer.

Instead today in eCommerce we have items like HTML5 and CSS3.  Named as such because they had predecessors and are guaranteed to have shiny new versions in the near future.  You as a digital professional need to know (and accept) that you can never know everything, and if you aren’t willing to upgrade your own knowlege and skills, you too will become outdated in less time than you think.

We choose eCommerce because of and not in spite of these facts.  They keep us humble.  They inspire agility and lifelong learning.

Sometimes they require us to accept failures.  We can’t always plan for volume, demand, customer engagement.  Sometimes we have to apologize for making mistakes.

In light of the holiday season I am proud of some retailers saying the simple words “We’re Sorry”.

Black Friday is hard.  Cyber Monday is harder.

If your merchandisers did their job you have the right assortment.

If your marketers did their job you have the right traffic.

If your technical team did their job your site can handle the volume.

If you can say yes to all of these statements I congatulate you.  You are rare and precious.

What the reality is for most is that one or two of those statements are true and you are left with one broken item.

Your site went down from volume.

Your traffic sucked because your message wasn’t clear.

You didn’t sell anything because your assortment/pricing weren’t on target.

All of these leave you with two options:

Option 1-Own the issues, apologize to your customers and learn from your mistakes for next year.

Option 2-Pretend they didn’t exist and hope your customers don’t hold it against you.

Most retailers hide under the guise of Option 2.

Today I would like to credit Ann Taylor for choosing Option 1.  Their site couldn’t handle the Black Friday volume.  They tried again and still couldn’t handle it. After a couple of tries they sent their customers an email saying they were sorry and offering an additional discount.

In the end what I will remember as a customer is not the outage, it is the apology and more importantly the discount.  They have pushed my loyalty up a notch just by being honest.

What makes the inner merchant in me happy is the fact that they have also managed to stretch the short window of Black Friday/Cyber Monday offers into an extra few days of sales making next years comps easier to plan for.

Detailed Product Content Solves First World Problems

How can detailed product data help you with regular tasks?

I have a friend who often comments on her “First World Problems” traditionally via social media, but occasionally over a beer if you ask nicely.  At first I had a giggle at the “will my ipad fit in that handbag?” question, but shortly after heckling I realised that it was a question I would ask.

As a loyal online consumer I am looking for detailed information about every product I purchase.  I want to know so much more than just the size and colour.

On the topic of colour: PLEASE add a swatch of the colour zoomed in and in high resolution so that I don’t make a commitment to chocolate and discover cowpie when the courier arrives.

Please give every FUN name of a size or colour it’s generic equivalent: I dislike discovering that your version of creme brulee is actually my version of brown and not the beige that appeared to render on my screen.

Please add DETAILS.  I understand, details cost money when you are talking about product content.  It takes more time to collect it, more time to key it, more cost to hold the data in the larger databases required.

More data costs more up front.  I understand that.  It is my business to know and understand that.  What most retailers, business people, and consumers don’t understand is that less data costs exponentially more. It may not be a staffing or outsourcing cost that you can see on your P & L, but it is there none the less.

When you don’t have enough information I leave your page.  If I really want the item I may ask Google if someone else can answer my detailed question of will my ipad fit in this fill in the blank branded bag.  If Google tells me the answer to my question, I may buy it from the site that gave me the information, or on a very unlikely note I may switch back to the window that I left when you couldn’t tell me the answers. That is of course, assuming I didn’t just close it out of frustration.

I think of surfing and online shopping as a test of loyalty every time I type in a query.  If today Travelocity offers me information that Expedia doesn’t, the odds are high that I will start at Travelocity next time.
It doesn’t matter how many brands have worse content than you. It matters that you didn’t have the content I cared about today and that may lose you my business.
The savings you make by not spending time adding attributes, images, and copy to your product content will be lost exponentially with the sales you WON’T make because customers don’t convert.

They will go to a site where someone cares enough to give them detailed dimensions of the inside of the handbag, or better yet, they will find a site that has taken the time to create a Yes/No attribute for “holds a tablet”.