Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A good time to ditch the rules of etiquette?

If you haven't read Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers yet, I strongly suggest you add it to your list. In a nutshell, the book explores all of the various factors that need to come together for someone to be highly successful in a chosen field. Hint: it's not just talent and practice. To make his point, he looks at how things like date of birth, family, cultural legacy, friendships and luck play a role in an individual's success.
On the flip side, Gladwell devotes some time on the role of culture in the failure of certain operations in a chapter called The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes. To demonstrate this, he suggests that certain airlines were experiencing an above-average frequency of crashes because the cultural legacy of their personnel prevented the co-pilot from speaking up when the pilot made an error. The etiquette of the airline's home country was so steeped in layers of hierarchy that, even when faced with slamming into a mountain at 100 miles an hour, "underlings" could only hint at what lay ahead. To be direct about it would be a violation of their etiquette code.
Gladwell's assertion that something as seemingly obtuse as a plane crash can be chalked up to cultural background has received mixed reviews but I found it interesting that lives might have been saved had the shackles of old-world etiquette been loosened a bit. Digging deeper, he explains that Eastern speech methods are based on a lot of direct and nonverbal communications that support the words spoken while the Western approach to speech is much more concrete and direct. In Eastern cultures, the onus is on the listener to decide what has been communicated by coupling the words with the nonverbal signals. In a Western setting, it's up to a speaker to make sure her words are correctly interpreted.
I prefer the direct approach but, of course, it's what I know and what I'm comfortable with. But, in an increasingly global culture, this story highlights the need to be aware of cultural differences in etiquette expectations when doing business in other countries.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

A measured approach to social media

In marketing circles, the term 'early adopter' is used to describe someone who embraces new technology, products, concepts or trends before most other people do. The early adopter and its counterparts (innovators, laggards and luddites) are part of the Diffusion of Innovations theory which explains how new ideas, techniques or artefacts migrate from creation to use.

I am not what you would call an early adopter. The fact that I blog about business etiquette rather than, say, the creative application of Twitter attests to that. Skeptical by nature, I'm not drawn to things that have not yet been proven useful in the popular culture. I have no inborn desire to be the first at anything and would rather let others work out the bugs of untested gizmos and platforms.

Once new things gain a foothold however, I'm happy to jump on board in a way that works for me and to help others learn how to make the most of new technology. Right now, there's a lot of buzz about social media and how companies can use tools like Twitter and Facebook to achieve their objectives and talk to their audience in new ways. While it's tempting to jump on the bandwagon and figure out a strategy after the fact, we recommend a three-phased approach to testing these applications - you have to link, learn and then lead.

The truth is, if you have something to market, you can't afford to ignore social media. Even if you're not ready to mount a full-scale program, you need to LINK. Get accounts on Linked In and Twitter, check out some Podcasts, link to some blogs you like. Once you're there, take some time to LEARN. See what others are saying and doing in this sphere and how people are using it successfully. You'll get an idea of the time, transparency and frequency required to develop and update a successful blog or how the right message can really take off on Twitter. Finally, it's time to LEAD. Thinking about your passion, product or service, what opportunities exist for you to take a leadership role. Is there a space that you can claim as your own?

Social media is here to stay. It's too late for you to be an early adopter but you could still be part of the early majority. Just don't be a laggard or, even worse, a Luddite.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Curtailed by a coupon

On my way home from work yesterday, I stopped at a supermarket to pick up some staples. I hate shopping during rush hour - parking is scarce, stores are crowded and everyone is tired and hungry. At the checkout, I found myself behind a woman who was searching for a coupon. Her purchases had been tallied and the cashier was waiting for payment as the frazzled customer rifled through her handbag and rummaged in her pockets, to no avail.

As time ticked on, most of the contents of her purse - old receipts, gloves, cell phone, wallet - spilled out onto the conveyor belt. When she couldn't locate the lost coupon, she attempted to negotiate with the cashier, asking her to give the discount without the coupon. The annoyed teenager explained politely that every coupon needs to be scanned. After a sigh of indignation, coupon lady thought it might be in her coat, which she had left somewhere else and the cash register was suspended in mid-checkout while she went off to look for it.

Eventually, I abandoned the line and went to another cash register, muttering under my breath that the woman's behaviour was impolite (I know, I know, an etiquette faux pas in itself. I blame my grumbling stomach). Coupon lady responded to this with a glare that would sink a ship.

When my groceries were bought and paid for and I was leaving the store, the woman was still frantically searching for the errant coupon.

I have absolutely nothing against saving money. We clip coupons in our household all the time. Sometimes we remember to take them when we go shopping and sometimes we don't and they are saved until next time. In this economy, everyone has a right to look for ways to trim costs.

However, since we share all of society's public spaces, we don't have a right to inconvenience others in our quest to meet our individual needs. If you're at a cash register and there are people behind you, find what you need quickly and move on. If you cannot find your coupon (or frequent flyer number or VIP card), you need to save it for next time and get better organized.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Getting a flavour for snark

Much has been made of Skittles' decision to make their home page a Twitter feed for a day. In the slightly more than 24 hours of this 'experiment', discussion of the Skittles website dominated the blogosphere and Twittersphere. While most in the PR and marketing industry questioned the strategy behind a global brand (which markets to children) effectively turning its home page over to a community of strangers, some lauded the company for its wholehearted embrace of social media.

Sadly, things took a dark turn last night when online vermin used the #skittles hash tag to spread hatred, racism and pornography just so they could see their prose on the home page of a major consumer website.

Skittles' parent company hasn't come forward to explain its curious decision so it's difficult to know whether it achieved its objective but judging from its descent into tweets of vitriol and the fact that the home page has been replaced by a Facebook site, we can assume that things did not go as planned. It will be interesting to see how it's explained.

From a PR point of view, this case suggests that while it's okay to open up the airwaves to consumer feedback and dialogue, brands still need to maintain control of certain elements of their equity, the website home page being one of them. On the etiquette front, the open nature of social media invites people of all mindsets to share their opinions and while it's not unusual to see the ravings of a lunatic side-by-side with the musings of an intellectual, this was an extreme case of an Internet idea gone bad and sad.