All Ears

 Bikes, Gadgets, Swine  Comments Off on All Ears
Jun 252012

There’s a great article over at Fast Company describing the new “social media command centers” some companies are using to “capture, monitor, and utilize social media conversations.” Certainly sounds cool, but I can’t help but think all this talk of “response strategies,” “feedback internalization,” and “two-way conversations” is just the latest version of “this call may be monitored for training purposes”?

Dell, for instance, is cited as a specific example in the article:

Dell’s ground control center tracks around 22,000 daily posts about the company across a wide range of social media, and enables Dell to participate in online dialogue about their brand and use social media insights to improve their products and marketing.”

But everyone knows what sucks so bad about Dell. They subsidize the cost of everything by filling your computer with bloatware programs that make it run like ass. They also skin their vendors alive on pricing until the hardware in your PC makes the back aisles at RadioShack look pretty advanced. Will hearing that change their business model? Of course not.

Oddly, it seems like a lot of the companies investing so heavily in monitoring social media would be much better to allocate funds toward simply not being dicks. According to Manish Mehta, Dell’s VP of social media and community,”Ground Control is about tracking the largest number of possible conversations across the web and making sure we ‘internalize’ that feedback, good or bad . . . . It’s also about tracking what you might call the ‘long tail’–those smaller matters that might not bubble to the surface today, but are out there, and deserve to be heard.”


When it comes to large corporations, social media is all about pretending to give a shit, but the upside is that it requires actual human beings not just to give that shit, but even to pretend to give it. That’s the social media trap many companies are finding themselves in these days: they thought they could bullshit their way through it like they have so many other things involving customers, but the whole idea that social media is a two-way conversation ruins the whole automated bone-tossing bit. You have to engage with people.

The monstrous industry that’s evolved to support circumventing direct communication with people is certainly impressive. Effective, though? Difficult to say. Other than some game theory time-wasting, it’s tough to say what consumers actually get out of the new communication channels, clogged as they are with “command center” specialists listening and reacting, while still insulating the actual corporate decision-makers. Dell, I’m afraid to reveal, does not actually love you and want to have coffee with you. Even Apple thinks you’re kind of a pain in the ass, frankly.

A few bicycle frame manufacturers, in contrast are in touch with their consumers. Why, because they engage in the same activity as the consumers. That’s why the sight of something like this Kirklee Bikerumor posted recently makes many people who ride bicycles happy.

If you ride a bike, you stand a better chance of understanding what people who ride bikes want. That way, you don’t even have “like” them in order to make the products they want.

The Little Things

 Bikes, E-commerce, Swine  Comments Off on The Little Things
Jan 262012

Sometimes I think that, if I could have three wishes, the first would be for someone to finally drive a stake through the heart of the fashion industry’s fleeting love of bikes, and the second and third would both be for the first to come true, just in case. The image of the $5,000 Bianchi hipster-mobile above comes to us courtesy of a site called “The Pursuitist,” who’s mission is apparently to, “Find and share the good things in life.” Inevitably this seems to consist almost entirely of increasingly elaborate devices designed to take what little soul you might’ve been born with and painfully extract it from your person. According to the article:

Biking is a luxury, and now it has a price tag to go along with it too. Gucci has launched two exclusive Bianchi by Gucci bicycles designed by the brand’s Creative Director, Frida Giannini.

Giannini told us, “The Bianchi by Gucci bicycles perfectly carry forward our codes of luxury while creating a new cosmopolitan aesthetic for those looking to turn heads while on the go”.

However, the Bianchi by Gucci bikes are only available for purchase in London from Gucci’s store at 18 Sloane Street. The white, hydro-formed steel single speed bike (above) costs $5,000 while the black carbon fiber monocoque model (below) is priced at $14,000.”

Yes, as anyone in China can tell you, biking is, indeed, a luxury. I just quoted that in its entirety because I honestly couldn’t bring myself to read through it one more time to pick out only the quotable parts. And no, I don’t have the spiritual fortitude to show you the carbon fiber one, if you haven’t already seen it. I can’t claim to understand what strange force has trapped certain Italian bike companies in the ’80s, but could someone please tell Colnago and Bianchi that most of the pastel-suitjacket-wearing coke addicts who used to represent a market for high-fashion, co-branded bicycle abominations are now either dead or riding Specialized Venges? And everyone knows kids ride Cinellis. Yes, the 21st Century is proving confusing to some companies. Today, managing to have a bike featured on a site next to artisanal mable syrum and $800 amplification horns for iPhones is arguably the most ironic sign of “status” possible.

Still, you have to love how ruthlessly practical bicycles manage to remain, despite the pressure to turn them into luxury items and fashion accessories, probably because you almost always have to actually ride a bike in order to show it off to everyone, and that’s a pretty high barrier of entry for the frail and soul-less.

Besides, everybody knows it’s the #littlethings that really matter. Word in business news today is that McDonald’s is attempting to rebound from their ill-fated #McDStories Twitter social media bloodbath with a fresh hashtag, “#littlethings,” which, hopefully, will be a few more degrees separated from worms in fish sandwiches and “dying inside.” Clearly, some–I’ll go ahead and assume frantic–discussion occurred at Clown Food Central over the past 48-hours, and it was determined that anything even vaguely close to the discussion of actual food products was the real liability in this campaign, and that a new hashtag was needed that was much more difficult to relate back even to their company, let alone the “food.” Hence, “#littlethings.” Brilliant.

Here I’d like to official introduce a new term into the lexicon of social media marketing: to “rainblow.” It means to shield your otherwise disgusting brand, service, or product behind some form of generally recognized piece of undeniable goodness. I believe this is actually one the marketing industry stole from Congress, the original masters of rainblowing our minds by authoring bills with names like the “Children’s Health Act” that actually allows companies to dispose of green, glowing toxic waste by pouring it directly into the mouths of anyone with a household income less than $250,000 a year.

The beauty of the new McDonald’s hashtag is how it boldly says, “Think of the special shit that really matters to you. OK, got it? Now give it to us.” That’s some bold social marketing, right there. It says, “We don’t stand for the shit we expect you to eat. We stand for whatever you think is good . . . whatever matters to you dumbass morons, just think ‘McDonald’s!’ when you picture that.”

Speaking of social networking and the Internets, I haven’t forgotten the official wrap up of my e-commerce how-to segment. All put together, the actual ad is going to look like this:

  • Frame Material: Steel
  • Head Tube Type: Standard 1-1/8″
  • Fork Steerer Tube Diameter: 1-1/8″
  • Seatpost Diameter: 27.2mm
  • Rear Dropout Spacing: 135mm
  • Rear Dropout Type: Standard Geared
  • Maximum Tire Size: 26×2.3-inches
  • Wheel Size: 26-inches
  • Front Dropout Spacing: 100mm
  • Water Bottle Bosses: 1 set, top of downtube
  • Color: Green
  • Size: 18-inch (both captain and stoker)
Here’s your chance to pretend to own a truly exclusive bike. This is the only tandem bicycle hearse in the UK. The Reverend Paul Sinclair of Motorcycle Funerals had this unique bike fabricated for addition to his unique line up of funereal vehicles. Unfortunately, Reverend Sinclair does not feel he’s sufficiently fit to operate the hearse, so he’s making it available in the hope that it will one day find a good home. Own a genuine piece of British history that just also happens to be able to transport dead bodies. Should also be able to transport at least two kegs, 4-8 surfboards, children, furniture, and another bike.

Learn more about the bike on the Daily Mail’s site.


Next, I’ll be walking everyone through the exact little bit of code necessary to create that product listing, and then we’ll be able to start testing that buy button. Before then, I either need to make a tandem hearse to sell, or find something else I need to get rid of. Preferably something smaller than a tandem hearse or a Big Dummy, and easier to fit into a box and ship. #littlethings

The Social Graft

 Bikes, E-commerce  Comments Off on The Social Graft
Jan 122012

Andy Warhol prophetically said, “Everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes,” which tends to increasingly sum up what passes for life here in the 21st Century, but he also said,

An artist is somebody who produces things that people don’t need to have.”

Maybe a little more prophetic. Imagine how many artists there are on the Internet right now, how many pieces of art we step over in the street or delete from our inboxes. Imagine the scale of some of these works. From credit default swaps to the Kardashians, “Hoarders” to Silicon Valley, we’re crawling with art–though I’m pretty sure today we call it “content.” As the walls close in we become increasingly connected to everything around us, social networks seem like the new Model-T assembly lines of a different kind of industrial revolution. Now we’re all content providers. Now we’re all artists.

Might as well sell that shit.

I’ve been writing about e-commerce and what I see as the increasingly low barrier of entry for businesses not yet selling products on the Internet. For any small business that still feels the task is too daunting, I’d recommend redefining your idea of “e-commerce.” Given all the white noise around us each day, forget “launching an e-commerce storefront” and begin by asking yourself what about your brand has value to people.

You can offer products to people later, but if you’re not already busy selling your own brand to the world, it’s time to start. The popularity of business books claiming to offer the secrets of “delivering great customer service experiences” suggests how you run your business, not what you sell, is what really matters. Products can be added later, but you can be marketing your store to everyone right now.

I think this is what burned me about that letter Specialized’s founder, Mike Sinyard sent to his dealers recently. For all the lip service brands like Specialized pay their dealers about the value of customer service and achieving a great customer experience, it’s completely counter their business strategy for you, Mr. Independent Retailer, to market your own brand above all else.

Some things to think about:

  1. Do you consider a bike company’s “concept store” to be competition? How about a concept store six states away from you?
  2. What defines you aside from the brands you sell? “Service” is a bullshit answer. What about your service is better than every other shop anywhere?
  3. Draw a circle around your market on the map. Now draw a circle around your demographic.
  4. What are the three best things about your store’s web site? Do you own them?

You are a brand. Joe’s Bike Shop is a brand. It has relationships with customers and with vendors, but if we steal the “social graph” concept from Facebook for a second, let’s look at how you’re connected to your life-blood: your customers. Do they shop with you only because of your location? Only because of the brands you offer? Or does something else drive your sales? Put another way, is it you that connects with your customers, or do you connect only by proxy, though something else, something you don’t control?

“Social graft” is a term I like to use to describe the ways big companies are increasingly making direct contact with their end users, bypassing their own traditional dealer networks. Specialized can sell tires directly to your customers now, while you’re still stuck waiting for somebody to walk in your door. That’s bullshit.

If I sound a little militant about this, I am. This is a critical time in a battle too few retailers seem to notice. See, I believe small businesses are the best thing about Capitalism, but, just as the Middle Class is being strangled out of existence in America, so too are independent businesses, stores that really do have something to offer the world, independent of the products they offer. The struggling independent bike dealer is the quintessential example of this.

The irony here is that it’s never been easier to sidestep the limitations of your physical location, and the Powers That Be, those brands that try to control your business. Forget all the marketing bullshit you’ve heard about social media and why it matters to your company. The real reason it matters is simply because direct connections matter. Social media isn’t just about your lead mechanic giving the world constant Twitter updates about his favorite breakfast cereals, or about sending out e-mails to announce sales. Sure, it can be about both of those things–if they offer value to people–but really it’s about understanding the new opportunity you have to speak directly to potential customers anywhere in the world. It’s time to define the value of your own brand and get it out there for people. There are plenty of other companies that want to get between you and your customers, but you have a nearly endless number of tools to keep that from happening.

Jan 052012

Today was supposed to be all about e-commerce, but seems I picked a good week to criticize Specialized. By now, most of you have probably heard that they’ve chosen to sue Volagi, a new company that offers just one bike model, a disc brake road bike focused on big miles in less than ideal conditions. If you haven’t you can catch up with the basic announcement on Bicycle Retailer and Industry News, an interview with Robert Choi, founder of Volagi, on BikeRumor and a hell of a lot of praise for Volagi and venom for Specialized on Facebook.

So far, maybe at the peril of Volagi’s own legal defense, all the news of this has been coming from Volagi founders, Robert Choi and Barley Forsman, while Specialized remains silent, so it’s impossible to know if the big red S really was wronged by Volagi in any way, but one look at the Specialized Facebook page this morning tells us they’ve definitely wronged themselves. Yes, two things have become pretty clear from reading the information Volagi’s put out:

  1. Forsman and Choi, who used to work at Specialized but claim convincingly to have had absolutely no connection to performance bike designs or information and to have begun work on their own bike design only after they’d left the company, are either doing a pretty flamboyant job of lying to everyone, or Specialized has finally played the legal card one too many times to stifle competition.
  2. Regardless of the outcome, somebody in Marketing or PR at Specialized probably should’ve talked with someone in legal before letting this shitbomb go off, because the blowback of attacking a small and nearly defenseless company–and one that may turn out to be completely innocent–is currently not working out very well for Specialized.

Specialized Facebook Page Capture 1/5/2012

Specialized’s own Facebook page suggests this lawsuit might not have been such a good move (word is they’re deleting negative posts, but, to their credit, I’ve not seen proof of that yet), but at least all this bully bullshit goes to illustrate a point today’s post was supposed to cover anyway. I’d planned to write today about how smaller companies can do battle with giants like Amazon, but Specialized has volunteered a glaring example of my first point.

Big Companies Suck at Social Media

Here are five things big companies need to do to fix their social media programs:

  1. Stop Pretending to Be People
    I’m not sure why U.S. Senators and the corporations themselves keep getting so confused about this, but corporations are at their worst when trying to act like people. They tend to do much better when they acknowledge that they include people, and then letting those people communicate with customers–not as pieces of the corporation, but as themselves. Sure, it might not be such a good time to let Bob in Accounting talk about his collection of Nazi memorabilia in a video blog post, but usually there are people within your company who are involved in interesting things. The Specialized Win Counter, that keeps track of race victories, and stuff like the Trail Crew and news about their advocacy and charitable work are nice, but all of those things could belong to any company, which leads us to our second reason.
  2. Let Us In
    Yes, I know your Chinese-made carbon fiber has a special strand orientation that’s top secret and blah, blah, but seriously, we all know interesting shit goes on inside companies, and we’re clearly willing to watch even the most asinine of things related to businesses and what businesses do. The companies making the best use of social media are using it to tear down barriers between themselves and their customers. If you’re not willing to do that, it shows.
  3. Stop Hiding Behind Mirrors
    The “hang a mirror and hope for the best” strategy is used by many companies–you know, let us post pictures on your wall and that should keep us busy so you can get back to running your company. But so what. It’s nice to help establish and support a community of people who use your product, but a bunch of blurry pictures of Stumpjumpers isn’t doing much for anyone. I think people would be much more interested in seeing your bikes, trick advanced release shit we’re not supposed to know about taped over and all. Santa Cruz consistently gets this right. It’s fine to pretend it’s all about the customer, but we can tell when you’re just hiding behind that.
  4. Talk About What Really Matters
    This most recent lawsuit Specialized is pushing exemplifies everything that’s wrong with social media in the hands of big companies, and why it’s so important to small companies. The reason Volagi jumped out early with information about the lawsuit is that it’s all the owners could think about. You sued them, Specialized. You attacked everything they’d worked for, and that’s forced their lives to revolve around this situation, and they can’t help but share the experience–not because doing so is a good “business tactic,” but because it’s genuinely all they can think about right now. Hearing the founders tell that story is profoundly compelling in ways I don’t think Specialized could understand. If Specialized really was this pissed off to have been “wronged” by a company, why is it that a lawsuit is the first we hear of it? Why not an “Imitation Isn’t the Sincerest Form of Flattery” corporate stance, including video features of how Specialized does things differently, and why their designs have been copied? Maybe that exists, but in general, I never see honest content like this from larger companies with dedicated PR and social media staff. Only companies that let the stakeholders speak out are compelling to follow. In social media circles, this lawsuit by Specialized is playing out so horribly partially because it came out of nowhere–we don’t think of Mike Sinyard or anyone else at Specialized as having any design skills or intellectual property to guard, because they never talk to us about those things. When the first we hear about it as a lawsuit against a little company, their anger seems bloodless, disingenuous, making their attack just another sleazy and anti-competitive act of big attacking small. If there’s true passion and defense of intellectual property behind this action, why haven’t we heard about it from the company before? The fact that most carbon road frames look eerily similar and uninspired anyway doesn’t support Specialized’s contention that something was stolen from them. I always follow a simple rule: if the owner of the company can’t tell us why his stuff is better, it’s probably not.
  5. Don’t be Assholes
    No, seriously. If what you do for a living is prey off others and add nothing of quality to the world, you probably don’t want people following you anyway. I honestly think Specialized has done some really great things, but that only makes the events of this week all the more senseless. There should be a Specialized story to tell that’s bigger than the lawsuit attack on Volagi. The fact that there isn’t is what’s really causing the problem here. Volagi is currently winning the hearts and minds of consumers (even owners of Specialized bikes) right now partially because we all know they have a story to tell–they’ve created the first viable disc brake equipped road bike and potentially defined an entirely new category of bikes. In the eyes of the public, Specialized, a company with no story to tell, is attacking Volagi, a company that was in the middle of telling us all a pretty compelling one. In social media terms, butting in without having anything to say is the textbook definition of “asshole,” and, regardless of the legal outcome, Big Red lost this one.

Oh, and I also noticed nobody was using the “specializedbicycle” Blogspot any more, so I’ve taken over that location and posted a copy of this blog there as well. Good times.