Tara Hunt has spent the past fifteen years participating in and building online communities. She progressed through the first wave of online marketing while living in Canada in the late 90s, to being a pioneer of new marketing in Silicon Valley in 2005, then leading the wave into Web 2.0, the participatory web. She has been practicing her views on marketing for over 10 years with small and large companies ranging from Consumer Products to Technology to Non-Profits. Tara understands how the participatory web is changing all our relationships. She doesn’t believe in pushing marketing messages, but only in the power of building relationships. She co-founded Citizen Agency in 2006 with the mission of teaching her clients how to work more effectively with the communities they serve and how to embrace and adjust to all the culture changes that businesses are facing.
Tara blogs at HorsePigCow, is on Twitter under her superhero name MissRogue, posts a great many self-portraits on Flickr, can be located on Dopplr, is trying to wean herself off Facebook, and publishes her résumé with microformats.
On her website, Tara gives the answer to “What does *HorsePigCow* mean?”
My mom is the queen of wise mom-isms. *HorsePigCow* is a phrase she used to use to avoid embarrassment when she called someone by the wrong name. Something like, “Hi James, Jake, *HorsePigCow*, Jason. How are you?” It’s a way of saying, “I’m human and I screw up, but let’s move on” … at least that’s my interpretation. Plus, it’s nonsense. I like nonsense.
In our interview, she and Erik discuss her book The Whuffie Factor: Using the Power of Social Networks to Build Your Business.
[Bio adapted from TheWhuffieFactor website.]
tompeters.com asks ...
What the hell is Whuffie?
TH: Naturally that's your first question because it's not an everyday word, and it's a funny-sounding word. Whuffie [Ed.: rhymes with whoopee] is a word that was coined by Cory Doctorow who is one of the editors of Boing Boing. He's also a science fiction writer, and he wrote a great book called Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. I recommend it highly for anybody. In his book, in the future, there's no money. Instead, there's a currency called Whuffie. If I ping your Whuffie, I'll get back a score. A high score means that I can trust you, that we probably have friends in common, that you've done some pretty cool stuff that I should pay attention to. You can raise your Whuffie by being nice, networked, or notable. You raise it by doing good stuff for the community.
What occurred to me when I read this was that Cory wasn't talking about the future; he was really reflecting on how we relate to one another in online communities currently. Although he never says it explicitly, I did some digging around and found all sorts of great websites and online communities that were using Whuffie as a measure of somebody's reputation. In IRC, the internet relay chat rooms that have been around since the '80s, Usenet groups, and the like, people have been using Whuffie for quite a while as their measure of the meritocratic value of what somebody has to say.
I applied that theory to companies and individuals that are trusted, being listened to, considered influencers, and it seemed to be a pretty tight fit.
But you were thinking about Whuffie long before you were concerned about the title of a book. Is that right?
TH: The working title of my book was How to be a Social Capitalist. I was researching that concept when I came across Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. It was my editor who said, "You talk about Whuffie in this section, but I really think that it's stronger than that, and it should probably encompass the entire book." Social capital is a pretty ambiguous term nowadays.
How do you define it?
TH: I define social capital as the sum of your relationships, trustworthiness, reputation, and influence. That's basically what Whuffie is. A lot of people define social capital in other ways. It's up for debate. Social capital is also being used as a term to describe investment in companies that do social good.
We'll just have to let the world sort that one out, right?
TH: Absolutely. People avoid the term Whuffie. I think it's like the early days of wikis and blogs. Those were strange words and people often tried to avoid them, because they found them cutesy and fun, not serious and businesslike. Eventually, everybody caves.
You're hoping that happens with the word Whuffie? Not many people are familiar with the term.
TH: No. There are a few reasons why Whuffie appeals to me and why we chose to use it instead of social capital. One, it pays homage to the early Internet communities. It's an insider's term in that way. The concept of Whuffie is what really started this whole social network phenomenon before we called them social networks. Two, I'm a big proponent of not taking our business lives too seriously.
Good for you.
TH: We spend an enormous number of hours in our lifetime either being producers or consumers. There's this whole transactional element that underpins most of our lives. When it's serious and dull, we're missing out on the opportunity to really connect with people. Once you add an element of fun, or if you can make people smile, you connect with them. Using a word like Whuffie in a boardroom, where people are mostly falling asleep or checking their Blackberries, can't you just imagine the smiles? I don't shy away from using these types of terms at all. In fact, I like to celebrate them.
Who needs to know about Whuffie?
TH: Anybody that wants to grow or sustain their business should know about Whuffie. That includes new entrepreneurs who are asking questions like "How do I make this business a go?" Or, "How do I use online tools to spread the word that I'm offering this great product or service?" Whuffie is a process of turning that lens from selling to more people, to building relationships with more people.
A lot of people still think that Twitter is just people talking about what they had for lunch. But let's say a small restaurant buys your act. How could they begin developing their Whuffie? They already have a community, but they want to expand it. They have a website, just like everyone else, but no other online presence. Where do they begin?
TH: There's a great anecdote I love to tell about a coffee shop lunch place in Houston, Texas, called Coffee Groundz.
TH: J.R., who's one of the owners, had heard about this Twitter thing. He thought, "I don't know how this applies to my business, but I'm interested in learning a little bit more about it." So he signed up Coffee Groundz on Twitter and started to tweet a little bit. He tweeted about everyday things, not promotional things around his business.
Mostly, he was listening. He would do searches. You can find people within your local vicinity and people that are interested in certain topics. So that's what he did and found people from around Houston, as well as people who are coffee aficionados, and that sort of thing. He followed them on Twitter and started to really listen to what the people in his vicinity needed from, say, a business, a coffee shop, or a restaurant, that sort of thing.
One day, it happened that somebody from Houston tweeted, "I'm running late for this meeting. I really need a coffee, have no time to stop." And he was upset about this. J.R. saw this, and tweeted back, "What do you take in your coffee? You can swing by here, I'll meet you outside." The guy swung by, got his coffee from J.R., and then, of course, proceeded to tweet about getting his coffee and tell everybody he knew about what J.R. had done. Turns out, unbeknownst to J.R., this guy had a big Twitter following.
Sure enough, Coffee Groundz has now become the meet-up place in Houston for anybody who's on Twitter. The word of mouth has spread really fast. J.R. hosts Tweetups and all sorts of great events there. On Twitter, J.R. responds to anybody who asks about the menu, the special, that sort of thing.
It's become this amazing coup for Coffee Groundz. Before Twitter, Coffee Groundz was just another coffee shop in Houston. Now it's the coffee shop in Houston.
It still has to have good coffee.
TH: Yes, absolutely. One of the five principles of raising Whuffie is creating amazing customer experiences. You'd better have a product that meets the expectations of the customer. From what I understand, they do have really good coffee at Coffee Groundz.
On the other hand, Twitter is now occupying a fair amount of J.R.'s time. Heretofore he was doing something else when he wasn't tweeting?
TH: Right. He'll probably tell you himself that he spends a good deal of time and energy every day listening and responding. It's a part time job. But he gets a lot of value out of it. That same amount of time could be spent designing ads to put in the local paper or working with a PR firm to get articles in the local paper, that sort of thing. But he's not. Instead, he's spending it on actually interacting one-on-one with as many customers and potential customers as he possibly can. He's building strong, lasting relationships through that process. I think that's a way better way to spend your time than trying to push some sort of message to the masses.
In the book, you mention Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappos. He's a wild and flagrant tweeter. You tell the story of when he tweets, "I'm landing in Las Vegas now," and one of his followers happens to be at the Las Vegas airport. They end up meeting. As he points out, he never would have called or texted someone to say, "I'm landing here now." Whereas some people complain about the use of Twitter for listing prosaic details, in this case, a simple mention of an arrival provides an avenue for a connection.
TH: Yeah, Twitter is brilliant as an acceleration of serendipity. I've tweeted similar details, and I met someone on the train the other day the same way. This sort of stuff happens all the time, and it did not happen before Twitter. It's amazing.
It happened to me as well. I started following a woman on Twitter simply because I noticed that she lives in my town. It turns out she lives three houses down on the other side of my street. It's not how I expected to meet a neighbor.
TH: There's a guy named Dave Troy, a freelancer in Baltimore, who was working from home and missed the buzz of the workplace, so he was able to start a co-working space by tweeting about it.
Those of us that are digital nomads have used coffee shops for years. But very rarely did we walk up to somebody at another table and say, "Hey, my name is so-and-so. I see you here a lot. What do you do?" I think we're shy as human beings. I think Twitter is really good for shy people because it takes a lot of that guesswork out of introducing yourself to people and the feeling of, "Oh no, I'm going to be rejected."
It helps accelerate the connections that we desperately want to have. One of our basic needs is to connect, make friends, to feel accepted in our community. Twitter gives an incredible amount of opportunity for that.
It's all about making connections, now we're just doing it remotely. There's a slight displacement in the connection.
TH: We're all trying to connect. I think of it as an easier way to approach people. There's a disconnection from that feeling of rejection. Most of the early adopters of Twitter were the really geeky types that feel uncomfortable going to network events and having to walk up to people and introduce themselves. I know, because I'm one of them. I love to connect with people. I'm not one that likes to be alone very much, but boy, my palms get sweaty and I get nervous trying to introduce myself.
I never would have guessed that.
TH: Exactly, because there is a buffer with Twitter and blogging and other forms of social media. If people don't respond, you don't take that as a direct rejection, you take that as an indication to adjust the question or maybe connect with people through another subject.
I remember the first blog comment I ever got. I sat and I stared at it for a good hour, just smiling, thinking, "Somebody I don't know has found my blog and cared enough to respond to what I'm saying." It felt really good. I produced something that got somebody's attention, somebody has thought about this that now I can connect with. And wow, isn't this amazing? I've heard that same story from other people. I think that's why blogging became so popular.
Twitter allows us to increase the scale of that. It's lighter weight. It's more work to submit a blog comment. On Twitter, you can respond instantly through different mediums, whether it's your cell phone or online or your desktop application. Responses happen more quickly, which makes people feel better faster and more often. That's why Twitter is so powerful. I think Kathy Sierra—I'm a huge fan—said, "It's not about you, it's about how you make other people feel."
I'm a huge fan as well. At one level, Twitter, or whatever other social media tool we're talking about, is the water cooler for digital nomads. I see some posts and I respond with wise-ass comments like I would if I was sitting beside this person in an office.
TH: Absolutely. I want to address the whole tweeting about your lunch thing. It's how people often dismiss Twitter, just like they dismiss throwing sheep at friends on Facebook. It's those little things that don't seem to contribute to the core value of a social network or of the conversation that actually create ambient value. If you didn't have all those banal details on Twitter, then the big quotes, the epiphanies, the huge stories of connection, would not be there either. These little conversational things, or throwing sheep, provide a lightweight way for everybody to get involved, to feel okay about starting to live their lives online.
So I can talk about what I had for lunch because that's not putting me in a vulnerable position. The easy accessibility of entry for newbies ties back to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. The way that he talks about flow [See the book Flow], there's a lower barrier of entry with one little step to get over it. Once you accomplish that, you want to go on to the next stage. Twitter allows that through such things as tweeting about basic events like your lunch. Then you get more and more comfortable with what you're sharing and get to a point where you're really connecting with people.
That's a very good point. Now, you say people can lose Whuffie. For example, when people start asking you for too many favors or I saw a tweet this morning, "Someone ignores my LinkedIn request, then accepts when she's out of a job. Hmm ... not a great practice." Here's someone who's clearly just lost a lot of Whuffie.
TH: Exactly. It's not about you, it's about how you make other people feel. In that case, the person who wasn't accepting LinkedIn requests didn't think it was in their interest to accept the LinkedIn request until they needed something from somebody else. And it was obvious to that person.
It seems like that person is really clueless about life.
TH: Yeah, this is all basic stuff. The basic credo of being human in the community is the same as what you were taught in kindergarten. You share, you pay compliments to other people, and it's not all about you. Somewhere along the way, some of that's been lost.
I think that's a big issue. The code of conduct boils down to basic, decent humanness. It's about being a good, decent, sharing person. Did we as a species somehow lose track of our humanity?
TH: I have a theory that is going to be the basis of my next book. It's about what we value and the long change in values that has gotten us to where we are now. One of my early inspirations was a woman named Marilyn Waring. She's a feminist economist who lives in New Zealand. In the '70s, she started to question why we measure the health of a country purely by how money moves around, via the GDP, or gross domestic product.
TH: Because we use the GDP as the core measure of what we value, unfortunately that trickles outward to devalue things like the unpaid work of motherhood.
Which does not figure into the GDP.
TH: Exactly. It devalues things like the environment or the impact of industry on the environment. The GDP does not figure in what happens after you clear-cut a forest, except if it costs money to reestablish that forest. Talking about what we value is so core to what we need. We have to rethink the way we do everything in the world. We have to rethink it by focusing on what we value.
Do we put a measure on social capital, on human capital? I don't know if that's the answer. The World Bank is working on valuing intangibles so that we can look at a more organic view of the health of this economy. Is that the way we should do it? There are problems with that, the same as with measuring somebody's Whuffie online. It can be gamed. Some people are more concerned with the status of having more Whuffie points rather than trying to be a decent human being. Why is it that when we talk about success, it's usually talking about the market cap of somebody or their company rather than talking about their contributions as a human being to other human beings in the community?
That's what I'll examine in my new book. I'm trying to think about new business models based on valuing other measures of success.
Keep us posted.
TH: Thanks. I think it's core. There's a great book by Tor Nørretranders called The Generous Man. He says the human being's number one basic purpose is to mate, in crass terms, and we're using the Internet to reproduce. Making a lot of money is not about making a lot of money, it's about getting more attractive partners to mate with. If this is our core motivation, it extends to being accepted in groups.
Well, we are biological creatures and it's the mandate for anything biological to survive.
TH: So if we started to look at other ways of valuing things, if being a nicer person, contributing to your community, thinking about others, was seen as attractive, then we'd probably see people—
I think it's going to take a while for that to filter through. Nice guys finish last.
TH: I think that is a conspiracy, personally. [Laughter]
I applaud the direction you're headed with this because I think there's a lot to be learned on that front.
TH: Even if I can open up the discussion on value, that would be a victory for me.
You mention ROI, return on investment, in the book. I ran into Olivier Blanchard, the Brand Builder. He's been talking about the ROI of social media. Unfortunately, we still live in a world where bean counters control a lot of the action. You work with clients. How do you respond when they ask, "How do we measure the ROI of this social media campaign?"
TH: This comes back to what's valued. In the book, I do talk about how what we measure matters. First, what are your goals? What do you want to achieve? If I'm creating an online community, for instance, do I want to create a community of innovation? Generosity? What do I want to do? You build your measurements from there.
There are some more universal measurements that I like to use. Rather than basic traffic, I like to use the measurement of how much of the traffic is from referrals. And how many people are saying to others, "You have to come see this." I think that's a huge measurement of success because you've made your customers so excited that they want to speak for you. That is the pinnacle, I think, of showing that you're doing something.
The iPhone is a really great example. People say, "Oh, I don't know about the iPhone," but their friends say, "Come on, the iPhone is amazing, it's changed my life." I was convinced to buy the iPhone because three people, who were not working for Apple, told me I couldn't live without the iPhone. Sure enough, now I do the same thing to other people. How much of your new sales, your traffic, comes from word of mouth from your customers?
Number two is your attrition or retention rate. If people don't come back a second time, I think that shows you that you're not providing a value that you should be providing to customers. Having regulars, having loyal customers, that's more valuable than just numbers.
That's a bit tough because you might have people end up there who really aren't your customers anyway, right? We don't all appeal to everyone.
TH: Right. That's why 100 percent retention isn't realistic. We all have different needs. If you have 50 people dine at your restaurant and none of them come back, you have a pretty good idea that you're not providing the value that they came to your restaurant to receive. But if you see the same faces coming back time and time again and they're bringing people with them, you know that you're doing something right.
You are a karaoke fan?
TH: I am.
What's that all about, and do you have a favorite karaoke song?
TH: It doesn't matter if you love it or hate it, karaoke puts a smile on people's faces. What I love about karaoke is it's about regular people putting themselves out there. Usually the audience is super supportive, no matter whether that person gets up and butchers a song or has a great set of pipes and belts it out. Even those that are there, but don't get up and sing usually have a really good time because they just feel at ease. We're all on the same playing field doing karaoke. Even those that have a great voice, you're still getting up in front of an audience and doing something that's not usual.
I did a karaoke roadtrip across the U.S. this summer called Whuffaoke. By the end of the night, after everybody got up and sang, we were all hugging and best friends. It was a wonderful experience. It's being vulnerable, and then having people support you. It's a wonderful feeling and it made people smile all across the country. It really brought local communities together, but also a wider community that on an ongoing basis watched Whuffaoke online. So, that's why I love karaoke.
I love it for so many reasons. I'm not a great singer, but I have a heck of a fun time getting up and performing. I have the most fun watching other people who wouldn't have dreamed of doing this sort of thing, getting up and performing and having people in the audience support them. I love watching the looks on their faces and how great they feel as a result.
As for favorite songs, I have a "Mr. Roboto" and I love "Faithfully" by Journey. Those power ballads always get to me. I enjoy show tunes as well, like "Hey, Big Spender," and "Cabaret."
What three things do we need to remember from your book or from what you're talking about right now?
TH: Number one is to think about what we value and why we value it. Let's talk about reexamining that. Number two would be that it's not about you, it's about how you make other people feel, with a hat tip to Kathy Sierra for enlightening me. And number three is to have fun. We shouldn't be taking everything so seriously. We should be connecting through laughter and making people smile.
I've been smiling and laughing a lot throughout our conversation. So you're doing something right.
TH: Excellent, that's my job.
Thank you very much for your time.
TH: Thank you.