In February 2007, Senior Forrester Social Computing analyst Jeremiah Owyang published a list of white label social networking platforms that I have to say was the most extensive I've seen by a long shot. He published them without his comments - in fact, with only a brief marketing "one floor up or down of the elevator" pitch. Jeremiah is an astute analyst (I've read his stuff) and active participant in the social communications revolution (he is a Twitter friend, though we've never communicated any other way) and I respect him highly for his highly enlightening material, even though he claims to be a rookie. He also has one of the more influential blogs out there. Its called Web Strategist and is well worth reading and worth looking at for the links that he provides - he's like a human Mashable in scope.
Well, among those listed is Neighborhood America. As you might have noted in Part 1 of a Company Like Me, I like these guys a lot. But I'm going to explain because 1. it goes to the heart of the idea 2. I have a big mouth and am compelled to explain and 3. it will help me clarify stuff for the 4th Edition of CRM at the Speed of Light - thus doing double duty.
Jeremiah Owyang's one floor note is one that he obviously got from their website or they gave him from their website. It goes:
"The Trusted Leader in Social Networks for the Enterprise"
That may or may not be true - meaning I have no empirical verification except that I know their clients DO trust them since I've spoken to many of them. But that's not the subject nor is it suficient to understand why this company is as close to a "Company Like Me" (the acronym for the entry is gonna be CLM. Tough luck if you don't like it. Saves my gnarled joints from digital collapse) as I know.
First, I have to qualify something here. It is (need to stretch this fully for emphasis' sake) "A Company Like ME" NOT "A Company Like Everyone" In other words, the criteria I have both conscious and unconscious - I'm sure some is id-driven, some ego-driven and some entirely libidinous (heh. heh.) - are not necessarily the criteria you have for a CLM. What we are looking at here is what the characteristics need to be for me to FEEL that this company has been "humanized" - not just that I've had the means to craft personalized experiences. This is a holistic thing.
You know the feeling. I've asked thousands of people in classes and at speeches to tell me about a company that they just LOVE. Now love doesn't have a scale of 1-5. It's an intense feeling that you can identify with ease - as is like a lot, like somewhat, don't care either way or the negative versions of those. They are emotional states. Yet, why would you want to attach them to a company? A place that you are doing some business with - that you purchase from?
Ordinarly, you wouldn't. Many of your purchases are strictly utilitarian - you buy because you have a need and the company you buy from has the right price, is convenient and/or fast, is familiar, whatever. You have a reason to be interacting with it, but beyond that momentary - even if a regular event - interaction, you don't think much about it.
But then you have your favorites. That could be the grocery store that you regularly shop at or where you get your coffee or the online ecommerce site (like Amazon) that you like for various reasons that are along the lines of "they have good values and good service and the people seem nice, though I don't know their names" or they have really effective algorithms (Amazon) even though you don't deal with people particularly. In other words you have a comfortable though not wildly emotional connection to the company. But it does what you want and even more.
But what about the companies that you're incredibly enthusiastic about? If I ask each person reading this, tell me about one such company - you, for the most part, will be able to. Know what's interesting about your deep emotional advocacy?
The question, "Why?"
Yeah, why? Why in the world are you so excited about this company? What is about them that makes it something you'd go to all your friends and tell about? Why should you have such a strong bond with an institution who's purpose is normally (causes excepted) to take your money in return for providing you with something of value to you? And that's about it - normally.
Ahhh, but there are those exceptions. That ne plus ultra experience that is hard to explain and harder to reproduce and yet is consistently reproduced by the company that you are enamored of. Which is why you love them, is it not (or if I were to continue the French...n'est ce pas?)
It's usually a combination of great products/services, great customer service, good people, and most important a cultural ambiance. There is a feeling of "goodness" associated with the company that makes you happy to deal with them and happy to talk about them. That means that even if that awesome rep you've been dealing with for the last five years leaves the company, while you might miss the rep. and even deal with the company they went to - because they are your "friend" of sorts - if not your actual friend - you will continue to deal with the company because of the built up lifetime of plus-worthy experiences AND the ambiance of "goodness" that the company emanates.
Please don't underestimate that ambiance of goodness. That is the culture of the company reflected in the interactions with you - both direct and indirect. It is what permeates all the aspecs of the company - from their messaging to their office environment to the "feel" of the company whenever you intersect them to the relationships you have with individuals and to the way that the processes and tools are made available to you. Check out my podcast on Sweetwater Audio if you want to get a feel for how this works. When you have the rare intersection of all of that pretty much positively, you have that "company like me" I'm talking about.
With all that, I'm going to tell you about Neighborhood America and why they are a "company like me" to me.
About two years ago (September 2006) I was in the middle of something or another when I got an email from a PR guy named Ian who asked if I was interested in talking to a company that specialized in enterprise social networks. I get about 10 or more of these requests to take a demo every week so, in order to have a life that I can at least partially control, I have to say no to most of them because I wouldn't be able to do anything else. But this one intrigued me because of "enterprise social networks." I hadn't heard of any company that did that - I had of course, heard of companies that built user communities like Communispace and Lithium but not "enterprise social networks." So I decided to take a shot with this one and hear what they had to say.
I was impressed because I heard (and saw) an actual enterprise service oriented architecture - not just advanced web services. I saw a platform that was developed for the enterprise to white label whatever level of robustness and scalability they wanted in their private social network - in other words, truly built for companies who wanted to develop B2C or B2B social networks. I saw lots of cool features too like a videochat conference as easy to set up as a bunch of webcams in multiple locations.
To be sure there were and are holes in the technology - all under development since, unlike many, this company actually listened to its customers (and to me, for that matter, which is a minor miracle) and are implementing the features that they asked for. They could be stronger on their social media tools though the ability to integrate with any other web services based tool, say like, Socialtext, one of my current favorites, is there (ahhh, the lovely SOA again).
But, that's not why I see them as a "company like me."
When I saw the demo, I was impressed and technologically, they've never done anything to make me less impressed. They are good that way. But, by coincidence, I was going to be in Naples, Florida the next week to speak at a RIM-sponsored event run by the Alexander Group - who I recommend you NEVER have anything to with, by the way. They are controlling and even nasty to their own people. They were running a sales conference for executives that they do every year and with the exception of one ex-Siebel guy working for them, who was a good person, ALL the reps I met there from SVPs to conference coordinators were either arrogant to a staggering degree or entirely controlling even interfering in their sponsors activities in a vicious and unhealthy way. Nasty folks. RIM hasn't sponsored them since I don't think. I only know how they treated me, the sponsors, some of the attendees and their own people by observation and it was sickening.
Enough of my 2 year old rant.
So I decided that since I was going to be in Naples and Neighborhood America was HQed in Naples, I would accept their kind invitation to go to their offices while there.
I am SO glad I did that.
I was picked up by the brilliant and always nice David Bankston, their CTO and co-founder and taken over to their digs. By happenstance, I came during an employee appreciation week and got to appreciate both their employees and their culture. Employees were fully participant, not just recipient and they genuinely were appreciative about being noticed and feted and lauded. It was really nice to see. I got a chance that day to meet Kim Kobza, the CEO and co-founder, who is by nature a kind hearted man and an evangelist of the first order who's interest seems to be - no, is - in helping the world as much as it is in running a business. Kim, David and I spent and lot of time talking about their vision, their strategy and their execution - and it was all done within what was a really enjoyable cultural mesh.
I've been hooked ever since. Sure, there's been turnover there and there are employees I'm sure who don't like the place or who don't fit and leave or get let go. Sure, there are some personality conflicts there and differences of opinion. There are failures to execute and failures to move quickly sometimes. They are a business and that business is comprised of human beings. But they have what is one of the warmest, personal cultures I've run across in a company ever. They treat me (and my wife Yvonne who loves Naples, Florida - a stunning area) incredibly well with their sheer friendliness. The people there are personal, they are technologically progressive (meaning they love to experiment with new technologies like Twitter - and they see the value of it). They are in a beautiful setting and appreciate and work with the community to do good there. The culture and the employees work together well with each other. The environment is busy but relaxed at the same time.
Interestingly, the employees are not only generally treated like human beings but the company is clearly sensitive to the generations that work for them - realizing that they have different requirements for what they want out of work. In homage to Gen Y, the offices have something of a space age coolness - without being too outlandish, which is in deference to baby boomers - and even Gen Xers. That coolness is reflected in how they carry out their day to day functions at the ever growing HQ in Naples. They use technologies that use plasma TVs that are wall mounted throughout the office and you can see the status of projects internally as well as information traveling on the screen that's coming in via RSS feeds. You have to see it. Very, very cool. George Jetson would be proud.
I know tha twhen I'm down there, they treat me like a "family member" (if a company has a family really. I always thought that was a bit of a stretch except as a metaphor, maybe) and even provide me with an office when I need it. They socialize with each other and have a good deal of respect for each other. The two honchos there - David and Kim seem to listen to and respect the expertise of their staff, rather than trying to lord it over them.
I could go on but I really have to get back to writing the book so I'm going to close out here.
This is one of my "Companies Like Me" - the first I can identify. There are a couple of others who I think might at some time reach that exalted level. I think these guys are great and I see the company as my peer in the exact way customers need to if they are to become advocates. What that means is that they meet MY criteria. They may not meet yours. What that also means is that in my role as an analyst/journalist/consultant they aren't exempt from me being critical of them, either. But fundamentally this is a company that I like so much as a company that I see the company as my friend - as well as individuals and would be happy to make intros for them to the appropriate parties to advance their business if I think it makes sense.
Believe me, it isn't easy to get me to do that.
But for Neighborhood America, the first "Company Like Me" I know - name it and its done, within reason of course. As we Mouseketeers used to say, "Why? Because we LIKE you."
Back to the book.