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This past weekend, I had the privilege of attending The US Open at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, MD with my brother. But, you’ll have to take my word for it, because I can’t prove I was there. The closest thing I have to a photo of myself at The Open is this picture of Rory McIlroy’s ridiculous shot on the 10th tee. See Rory’s left shoulder? It’s pointing to where we were sitting, about a pitching wedge away from him. I was unable to capture any moment of the tournament, and, regrettably, unable to share the experience with my friends as it happened.

Even though the PGA changed its cell phone policy earlier this year to allow mobile devices at tournaments, the USGA did not follow suit. Now, I can sympathize with professional golfers who don’t want the unwanted distraction of a “Baby Got Back” ring tone during their backswing – I’m constantly battling the unwanted distraction of sucking at golf during my backswing – but I believe trying to enforce a “turn-your-devices-to-silent” policy during tournaments will be worth the reward. This is a battle that stage actors, teachers, museum staff, movie theatre managers, and more have been battling for a couple of decades, and while it’s not a perfect system, people usually do the right thing out of respect for the venue, the event, and the people around them.

Let’s face it; golfers make a fairytale living based on ratings and attendance. Yes, they are paid by sponsors (those on their shirts and those who sign the winners’ checks), but those sponsors are motivated by the awareness and brand loyalty their sponsorship brings. In this age of the social web, prohibiting on-location online word of mouth doesn’t do any favors to the sponsors, the players, the fans, or the USGA. Let’s look at why:

Ratings: Not everyone’s life revolves around watching major golf tournaments. If I “check-in” on Facebook or Foursquare (unlikely) or post a picture of myself while at the tournament, a few people might tune in. Some might have forgotten it was happening, and my post is a subtle reminder to watch. Or, even more likely, a few friends and family might turn on the tournament for a while to try to catch a glimpse of someone they know in the crowd. True, I may only convert a handful of viewers, but it is estimated that 229,574 attended this US Open. Guess how many of them have smart phones and a few hundred Facebook friends.

Future Attendance: For a golf fan, like myself, being at the US Open is a pretty incredible experience. Other enthusiasts who, in a small way, live vicariously through attendees’ online exhibitionism may start planning a trip to The US Open in San Francisco next year.

Interactivity: As cool as it is to watch golf history unfold, it can be pretty difficult to watch a golf tournament live and follow all the action. Unlike watching football or baseball live, you lose all context watching golf in person. All you can see is an individual shot or putt, and not how the drama is unfolding across the course. The US Open has a pretty cool iPhone app, but imagine how an application could be developed to improve the fan experience with video and updates from the tournament. Plus, social media integration in the app could encourage and increase the various types of sharing described above.

The USGA ran the tournament smoothly, managing capacity crowds, keeping the grounds in great shape for players and spectators, and, most importantly, offering a delicious Maryland crab cake sandwich at the concession stand. Now, to follow in the footsteps of Rory McIlroy and take their game to a dominating new level, they should embrace new technologies to help increase visibility and generate more word of mouth.

In early May of this year it rained in Tennessee. A lot. The record-breaking rain devastated the area and claimed 21 lives in the state. Businesses and homes were damaged and closed due to flooding, including the historic Grand Ole Opry. Right next door, Opry Mills Mall was underwater in every one of its 1.2 million square feet. Closed to rebuild, the mall needed a way to stay connected with its customers and evangelists until it can open its doors again.

A visit to the mall’s Web site encourages visitors to stay connected through its Facebook page, promising progress reports on the reconstruction. Lynn Kittel, Opry Mills’ 
Director of Marketing, turned to the social networking site as a way to keep in touch with customers, and even she has been pleasantly surprised with the response.  “People usually just think of a mall as bricks and mortar,” she told me on a recent phone conversation, “but this experience with Facebook reinforces that it is so much more than that.” Kittel explains that many of their visitors have emotional connections to the mall and use the page to express how much they miss being able to visit.

Before the flood, Opry Mills had around 1,400 followers on Facebook. That number has swelled to 8,476 (and counting) as of the posting of this blog. Fans post questions and comments regularly, asking which stores will return, requesting photos of their favorite stores, and seeking construction updates and timelines. Kittel responds promptly and always honestly, “We’ll tell you the truth. If I don’t have an answer, I’ll find out and get back to you.” She’s also been able to combat rumors and misinformation (including a story that piranhas had escaped from an indoor aquarium and were “running amuck in the mall”). She doesn’t delete the infrequent negative comment; in fact, she says that “most of the time, our other friends on the page come to our defense in full force.”

The mall posts videos and pictures of the destruction and reconstruction, generating enthusiastic responses such as: “Awww…makes me miss it so much” and “I might have a few tears of joy over this!!” The posts are never written in “marketing-speak,” and often have a touch of humor. Responses to questions and concerns are compassionate and personal.

Kittel understands intuitively what I constantly preach: Social media is not about “marketing,” but about building relationships, listening and responding. Opry Mills wants to keep its fans engaged with the process, and even solicits input from Facebook followers on what they would like the mall to become as they rebuild. “One of our posts that received the most responses was when I asked what kinds of restaurants they wanted in the food court.” By doing this, Opry Mills invites its base to take a vested interest in the mall; in turn, they will take more interest in its success and likely be more active to share items from or about the mall, and more responsive to specific requests from the mall to help spread the word. I’m anxious to see what impact Kittel’s social media outreach has on the success of the mall, and I look forward to following the grand reopening on Facebook.

A recent post on the Opry Mills’ Facebook page posed this question: “What weighs 4,000 pounds and had to be loaded into the mall with a helicopter?” You’ll have to visit their page for the answer.

Disclosure: My brother is an executive with Simon Properties, overseeing all of the Mills Malls. However, that’s simply the reason Opry Mills’ Facebook page was on my radar, and not why I’m using it as an example.

As the Mayor of 25 places nationwide, I think I’ve earned the right to question the value of foursquare. As someone who uses social media quite often as a tool to help clients generate word of mouth, I feel it is my responsibility to engage in and understand new media (especially when it was touted as being the next “mainstream hit”). I started using foursquare seven months ago, hoping to be ahead of the curve when it caught on. I’ve been using it pretty diligently, but I’m still not sold on its significance.

Recently, I found that a good friend of mine was on my heels in the week’s foursquare points race (this was the first time anyone had come close to my points total). I let her know that I felt her creeping up behind me, and that I was planning to step up my game to beat her. She replied that she was up to the challenge and even went on to mock the fact that my being Mayor of “Bed, Bath, & Beyond” ought to deprive me of my man card. The exchange went back and forth for a while about our competition on foursquare. Here’s the important part… the entire exchange was conducted via text message, and not through any social feature provided by foursquare.

And, therein lies my biggest problem with the site. It seems to fall under the category of “Social Media,” but there’s almost nothing social about it. There’s no way to actually interact with each other, short of looking up where a friend is at that moment and immediately going to the same venue (Can you say restraining order?). It is all about ME, ME, ME! As I’ve written time and again on this blog, social media should be about relationships and conversation, meaning not only talking, but listening and responding too. It should be about US, US, US!

Now, let me point out a few caveats to my dismay about foursquare. First, I live in Phoenix, a city where it hasn’t caught on and isn’t used as widely (seriously, I only checked in at “Bed, Bath, & Beyond” a couple of times, I swear). In New York and San Francisco, for example, I hear it is much more common. Also, I do see value for those marketing products (particularly retail). Foursquare allows you to engage with potential customers when they are geographically near, and make them an offer right on the spot to either draw them in from a location nearby or to encourage a purchase while they are there. Plus, the possibility of becoming the Mayor of a venue (for having checked in at that location more than anyone else) encourages repeat traffic.

Foursquare’s biggest worry doesn’t come from this blog post, of course. Its popularity will be threatened by sites like Twitter and Facebook incorporating their own location-based features into their existing sites.

As a marketer, I feel like, after 7 months, I get it. I don’t need to test or explore it any further. If a client asks me about foursquare and how it could be useful to their organization, I can intelligently explain the uses and benefits. As a person who uses social media as a way to connect, however, I’m completely bored with foursquare. So, I’m going to take a hiatus. I’m not sure if I’ll come back, but if I do it will be because of changes that make it more social and unique from experiences I can get from any other site.

If taking a break from foursquare means I run the risk of losing the title of Mayor of Thrifty Rental Car in San Jose, so be it.

The jury is still out, but I think I’m going to give Facebook a thumbs up for changing from the Fan Page to allowing users to  “Like” a page. Here’s why… In the past, I’ve had clients who were uncomfortable asking people to become a “fan” of their organization or their work. The semantic change might help these clients and others feel a little more comfortable with building relationships through Facebook without sounding too self-serving or cocky.

That’s my initial impression. What do you think?

Did you see the article on NYTimes.com  How to Market Your Business With Facebook? Most of the clients I’ve consulted are on board with using Facebook as a marketing tool. But, like with all social media tools, they have one big fear… Will it last?

They were around when everyone was saying, “You have to get on MySpace.” Some of them bit, created a MySpace page, built a following, and then left it alone for a while. Now, if they hear MySpace mentioned at all, it’s: “Nobody’s on MySpace anymore!”

Some of you want to jump in to these social media tools, but you’re afraid of wasting your very limited time in something that’s going to go away pretty soon. Ask me if Twitter will be around in 5 years, my answer – maybe. Will MySpace? Not as a social media site.

Will Facebook be around for a long time? My answer? YES!

Of course, it’s my opinion, but here’s my thinking:

Remember switching from records to cassette tapes and then tapes to CDs? What about BetaMax tapes to VHS and VHS to DVD?

We’re always reluctant to changing media devices, because we already built up libraries. We think, “I already have all of these VHS tapes, I don’t want to start over with these newfangled DVDs!” But, we ended up making the change, because the DVDs worked better. If we could have upgraded the functionality of our VHS tapes, we wouldn’t have made the switch.

Same thing goes with Facebook. There are well over 300 million Facebook users. And, most of us have built up our networks of friends, colleagues, people we went to elementary school with, and more. We don’t want to have to find all of those people all over again when “the next big thing” comes out and tries to replace Facebook.

But, unlike VHS tapes or records, Facebook has the ability to upgrade itself constantly (which it does, and we are reluctant every time, until we get used to it). Say what you will about Zuckerberg and crew, but those guys are smart. They aren’t worried about competing with they “next big thing,” they are always working to make sure that Facebook continues to be “the next big thing.”

So, if you’re waiting to use Facebook as a communication tool because you’re not sure it will be around… I say stop waiting and climb on board. I’m confident it will be useful for you for a while (as long as you  remember it is not like traditional advertising, but a place to build relationships — but I digress. That’s a conversation for another time).

What do you think? How long will Facebook dominate social media? How do you think we will be using it differently in 5 years? 10 years?

Im a member of the Hanacore!

I'm a member of the "Hanacore!"

My favorite local sushi joint – Hana Japanese Eatery – understands that it has a league of loyal customers who rave about their food to friends, family, colleagues, and, probably, complete strangers. In the marketing world, we call those people evangelists. At Hana, they call them “Hardcore Hanacore”.

From Hana’s Blog:

Our fans are… special.  They wait for our tweets each day and then flock for the sushi. They start fan groups. When one of them spies us bringing in a full size bluefin tuna to butcher on the sushi counter, cell phones all over town light up until there’s a crowd here like a circus.

Like I said, special. So we’d like to acknowledge that kind of crazy by branding you a Hanacore.  Feel free to post this sucker to your blog or site- paint it on the side of your car, or hey- see what your tattoo artist can do with it.

We’ll be paying special attention to these suckers, and we’ll be watching our Hanacores. Who knows what surprises may come their way?

They have embraced social media as a tool to amplify their Word of Mouth, but they are doing it right (mostly). Hana begins – as all good Word of Mouth stories do – with an amazing product. Chef Koji-san selects only the best fish, and takes pride in what he serves. Plus, they take great care of their customers, often serving a complementary appetizer and a dish of pickled wasabi. I don’t want to turn this post into a restaurant review, but, the other night, Koji-san served me a perfect plate of tuna sashimi and some uni that was buttery and subtle. The star dish, however, came from the hot kitchen; when you go, if they have a special called “scallop edamame,” don’t miss it.

A great product and great customer service then turns to relationships. If you’ve heard me talk about social media before, you know that building relationships – on- and offline – is the key to successful Word of Mouth. Your loyalists gain a vested interest in your success when they have a relationship with you. Customers at Hana are treated like family, and, in turn, are even more driven to help the restaurant succeed.

They also embrace their customers’ evangelism by offering tools on their blog to help their customers share, like the “Hardcore Hanacore” logo and even linking to a customer created Facebook group. This is a wonderful way to reinforce the passion of their Hanacore. However, Facebook is the one area I’d like to see them improve. A group is not the best way to use the most effective communication tool on the web. They should start (or ask their loyal customer to start) a Facebook fan page. The fan page will push their posts out to fans’ news streams and also allow fans to tag them in a status post (creating a hyperlink to their fan page). It’s a great way to stay connected with customers, whereas a group page usually sits there unnoticed.

Hana’s Word of Mouth – both online and off – has been a success story for the restaurant and the neigborhood. I’m definitely a member of The Hanacore, and I urge all of you to rush to Hana to give it a try. The only downside of their Word of Mouth success is that I can’t get a seat there anytime I want anymore.

This morning, my Facebook account was hacked. The hacker, pretending to be me, instant messages my friends telling them I’ve been mugged in London and need money wired immediately. This isn’t true, of course. I have no access to my Facebook account for now. If any of you knows someone at Facebook who can help, please put them in touch with me.

Needless to say, if anyone ever asks you for money over the internet, even if it is a friend, you should be very suspicious. If it’s real, the person should have another way to communicate it to you. Here’s a link to an article with details on this particular scam.

Tons have been calling me today to make sure I’m okay. I’m fine, thanks for your concern. I may have to recreate my Facebook account or rebuild my friends list, so look for a friend request from me in the near future (hopefully “near” future).

The best response of all came from my 13-year-old nephew who, while chatting with the hacker, said, “Uncle Jeff, I say this with all respect, F**K YOU WE KNOW ABOUT THE SCAM MOTHER F**KER.”

In yet another example of how President Obama is pioneering the use of social media in politics, the White House has announced that the President will be answering questions in a live online town hall meeting tomorrow (Thursday, March 26, 2009). You can submit questions here and vote on the ones you would like to hear answered. Like him or not (I like him), you have to admit that he is continuing to use social media as a tool for transparency and participation.

Part of using social media to its fullest extent is not only sharing information, but using it as a tool to listen and respond. To create dialogues, not simply monologue and rants. This is what President Obama does time and again using online tools. Not to bring up an old rivalry, but Arizona Senator John McCain could learn a thing or two from his example. He’s received press and commendation for his use of Twitter, particularly after being mocked for not knowing how to use a computer during the campaign. But, he’s not using Twitter in the best possible way. He’s using it to rant and promote his agenda, but he’s not using it to listen and respond. Twitter is supposed to make users accessible. He ignores replies and doesn’t ever respond. This truly isn’t partisan criticism; I think he would actually benefit from taking my advice. His agenda and overall brand image would be much better served by allowing the type of openness and transparency social media expects and deserves.

The cover article of the current Fast Company highlights Chris Hughes, cofounder of Facebook and architect of Obama’s use of social media on the campaign trail. In so many ways, Barack Obama is President because of what Hughes did for him during the election. It’s so refreshing to see them continuing to utilize social media now that Obama is in office.