Last Thursday, I participated in one of the first-ever "Skypecasts," or so it was billed.
That's right. Under the able moderation of Corante President Francois Gossieaux, several other panelists and I embarked on a conference call using Skype -- the free, exploding, and darn-that's-simple Web-based phone service -- to talk about online marketing and consumer-generated media (CGM).
After a spirited back and forth, the call was immediately converted to an MP3 file for happy downloading by anyone with the tolerance to endure my half-baked punditry and pontification.
I must say I felt like a naked impostor during this novel exercise, as I'm a very recent, albeit now thoroughly addicted, Skype user, and I've barely broken through the first page of the how-to manual.
Then again, I must confess I experienced a unique feeling of power and "wow, I shattered the paradigm" stud-muffin confidence throughout the Skypecast. It's the same feeling I had after I created my first blog or produced my first iMovie. I felt the power of expression and thrill of archived, history-will-record-this permanence. Moreover, I now find myself writing this column to a larger audience.
The Skypecast is one of a plethora of recent applications emerging from this free calling provider, which now boasts a staggering 100 million users. For example, it just offered free calling to non-Skype numbers through the end of the year, a move some in buzz circles have speculated was intended to deflate enthusiasm in last week's Vonage IPO.
I'm a CMO who's always on the prowl for better, more efficient, and cost-effective strategies and tactics to build our brand. Now my Skype-injected head is spinning with ideas and applications, some related to creative uses of Skype and many going far beyond.
Last year, for instance, one of my biggest marketing budget line-items was dedicated to Webinars (online seminars) that covered every aspect and benefit of CGM analysis. Webinars have become one of my best lead generators, and I generally find them far more efficient than either sponsoring conferences or setting up booths at them.
Where things have gotten a bit pricey is the cost per user of the toll-free number for call in. With an average 100 participants at 60 minutes per participant, the charges really start to add up, a problem compounded by the fact that I lead or co-lead dozens of these Webinars every year.
The logic of the Skypecast changes all that, insofar as you can have up to 100 participants on a single call with no incremental fees. How utterly disruptive! It's hard not to feel a bit subversive when donning the Skype earphones and microphone to talk to your computer at Starbucks.
Last week, the phone reception at a conference was so impenetrably spotty that I had to co-opt the Wi-Fi lounge to make critical business calls using Skype, including a Webinar on engagement, no less.
Last Mover Advantage?
I'm sometimes grossly mislabeled as a tech trendsetter, so it's important to note that more than 101 million folks beat me to the punch with Skype. Though I gave it a test 18 months ago after I reading an article in a major newspaper ("this will change your world," it promised), after my first download I fell through the cracks into tech confusion. Admittedly, I was also a bit paranoid and ambivalent about leveraging a "free" service created by Kazaa, the same folks who brought us more pop-up ads than the late, great "billions and billions" Carl Sagan could possibly count.
But eventually my case of Luddite jitters was corrected by my marketing colleague and über-early adopter Max Kalehoff, who insisted (largely for selfish reasons) that I join the Skype club. The fact that my mobile phone has painfully sporadic reception compelled him to put the full power of his recommendation behind an alternative communication channel. It took only a minute or two to set in place, and I immediately fell in love with the smooth sound of Skype voiceovers, which make me feel like I'm being interviewed in an NPR studio.
Digital Lipstick as Growth Driver
Putting aside all debates over who pays for what and whether Skype was a smart buy for eBay, there's no question Skype is one of the great word-of-mouth stories. As CGM goes, this is a brand that's left an unprecedented trail of what I'd call "digital lipstick." These love prints dot every corner and crevice of the Internet with enthusiastic, if not religious, tributes to Skype.
"There's certainly a network externalities effect going on with Skype. This is also known as the 'fax effect': the more people who use it, the more valuable it becomes," explained Professor Walter J. Carl, a leading word-of-mouth marketing expert from Boston's Northeastern University.
Carl, who's active with WOMMA on research methodologies, also hit a key insight behind why Kalehoff probably pushed me so hard to use Skype. "Although the recommendation of Skype to a friend benefits the person making the recommendation, this isn't just a selfish act. That is, there's a huge relational component as well: the recommendation benefits both people or all members of the social network, because it allows them all to be connected to one another."
Digital Lipstick or Lip Smear?
The issue of how core benefits drive conversational pass-along is critical. Skype has undeniable benefits and cost efficiencies. And actual users, those in touch with the real product experience, are making this case to others, not advertisers. The key takeaway for brand builders is to make sure, as Seth Godin so frequently insists, that our products and services are "truly remarkable," so much so that others will want to tell others.
And this is the really tough part about word-of-mouth and CGM. It's a long-term process. It doesn't happen overnight. You just can't buy it or flip an agency switch, and expect results.
Great, satisfying experiences, delivered right at the "Ex-Spot," are what drive the conversation and leave a trail of positive digital lipstick. Bad experiences create digital "lip smear."
What's important is that great experiences fuel our desire to not only tell others but also improve their lives. In the process we improve our standing in their eyes.
Which leaves me with a final important question: Is the bigger aha around Skype that it's revolutionized communication or that it's created tens of millions of heroes?
Meet Pete at ClickZ's Online Video Advertising Forum in New York City, June 16, 2006.
Pete Blackshaw, whose professional background encompasses public policy, interactive marketing, and brand management, is executive vice president of strategic services for Nielsen Online, a combination of Nielsen BuzzMetrics, a firm Pete helped cofound, and Nielsen//NetRatings. One of Pete's key focuses is helping brands interpret, manage, and act on consumer-generated media (CGM). A former interactive marketing leader at P&G and founder of consumer feedback portal PlanetFeedback.com, Pete cofounded the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA). He authors several blogs, including ConsumerGeneratedMedia.com, and is the author of an upcoming book from Random House, "Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3000: Running a Business in Today's Consumer-Driven World."