Thinking of Going Independent? Here is How To Put a Value on You

BloomThink Tells You How to value yourself when going independent
Creative Commons Attribution by Flickr user Evil Erin

Work is increasingly something we DO and less someplace we GO.  Combine employment trends with the ability to deliver expertise from anywhere with a phone and internet connection and we have a trend in independent contracting.  Organizations like FIELD NATION are leading the way when it comes to combining a jobs marketplace with a business management platform.  I suspect strongly that we’ll continue to see growth in this area.  So you’ve got expertise and experience and are thinking about going independent.  Congratulations!  It is rewarding and challenging all at the same time.  One of the biggest struggles is figuring out how much you’re worth. This post will give you a starting point for your efforts.  It is drawn from personal experience and the experiences of others with whom I’m close.  As with everything, your mileage may vary so do your own research for your industry.

Here we go!

When you’re an independent consultant or contractor it is often difficult to place a dollar value on your service and expertise. Prospective clients want the best deal they can get and will often change the scope of a project or lowball an initial offer to try and get that deal.  It can all be confusing and a little bit daunting if you’re just starting out, even if you’re already an expert in your field.

First, realize that there is almost always some guidance on rates and fees and expectations from your chosen industry.  This guidance might not be explicit, as in published rate cards or standard union fees.  But peers in your industry are often willing to give you a ball park of what they do and what they charge.  Still, at best you’re left with a range that is often too wide to really help you nail down *your* value.  After all, you’re special and your unique combination of experience and approach is why you decided to go independent in the first place.

Step one is brutal honesty and self-reflection. Nail down what are you actually doing.  Are you creating strategy or executing someone else’s strategy?  Are you creating custom solutions that deal with the non-standard environments of your customers where innovation and agility are required? Or are you implementing cookie-cutter solutions where efficiency and quantity are critical? When you leave the client, what do you leave behind?  What is that actual deliverable?  Identify it.  Quantify it.

Step two is to figure out an estimated cost of the client’s self-service. If the clients were to do what you do by themselves, what would it take?  Tally the cost of materials, hardware, software, tools, prerequisites (e.g. security clearance), training and certification (if required). Don’t forget to add in the personnel time the client would have spent.  Figure out what the cost of their time would be.  To do that, get an idea of their hourly wage and multiply it by the number of hours it would take them to do what you do.  Realize that those numbers are likely larger than the amount of time it takes you since you have more expertise and skill in your specific area.  If your clients are salary employees, get that salary (if you cannot get it directly, get a general idea from a site like,,’s salary search or any number of other sites that publish salary info). Take that salary and add 20% (average cost of benefits), divide by 52 weeks in a year and then divide that number by 40 hours in a week to get a rough hourly wage.

The formula looks a bit like this:

(Salary + (Salary*20%))/52/40

So a person making $60,000 a year costs the organization approximately $34.62 per hour while a person making $100,000 a year cost the organization approximately $57.69 per hour.

Now you have a baseline understanding of the cost per hour for the client to take care of the problem themselves.  Now multiply the client’s estimated per hour cost by the number of hours it would take them to become skilled enough to do the job you want to do and then to actually do it.  Add in any capital expenses they would have to incur by *not* hiring you – this means purchase of tools or software that you bring to the table that they don’t have available.

Step three is to demonstrate the difference in value by bringing you on to help with or do the job.  This is where you can demonstrate ROI or convenience or efficiency.  This is where you demonstrate your value.  Now you have an idea of what their cost would be.  How are you going to deliver value to them?  Is it by speeding up the timeline thereby saving them cost in doing the job themselves?  Is it by providing a higher quality result that will break less and require less attention thereby saving them administrative costs?  Is it by providing a unique and one-of-a-kind capability that they cannot get anywhere else?  Is it by simply making their lives easier thereby removing worry and distraction from this area and allowing them to focus on their core passions?

The answers to each of these questions are all important because they all contain the core of why someone should want to pay for your time and expertise rather than someone else’s time and expertise.  That is value.  That carries a dollar amount.  Too high, and your value is not “worth” it.  Too low and you’re leaving money on the table and prospects will question if your claimed value is really true.  After all, if you don’t know the value that the market places on your skills and expertise, why should the client believe you’re really capable in the areas you claim?

So now match up your value with what you want.  This is the fun part.  Figure out the hourly rate you *want* and then project how many hours a month you think you’ll actually deliver.  For example, if you want to make $50,000 a year and have a 2 week vacation, you will have 50 weeks in which to bill.  Assume each week has 4 working days and 1 administration day where you pay bills, do invoicing and sell your services to land your next project.  That means you’ll need to charge at least $37.50 per hour to reach your goal (this accounts for 20% additional cost to pay for your own benefits).  Want to bring in $100,000 a year and pay for your benefits?  You’ll need to charge $75.00 per hour.  Now that number might be high for your industry or incredibly low.  The key is to find your baseline.  Remember also that independent work is often feast or famine.  The numbers above assume you’re actually billing 32 hours a week (or about 128 hours a month) for 50 weeks a year.  If you hit a famine, you’ll need to up your rates to hit your target.  They’re not making more hours in the day.

Let’s look at an example, if you are monitoring a social media account for a business you might have a calculation like this:

30 minutes a day x 7 days a week = 3.5 hours a week = 14 hours a month per client

You would need 9-10 clients to hit your mark.

Now figure out your industry average hourly consulting cost.  This will vary industry to industry and may be a wide range.  Realize that this is your hourly rate and does not include items like software, subscriptions, tools or materials you may use for the client.  Those need to be added separately or rolled into a single flat hourly price.

Many clients like to pay a single fee or “flat rate”.  This is convenient for them as it lumps in all costs into one bill.  It’s easier for them to budget for that.  They key is to break that flat fee down into an hourly cost so you have an apples-to-apples comparison.  If you were going to charge $500.00 a month, realize that, working 30 minutes a day (as in our example above) that comes out to about $35 an hour.

Now we’re ready for Step Four.  Once you have figured out your value and situated yourself within industry guidelines and figured out how many clients, jobs or contracts per month you’ll need to hit your revenue targets, it is time to do some subtraction.

Hopefully, the client’s do-it-themselves cost is higher than the cost to hire you.  If so, subtract your number from theirs.  This is the money you are saving your client simply by them contracting with you.  If that number is low, multiply it out for a year and see what the annualized savings would be. For example, if you’re saving your client only $3.12 a week from their actual internal cost, realize that this translates to about $100 a week and about $5200 a year.  That is a number worth considering.

If your cost is higher than the client’s do-it-themselves cost don’t fret.  Before you go lowering your rates, make sure you have properly accounted for what they would have to do themselves but for your being there. Most often we, as experts, overlook items that have become second nature to us that are more difficult for others.  Are you authoring content for them (e.g. blog posts, press releases etc?) did you account for that on their side?  Did you know that ghost writers for websites can make anywhere from $25 – $80 a page, and that technical writers make more?  Are you taking photos to document your work that could be used as training materials or marketing collateral?  Did you know that professional photographers are expensive?  Did you account for the time that it would take someone else to photo that same work product (even with their cell phone), transfer it to their computer, tag it, lightly edit it and upload it into a DAM (digital asset management) system? The point is that even “easy” tasks take time to do well.  Make sure that everything you do is accounted for in the calculation of their do-it-themselves cost.

Remember, the client has already decided that the problem needs to be solved so you’re painting a picture of the future with you vs the future without you.  Many prospective clients will erroneously paint a picture of the present without you vs the future with you.  In that case, you’ll always be more expensive and they’ll be left scratching their heads as to why fixing the problem without you took so long and cost so much.  Don’t let them get down that path and think, regretfully, “we should have hired that independent contractor!”  You’ll be vindicated but still poor.

Step five is to help the client see you not just as a warm body able to fill a seat.  Help the client see that you’re worth your fee since you’re doing daily engagement, content creation, listening and collection.  You’re akin to a museum curator building the brand and awareness of the client through your skills as a communicator, marketer and your availability.  Don’t be afraid to put some metrics around your performance like increased engagement, satisfaction, speed and awareness.  This is not the job of an intern, you’re a strategist.

Realize that business has its currents. Seek to sign a 6 month contract initially rather than month to month. It is easier to prove velocity and impact over the longer term as it normalizes the ebbs and flows of events and seasons.

Have fun and keep your passion.  Remember you’re an independent contractor because you love doing what you do and you’re good at it.  Others are interested in you because you’re good at it.  Go ahead and value yourself for what you’re worth.

And take this for what it’s worth.

How To Build A Killer Community – The Experts’ Roundtable

There are many kinds of customer communities, from fans on Facebook, to private communities that congregate on company forums.  But what makes people join up?  What keeps them coming back?  How can you start getting your customer community engaged?

We asked five highly credentialed experts about this.  They have practical advice and some profound insights on what makes amazing customer communities.  Peggy brings a brass-tacks practicality to her vision.  Cheryl has real-world examples backing up everything she says.  John brings a strategic approach to the conversation.  Tom is the most philosophical about the whole topic and has profound insight.  Justin brings a wealth of experience to bear and delivers solid advice.

Customer communities don’t just happen. What are the essential ingredients for the growth, then care and feeding of customer communities? 

All of the experts agree is that having practical, immediately useful content like How-To and answers to common but challenging questions of the community.  They also point out that what matters means what matters to the audience, not the company that hosts and manages the community. The goal is creating and delivering value to the audience.  The idea is that the audience goes to where their needs are met.  If you provide more value, they stick around to participate with each other and with you.

 Peggy Winton of AIIM Weighs in with BloomThink on how to build a killer communityPeggy Winton, CMO AIIM International: To attract community members, the community must offer value; valuable education and valuable peer engagement. The more prescriptive the content the better. Folks are looking for assistance in doing their jobs/completing projects that used to be done by someone else. To the extent that the community content and peer contributions can help them get their faster, that’s a winning ingredient. As much as we’d like to think that communities can self-manage, there has to be an owner responsible for maintaining the integrity of the community with a regular and committed cadre of contributors. At AIIM, we call those people “Ambassadors”. 

Cheryl Lesser of the Intranet Benchmark Forum Weighs in with BloomThink on how to build a killer communityCheryl Lesser, Intranet Consultant working with the Intranet Benchmarking Forum: Before a community session we make an effort to ensure the right participants are in attendance. We choose a hot topic (one that’s getting a lot of play in our forums and such). Then we invite at least one “expert” and one “learner.” This is key for setting the stage for a good back-and-forth. We ask the learners to send in their questions ahead of time to make sure the expert is prepared. Also we put the questions on a slide — having them as a visual often prompts the other participants to ask questions of their own.

John Brunswick of Oracle Weighs in with BloomThink on how to build a killer communityJohn Brunswick, Enterprise Collaboration Architect working with Oracle: The foundation of the community must be anchored around a strict focus on the needs of the community users, not the organization hosting the community.  This focus guides the creation of the community in a way that fosters the relationship between the community participants and organization – delivering real value to the members.  In order to maintain and build the relationship, open communication is essential as the community grows and evolves, elevating the significance of transparency, sincerity and responsiveness.  As communication has advanced, it is important to also understand that the engagement of members may now also take place outside of the actual community, through various social networks.  The investment of quality community management effort is not trivial, but the benefits of the bonds created within the community can create a wealth of value for the organization and participants.

Tom Motzel of Tesserae  Weighs in with BloomThink on how to build a killer communityTom Motzel, Owner Tesserae Talent Strategies: Authenticity, Interaction, Contribution and Fun. Let me explain.  First, authenticity – To build a community, you must be as passionate about the ’cause’ as those you hope to attract.  It’s important that your ‘community curator’ has passion before social media expertise.  Second, interaction – Individuals join communities to interact with real people who share their passion. Third, contribution – Members want to learn from and contribute to others.  If a community does not make YOU feel like an important member, you won’t stick around. Finally, fun – Engaging with online communities needs to feel more like going out with college friends than going to a meeting with colleagues.

Justin Schuster of Lithium Tech Weighs in with BloomThink on how to build a killer communityJustin Schuster, VP Product Marketing at Lithium Technology: There’s no one silver bullet for driving community growth. Healthy communities require a combination of traditional push marketing tactics as well as pull marketing strategies like search engine optimization and gamification. Leading brands are starting to embed links to community content in replies to posts on Twitter, Facebook, a Google+, which helps to scale direct response programs and increase community vibrancy. 


What are the major differences, challenges or opportunities between B2B customer communities and B2C customer communities?

Our experts found products and novelty matter most for B2C communities whereas practices and effectiveness predominate in B2B communities.  They agreed that the airing of dirty laundry is a risk and that gaffes become much more public.  But they agreed that these can also help with goals of transparency and authenticity, when authentically handled.

Peggy Winton of AIIM Weighs in with BloomThink on how to build a killer communityPeggy: Most B2C communities are focused around products; the conversations are mainly customer reviews or tips on better utilization. Given the growing power of the consumer, these communities have challenges in that they can become major “gripe sessions”. It is critical to appoint a CLO (Chief Listening Officer) who can provide non-defensive responses to complaints. In the B2B world, the content tends to be more about concepts and practices. The challenge there is that it’s not often sexy. As stated above, the key is to provide very practical and relevant information according to members’ roles and responsibilities.

John Brunswick agrees.  He writes:

John Brunswick of Oracle Weighs in with BloomThink on how to build a killer communityJohn: From a B2B standpoint, the design of a community experience may be less ambiguous than in the B2C space.  As a broad generalization, most B2B communities are established to allow people to resolve issues or engage in a process.  Their effectiveness could be measured on the basis of these factors.  B2C experiences are generally much richer around general exploration within the community and user generated content creation.  This is because members are engaging at will, versus participating in order to arrive at a specific outcome.  As most B2C communities are largely inclusive, they also may have to contend with very public customer service issues.  This poses a challenge to management of the community, but also presents an opportunity to highlight the approach of an organization to resolving negative issues, that may ultimately work in their favor.

Cheryl takes a pragmatic approach.

Cheryl Lesser of the Intranet Benchmark Forum Weighs in with BloomThink on how to build a killer communityCheryl: We have found that it is important to remind participants from time to time that we’re looking for interaction. Something as simple as identifying roles and titles helps.  That way, people know who is on the customer side and who is on the company side.  It seems simple but, doing this repeatedly helps to encourage participation.

Tom points out some significant advantages of B2B customer communities and challenges faced by B2C communities.

Tom Motzel of Tesserae  Weighs in with BloomThink on how to build a killer communityTomB2B Communities have the advantage of being more intimate.  These are likely people that you can talk to and interact with on a regular basis.  A more symbiotic relationship that likely rewards contribution and involvement.  B2C communities are more difficult to maintain because participation reflects an ‘infatuation’ with product or service.  How long does any individual stay committed to any particular product before something better (or life’s changing landscape) replaces it?  B2B communities generally contribute to our ‘industrious’ needs…our ‘bottom line’.  B2C communities generally offer more of an entertainment value…satisfying, but fleeting.

And Justin notes that B2B communities are often faster while B2C communities are often larger:

Justin Schuster of Lithium Tech Weighs in with BloomThink on how to build a killer communityJustin:  B2B communities typically have fewer participants than B2C communities, but they can be just as vital for a major brand. We often see collaboration across marketing and customer care teams emerge faster in B2B communities, particularly where brands are working to deliver an integrated customer experience. 


Any discussion of customer communities would be incomplete without acknowledging the amazing changes that the software landscape has undergone.  From news groups of the early web to Facebook pages to tailored and integrated CRM systems, the evolution of community software has been profound. So how much help does community software actually deliver to a community manager?

Our experts agreed that a successful community quickly outpaces the manual abilities of any individual manager, and that the software should be an enabler for the community rather than something that gets in the way of conversation, sharing and engagement.

Peggy Winton of AIIM Weighs in with BloomThink on how to build a killer communityPeggy: For a vibrant and dynamic community, you’ve got to be able to scale or the manual processes will never get managed. However, these tools come in all shapes and sizes. Usually, the members themselves are non-the-wiser about the backend tools. In my experience, they are much more interested in the content than the bells & whistles, particularly since 80% of them will NOT regularly contribute to content or conversation.


Cheryl Lesser of the Intranet Benchmark Forum Weighs in with BloomThink on how to build a killer communityCherylCommunity management software should foster channels of conversation rather than erecting barriers between the “audience” and the “moderator”.  For example, when we’re engaged in a real-time event in our community, we’re in the background, messaging participants, asking them if they have anything to share. Instead of doing a message blast, or a “sticky thread” (like “Feel free to join the conversation!”) we always tailor the message with the names of specific participants, names of companies, and any background info we have about them. For example: “Hi Sue, would you be willing to share your experiences/insights about your recent SharePoint upgrade at Acme?”  This bridges the divide and almost makes the technology fade into the background; which is a wonderful thing for vibrant community participation.

John Brunswick of Oracle Weighs in with BloomThink on how to build a killer communityJohn: Software can help supply structure, comprised of common community capabilities, for community managers to extend experiences to their members. As communication capabilities have evolved, user experience patterns similar to the Facebook Wall, Dropbox like file sharing, and discussion forums, are often readily identified by users.  By combining these patterns into a prepackaged solution, this can allow community managers to spend time focusing on the overall experience, content and communications that will be relevant for their members.  At Plumtree (software focused exclusively on portals), the mantra of “No Empty Portals” existed to remind us that as great as supporting software can be – success is all about making experiences relevant and valuable to our users.

Tom Motzel of Tesserae  Weighs in with BloomThink on how to build a killer communityTom: Community Software can be a powerful game changer, but only when you have an authentic community of passionate people who are aligned around a well-defined vision and mission.  Outside of those circumstances, it’s just another communication gateway that generally fractures our continuity as we desperately try to keep up with new tools.



Justin Schuster of Lithium Tech Weighs in with BloomThink on how to build a killer communityJustin: Of course we believe the software is critical, and the right tools can mean a world of difference when it comes to making the community blend seamlessly with your website, driving vibrancy, and proving ROI. The right services expertise is equally important, however, and there are many best practices that can make the difference between success and failure. This is why Lithium offers a range of services and even offers a certification program for community managers.


In the end our experts agreed that it takes as much imagination as anything to cultivate a great customer community.  Community managers cannot be human versions of software.  Their greatest strength is precisely their humanity, mistakes, misspellings and all.  But it is precisely this humanizing effect that great community managers have which keeps customers coming back.  They can find answers almost anywhere on the internet.  But a customer community is both a place where they can be heard as well as find answers and feel valued as a peer on a similar journey by those wonderful community managers.

So what is your recipe for building a killer customer community?  Share your thoughts below!

5 Must Have Steps To Combine Big Data and Collaboration

Creative Commons Attribution by Flickr user crsan –

This is not a fluffy-puff collaboration article.  You won’t read about team unity, the importance of open and honest dialogue or flattened org charts.  This is about big data.  This is about the 5 steps you must take if you hope to tap the power of big data and use it drive fundamental improvements in collaboration.  This is not about solving problems.  This is about dissolving problems.

So here is what you have got to do

1)      Improve Your Collection – Big Data, Big Content

There is so much information, chances are what we want is out there, if only something could ensure it was captured and then bubble it up to the surface.  Traditional content management, records management, knowledge management and collaboration systems all rely on severe user disruption.  Even the sync and share systems that are popular now (e.g. DropBox,, YouSendIt) require disruption.  All of these require end users to stop being brilliant, stop creating, stop working and check something in.  Some have big forms to fill out, some have drag-and-drop but they all start by stopping you from doing what you do best.

Big data analytics systems do it better by scraping and crawling data that has been identified by some kind of integration, ETL process or migration tool.  This is better than disruptive check-ins but it still creates a lag in the data.  Even where collection is real-time, Big Data requires analytics to turn it into consumable information.

On the Big Content front, over a decade of ECM experience should have taught us by now that adoption suffers and collections aren’t as rich as they might be because of check-in disruption.

The best solution is one that frictionlessly collects content and data as it is created or updated.  If you’re focused on collaboration, either across time through easily accessible historical collections or immediately for teams that span departments, then ensuring you have everything is vital.  Why base your collaboration strategies on the hope that owners will be nice, stop what they’re doing and check in their content (and do it correctly)?  Instead, automatically ingest content with no requirement on employees.  Automatic backup and recovery software has been doing this for years for servers and email.  Software like Digitiliti does it for business content including email.  The difference is that, instead of sitting in an inaccessible archive somewhere, all that information is immediately available.

2)      Improve Your Aggregation – Classification, Grouping, Analytics

Look, we spend too much time helping computers understand what we mean: metadata, tagging, summarizations, search within, drill-down, SEO, keywords.  It’s really incredible when you consider that an entire industry has grown up around helping computers understand what we have already created.  This is all done so that other people who are removed from us by time or distance can find and enjoy what we’ve created.  How about we change that that paradigm!

Here’s how:

  • Encourage voluntary participation with entertainment, ease & rewards. (Hint: the industry buzzword for this is “gamification”). User generated collections are great assets.  Sites like Pinterest, and Tumblr prove that user generated collections are incredibly valuable sources of classification and intelligence.
  • Use some of that Big Data power to track and aggregate what people are doing in the course of their daily work.  Searches, application opening behavior, website referrers all become useful aggregation points that can help spur collaboration.  See a trend in searches? Promote that content before a search is executed.  Lots of traffic being generated by employees from the same web site referrers? Partner with or advertise on that site.  Or grab a feed of it and put it on your intranet.  It will make your intranet suck less.
  • See which content or data aggregations have staying power.   These become curated collections.  Promote those to your use base.  Collections spur additional participation.  It is always easier to comment on something which has already started than to create something totally new.

3)      Tracking – usage and creation patterns are more kinds of metadata. 

This is a bit tricky.  Europe has new “do not track” laws which impact cookie use.  The USA is considering similar legislation while with W3C is working on a standard for “do not track / do not follow”.  However, that still leaves intranets, extranets and opt-in sites wide open.  If you’re looking to spur collaboration within your organization, then you absolutely must understand what is leading employees to information and what is drawing them away.  Here are some ideas:

  • Track when people use certain information and what they do while using it.  What applications are open? What was their search/navigation path to that content?
  • Take a cue from the Web Gateway, Compliance and Data Loss Prevention industries.  Most of those systems look at and log what is going on.  How about using that data for intelligence.


4)      Prediction – Business Intelligence from Big Data and Big Content. 

Once you have all that Big Data and are using those collections to feed analytics and intelligence engines, one of the results is the ability to spot trends. Instead of stopping at understanding why certain things happened, start predicting what will happen.  This allows business to move from things like issue resolution to issue interception.  Issue interception means solving issues before they explode in to PR nightmares.  Here are some other ideas:

  • Anticipate the files, web resources, documentation articles, URLs people will want, even before they know it.
  • Identify project teams that fit interest and expertise and invite employees to act in an advisory capacity for the project.  This spurs cross-departmental knowledge sharing and breaks down silos of structure and information.

Ecommerce and online dating sites have been doing this for years.  It’s not magical technology.  But business has been doing little to match content to anticipated employee need.  It’s time this changed.

5)      Delivery – Get Usable Content into the Hands of People to Whom it Makes a Difference. 

The best insight and intelligence is pointless if it’s not available. So get it into the hands of those who can use it.  This means delivering it to them where they are at.  Where are most of us these days?  On our mobile smartphones and tablets.  So if you’re wondering if you need a mobile collaboration strategy, the answer is Yes!  Make sure that all that predictive intelligence, those invitations to participate, that recommended content is available not just on your corporate portal but in the places where it is most relevant.

  • Got a shop floor?  Make sure the information most commonly needed there is available there.  Do you still have paper maintenance logs or 3-ring binder policies and procedures stuffed away in a back office somewhere? Make them available via mobile phone or tablet so employees can fill out the log or look up the procedure where the work is being done.  Not sure how to do it?  Start easy.  Use a QR code that links a phone browser to an internal web page or form.
  • Make access at the point of transaction.  This makes the decision to engage easier for users.  Invitations to participate in a survey, team project or to download a file become disruptive and annoying when the user gets the invite and then must go back to a desk, open up an application, view, decide, click yes/no/start or download and *then start collaborating.  Why make it so hard?  Why make people wait to decide to collaborate?  Keep it in the moment and keep it agile.

These 5 steps make collaborating with people AND with information so much easier.  The promise of collaboration is an accessibility of ideas and information.  When that happens, we start to realize that innovation and insight comes not just from the hand-me-downs of original programmers, founders and CEOs but from the collective insight of everyone involved, over time.  The big trick is making sure the information stays available.  With these 5 steps, you’ll see that collaboration with content and not just people yields information and insight that come from very different  sources, hidden our org charts, buried by time, by project team, by anonymity.

This article originally appeared on on July 12

The Social Media Shift

Here is a presentation I gave at the Rotary Club District Conference Yesterday.  The crowd was very receptive and laughed at all the right spots which is always good.

Please contact me if you’d like me to present this to your team, company or club.

The notes section contains speaking notes, references and image citations.

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5 Reasons QR Codes TOP NFC and Image Recognition


QR codes, those blocky squares of encoded information, have received a drubbing in the media lately.  This is due to an appalling failure of businesses to use them correctly and a lack of design creativity that is simply lazy.

Flying to speak to a conference in San Francisco earlier this week I counted 21 QR codes in the in-flight magazine located in the seat back pocket in front of me.  Think about that for a moment.  The IN-FLIGHT magazine.  “In Flight” means absolutely no cell signal and no wifi signal.  (Even if there was a wifi signal, do you think I’d pay $10/hour to scan ads?)  Other terrible examples included QR codes along the moving sidewalk in the airport (seriously!?).  The most common QR code fail is when the code takes you to a non-mobile optimized website.

Note to all Agencies and Businesses using QR codes – THINK!  People are scanning from the devices they have in their pockets.  These may  be as powerful as computers but they are not, in fact, desktops, laptops or even ultrabooks.  They are small, portrait oriented smart phones.  Vertical scrolling works because it is easy for our thumbs.  Horizontal scrolling doesn’t because it is uncomfortable for our thumbs.  Don’t fight evolution!

Some people think that NFC (near field communications) or image recognition will take over QR codes as the best way to create “hyperlinks for meatspace”.  Here are the five reasons why they’re wrong.

1) Zero Infrastructure Cost. QR Codes require no hardware and no infrastructure to work.  NFC relies on hardware in the phone (bluetooth or other short-range secure radio signal) AND in a reader device.  Similar solutions have been around for years – FastPass at Disney, Fast Pay at Exxon Mobile gas stations are two examples.  These have failed to catch on in no small part because of the high barrier to deployment.  Anytime you create a hardware burden for a “convenience” solution you exponentially increase cost (deployment, maintenance, education, distribution).  Meanwhile the incremental benefit is small meaning you must have wide adoption to achieve anything like an ROI.  This is the same challenge faced by hydrogen fuel cars and plug-in electric vehicles.  The cost to re-tool the “fill-‘er-up” infrastructure is prohibitive.  So different solutions are being considered.

2) Uniqueness.  QR codes hold information like URLs or text or contact information.  This means that your phone scanner easily reads them and display what that one single QR code is supposed to display.  Image recognition software (like leafsnap) uses your phone camera to identify what you’re eating or what kind of a tree that leaf belongs to. So while it can identify a leaf as a Maple or Oak, it cannot tell you interesting things about each individual leaf.  QR codes tell you something unique for each code.  This is because they contain not just data, but they also tell your phone how to read the data they contain.  For this reason, I do not believe that image recognition actually competes with QR codes.  They are complementary.

3) Better Distribution. Distribution is important for adoption.  QR codes are simpler and cheaper to distribute than NFC.  QR codes have a lower barrier to entry than image recognition software.  Together that means they enjoy a wider distribution and better adoption. No hardware requirement means that QR code creation is available to anyone.  All you need is a printer (and you’ve already got that) and you’re set. QR codes do not require professional developers to tie a database of known images to URLs or text entries about the subject.  QR codes are the ultimate re-use tool.  Use the information you already have, formatted for the mobile device and reach new and interested audiences.

4) Super Easy.  QR codes are incredibly easy to create and customize and brand  Sites like QRHacker , the Google Charts API for QR codes and the ZXing Project’s QR generator have made creation easy for anyone.  The fact that QR codes can be colored, branded with logos and put next to traditional marketing assets like brochures mean that they effectively extend the reach of physical assets with the power and richness of the web.  The risk (as you can see from the fail examples above) is that companies take the ease and fail to account for their audience.  Simply slapping a QR code on a brochure that goes to your public website fails to account for where the users are.

5) Reusability.  When QR codes point to a URL that goes to a mobile web site you get all the flexibility that comes with the web.  This means that one QR code can be continually updated with new information, new videos, new deal information  – anything.  So take a look around at the whitepapers you have, at the product demos you have, at the sales pitch info you have.  Ask around.  When are those assets *most* useful?  To what kinds of people?  At what point of the sales process?  As your marketers when customers need that extra little persuasive push to make a decision.  Then make sure you get a QR code out at that location, in that environment, targeted to that audience.

Good use of QRs requires planning.  You *must* understand what you are trying to achieve.  Google doesn’t just slap up some random links on their web properties and hope to make money selling that ad space.  They have nearly perfected the art of targeting ads to audiences.  There’s a lot of work that goes into it.  QR codes are hyperlinks for the real world.  They function just like ads – even if they don’t go to marketing materials.  To work they require awareness, intent and action.  If get those and someone scans, you had better deliver relevant, useful, whimsical, and engaging content.  Or risk getting called out in the next update of WTF QR Codes.

The Interest Requirement – Getting Beneath the Advice.


Interest Means Wanting And Reaching For It
Creative Commons Attribution: by Flickr User ~ I P O X s t u d i o s ~

 Gartner says that a social business is one that provides “sustained value” through pulling together “talent, interests, experience, insights and knowledge”. But buried underneath this advice are requirements that must be uncovered if businesses have any hope of putting it to work. We talked about talent before. Let’s take a brief look at interests.

Interest means the curiosity to pursue a topic and the passion to stick with it.  Social media technology is good at providing an easy way for interested people to participate with teams and topics.  Whether chiming in on social forums, providing ad hoc feedback through messaging clients or rating products and project documents, social media technology enables the easy participation of the interested.  Yet it is vital to combine interest with talent, experience, insights and knowledge in order to become a social business. Failure to do so merely confuses passion with competence; something Harvard Business Review recently warned against.

The importance of interest is that it is a primary motivator.  When we’re interested in what we do we work smarter and achieve greater results than when we’re disengaged. HR study after HR study demonstrates that keeping employees interested and engaged is far more effective than money or perks in delivering high quality results and retaining high quality employees.

The challenge of interest is reflected in a study conducted by Nielsen in 2006.  That study shows that 90% of online community members lurk, 9% contribute sometimes and 1% are the core contributors.  This means that 99% make up the pool of likely interested people who want to interact with the (likely talented) 1% who are creating.  That is a huge disparity. So businesses must both identify interest and then work hard to plug in those interested people in ways that will be helpful.

Some strategies that work include

  • Posting project plans and summaries on your intranet and then inviting feedback – critical and constructive
  • Exposing a feedback forum or message stream for each project to your wider organization.  This allows the lurkers to browse other things your company is doing and chime in if they see something that piques their interest.
  • Designating a project liaison to act as the single point of contact for projects.  This allows all project team members to engage with others if they wish, but it also provides a hedge against distracting inquiries from outside interested parties – especially at times when team members are “heads down”.
  • Tracking what kinds of content employees are searching for and accessing on your corporate intranet or ECM system and then building up an “interest profile” for each employee.  When combined with a talent profile (LINK TO EARLIER ARTICLE) this can be used to proactively seek out project team mates or ad hoc advisors.

Many different social technologies exist to enable participation and sharing of interests.  The trick is to identify your purpose then specific, measurable goals that drive your  social business design.  Then you will see sustained value.

3 Lessons From Love for Social Business


Love Can Teach Us About Social Business
Creative Commons Attribution: Flickr user Linds : )

As Spring enters and we remember Valentine’s Day, love is still in the air.  Philosophers and poets have theorized about what it means to be human and to love.  They have defined community, explained empathy and descried the connections we have with each other when we’re in love.  These days it is often social technology that is making those connections.

So what can love teach us about social business?  Here are 3 familiar principles of love, oft examined by poets and philosophers, and what they have to teach us about social.  At the end of this you should be able to say I ❤ Social.

#1. Social is a verb not a noun.

You have heard it said that love is an action not a thing.  The same is true of social business.  Social business is the way you interact with others.  It is not a website, portal or even an activity stream.  The options for social technologies abound and nearly all of them provide some kind of a “destination”.  But the best destination is worthless if you fail to act.  This is what engagement is all about.  This is also the part that makes social business more than hope and an intern.  In fact, recent studies of job postings show that social media marketing managers are commanding making six figure salaries.  The work of social business is in the continual communication, engagement and interaction with your social audiences.  It is not a one stop shop.  It is not a set it and forget it solution.  It takes work.  That means you actually have to make it a priority and give it your effort.  This is true even when you don’t feel you’re getting any lovin’ in return.

#2 Don’t confuse passion and with the real thing

Infatuation is intoxicating. It is possible to make an intense connection right away.  But when you wake up the next morning you’re there with a person.  People take effort, energy and engagement.  After that super-nova like flare of intense awareness and superlative interaction the hard work of maintaining and building a relationship sets in.  For consumer oriented social businesses; You want their continued business, their recommendation, their interest.  They want your product, your service.  You need to make them feel special.  At the same time you need to make them feel that you are even better when you’re shared with their inner circle  – their sphere of influence.

For internally focused social business, don’t confuse passion with competence.  Curiosity is a great professional attribute, but it does not guarantee great results.  Make sure that you are fostering curiosity and building passion while providing appropriate and constructive ways for passionate peers to engage without becoming a bore on the dance floor.

#3 Active Listening is critical

In love communication is key.  Part of that is making sure that you understand what your lover is communicating to you with words, non-verbals and contextual clues.  One way of doing this is through active listening.  Active listening is more than simply paying attention.  It is also testing yourself with perception checking questions such as, “if I understand you correctly, you are saying that…”.  Advances in social media listening technology allow us to test our social business perceptions as well.  A-B testing for web engagement systems measure the effectiveness of different styles of communicating our message.  Ratings systems allow us to measure how those we engage with feel about the quality of our content.  Sentiment analysis systems allow us to gauge how our audience feels about what they’re saying to us when they say it.  Credibility measuring and gamification systems give us a way to let our audience measure each other and tell us about it.

There is no shortage of ways we can use new social technology to measure our audience and check our perceptions.  What sets a social business apart from a business using social technology is that the social business is actively listening to its audience and checking its perceptions.

Love makes social business go round

When we apply the principles of love to social business we achieve a deeper, more meaningful  relationship with our audience.  Love has a lot to teach about how to get engaged with social business audiences.  First remember that it takes work and will not always be chocolates and roses.  Social business, like love, is a verb, not simply a destination or a noun.  Second, even though the immediate reaction may be intense, remember that passion is not a proxy for competence.  Wanting to get engaged is not the same as engaging.  Finally, listening to your lover or your audience, is imperative.  Without listening and metrics – the business version of perception checking – you may miss the most important thing your lover is telling you.  Social Business is about loving the one you’re with while pursuing the ones you want.  For both you need to act, engage and listen.