Saturday, February 20, 2010

SobelMedia: Uncorking Gary Vaynerchuk: an interview by Ellis Henican

I attended SobelMedia’s latest event, an interview of Gary Vaynerchuk by journalist of Newsday and Fox News on the evening of February 17, 2010 at the Samsung Experience at the Time Warner Center.

Gary Vaynerchuk has become a leading online and social media celebrity with his outspoken personality, relentless promotion, and savvy use of the latest online and offline marketing platforms. These include Twitter, his Wine Library TV website, and his book, Crush It.

My notes are below, with the caveats that they are my best rendition of the discussion, with no claim to accuracy; much of the discussion has been paraphrased, rather than being a direct quote of the participants; and I bring my own viewpoint and perspective to this discussion, which influences my perception of the discussion.

Bill got the event started by reminiscing that he has began his breakfast events in June 2006 in a coffee shop hear Grand Central [with yours truly among those in attendance]. His efforts had grown into must-attend gatherings for those who want to stay abreast of the latest developments in media. While he had started with breakfast events, due to some feedback regarding the early morning start times for those events, he announced that he was now launching evening events, with this being the kickoff.

He thanked his sponsors, including Definition 6/Creative Bubble, Samsung, TrylonSMR and Sunshine Suites. He also mentioned the Levin Institute’s Jumpstart Program for entrepreneurs and startups and said that he enjoys being involved with their efforts. He also lauded Bouchon Bakery, who catered this evening’s event [the turkey sandwich was my favorite - even beat out my perennial preference: pastrami].

Bill announced his next event – a breakfast on March 18 discussing women in media and marketing – before turning the stage over for the introduction of the evening’s participants by Jeff Katz (JK), the president and COO of Definition 6, Bill’s colleague and primary sponsor.

JK started off by saying that he couldn’t think of three people with more passion than Bill Sobel, Ellis Henican & Gary Vaynerchuk. He pointed out that there were many ways to connect with Gary – you could read his book, find him on Facebook, follow him on Twitter, watch his online TV show, etc. Gary, who was born in Belarus and raised in New Jersey, had started by selling gas grills but realized that people didn’t actually buy grills, they bought the social experiences that were created by the grills – cookouts, barbecues and parties.

JK then introduced Ellis Henican (E), the moderator for tonight’s event.

E noted that he was from Louisiana and that he had given some advice to Harold Ford, Jr., the former Tennessee congressman expected to run for the U.S. Senate this year. E told Ford to not lose his Southern accent since it created low expectations and a vital advantage in his upcoming election campaign.

Turning to the evening’s guest, E pointed out that Gary Vaynerchuk (G) is a wine guy, first of all. E proclaimed him to be the first wine guru of the internet age. While Forbes had selected G as one of the 25 most influential people on the internet, E suggested that G should probably be in top 5. In large measure, E felt that G warranted this acclaim for having taken something in the real world and having found a new life for it in this new world.

E began by asking: would it have been possible to create such buzz in another retail line, or is it all about the wine as a unique product?

G attributed his success to his mother having brainwashed him into thinking that he was smartest and best-looking person in the world. He viewed his upbringing as the perfect storm – he grew up with nothing, and his mother gave him confidence. He is passionate about wine as well as being hungry and ambitious. In fact, he wants to buy the New York Jets. He also views himself as a born storyteller, and this new world allows him to tell any story he wants without any editor or agent. While everyone can step up to plate, not all of us will hit home runs. He views his success as having come from building his brand and then having celebrity come to him, as realized through his many media appearances, including with Conan O’Brien, Ellen Degeneres, and others.

What’s important is that we have the internet, which is only 15 years old. While we can’t yet wrap our head around it, that’s where the opportunity lies.

E: Is all of this due to the opportunity or his personality?

G: He “worked his ass off and executed.” His platform is video: ninety thousand people watch his wine show daily. Others may have other platforms that they can exploit, such as text or audio.

While his show is only four years old, he studied wine for 15 years before his first episode, so subject knowledge is important. He sees himself as being “over-the-top patient” in having developed his brand.

E agreed that G may be nuts, but he certainly cares about wine.

G amended that to argue that he really cares about people: “When you give a crap, the whole game changes.” He said that he originally spent 12 hours per day searching for, and responding to, wine-related questions on Twitter in building his brand.

We live in a day and age where we can care first. He said he is obsessed with customer service. His next book will be titled The Thank You Economy. His first book, Crush It, had been expected to flop since other social network books had failed. Since all of his original outreach had been free, he felt that people had bought his book in order to thank him.

E: The audience is probably asking: how can I use personal branding for myself?

G: Not everyone is meant to be a personal brand. If you don’t like people, you can’t be a brand in social media.

Truth is the most important thing, even if is negative. As a result, he estimated that 85% of people like him, but 15% find him too East Coast or too much energy. He seemed comfortable with that proportion since he feels that he knows himself and how he’s wired. His happiness is simplistic: he likes the climb. He said that when he was younger, he followed the Yankees and the Rangers until they won championships. After that, he lost interest because he is all about the process.

He proclaimed that he knew that his efforts would work because he really cares about people. His platform is shockingly transparent; there is no hiding. Even if he were to be viewed as a jerk, he said he would work hard enough to succeed.

E: In the dark night of his soul, what does he worry about?

G: The only thing that remotely scares him is the health of his family. He asserted that he definitely has “business chops” – he always knew how to make money, just as LeBron James & Tiger Woods clearly have superior skills in their respective sports. G said he knows how to sell and give customer service. He also said that he is also to foresee social trends, and that he provides value to consumer products companies by consulting with them on ways to extend their marketing campaigns beyond TV.

He knows what people say that they’re not going to do and that they do anyway, citing those, particularly in the audience, who had once said that they would never have Facebook pages or carry cellphones. He said that when he saw Twitter in 2006, while others dismissed it simply as a way to transmit the news about one’s lunch choices, he immediately recognized it as a word-of-mouth tool. Therefore, he went all in to take advantage of the platform. He said that he will now invest and make money when he sees similar things that he feels will catch on.

E: Traditional businesses are struggling in converting to new models. Are they doomed?

G: People don’t always see changes coming, and many bought horses before Henry Ford had his good idea. Are businesses doomed? Maybe. At the least, they are na├»ve if don’t see that things are changing.

On the flip side, everyone is acting like “teen-aged dudes” in that they are not taking the long-term perspective. There is a difference between “hooking up and marriage,” and too many players are too concerned about closing/hooking-up rather than on building relationships.

Ecosystems are built on word of mouth and relationships. In the past, new technologies enabled marketers to buy relationships through mass media. Now, as relationships depend on actual connections, they are finding that the new media does not enable them to buy friends.

E pointed out the seeming irony of G giving away his material on the new media platforms and making money by means of old media, such as books.

G: He is not romanced by or committed to any particular platform. Instead, he is simply obsessed with his message and getting it in front of people. He wrote a book because people still read books. Therefore, he doesn’t worry about adjusting to the new platforms because they can all be conduits for his message.

He doesn’t draw lines in the sand and instead adjusts to reality. You can’t bet on what you wish things to be instead of adjusting to what’s actually happening.

E: In getting your message out, should you be in all places?

G: As many as you can handle.

At this point, E threw the discussion open to questions from the audience. Many were prefaced by gushing kudos, which have been omitted in the interest of space [mild joke].

Q: Is he interested in investing internationally?

G: London has lot of interesting startups. His objective is to get into niches. He is obsessed with geolocation and feels that, while people do not yet understand the value of constantly “checking in” regarding their locations, marketers will make it worthwhile for consumers to do so. He is willing to look at companies worldwide in that space.

Q: Is the video image quality good enough for his episodic videos?

E: Google and Yahoo flew him out to their headquarters because they wanted to understand how he succeeded when his videos were 25 minutes long in contrast to most videos being only 3 minutes. Content is the “obnoxious king.” He concedes that his video quality is poor: done in one take with no microphone and bad lighting. He proclaimed himself to be in the ghetto of online video shows that do well.

He also felt that we are about to embark on a gold rush of online video because of smart TVs. When people can get online videos on TV, the economic leverage between the audience and the TV providers changes. He feels that there is a race between HDTV penetration into the households and HDTV on PCs and mobile.

Q: What does he think of Burger King and Starbucks partnering with their complementary brands?

E: He consults for entrepreneurs and Fortune 500 companies. Business development is attractive – defined as leveraging each others’ audiences – especially because entrepreneurs generally don’t already have their own audiences. Similarly, he is willing to use his brand equity to assist newer, less-developed brands, such as by granting interviews for unknown blogs to help them build their audiences.

Business development is the most under-rated thing right now. 4Square is ahead of Ooyala (where he is an investor?) because of their business development efforts at promoting themselves. Old-school brands need to leverage their brands while they still have value.

In many cases, such as HuffPo, Facebook and others, new media brands have caught up to old established brands and will surpass them.

He is fascinated by the question of brand equity and how it is leveraged. Most people are sales people, not marketers, returning to his earlier theme that people are generally not patient, looking to hookup rather than building relationships.

The question for new technology in building relationships should be: what’s our story?

Q: What tools does he use for Twitter?

G: He admitted to not being efficient despite the chaos of Twitter. He uses Tweetdeck and will try Seesmic. He pointed out that people, presumably including him, get stuck in habits. As an example, people often type in “Google” into a URL rather than using the on-screen search function in the upper right hand corner of Firefox.

Q: How does he feel about multimedia and the iPad?

G: The amount of work he does on the toilet is shocking [biggest laugh of the evening]. He has not yet used the iPad. The most interesting thing about the iPad is that consumers are trying to figure out why they’re going to use it. That means Apple has built a brand. He said that Apple could probably sell an iHammer even if people have no idea why they need it.

Similarly, people like television and won’t get away from it. Therefore, the entertainment industry will go upside down when all content becomes available immediately on demand on the television.

Q: What is his consulting business model?

G: When asked by clients how to measure success, his response was that he would feel it. He “massively dislikes” SEO and analytics. He feels it is important to “live his business.” He pointed out that billboard metrics are unreliable, being based on cars passing a display, and that magazines charge on number printed [as an alumnus of Time Inc., I must say that this comment is not true, but the actual metrics are not necessarily any more accurate].

When dealing with big brands looking for the ROI of new media, he points out that they hadn’t yet figured out the real ROI of old media.

At the same time, he feels that social media is the most measurable medium because it can create and measure a call to action. He is, however, not interested in convincing people about social media. He generated tremendous sales for his book Crush It without traditional media, so he is not interested in proving anything. He wants to simply do it and let other people catch up.

Q: How can someone create a tipping point with their content to generate audiences?

G: The first step is to care about the audience. Content is the smallest part of the equation. He attributes his success, not to the daily 25 minutes on TV, but to the 15 hours he spends each day creating the community.

Suggestions: go to other blogs, become part of the conversation. He says that he uses Search on Twitter and looks at and responds to @GaryV results every day. He responds to every item, in contrast to the 99% of people in business who don’t care about their customer.

He cited the example of Zappos, who succeeds because it cares about the customer. Success does not require complete and total care of the customer, just more than the standard that customers are used to.

These efforts to create a community via customer service will provide an umbrella of protection for the brand. This wouldn’t have mattered as much years ago before customers could communicate negative experiences easily. [An example that gained traction immediately after G’s interview: Kevin Smith’s treatment by Southwest Airlines – an item that would not have gotten as much traction without the immediacy of Twitter.]

Q: What should Obama do with social media?

G: Regardless of one’s political position, Obama should be using social media to make him as authentically real as possible. G feels that Obama “missed the boat.” While conceding that Obama can’t use all of the social media tools due to security and other concerns, he needs to be transparent and that people will accept anything under those circumstances.

He feels that Obama did a poor job during campaign because the campaign didn’t make it obvious that the Tweeting wasn’t done by him, and people thought it actually was him.

Q: Where is TV going?

G: It will make strides in interactive, 3D and video telephony. He is interested in the future of cable TV because they sell bundled services against the wishes of the consumers, which he considers communistic. While cable companies may own the internet for the moment by providing connectivity, wireless is the future.

People only look one step forward and have to really look at where things are going.

He expects that one of the cable companies will go a la carte and the whole cable business will crumple. Nobody wants to crumble their monopoly, and they do so only when they have to.

E: Will consumers pay?

G: Apps have created a culture that consumers will pay. They have changed the conversation from only getting things for free. The freemium model is also going strong.

Facebook made a mistake by allowing others to build app platforms for virtual goods. The should have kept control of that marketplace, as a South Korean platform did, and they could have been making billions on virtual currency instead of ceding that market to Zanga.

Twitter should have been a freemium model, and they could have gone from free to revenue.

The value is in capturing audience, which can always be monetized later.

Q: In developing startups, should the focus be on the customer or on making money?

G: The way you make real money is by focusing on real relationships.

As an aside, he thought it was fascinating when the markets crashed because he didn’t recognize how soft we really are. He was scornful of people who were crying simply because we could no longer buy as much stuff as before. His approach is to pull up your bootstraps, buy less stuff, and work hard.

VL: That’s a good sentiment for any day and age.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

We See What We Want to See

I have been on a potentially masochistic trend lately - reading about how humans are more irrational, less perceptive, and not nearly as clever as we believe ourselves to be. Of course, by "humans," I mean every living member of the species Homo Sapiens other than yours truly. I of course would never be fooled by mere parlor tricks, bamboozled by a grifter's flim-flam, and fail to apply anything other than the keenest of senses and intellect to every endeavor I deign to undertake.

Of course, it's Sunday, the day traditionally set aside, by Christians at least, as a day of rest in which we do not allow worldly concerns to sully our spiritual uplift. In any case, that's my excuse and I'm sticking to it.

I'm at the Minneapolis Airport, returning from a short trip, or at least what was intended as a short trip. I flew in Thursday, February 11, and made arrangements for a return trip today, February 14. Or that's what I thought I had done.

One of my cardinal rules is, if something seems wrong, it probably is. Not having bothered to check on my reservation last night, I wondered why I had not received a text message from American Airlines this morning informing me of the status of my flight. Oh well, I decided, I'll figure it out when I get to the airport. Of course, the airport was the site of my next bad indicator - the self-service check-in did not have my reservation.

I went to the counter, which was mercifully uncrowded, to discover that my return flight was scheduled not for February 14, as originally intended, but for March 14, as was CLEARLY STATED on my reservation confirmation. In other words, not only had I input my flight request incorrectly, I had failed to catch my error either on the PC screen or on my printout!

Fortunately, this story of sheer ridiculous ineptitude on my part has a happy ending. Thanks to wonderful customer service from the airline (is that an oxymoron?), not only was my error corrected, and at no cost, but my flight schedule was rearranged so that I may actually arrive back in New York much earlier than I had originally expected.

Okay, so what lessons can we draw from today's events, class? First, as Ronald Reagan said, trust, but verify. Try to look at everything with fresh eyes. It's probably impossible, and exhausting even if it were possible, but errors can creep up anywhere and anytime, and they probably do.,

Furthermore, it might actually be better to be dumb and lucky than smart. After all, if I had checked on my reservation last night and actually caught the error, I would have spent countless hours in a potentially futile effort to correct things. In this case, I was able to deal with the desk agent face-to-face - no virtual customer service here! - and it was resolved with dispatch. A final caveat however, while being dumb and lucky may occasionally work out to my benefit, I would not count on it as a strategy for life!