Required Reading: Cashing In On Social

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For the rest of the July 2009 issue of CRM magazine, please click here.

Sure, whuffie is a funny word—but hey, social networking’s a funny concept. Despite the sometimes impersonal nature of social media—how can I interact with someone I’ve never met?—the recent explosion in its popularity is a direct result of the qualities of trust and mutual benefit baked into its core. In her book, The Whuffie Factor, Tara Hunt talks about how spending your whuffie—a word first coined by Cory Doctorow in the book Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom—can take you much further than money ever could. CRM Associate Editor Jessica Tsai and Assistant Editor Lauren McKay spoke with Hunt about spreading the wealth online to pay for a better life offline. [See this month's related story, "Whuffie Doesn’t Grow on Trees"; also see Denis Pombriant’s Reality Check column, “The New Currency of Social Media,” in our June 2009 special issue on social media.)

CRM magazine: Where did “whuffie” come from?

Tara Hunt: I’d heard the word around on the Web, [where] I’d been involved in online communities for quite a while. “Karma” is what I thought it meant. I had been meaning to read Cory’s book. It occurred to me that there’s no money in this whuffie thing—it’s just a score. I was like, “Holy crap! That’s it!” That’s exactly how we relate to one another in online communities: We let [people] in and [whuffie] grows.

CRM: Perhaps the biggest barrier to entry in social media is still the question of measuring return on investment. How can organizations buy in?

Hunt: Some things you can measure. There are tools for monitoring sentiment and who’s talking about you, how it links to your networks, and how that might translate into sales. What you’re missing in the measuring [is] the spillage on all the whuffie. The social capital that you’re gaining from that is contributing toward a long-term consistent growth. So you’re missing it by not paying attention to that.

There’s an age-old discussion around branding. People say [it’s] dead. It’s not—it’s just changed. Whuffie is a new kind of branding—there’s a lot of residual benefit. It’s a lot more personal and a lot less about font and color standards and ways to lay out your ads, and more about the ways you approach customers and the world. Whuffie fits in [with] all the personal relationships that people are striking up.

CRM: Is it unrealistic for companies to want to be as successful in social media as Zappos.com and JetBlue are? What about companies that operate offline, like dentists?

Hunt: It’s definitely realistic for any business. Anyone who has a customer can build, deep into the culture, this way of approaching service that’s all about whuffie-building.

If you’re a dentist, you can love your work [and] your clients. You could be passionate about your specialty, passionate about service, making people smile—and that can come through in everything: comfort level of waiting room, flexibility of billing options.

CRM: What happens when a company builds up whuffie online but fails offline?

Hunt: We all have bad experiences. [Companies have] an ability after that point to regain whuffie by how they act. Maybe I tweet about [a bad experience] and [the company] comes along and says, “Oh no, that really sucks. Here, let me email you a coupon code.” Or, “Let me talk to whomever to make it up [to you].”

Every step of the way we are adding and retooling our whuffie levels—it has to be at the core. It’s just like marketing. You can’t just tack something on and say, “Look how great we are,” and then have a product fall apart.

One of five principles [in my book] is creating great customer experiences. If you are missing that one, out of all the five principles, you’re toast. [See this month's “CRM on Twitter,” for the full set of five.]

CRM: Can customers have whuffie?

Hunt: Customers definitely can have whuffie. I think everyone is an influencer—everyone has whuffie potential and the ability to reach others with various levels of whuffie.

My publishers [were looking to get reviews from] people with big audiences, but [those people are] so busy they don’t have time to read [my book]. I don’t particularly agree with the differential treatment. The ironic part of the story is that after I put up a post [about my book], three big influencers actually contacted my publisher directly and asked for the book. [But] the big ones were not the ones that drove the traffic. It was a whole bunch of people with smaller audiences.

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