Andy Sernovitz: “large companies getting into social media need support and SMBC was the missing piece in that puzzle”

Last week, I was attending the Blogwell and SMBC meetings in Philadelphia. I also had an opportunity to sit with Andy Sernovitz, the founder of SMBC and well known author of the Word of Mouth Marketing opus.

It’s now more than 2 1/2 years since I joined the former blogcouncil, now known as Social Media Business Council, and a lot of water has gone under the bridge. I thought, as Hervé Kabla and myself – co-founders of Media Aces in France – are currently finalising our book entitled ‘Social Media Taught to My Boss’ (in French, but I’m open to suggestions from publishers), that it would be a great idea to sit with Andy and review the history and principles of SMBC as well as take a bit of hindsight and see how things had developed over the years. It’s hard to describe but spending 3 years of field practice in Social Media for a large company implies that a lot of work and effort has been put into these initiatives. Sometimes it’s good to put down one’s tools and muse.

Andy keeps repeating that doing Social Media for large groups is not as easy as doing the same for an individual or a small shop. I know that many people must not believe that this is true. « You are a big brand hence it’s way too easy » a lot of people must think. Yet nothing has ever been more true. Innovating within a large enterprise is a never-ending, groundhod day-like heavy-lifting exercise. This is why SMBC is important. It enables the heads of Social Media like us to get together, to help each other and to learn from one another. This is what Andy is referring to as being the « missing piece in the puzzle ».

And this is also why there are now more than 150 members within SMBC. Hats off Andy!

here are some of the 150 members of SMBC as of now …

Futurelab’s Thys: in innovation “the wrong questions turn out to be the right questions”

Alain Thys: a relentless innovator and profit-tracker

On March 4th, 2009, I was able to meet and have breakfast with, at last and after a few missed opportunities,  Alain Thys in Paris. Alain is one of the partners of futurelab, a consultancy based in Belgium (of which he originates) together with fellow Stefan kolle. I can’t actually remember when,or how we came across each other, but it is bound to be on the web, and that’s probably how we ended up cooperating on the Futurelab blog by the way.


What I know though is that Alain is the author of one of the most important Marketing presentations that I have seen at, which I keep using over and over again, and is entitled marketing accountability (you will find the direct access to the presentation at the end of this article). Alain Thys’s biography is also very interesting.

He describes himself as a “shopkeeper”. He has had extensive experience in European advertising and marketing at companies like Mexx and Reebok. He was in charge of marketing at Reebok Belgium for a while, when it was decided to merge it into the Dutch arm of the company, at the beginning of the 1990s, and that’s when the Internet arrived. It is also when Alain discovered these “funny computers” and the things that we could do with them. A 3-year stint in the Netherlands at the head of the Reebok  marketing unit ended up in a re-org and a sabbatical in Mexico (lucky him!).

At the beginning of the year 2000, he then decided to go into start-up mode and work for a joint-venture in which AOL, and LVMH (Louis Vuitton) were involved. Their new plan was a groundbreaking online idea for the travel industry. This was “way ahead of what was done in those days with regard to online travel”. In fact, it was a bit like à la carte holiday packages, what is commonly described nowadays as dynamic packaging (although very little of it is still to be seen in the field, which means that it’s still ahead of its time).

The usual cash burning story about 2000 bubble start-ups is unfortunately repeated in this venture of Alain’s: a $130 cost per customer was leading unfortunately to a meagre revenue of $16, hardly enough to generate profit. Vision doesn’t always lead to profitability, but there is one thing about visionary people, is that they shall never be deterred. And that’s exactly why Alain decided to move on to the next idea. So he started a new incubator for e-payment in Ireland, related to mobile payment. He admitted to having a lot of fun creating the new start-up, and he did this for a couple of years before joining a media group in Belgium in 2004-5.

This media group, itself a media pioneer in Belgium, led Alain Thys to focus on “creating new things and generating new profits”. He admitted to “not being very knowledgeable about the Internet world” which actually led him to ask “the wrong questions, which turned out to be the right questions”.

Alain was lucky enough to actually see the Internet at its inception, he grew with it (not exactly generation Y though). And he learned as he was going along. As matter of fact, and to be honest with him and yourself, everybody’s learning as we are going along in this market (a case of the blind leading the blind I guess).

He then created futurelab in 2005, and Stefan joined him in this transition period. Futurelab is a consultancy geared towards “generating new profits out of marketing and innovation”. This consultancy is actually working very much based on word-of-mouth, and is expanding across Europe, doing little or no cold-calling or direct marketing. But it is taking WOM to the next level with the help of the Internet.

Their work is mostly based around marketing strategy consulting, and their aim is to “generate profit through innovation and customer centricity”. Future lab’s objective is actually to “deliver on that promise of a value to the customer”. He described innovation as being “doing something differently, and that you haven’t done before.” But he also has profitability in mind.

Alain Thys declares that “in 80% of current projects, we see marketing & innovation fail in that respect”. When asked about the reasons why such an obvious metric is actually not taken into account, which seems zanyish and at the same time is happening on a daily basis, he answers thus:
  1. it is either that people forget about the bottom line altogether. However, there must be some sort of payback on innovation,
  2. the second reason why innovation fails is that most innovators “forget about what it means to the customer.”

So, Alain adds, very often, “what is needed is a different perspective, and this is when consultants become really useful”.

Most of Futurelab’s business is done through word-of-mouth using their Internet website and blog, an incredibly comprehensive digest of the most authoritative Internet and blog writers about innovation, which can be found online. The blog is available at and shouldn’t be missed. I would also recommend Alain’s set of slides which are available and downloadable in creative Commons format from

Andy Sernovitz on Disclosure: “Disclosure is Easy”

Web 2.0

The next presentation at BlogWell after Ken Kaplan’s Intel presentation and John Earnhardt’s description of what Cisco was doing on the video side, was Andy Sernovitz’s presentation about disclosure best practices. Disclosure is utmost important in social media usage within firms. This ethical issue has to be thought through very carefully by social media managers, and not just by lawyers. “Disclosure is essential”, Andy said, it is “the only way to be successful”.

But he also insisted that “disclosure is easy”. It is about “saying you are and who you work for”. In essence, it means that you have to say “I work for such and such and this is my personal opinion”. This applies to you blogging on behalf of your company and can also apply to you managing bloggers doing the same thing on your behalf, be they internal or external. As a matter of fact, it is also fairly applicable to you when blogging for yourself on your personal blog in case you have a full time job somewhere else. It’s a matter of honesty and transparency, which is very much in synch with the early versions of what used to be called netiquette.

read on at