Monday 10 November 2008

Sunday 19 October 2008

Humans, Online

"Humans, Online" - by Alexander Gallé - first published in Luxury Briefing's October 2008 issue.

by Alexander Gallé

One year has passed since our launch of Artipolis, the arts network. Much has happened since 11 October 2007: the world of social networks has definitely flourished since then, and some trends have started to form. Our little experiment provides some food for thought for the luxury industry...

The main lesson to learn, in my view, is that social networks can be much more personal and authentic than people seem to be prepared to admit. The story I hear more often than anything is that social networks are less "real", that real human interaction doesn't happen there, hindered by the medium itself. To some extent, happily, this may be true. To some extent, social networks are just more of the "secondary experience", as George Steiner would put it. There's nothing quite like "being there".

However, it is perfectly feasible for a social network to build up a high level of trust and integrity between its members e.g. insisting on real personal details rather than pseudonyms; invitations being passed through friends, creating an expanding circle of trust, rather than a pool of people with a common interest from around the planet, etc. Do that, and you'll be pleasantly surprised to see just how many members will happily do business with other members, give each other the benefit of the doubt, and how many will actually develop friendships and partnerships in the real world. Some of our members have actually said that they now see the network as a more personal form of communication. Because it's all in the words, from brain to brain as it were, without the distractions of other information channels you get in the real world.

In other words, the idiosyncracies of the medium are providing an opportunity for a new form of communication, one no less real and authentic than real life interaction.

What this means for the luxury industry - an industry that is built around the values of personal attention to customers - is that network technology can become the channel of a more personal impression. Rather than reduce the personal touch, it can increase the personal touch, and for more people, too.

I was very recently asked by a jewellery brand renowned for their personal care how I thought they should manage the increasing influx of website enquiries. I replied without hesitation that they should transfer their best shop assistant (the one with the real "human touch") to the website. This answer comes directly from my experience of online human-to-human interaction on Artipolis and other social networks. There is no reason to treat a website enquiry any different to a customer in your store asking a question. The response should be immediate, and it should be personal. The technology exists to provide a live chat facility, so put a real name and a real face to the website, and give customers an answer within 15 seconds, not through email but through the website itself. You could even make a feature of the online shop assistant "approaching" the user, to see if they need any help, instead of waiting to be asked a question. Unlike the real store equivalent, a good online store assistant would be able to handle more than one customer at any given time and, with immediate access to an ocean of information, should be able to give much better informed and more considered advice. If any industry should try augmenting the ecommerce experience with this kind of interaction, the luxury industry is it.

Saturday 20 September 2008

Blogging your way out of the recession

Blogging your way out of the recession, by Alexander Gallé, first published in Luxury Briefing September 2008 issue.


In my last column, I wrote that the recession might just prove to be an opportunity to rethink how luxury brands communicate with their audiences, and I received a couple of emails from readers asking how, specifically, this could be achieved. So, here it goes...

This time last year, someone on ASmallWorld started a forum about how bad Silverjet was. Silverjet was an airline offering first-class only seats from their own dedicated terminal at Luton to Newark. I was very impressed with the service and had actually bought some shares in the company as a result. So, I clicked on the subject and read about this person's misadventures when trying to change a flight, which was followed by a whole lot of replies from other members giving out misinformed opinions about the company and what it was trying to do. I started replying to the forum: how no other airline had their own terminal at Luton, how I had personally boarded the plane in less than 20 minutes from arrival, how it was the only airline with a Michelin-starred chef on board, how there just wasn't anything like it on the market except for chartering your own private jet, etc.

As it turned out, ASmallWorld were about to start hosting an ad campaign for Silverjet, so it occurred to someone to contact a friend at Silverjet and sort out the original poster's problem, which concluded the forum's exchange.

But I remember thinking later that this was a missed opportunity. Silverjet ended up spending a lot of money on a really, really silly online banner campaign that didn't actually inform the user about any of the service's unique selling points and, until the company's bankruptcy a few months later, nobody really 'got it'.

Somehow, there are still many companies, especially in the luxury sector, for whom blogging and social networks are still alien concepts. It just doesn't occur to anyone to simply start a blog representing the company's voice, or put forward its point of view on a forum. Or if it does, it's always a half-hearted idea to stick something on the back of the brand's own website, "where it's safe and we can delete negative comments", like a 21st-century version of Pravda. This territorial attitude simply won't do. It won't, because, whether you like it or not, your customers will talk about you, and they won't do it on your own website if they don't want to.

They'll do it on their own blogs, on industry-specific forums, on social networks, on their own website if they really feel strongly about it. Before you know it, someone hits a note, gets a following, the forum in question picks up momentum and shows up on Google's top-10 search results alongside your 'official' website. The next thing you know, a mainstream journalist asks you, the CEO, about it during an interview. You decide to call your PR company and tell them to do something about it, when the truth is you're the one who should personally be doing something about it, starting by listening online to what people have to say when they're not being asked the wrong questions in your expensive focus groups. These are people who, for the most part, cared enough about your brand or product to buy it and then voice their disappointment. Their conversation is happening, are you going to join in and rediscover your relevance to your customers?

Here is the opportunity: recessions, as a game of last man standing, are the perfect moment to rethink your advertising budget, and whether you're really getting a bang for your buck. This recession in particular is the first one that truly allows you to hear what your customers are telling you, and to say what you want them to hear. What are you waiting for? Start blogging your way out!   |

Thursday 10 July 2008

Gallé launch website for MCM

Gallé create the website for MCM, the newly relaunched luxury bags, shoes and accessories brand.

Tuesday 20 May 2008

Luxury and Social Networks

Luxury and Social Networks, by Alexander Gallé, was originally published in Luxury Briefing magazine in May 2008.


I wrote a piece about Web 2.0 a while ago, which received quite a lot of good feedback. The central premise of the column was that - just like in the early days of the web - the luxury industry was simply not taking web 2.0 seriously, when closer analysis revealed that web 2.0 and luxury were actually a match made in heaven.

It led to a few discussions about exactly how the luxury industry should take web 2.0 seriously, so I thought I’d focus the next few articles on different aspects of web 2.0, the first one being the act of sharing on social networks.

The standard way of visualizing a social network is as a mesh, where the nodes in the mesh are people and the lines in the mesh are the connections between them.

This model has proved useful in some ways, because it’s helped us to really understand that the value of a space such as aSmallWorld, Artipolis or Facebook is determined by the people in it, and that you can no longer think of it as a one-to-many information channel, but as a many-to-many information space. It has also led a few people in luxury - myself included - to think of social networks as the online equivalent of members clubs.

However, while it is good to place people at the centre of the information space, this model overlooks the core reason why people connect in the first place: objects.

I’m talking about objects in the physical and abstract sense of the word. For instance, a hobby and a job will connect me to very different sets of people. Neither of these are ‘objects’ in the everyday sense of the word but, in an information space, they become objects: the things that connect me to these different sets of people. You could say that a large part of the objects’ information value is in their intensity as vectors to connect me to other people.

This overlap between physical and abstract objects becomes most interesting when it is the overlap itself that creates meaningful connections in a network.

On Artipolis, for example, we have recently sponsored a member’s gallery exhibition of photographs in which many of the models were other members of Artipolis (interestingly, they were nudes wearing animal masks…).

Here, the objects – the photographs - serve as a vector not only to create connections between people, but to create new objects of expression, new photographs. The artworks would literally not have existed, were it not for the act of sharing in the network itself: a true example of sharing as a measure of value. In web 1.0, the importance was on the ability for a web user to find what they were looking for, through search engines like Google. In web 2.0, the importance is on the user’s ability to share what they have found in a meaningful way, which turns social networks, effectively, into ‘share engines’.

I believe this is where social networks become interesting for the luxury industry. It is through objects that luxury speaks, creating meaningful ideological bonds between people. Luxury objects can be very physical: a finely crafted watch by Corum, an intricately designed pen by Montegrappa. More often than not, however, the objects’ physicality is irrelevant, serving merely as a ticket into an ideological space where their true value is measured by their ability to be shared and communicated as objects of information.   |

Sunday 20 April 2008

Gallé design website for Palazzo Tornabuoni

Gallé create the website and a collection of ambient soundtracks for Palazzo Tornabuoni, Europe's leading residence club in the heart of Florence, managed by Four Seasons Hotels & Resorts.