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“People don’t wake up wanting to retweet a sponsored post – they want to be involved with the brands they love.”

Sparked is led by two Stanford friends (Ben and Joseph) who started companies back during the Web 1.0 days and reconnected years later to build a micro-volunteering app, bringing together years of mobile, social, and international startup experience from their careers.

Ben and Joseph adapted their micro-volunteering platform to pioneer Sparked’s Customer Teams concept, enabling brands to organize, deploy and reward their customers as team members who can actively contribute to brand success. The Customer Teams platform creates online communities wherein customers can make meaningful contributions to the brands they love through interactive activities in a gamified environment. Optimized for mobile and accessible via Facebook or Web browser, Sparked brings social engagement into the mobile era.


BusinessInterviews.com: Where does your passion for social responsibility come from?

Joseph: The primary credit goes to Sparked co-founder Ben Rigby who wrote a book about mobilizing millennials to become more active social citizens through Web, social media, and mobile media. He also spearheaded a “mobile voter” initiative to drive voter registration.

BusinessInterviews.com: How did you come up with the concept behind Sparked? Can you expand on how you started out as a “microvolunteering” and evolved the concept to connect consumers to brands they love?
Joseph: Ben had a vision for crowdsourcing volunteering, where people could volunteer their skills online to nonprofits across the globe. Nonprofits suddenly could get advice or help on tasks from a huge pool of people with different expertise, skills, and interests.

I joined the company shortly after it started and began to discuss with Ben the larger implications of the platform. Our business was to connect organizations with their passionate supporters. We were talking about how people say they want to and love to volunteer, but online they’re quicker to engage with Starbucks about the amount of caramel they want drizzled on top of the whipped cream on their Frappuccinos than they are to log in and help organizations feed the poor, protect the weak, and shelter the homeless. We realized that the technology we had for online volunteering was equally or more suitable for companies to engage customers than most existing platforms out there, including Facebook.

BusinessInterviews.com: Can you share a tip when it comes to creating and maintaining great relationships with your customer base?

Joseph: Start from a customer perspective, not a technology or company perspective. Most companies will proclaim to have a user-centric approach, but product development quickly turns in to building tools that use the coolest technologies or tools that will deliver optimal value for the brand.

If you think about what you want people to do for you (e.g., more social shares, more views of your newsletter, fan page or website), and then figure out how to make that happen, you’ll struggle after getting a few blips in response. People don’t wake up wanting to help brands, retweet sponsored posts, write product reviews, etc. People like to be involved with the brands they love. This means being acknowledged, being thanked, getting some sort of reward or special deal, feeling like their contribution matters, connecting with other like-minded customers, and almost anything else that motivates people.

BusinessInterviews.com: Why do you think that there’s a bigger chance for mobile customer engagement than customers engaging through social media?

Joseph: When I talk about mobile engagement, I’m including social media that is accessed via a mobile device. There are unique characteristics of using social media on mobile, but there are also extremely unique opportunities brands can offer their customers through mobile apps.

I don’t want to go with the obvious answer (that mobile enables people to interact with brands anytime, anywhere). This doesn’t give the full picture. The difference is that social media is driven by major social networks. They have the service, you find a space on it, and you engage people under the structure of the service. Twitter lets you tweet short messages. Facebook gives you a small handful of ways to post content (text, photo, video). Brands are extremely clever within these parameters, but once they have their own native app, the sky is the limit.

I can actually make a pizza on a Domino’s app, slide it into the oven in the app, and someone shows up with my pizza in a half hour. I can upload a picture and try on different eyeglasses to see what looks good on me, from the comfort of my couch. I can scan my prescription on my medicine bottle and then, with a few taps, have the refill ready for me at the pharmacy down the street.

While brands often have websites that allow them to create custom experiences, they simply don’t compare to the mobile app experience and, more importantly, it’s harder to get people to the site. This is where mobile accessibility comes in. The basic way we access apps makes recall easier. If I wanted to interact with Domino’s on the desktop web, in my busy day, I’d need to think about them for some reason. On mobile, they almost have a constant ad with their app icon on my phone. Then with push notifications (if done judiciously with the intent to provide customer value instead of intruding on their day), the brand can be front and center anywhere, anytime. For instance, I get a push notification from my travel service every time I arrive back home from a trip, with some funny quote about how nice it feels to be back.

BusinessInterviews.com: What advice would you give to a company contemplating their first mobile marketing campaign?
Joseph: The main thing I’d say is to make sure your mobile marketing campaign is mobile-friendly. It’s such a basic mistake, but it’s made all the time. For example, many people access email more often on mobile than on desktop. So, if you have a marketing activity that initiates from an email and you know that your customers are going to open it on mobile, then give them a mobile-optimized path to follow. All company site links should be mobile optimized.

Activities you want the customer to perform should be simple, quick, and easily navigable. Attention spans are short on mobile and people won’t type. These are basic principles, but companies too often try to repurpose non-mobile campaign ideas in a way that is unnatural for mobile users.

For example: A retailer sends out an email with a link to its seasonal sale. The link goes to a sales page that’s not responsive so it doesn’t display well on the phone. It’s hard for mobile users to want to navigate between sales items when page load times are average and the display of products is wonky. A willing audience is turned off and then has a negative association connected with that brand’s mobile experience.

BusinessInterviews.com: What are some trends in the mobile space that you’re excited about or think that our readers should be paying attention to?

Joseph: Glasses (and watches) — Laptops made the digital world portable for consumers. Smartphones put digital connectivity into our hands, pockets, purses, etc. But glasses and watches now literally attach our digital lives to us. With glasses, we’re entering a sort of fantasyland. Next-gen glasses can tell us what we’re looking at, what song we hear, a quick translation, information about people around us, etc. Much of these functions are on mobile, but wearing this sort of technology makes it almost second nature – where we’re not holding or looking for a gadget, but rather entreating one already in place.

Image recognition — Look at or scan a product in a store and immediately access its price, consumer rating, cheapest place to buy it, etc. On vacation, take a picture, video, or look at your surroundings and you will automatically be told where you are, what you’re looking at, interesting things nearby, etc.

Intelligent customization — The honeymoon of enjoying a new communication medium is ending for mobile. Consumers are less excited by all the things they can do on mobile that were never before imaginable; instead, they want better experiences. For example, push notifications can annoy people, but notifications are getting smarter, learning what you want to know about, when you want to be notified, and how often.

Car — There’s a huge race for technology in cars but it has to face the obvious push back that safety requires. Access is one of the most interesting challenges: voice, dashboard screen (integrated with car or via mounted gadget), projection onto windshield, digital glasses, and voice-activation.

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