Monday, September 13, 2010

Making Money Online With

Recently I went to visit an acquaintance who was trashing out his own condo. There were hinges to be pried out of doorways and appliances to take for eBay. The house had become inert, a non-house: trapped somewhere between the building's association who wanted the fees owed to pay for the building's roof and walls and the like, the people who wanted the property taxes to pay for things like schools and street lights and roads and the people who were in charge of collecting (or more likely not collecting) the mortgage for whomever actually owned the mortgage debt (at the end of that chain, quite possibly you and me). These various claimants made the house largely worthless—more worthless than the latest assessment, which was… well, a comparable apartment nearby had recently sold for $120,000. It had been listed at $325,000 in May, 2009. That $120,000 sale price was not much higher than that apartment's last sale—twenty years ago.

Anyway, it was somewhat likely that, after the investment of some work on this apartment that was being trashed out, such as providing it with new door hinges and appliances, the association would find a renter unafraid of a possibly surprising ending to his rental agreement term in exchange for a below-market rent. That would be a best outcome.

The others would most likely find no purchase for their attempts to collect (the owner was protected by bankruptcy), and certainly the bank had little incentive to collect the mortgage, although their claims on the title would likely make finding a purchaser difficult.

One of the few chairs remaining in the near-vacant condo was occupied by someone on the other side, as it were. Someone not in bankruptcy, for one thing. This person had recently made a $200,000 offer on two-bedroom apartment in a nice part of town. (Needless to say, this town was not New York City.)

But when he had gone to get a mortgage, the bank had balked, because that apartment now assessed at half that value, and so now his current offer for the two-bedroom was at something like $78,000, having come up from something like $65,000 or $72,000. That offer number was jiggling and that title too was somewhat not entirely not cloudy, because that condo association was trying to get a bit of the sale money for past unpaid maintenance under the old owner, which seems, if logical, a bit short-sighted of the association's best interests. They ran the risk of receiving zero dollars instead of some dollars, by dragging the potential new owner into someone else's debt.

But then, we're pretty much all subject to someone else's debt these days, even those of us who rent. Renters are shielded from what is happening with a property, except when they receive a stray envelope addressed to their landlords, or the records pop up online—and the record-keeping systems, when I look up mortgages and sales online, seem to me to be bogged down and very tardy. I imagine the one or two municipal employees in each town in America with the responsibility of making these things public crouched in some little cave, with a stack of depressing white and red and yellow paper towering over their little desks. (Really, it's probably all done by computers. With near- or off-shored labor—somewhere in Utah or Israel.)

In any event, there it was: the magical $78,000 two-bedroom apartment. The steal of a lifetime. The great American get-ahead.

I bring this up in part because this Sunday, at the Brooklyn Book Festival, there is a panel at noon which includes Naomi Klein and Kurt Andersen and Jordan Flaherty and also Paul Reyes. His new book, Exiles in Eden—some of which is in the August issue of Harper's—is an account of going to work for his father, who has for some time now been a trasher-outer of abandoned and foreclosed homes. In the book, Reyes follows the trail of breadcrumbs of the people who've abandoned or been evicted from their houses to the foreclosure auctions, and along the way meets people like the housing advocates who've installed squatters in vacant properties.

(The panel is slotted against "Me… In The World," which stars Sam Lipsyte, and a panel called "Pop Life: Music, Memory, and America’s Coming of Age," with Ta-Nehisi Coates, which may be more appealing and relaxing and better-attended, but then we all have to make difficult choices in these times.)

Reyes did the first reading from his book the other week and something odd happened. He did not get author-friendly questions about the precious process of writing his book. Instead, a long discussion ensued among the audience members about the financial system and the housing market. In the audience were brokers and bankers and homeowners and renters. A mass of anecdotage and experience and theory was shared. It was something like an impromptu consciousness-raising session, very thorough, and when the audience left, everyone had had time to sift through his and her experiences with the state of our financial system and to incorporate some fresh input.

"The audience reaction was exactly what I'd hoped for," Reyes wrote to me the other day. "I'm certainly happy to stand up there and blather for twenty minutes, but I'd much rather have an intense discussion about this issue and hear what people have been through and what their ideas are."

Although he'll be taking this conversation to the Times' Opinionator blog's Living Rooms section soon, he does not have at this time many in-person readings scheduled; author reading tours are not booked by publishers much these days.

"I'm trying to work the promotion of the book into a split personality tour of sorts–between the narrative journalist and housing wonk," Reyes wrote. "If all goes well, I'll drop in on university classes in the daytime, then hit the bookstores at night. I'll wear a different pair of glasses for each role, of course."

Next week, on the 14th, Reyes will be reading as well at the Enoch Pratt Library in Baltimore. Perhaps you'd like him to visit your fine local bookstore, classroom or community center. His email address is on his website.

Pay particular attention to this post if you’re a small business owner and want to use Twitter to make more money.  Dell has been claiming that they made over $6 million using Twitter, but does that statistic validate Twitter’s marketing power to the world outside of billion dollar corporations?  I contest that it isn’t the case by looking at the numbers below.

There have been numerous claims of Dell making 2-6 million dollars using Twitter.

This is where the story ends for most ‘social media gurus’. They started claiming: “Dell is making money off Twitter!” So, if Dell can do it, anyone can!” Mainstream magazines started suggesting that small businesses consider using Twitter to make more money. I’ve even heard claims from some Dell representatives recommending Twitter as a marketing tool for all other small and medium sized companies in order to “increase revenues”.

These recommendations would be sweet if they stood the test against reality.

Dell Made $6.5m using Twitter for the past 2 YEARS

That would be roughly around $3.2m per year. Okay, so let’s suppose Dell made $3.2m using Twitter in 2009. Dell’s revenue in 2009 was 61 billion dollars. Conclusion: Revenue from Twitter was 0.01% from their total revenue ($3.2m is around 0.01% from $61 billion). “Hey small businesses, Dell made 0.01% of their revenue from Twitter. You can do the same!”

Another big problem with the revenue claims is the way they measured it. They seem to have measured:

  • The referrals that came from and bought something on

  • The people who bought products using the exclusive coupons Dell posted on Twitter

There are many problems here if you want to take the Dell case study and advise small and medium businesses to use Twitter:

1. They didn’t tell whether the people who bought products from Dell were already existing customers i.e. whether they bought some products from Dell in the past. Let’s say if 80% of those who bought via the exclusive coupons or came from as a referral were existing customers. What happens then? You can’t really recommend for small businesses to use Twitter then if a decent portion of their existing consumers aren’t already on Twitter.

2. Twitter is a communication medium. Thus, it’s very misleading to claim (many mainstream newspapers said this) that Dell made money from Twitter. The best way would be to say they made money using or through Twitter. For the coupons, I have no idea whether they measured whether people have taken those coupons on other sites (online forums etc.) This was probably the case. So what? If you recommend small and medium businesses to go on Twitter and make $$$ then you should take this variable into account. Small businesses usually don’t have a lot of people that will take the exclusive coupons they post on Twitter and get them on other sites.

Here is the main thing most people get wrong:


Marketing usually differs a lot for a small and a big business. Compare Nike which runs brand commercials all the time with some small shoe shop. What is the small shoe shop decides to do the same? They’ll probably waste their money. They are much better off using something where they can see measurable benefits instead of going with branding.

The same thing applies online. As a small or a medium-sized business, focus on measurable activities first (and as we’ve seen, using Twitter is not really a measurable activity because there are so many variables associated with the Dell case study). If you don’t know how to measure online, this blog might help.

Why did the media create such a big buzz around Dell story?

For several reasons.

- Twitter was a hot topic around that time. The media published almost everything that had to do with them. There was a buzz that you can make money with Twitter but no example of a small or a big company doing that quite successfully. So when Dell published this story on their blog, almost all media outlets picked it up without critically analyzing it.

The second reason:

- I’m noticing one very interesting pattern. Everything that involves ‘relationships’ (social media, communicating with customers) tends to be examined with a very uncritical eye. Maybe that’s because ‘friendship’ and ‘relationships’ are some of our basic needs? Maybe people do that just because it sounds good and feels good? (but doesn’t necessarily works for everyone).

After all, going on Twitter and ‘building relationships with your customers’ sounds much better than ‘build a product and market it to a potential audience’? It’s an interesting thought.

Theodore Levitt and his Marketing Myopia principle says to me clearly that people go on Twitter to socialize not to look for products.

Action points:

If you’re a small or medium-sized business, go on Twitter and try it out for 7 days. See if you find it useful for communicating with potential customers, maybe working on projects and so on. I recommend you don’t consider it as a major part of your business strategy because there isn’t still any significant proof that Twitter has a big ROI compared to other mediums like PPC or SEO.

About the author: I’m currently writing for FinderMind magazine, a people search website.

eric seiger

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