This Crazy (Social) World

It’s been one month since the Boston Marathon was interrupted by two explosions resulting from the detonation of bombs placed near the finish line of the event. One of the topics to emerge from that tragic day was the role that social media played in sharing information about the event as the news unfolded.

I first learned of the bombing from a Facebook post made by a friend. As is the case with most things posted on social media sites, I wasn’t completely sure if it was true or just someone joking around. I checked the CNN web site, and right there on the front page was a breaking news alert that confirmed what my friend had posted. A few minutes later, the image that was displayed along with the news alert was a picture that someone had snapped with their cell phone from an adjacent building to the first bomb site. The first thing that struck me was how graphic the image was compared to the images that are usually supplied from traditional media outlets. Minutes later Twitter, Facebook, and other social media sites were flooded with images and first-hand accounts from people who were near the chaos that unfolded.

I quickly realized that the way this story was being covered by the normal media outlets was… Different. CNN had a feed of images that were being supplied from cell phones and social media sources. Fox News quickly followed suit. Many of these looked like pictures snapped at the front lines of war. Blood, broken bodies, and people missing limbs. This was a shift from the usual news coverage that I was accustomed to.

On Reddit, AMAs (Ask Me Anything) threads started from people who were at the bomb sites. As was the case with a few recent events, consolidated news threads sprang up from members of the site who filled the role of moderators and filtered the eventual flood of news being supplied from the site’s users. Later, after news that the explosions weren’t accidental, dedicated sections of the site were filled with pictures from the event and encouragement to identify suspicious characters.

As has been the case with recent events (such as the tragic shootings in Aurora and Newton), I quickly made Reddit my one-stop shop for news related to the bombings. The reasons for this are simple. The “news” threads that are common for these events are actually moderated very well. There is great care given to making sure that the reports are verified, and in many cases by more than one source. A consolidated list of links to web sites with interesting information are right there for me to visit if I so desire. I can get a quick overview of all the recent developments as reported across multiple news sources in one place, all at a rapid pace.

Unfortunately, there are some downsides to the way that social media is utilized during these events. I previously mentioned sections on Reddit dedicated to identifying suspicious persons. At various points during the criminal investigation, a number of people were incorrectly identified as being suspects and personal information about them was released. These people suffered undue stress and abuse as a result.

So, what’s my point? I feel like this event was a turning point in the way that news is reported and consumed. When the bombing suspect was apprehended, Reddit had 272,000 concurrent users accessing the site. Although questions about the legitimacy of the sites as a “news source” have arisen, there’s no doubting it’s popularity as one. Traditional outlets like CNN have incorporated social media aspects in its reports, resulting in more detailed, accurate accounts of events as they happen in as real-time as possible. I don’t think they have a choice when anyone with a cell phone can break exclusive first-hand accounts. I find myself wondering how different the horrors of 9-11 would have been experienced had they happened last month.

The Brand Called You – Growing Professionally

Back in 1997, Tom Peters authored an article titled The Brand Called You for Fast Company magazine. I first read the article in 2005, and while I didn’t (and still don’t) agree with everything in it, it contains plenty of valuable career advice to consider. I recently re-read it and humbly suggest a few more strategies:

Grow Your Web Identity

The place most people will go to find more information about you will be the web, especially if you’re in the IT field. Set-up a LinkedIn profile and get connected to people who you befriended during school and your career. Don’t go overboard filling in every professional detail (that’s what your resume is for), or spamming requests to everyone you’ve ever met. I like to think of my LinkedIn contacts as people who would know who I am if my name came up in conversation.

Use Twitter as a way to keep a pulse check on the professionals that you may or may not know, projects or groups of interest, and local events related to your field. Feel free to use it as a way to broadcast things you’re currently up to — blog posts you’ve written, things you’re working on, events you’re attending, etc. I recommend adding a touch of personality to your tweets. Don’t be unprofessional, but don’t be boring either. Be sure to voice your opinion on current topics and trends that you care about.

Be a “Something” Expert

What’s your competitive advantage? Find something that interests you, and become a knowledge expert on it. Maybe it’s integrated marketing, database performance tuning, quality assurance, or Salesforce. Immerse yourself in it. Know the options, and be able to list the pros and cons for each of them. Get involved in conversations and share your knowledge. Ideally you’ll be able to apply your expertise in your current organization, but if not, that’s okay. Don’t be afraid to make suggestions on ways to improve current processes or procedures related to your knowledge area, and don’t be discouraged if you encounter resistance either. If you present your ideas in a clear manner and validate your claims with good evidence, you’ve done your part.

Be a “People Person”

I feel like people skills are becoming a lost art these days. Our society has become accustomed to communication through text message, email, or instant chat conversations. When trying to validate a claim, keep a project on track, or get the nitty-gritty details ironed out on something, I still believe the best way to do it is in person. If that’s not an option, you should at least pick up the phone and hash out the details with a conference call. And even though everyone’s busy these days, carve out some time to drop a “Hi, how is everything going?” now and then. Don’t limit this to clients — your co-workers and contacts matter too. Human interaction will always be more meaningful than digital communication.

Stay Current

Things change–quickly. You should do your best to stay current in your field. It’s not reasonable to expect to be an expert on every new topic or trend, but you should at least be aware of them. In addition to the updates I find on Twitter, I devote time daily to scanning through information technology articles and blog posts just to keep abreast of new tools and trends. My goal isn’t to know everything about everything, it’s to know where I can find more information about something should I need to. Of course, this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t dive into something new every once-in-a-while, too.

Remember…

Ultimately, your growth as a professional in your field is your responsibility. Make the best of your opportunities, and continue to nurture your career by embracing change and improving your skill sets. Make yourself more valuable by strengthening what makes you unique compared to your peers.

Blogging For Business, Part 2: Choosing the Right Platform

In my previous post, I wrote about whether corporate blogging is right for your business and broke down the benefits and risks. In this post, I’ll take a look at some of the available platforms.

Simply put, there are a lot to choose from, but all platforms should provide two basic features:

  1. the ability to post content (usually including photos and videos)
  2. the ability to receive and display comments for each post

Those are the basic cornerstones of blogging. However, many platforms (certainly the best) provide additional features that may prove essential for your blog, including:

  1. the ability to customize the look of the blog or choose from a set of themes
  2. the ability to add extra features through plugins (widgets built by third party developers that can be embedded on your blog)
  3. the ability to allow content to be posted by multiple authors
  4. the ability to audit content written by other authors
  5. the ability to moderate comments

There are a slew of platforms that offer these features and many more, and they do it for free. In fact, because there are so many quality platforms to choose from that at Algonquin Studios we’ve actually decided not to implement blogging features into our content management solution, QuantumCMS, thus far, and simply work with clients to pick the best platform for them and integrate the blog with the main site as needed.

So, without further ado, let’s look at some of the best options out there.

WordPress

WordPress is a free blogging platform that offers a ton of built-in features, including all of those I mentioned above. I don’t have the statistics for it, but if WordPress isn’t the #1 blogging platform today, it seems to be on its way. Indeed, this blog as well as my personal blog are built on WordPress and it’s generally my preferred choice, but that doesn’t mean it’s right for everyone.

The reason that I like WordPress in particular is because it has a simple yet rich interface and is constantly updated with bug fixes and enhancements by a dedicated team of developers. They also offer two hosting solutions: you can host your blog with WordPress for free or you can download the codebase and host it on your own server if you need extra flexibility or want to integrate with other sites.

Blogger

Blogger is Google’s blogging platform. Right there, you probably already know what to expect. Recently, Google has taken steps to standardize the interfaces of its most common tools including Mail, Drive, and Blogger. That means if you have used any of Google’s other products, then Blogger should feel pretty comfortable to you.

What I like about Blogger is its simplicity and clean interface. It’s a tool designed for the non-technical user so it’s very easy to use. Despite that, Blogger is a fully featured tool, although it does not have quite as many configuration options as WordPress.

Tumblr

Tumblr is a what I would call a “quick and dirty” blogging platform, but what most people call “social blogging.” Tumblr makes it really easy to share the awesome stuff that you find online or in life. Tumblr blogs are often full of photos, videos, and links. In some ways, it’s more like Twitter than it’s like other blogging platforms, although there’s no limit to what you post.

What I like about Tumblr is just how easy it is to share content. However, I’ve found that the interface is not as intuitive or robust as other platforms. It’s also worth noting that Tumbr blogs tend embody a more casual attitude that is perhaps more appropriate for individuals than most corporate businesses, but if you just want to post photos, videos, and other neat stuff, it’s probably the best fit.

Posterous Spaces

This is another popular solution that I’ve not personally used, but is described as somewhere between WordPress and Tumblr. Like Tumblr, Posterous tries to make posting content really simple (even via email), but has more advanced features like WordPress.

Twitter

Okay, Twitter isn’t truly blogging software, but it is considered “micro blogging.” If the idea of writing content gives you pause, you might consider starting with a Twitter feed, where you never have to write more than 140 characters.

Bringing It All Together

If you decide that you’re up for the challenge, don’t just pick a platform and go. Check out some of the available options first. Take a look at example blogs on each platform and the available features. With just a little legwork, you’ll find one that works for you and you’ll be blogging in no time.

Blogging For Business, Part 1: Is Blogging Right For You?

Over the last few years, I’ve been asked many times by clients about blogging. Blogging is nothing new, of course, but starting a corporate blog is a bit different than starting a personal one.

A corporate blog requires planning, writing guidelines, and, often, an approval process. It also requires some degree of skill and dedication. Can you write meaningful content that engages readers? Can you keep to a schedule and post content even when you are busy and have other priorities?

Benefits

If you can keep up a blog, then you may be rewarded for your efforts. The most obvious benefit is increased awareness of your business and traffic to your web site, which could translate into increased sales or revenue.

Without getting too technical, having a blog and posting meaningful content gives you another way to draw users to your web site. In all likelihood, that user will read your content and never return. That’s part of the nature of blogging. However, if that user finds your blog in a web search and finds the content to be helpful, he may then visit your web site and, potentially, engage your services, buy your products, or refer a friend or colleague to your site.

Having a blog may even elevate the search ranking of your main web site. By cross-linking the main site and your blog, you can potentially build clout in search engine ranking algorithms, especially if your blog generates a lot of traffic.

Risks and Pitfalls

Before jumping in, you should also consider potential risks. What if an author writes something that makes the business look bad? What if a post incites negative comments? Negative feedback could turn away potential customers, degrade your credibility, or even drop your search ranking, but that doesn’t mean you should disable the commenting feature. Instead, you’ll have to determine the appropriate solution for your business.

You should also avoid a classic pitfall: the temptation to use your corporate blog as an extension of the sales department. Users typically stumble upon blog posts when looking for information and overselling your services may turn off users from returning or make them question the credibility of the content.

Tips for Success

In most cases, a corporate blog should provide expert information or advice about topics in the respective field, or provide customers an inside look at a business’ work environment or philosophies.

Don’t put that all on one person’s shoulders. Allowing multiple employees to contribute will lessen the load and will fill your blog with a variety of topics and opinions.

Keep a schedule. Your employees are busy and it may be difficult for them to contribute regularly. Set up a schedule that allows them to contribute as possible, based on workload.

Bringing It All Together

Ultimately, as a business owner or marketer you have to weigh the pros and cons to determine whether a corporate blog is right for you.

Keeping up a blog isn’t easy. You need to be dedicated and willing to write content, often. You also have to be prepared to accept the risks. But, done well, a blog can boost your business and your reputation in the field.

Shankman in Buffalo – Part Two

In yesterday’s post, I covered the first two tenets of Peter Shankman’s recent presentation in Buffalo “The Next Revolution Will Happen in Your Pocket” or “Social media is providing your customers with what they want, when and how they want it. And that is great customer service.” Today, I’ll recap numbers three and four:

3) Be Brief and Learn How to Write Well!

Easily my favorite of Shankman’s points started out with a tidbit about the attention span of the average American today – a shockingly low 2.7 seconds. Coincidentally, the same amount of time it takes to read a headline… or 140 characters. And so, Shankman encouraged us to practice brevity in order to gain our prospects’ attention.

But the real take-away from Shankman’s third point was his belief that bad writing is destroying America. I couldn’t agree more, Peter.

Shankman believes that the art of writing well is all but lost today and that businesses need to make sure that everyone in the organization is committed to improving their writing. Competition abounds and it’s difficult enough to set our companies apart; Shankman espouses the idea that great writing is hugely impactful and helps people see you as knowledgable and trustworthy. I think he’s right on target.

4) Stay “Top of Mind”

Shankman’s last tip was to make sure you’re the first option people think of when they think about what you do.

He told a great story about when Barry Diller joined Paramount Pictures as CEO in the 70s. The studio was the least successful in Hollywood but Diller was committed to turning the tide. According to Shankman, Diller went in to work every morning, pulled out his rolodex, randomly selected a few cards, and called those people just to check in. Provided you were someone of reasonable “standing” in show business, you could expect a phone call from Paramount’s CEO a couple of times a year.

So, when you had a new script you wanted read or a hot young actor you wanted to audition for a role, who would you turn to? Shankman points out that you could either hope and pray that someone at another studio would talk to you or you could simply return Barry’s call. Because Diller frequently reached out to his contacts with no motive other than to say “hi” and no sales agenda in his back pocket, he stayed top-of-mind for many in the industry and helped turn his studio around.

Shankman wants us to reach out to our customers, not just with attempts to make sales and announce new products or services, but simply to stay engaged. And he reminds us to really listen to what our customers are saying when we do check in with them.

You can check out Peter Shankman’s site and blog for more of his unique perspective on social media, marketing and PR, and customer service.

Shankman in Buffalo – His Basic Tenets for Great Customer Service

Last Thursday, the Advertising Club of Buffalo hosted a night with marketing and PR guru Peter Shankman. Shankman, founder of Help a Reporter Out and The Geek Factory, a boutique marketing strategy firm in NYC, is also an author, keynote speaker, and consultant to both NASA and the Pentagon. Needless to say, he knows his stuff and is pretty well-respected in the marketing world; I certainly feel lucky that I got the chance to hear him speak.

Shankman’s speech was little bit rambling and more than a little bit funny. There were times the laughter in the room was so loud, I couldn’t hear what he was saying. There were also times I wondered “where’s he going with this?” But, at the end of the presentation, I knew exactly what his point was and I felt excited and empowered to bring the takeaways back here to Algonquin and put them into practice.

Shankman’s main point was a simple one: in the face of exploding social media options and instantaneous news outlets the most important thing a company can do to stay in business is provide good customer service. And he provided four basic tenets for making sure you’re staying ahead of the game; I’ll cover the first two today and visit the others tomorrow.

1) Own Your Own Stuff

Shankman argued that branding and owning everything you do – whether good or bad – is vital to the success of your business. He pointed out that, thanks to technology and social media, any good thing you produce, product or idea, can easily be snatched up and redistributed to the masses in mere moments. If it doesn’t have your name all over it, someone else can take credit and your moment of glory, and maybe even your payday, could be lost forever.

The flip side of the “owning it” coin is, of course, that you have to own your mistakes as well. Sure, you might take some heat when you admit you’ve messed up, but Shankman pointed out there’s nothing Americans love more than building up the person we were tearing down yesterday. Heck, a comeback story is always the best kind of story, right?

2) Be Relevant

Shankman rightly reminded us that the direction of a company is controlled, not by its shareholders, management, or employees but by its customers.  If we’re not giving the people want they want, they’ll find another provider and leave us for them. We have to actively ask our customers what they want (and how they want it) and then we have to give it to them. It’s the only way to guarantee continued success.

He also encouraged us to “embrace the concept, not the brand” and to make sure we know where our audience is. Social media changes daily and what we assume is the next big thing might not carry any weight with the people actually buying our products. If I’m tweeting away but my prospects are checking out my competition on Facebook or Pinterest, what good is Twitter doing me?

So, what do you think of Shankman’s first two customer service tenets? How does your company ensure you’re providing a great experience for your customers and prospects?

Doing (and Feeling) Good – Social Media and Cool T-Shirts

Thanks to Algonquin’s corporate membership, I’ve been lucky enough to be involved with the Buffalo Chapter of Social Media Club for a while now. The opportunities offered through SMCBuffalo, to network and learn more about Buffalo’s ever-evolving social media community, are always enjoyable and I’ve been able to help plan and attend events like TacoVino and beSOCIAL, which are great learning experiences and a lot of fun.

Taco Vino Logo

Easily my favorite connection made through SMCBuffalo, though, was getting the chance to meet Dan Gigante and to become one of the participating artists for his “buy one, give one” organization, You and Who, which sells one-of-a-kind designer t-shirts that help worthy causes in cities across the US. Every time a shirt is purchased, You and Who gives the same shirt to someone in need through their collaboration with charitable organizations in the t-shirt designers’ cities.

You and Who Buffalo Tree Shirt

Back in 2010, I designed a t-shirt for Algonquin Studios employees to wear in a local charity 5k. My design wasn’t used come race day, but when I met Dan, I realized it could still be put to good use through You and Who. My “Buffalo Tree” design fit the organization’s “New Beginnings” theme perfectly and became one of the first shirts made available through You and Who. Now, for every Buffalo Tree shirt sold through You and Who, a shirt donation is also made to one of five charitable organizations in the City of Buffalo. In addition, my “artist earnings” of $1 per shirt sold benefits Buffalo Soccer Club (the pilot program of Algonquin Sports for Kids, a 501(c)(3) organization founded by Algonquin Studios) with donations around $75/month.

Buffalo Soccer Club offers low and no-cost soccer programs for urban children in the City of Buffalo, encouraging participants to develop good physical health, positive levels of self-esteem, and core ethical principals in a safe, fun environment. And, while I’m really no good at playing soccer (trust me I’ve tried), the connection I made with Dan through SMCBuffalo gives me the opportunity to contribute to Buffalo Soccer Club, local charities, and my community at large in a much bigger way than I could personally afford to.

I feel lucky to be a member of an organization like SMCBuffalo, where I can connect with so many smart, fun, and creative people in my city. And I appreciate the opportunities at Algonquin Studios, where I can use my own creativity on projects that benefit so many different people in my community.

We Really Still Have to Debunk Bad SEO?

Author: Adrian Roselli  9/27/11

Image of bottle of SEO snake oil.I’ve been doing this web thing from the start (sort of — I did not have a NeXT machine and a guy named Tim in my living room) and I’ve watched how people have clamored to have their web sites discovered on the web. As the web grew and search engines emerged, people started trying new ways to get listed in these new automated directories, and so began the scourge of the Search Engine Optimization (SEO) peddler.

The web magazine .Net posted what to me is a surprising article this week (surprising in that I thought we all knew this stuff): The top 10 SEO myths. I am going to recap them here, although you should go to the article itself for more detail and the full list of reader comments. Remember, these are myths, which means they are not true.

  1. Satisfaction, guaranteed;
  2. A high Google PageRank = high ranking;
  3. Endorsed by Google;
  4. Meta tag keywords matter;
  5. Cheat your way to the top;
  6. Keywords? Cram ’em in;
  7. Spending money on Google AdWords boosts your rankings;
  8. Land here;
  9. Set it and forget it;
  10. Rankings aren’t the only fruit.

The problem here is that for those of us who know better, this is a list that could easily be ten years old (with a couple obvious exceptions, like the reference to AdWords). For those who don’t know better or who haven’t had the experience, this might be new stuff. For our clients, this is almost always new stuff and SEO snake oil salesmen capitalize on that lack of knowledge to sell false promises and packs of lies. One of my colleagues recently had to pull one of our clients back from the brink and his ongoing frustration is evident in his own retelling:

I have a client who recently ended an SEO engagement with another firm because they wouldn’t explain how they executed their strategies. Their response to his inquiry was to ask for $6,000 / month, up from $2,000 / month for the same work in two new keywords.

This kind of thing happens all the time. I recently ran into another SEO “guru” selling his wares by promising to keep a site’s meta tags up-to-date through a monthly payment plan. When I explained that Google doesn’t use meta tags in ranking, his response was that I was wrong. When I pointed him to a two-year-old official Google video where a Google representative explains that meta tags are not used, his response was to state that he believed Google still uses them because he sees results from his work. My client was smart enough to end that engagement, but not all are.

Because I cannot protect my clients in person all the time, I have tried to write materials to educate them. For our content management system, QuantumCMS, I have posted tips for our clients, sometimes as a reaction to an SEO salesman sniffing around and sometimes to try to head that off. A couple examples:

Along with these client-facing tips I sometimes get frustrated enough to write posts like this, trying to remind people that SEO is not some magical rocket surgery and that those who claim it is should be ignored. I’ve picked a couple you may read if you are so inclined:

And because I still have to cite this meta tags video far far too often, I figured I’d just re-embed it here:

Related

My ire doesn’t stop at SEO self-proclaimed-gurus. I also think social media self-proclaimed-gurus are just the latest incarnation of that evil. Some examples:

Lots of Twitter Followers Guarantees… Nothing

Anil Dash posted a story called Life on the List where he describes his experience appearing on the Twitter Suggested User List. In short, Anil appeared on this list of 400 people that Twitter suggests new users follow, ostensibly to make the service a bit more interesting than silence. Anil does not know, however, how he appeared on this list (between Bootsy Collins and Paul Krugman?). What he does know is that his followership is growing by about 100 per hour.

What he has learned is that these users aren’t engaging him, they are just blindly following thanks to the Suggested User feature of Twitter. They don’t retweet, they don’t reply, they don’t follow his links. They are just there, perhaps ignoring their own Twitter accounts. Anil and the other 400 people on the list are essentially bundled content that Twitter doesn’t have to provide, meaning there isn’t really any value to the followers. This ultimately makes his placement on the list meaningless. These are readers he cannot leverage in any measurable way. Anil recognized this pretty quickly (emphasis his):

After just a few days of being on the list, though, I made an interesting discovery that offers a dramatic distinction from buying featured position in an online store: Being on Twitter’s suggested user list makes no appreciable difference in the amount of retweets, replies, or clicks that I get.

In a typically brief missive on Seth Godin’s blog, Seth distills the entire story down to: having ten times as many Twitter followers generates approximately zero times as much value. He argues a general strategy, seemingly to Anil Dash:

The goal shouldn’t be to have a lot of people to yell at, the goal probably should be to have a lot of people who choose to listen. Don’t need a bullhorn for that.

I get the impression Seth just read the singular quote from Anil’s post about no appreciable difference. I hope not. I hope the casual reader of Seth’s post or of the tweets flying around about this take a moment to understand where those followers came from and why they started following. Those followers chose to follow, but they clearly didn’t understand why and have no lasting interest. Anil correctly excludes them when targeting his tweets.

If you’ve been around Twitter a while, you’ve seen how spammers first took advantage of auto-following. A spammer would follow as many people as possible, counting on those accounts following back automatically. From there the next steps was either sending out spam tweets or selling an account with a high follower count.

Since then, some accounts with many followers have begun selling tweets to advertisers. Consider Kim Kardashian’s $10,000 per tweet fee for sneaking sponsored tweets into her own (assuming she actually has any of her own), or Perez Hilton’s similar approach. To be fair, if you follow these accounts you can’t really be surprised that they do this, nor can I be surprised if you fall for it.

If you are trying to get your list of followers up into the stratosphere, you need to consider the quality of those connections. Are these really people with whom you want to, or can, engage in a dialogue? Will they follow your links, or retweet what you have to say? If you’re in it for a quick buck and to be associated with Twitter spamming (or any kind of spamming), then you may consider this approach. Otherwise you should be happy with a list of followers that is made up of people who genuinely engage you and vice versa. These are the followers who bring real value to your social media efforts.

Anil made some additional points in a follow-up post titled Nobody Has A Million Twitter Followers. Having had some time to gather data from others, here is what he has found:

  • Creative Commons, despite being a stalwart organization at the intersection of technology and intellectual property, saw no increase in responses after being added to the suggested user list.
  • NBC’s Today Show is one of the signature brands of broadcast media. But being on Twitter’s list? Didn’t do anything.
  • What about Starbucks, one of the definitive examples of a powerful worldwide brand? Nothing.

The problem here is that employers, sponsors, partners, etc. expect to see high numbers of followers. A high follower count doesn’t mean very much, but there is no safe way to make that argument without offending the person who writes the checks. As long as media outlets and “social media experts” push the follower count as an all-important measuring stick, stressing that the number must climb or that it directly correlates to the success of the tweeter, it will be an uphill battle for those trying to create meaningful connections in their social media accounts (not just Twitter).

Just as the battle was fought between eyeballs and click-throughs years ago, I can see the same battle lines being drawn between engaged followers and blind followers. It just may take a while for everyone else to understand the distinction.