December 2009 Archives

The importance of voice

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Does a more personal voice make information more credible? Carrie Brown-Smith writes that, in the news industry, there is some evidence that "a hint of personality" leads to "higher credibility". She goes on to say:

A recent study by my former Mizzou colleagues Jeremy Littau, Liz Gardner, and Esther Thorson, presented at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication conference in Boston last August, found that news with more opinion, voice, and analysis could be key in attracting younger readers. [...]

They also tested the impact of voice on what is known in the academy as "political efficacy," or the belief that you are able to act upon your knowledge.

What they found is that voice increases efficacy, in part because, unlike a dry, authoritative, institutional voice, it better engages your brain. It gets you thinking, actively processing the information, which in turn makes it more likely that you will not only remember this information, but feel empowered to act on it, too.

Understanding what encourages trust is very important indeed. Edelman's Trust Barometer survey showed that across the board, trust in official channels of communication is declining:

Mirroring the erosion of trust in business this year, trust in every type of source of information about companies and of every type of spokesperson is down in most markets around the world. These lower levels of credibility suggest that business must engage with its audiences through multiple voices on multiple channels, especially since informed publics say they need to hear information several times before they will believe it.

If a more personal voice is key to reversing this decline in trust, then social media is an obvious way to do it. Now this might all seem like stating the obvious, but it's worth going over this familiar ground. A lot of businesses have yet to shake off their fear of having actual, real humans speaking on their behalf. If they don't, they're going to find that a trust divide has opened up underneath their feet, with people trusting companies who are open, transparent and personable and not trusting those who use only corporate managed communications channels.

Social semantics

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Andrew McAfee asks if the word "social" has so many negative connotations that it's a potentially harmful word to use when trying to persuade managers that web 2.0 tools are worth investigating:

"It's technically accurate... [but] I have rarely come across a word that has more negative connotations to busy, pragmatic line managers inside organizations. The best thing it is is neutral... the worst thing it is is a sign that we're going to use these tools to waste time, to goof off, to plan happy hour, to do all these social activities. The impression I get from people who make decisions... is 'I'm not running a social club. I'm trying to run a business here.' " (I accompanied this monologue with a picture intended to convey what flashes through an executive's mind when he hears the word 'social.')

I discussed the baggage that comes with "social" last year:

Is 'social' the problem with social software? Certainly in the UK, 'social' has some rather negative connotations: Social workers are often despised and derided as interfering, and often incompetent, busybodies. Social housing is where you put people at the bottom of the socioeconomic heap. Social sciences are the humanities trying to sound important by putting on sciency airs. Social climbers are people who know how to suck their way up the ladder. Social engineering is getting your way deviously, by using people's weaknesses against them. Social security is money you give people who can't be bother work for themselves. Socialism is an inherently flawed system that is prone to corruption. Social disease is venereal.

Whether or not you agree with all of those descriptions - and for the record, I don't - you have to admit that the word 'social' does have a bit of a bad rap. I wonder how much that influences people - in business and elsewhere - to dismiss 'social media', 'social networks' and 'social tools' before they have even found out what they are and what they're good for.

I still think that the word "social" is a problem. But I'm not sure that it either can or should be replaced. If a company balks at the word "social" before even looking at how social tools can be used to help their people get stuff done, then they have deeper problems than those that social tools can help with.

Why we should care about information overload

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Tom Davenport writes that no one cares about information overload anymore. His main thesis appears to be that because no one turns off their phone in meetings, tunes their email filters or turns off their email alerts, that means that information overload is now unimportant. He then tries to conflate that with the aspects of information flow that make turning these things off difficult, i.e. our addiction to the receipt of new and exciting bits of information.

Tom has basically got everything the wrong way round. Information overload still matters, and that few people do something about it should be cause for concern and not a reason to stick our heads in the sand and pretend that everything is ok.

The problem is one of those nasty wicked problems that change shape as you try to solve them. There is a complex interplay between the tools we use to communicate online, our physiological responses to incoming data, our expectations of other people's expectations of our response to incoming communications, and cultural pressures that cause us to create and disseminate information in specific ways.

This is difficult territory. You can't just tell people to turn off their email alerts and expect that to do the trick - although I certainly do recommend that as one action to take. Beating the physiological responses to incoming information is going to take a lot of thought and experimentation, but it's the culture that's going to be hardest to figure out. How do we change the way that people relate informationally to one another so that we have a healther information landscape?

I don't have answers to that. But I do know that pretending information overload is an insignificant problem is not a constructive way to deal with it.

What makes a website successful?

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Paul Boag has written a great blog post about what makes websites successful, and many of his conclusions are directly applicable to social media projects too. Paul says,

Before we can address issues of aesthetics, usability and code, we need to tackle business objectives, calls to action and user tasks. Without dealing with these fundamental principles our clients' website will fail.

I could very easily rewrite that to refer to social media, without having to change much:

Before we can address issues of social tool choice, metrics and community building, we need to tackle business objectives, calls to action and user tasks. Without dealing with these fundamental principles our clients' social media project will fail.

Well worth a read, both for businesses considering a website redesign and those considering a social media project, internal or external.

Newsflash! RSS still not dead: Story at 11.

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I've lost count of the number of times over the years various people have declared RSS to be dead, dying, moribund, comatose or laid low with a dose of swine flu. The latest is a piece by Read Write Web's Richard MacManus who says, RSS Reader Market in Disarray, Continues to Decline.

RSS is a bit of a weird duck, really. It is infrastructure more than it is a service and there's a distinct lack of clarity outside the tech community about what it is and what it does. That's not helped by the fact that there are competing standards, not to mention competing terms: RSS (and all its version numbers), RDF, Atom, web feeds, news feeds, syndication, syndication feeds, even just plain 'feeds'.

In short, RSS confuses people. It's not until I explain how easily RSS can save time that people start to become interested. In a business context, RSS is invaluable. So many information publishers now produce RSS feeds of one stripe or another that it has become possible to draw together huge numbers of sources in one place very easily indeed. Anyone in market or competitive intelligence, marketing, PR, research, and any other department that relies on aggregating information should be all over RSS like a rash. But they aren't. Why?

This is where RWW's piece becomes relevant. At best there is stagnation in the RSS reader market, at worst there is a genuine decline. RWW reports:

[...] Feedburner no longer publishes any useful data about RSS Readers. The product has been infrequently updated since Google acquired it in June 2007 and it no longer even has a proper blog (a Google blog called Adsense For Feeds was the closest I could find).

Pheedo also has gone quiet from a blogging perspective - its last blog post was January 2009.

[...] There's little sign of life on Bloglines' blog either and its Compete.com traffic numbers show a decline since June 2009.

Netvibes, FriendFeed, Newsgator and PostRank are the only other english language competitors showing in our Feedburner numbers. The others are either browser (Firefox) or operating system readers.

Also note that Newsgator shut down its online RSS Reader at the end of July this year.

We are not seeing the kind of innovation that we need in the RSS market. I suspect that part of this has been because businesses have been very slow to realise the usefulness of RSS and so hoped-for licensing income hasn't been forthcoming for aggregation vendors. Partly this is down to the fact that getting new software assessed, accepted and rolled out through business is a long, tedious process in most companies - long enough to kill off relationships with cashflow sensitive start-ups.

A friend of mine once told me that it took his company 18 months to code-check new software. Doing that with social tools is IT suicide - most tools have iterated half a dozen times in that period. At least. It's no wonder that most of the companies I talk to have not implemented any RSS readers internally. By the time they've got the software approved, it's out of date.

This means that people are stuck using web-based applications. Whilst Netvibes and Google Reader are very good at what they do, they are also a little limited. Google Reader is a very introspective tool - you can share stuff with other people within Google Reader, but there are no tools for sharing on Twitter, Delicious, Instapaper etc. Netvibes does a bit more, in that you can share on Twitter or Facebook, but again it doesn't embed itself in the wider content-reading ecosystem.

RSS still has huge potential, but the landscape it sits within is complicated, comprising of RSS sources, RSS readers, IT department policy makers, and those social media community members who are actually still communicating to business that this is a really useful tool.

That's a lot of ducks to get in a row, but I am pretty sure (or rather, I hope!) that at some point, it's going to happen. I wouldn't call time of death on RSS just yet.

How fanboys see operating systems

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Your bonus Christmas post, courtesy of Joey deVilla.

Metrics, Part 4: Subjective measurements

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(If you haven't already read them, you might like to take a look at Part 1: The webstats legacy, Metrics, Part 2: Are we measuring the right things?) and Metrics, Part 3: What are your success criteria?)

In the last instalment of this series I mentioned that sometimes there just aren't objective metrics that we can use to help us understand the repercussions of our actions. Yet much of what we try to achieve with social media projects is exactly this sort of unmeasurable thing.

No amount of understanding of page views, for example, is going to tell us how the people who have viewed that page feel about it. Did they come because they were interested? Or because they were outraged? Is your comment community a healthy one or a pit of raging hatred? Are your staff better able to collaborate now you have a wiki or are they finding it difficult to keep another datastore up to date?

There are two ways round this:

  • Surveys
  • Subjective measurement scales

Surveys are sometimes the only way you can get a sense for how well a social media project is going. All the metrics in the world won't tell you if your staff are finding their internal blogs useful or burdensome. Random anecdotes are liable to mislead as you'll end up relying on either the vocal evangelists who will give you an overly rosy picture, or the vocal naysayers who will give you an overly pessimistic picture. The truth is likely to be in the middle somewhere, and the only way that you can find out where is to ask people.

Survey questions need to be very carefully constructed, however, to ensure that they are not leading people to answer a certain way. At the very least, make sure that questions are worded in a neutral way and that you cover all bases for the answer options you give. Test and retest surveys as it's so easy to get something crucial wrong!

The second way to try and measure subjective metrics is to create a scale and regularly assess activity against that scale. If you were assessing the comments in your customer-facing community, for example, you might consider a scale like this:

★★★★★.....Lively discussion, readers are replying to each other, tone is polite, constructive information is shared
★★★★.........Moderate amount of discussion, readers replying to each other, tone is polite, some useful information shared
★★★.............Little discussion, readers reply only to author, tone is mainly polite, not much information shared
★★.................Discussion is moribund OR Tone of discussion negative, tone is impolite, no information shared
.....................Abusive discussion OR Discussion is just a torrent of "me too" comments
.....................No discussion

The idea here isn't to create an enormous cognitive load but to try and have a consistent understanding of what we mean when we rate something 3 out of 5. This means keeping scales clear and simple, and avoiding any ambiguity such as language which could be misunderstood or which has an inherent value judgement that could sway an assessment.

I would also suggest that valuable data would be compiled by having a varied group of people rating on a regular basis and then averaging scores. That would hopefully smooth out any variation in interpretation of the scale or personal opinion.

Again, I'm going to stress that both these methods need to be put in place and measurement started before a project begins. Thinking ahead is just so worth the effort.

In all honesty, I've never had a client do either surveys or subjective scales. Mainly because none of them have ever really given enough thought to metrics before they start a project. It's a shame because with services like Survey Monkey, it's really not hard to do.

Developing etiquette

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Technological change is outpacing our ability as a society to negotiate and agree upon acceptable behaviour sets for each new tool type. The mobile is a great example of this: Some of us think that it's rude to sit in a cinema yapping away on your mobile, whilst others feel that it's not only acceptable but also their right.

Where social media steals a march on mobile phones is that we can use the very tools we are discussing to negotiate what acceptable behaviour means. What is rude on a social network? What is expected on a wiki? And what is good etiquette for comments?

Justine Larbalestier has a great post outlining what people engaging in comment threads should do before plunging in, including:

  • Read the entire post before commenting. Nothing is more annoying to a blogger than to have someone say "But why did you not mention French beanbags?" when you have just spent six paragraphs doing exactly that.

And:

  • Do not explode on to a comment thread in a whirl of fire and outrage. Particularly don't do this if all the discourse up to that point has been calm and measured.

Maybe it's because I've been online for so long, but it does seem to me that most of these are no-brainers, yet they still appear to be news to some! Will the day ever come where online etiquette is pervasive or are manners a thing of the past?

The power of ecosystems

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It used to be that I judged a new social tool, service or application purely on intrinsic qualities such as functionality, usability, design or utility. In an increasingly competitive social media landscape, where even niches are getting crowded, what is it that makes one tool stand out above the others?

Ecosystem. Plain and simple. What kind of API does the tool provide? How vibrant is the developer community? What other tools and services are building up around it?

Twitter, for example, has a really vibrant ecosystem, full of tools that allow you to post pictures, track compressed links, analyse statistics, manage your accounts, send Tweets longer than 140 characters. The ecosystem is so vibrant that a service devoted just to cataloguing it has sprung up: OneForty.com.

Wordpress is another tool with a fabulous ecosystem, not just in terms of plug-ins and themes, but also in terms of developers. I've never had a problem finding WP developers to help me out when I need a hand wrangling the finer points of WP admin.

The Delicious ecosystem, on the other hand, appears to be moribund. The Firefox add-on that I used to rely on, Delicious Complete, is now defunct (does not function in FF3) and I can't find an alternative that allows me to manage multiple accounts. There are a handful of dedicated add-ons for Firefox, but beyond that the wider developer community is either invisible or just doesn't exist. New tools, like Instapaper, that could tie in with Delicious don't. That's a real shame because Delicious is one of my favourite tools, but it simply isn't that easy to embed it in my working processes.

I know that there may be some very good reasons why some tools have better ecosystems than others, but as I'm not a developer and have never looked at the barriers to entry for working with these different tools, I can't speak to that side of the debate.

But ecosystem is very important to users not just in deciding which tools to use, but whether to be loyal. The cost of switching from Twitter or Wordpress to a competitor is quite high. It's not just a matter of swapping one service for another, but of having to start again with the community, whether that's moving your own social network over or finding new people to worth with on the new platform. The cost of moving from Delicious, however, would be relatively low. If someone offered a better service with better tools and even a small ecosystem that showed promise, I wouldn't hesitate to migrate my data.

Metrics, Part 3: What are your success criteria?

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(If you haven't already read them, you might like to take a look at Part 1: The webstats legacy and Metrics, Part 2: Are we measuring the right things?)

It's never been more true to say that just because we can measure something it doesn't mean we should. The temptation to amass as many stats as possible about our social media projects, in the hope that somewhere in the numbers lies enlightenment, is almost irresistible. Instead, we need to do the opposite: Measure only the things that can tell us something useful. And some of those measurements may not actually come from social media at all.

To know what to measure, we first need to understand the strategic goals of the project. This is the 60,000 ft view, the "We want increased profitability" or "We want to be more productive" view. These aren't easily measured directly. Profitability, for example, may be improved by a whole host of actions taken by the company as well as by market forces, so teasing out which bit is down to a specific social media project could be very difficult.

Instead, strategic goals provide us with a context for tactical goals. Increased productivity, for example, may mean decreasing email use, decreasing hours spent in meetings, improving collaboration, improving communication, decreasing duplicated projects, and improving employee engagement.

Of these tactical goals, some are easier to measure than others. Leisa Reichelt has written a great post on the importance of measurement and criteria for success in which she says:

Some success criteria are immediately apparent and easy to measure, for example return visitors, increased membership, activity or sales. Ideally you want to put some numbers around what you'd consider would define this project as 'successful', but even just identifying the metrics that you will use to judge the success of the project is a good start.

Some success criteria are less easy to 'measure' but don't let that discourage you. Often for these kinds of criteria I'll use a round of research to determine whether or not we've been successful - those things that are difficult to quantify are often quite easy to examine using qualitative research. I find myself more and more using a last round of research to 'check off' the less quantifiable success criteria for projects.

I think of these two types of success criteria as objective and subjective:

  • Objective criteria map fairly cleanly to something you can measure. For example, you can measure how many emails are sent and received and so can see if your social media project is reducing email flow.
  • Subjective criteria do not map cleanly to any metric. For example, it's hard to define, let alone measure, collaboration.

Sometimes one can get creative around subjective criteria and create a new metric that can shed light on matters, but often there isn't much more than gut feeling to go on. In that case, it is worth asking our gut how it feels on a regular basis so that we can at least look back dispassionately rather than trying to remember how things felt six months ago. (More on this in a later post.)

For all measures, it's important to understand what the numbers are really telling you and to discard any measurements that could be in any way misleading (cf Part 2).

A good workflow for this whole process might be:

  • Set out strategic and tactical goals
  • List objective and subjective criteria for success
  • Map criteria to measurable metrics
  • Discard misleading metrics
  • Discard unimportant metrics
  • Identify desired trends
  • Start measuring

One word of warning: Beware numerical targets. It's often not possible to know how big of a change you need to create in order to meet your goals. And in many cases, social tools scale best when they scale slowly. Rapid change can even destroy the very thing you're trying to create (especially when you're looking at community building). Numerical targets are often nothing better than fairytales that may or may not one day resemble reality.

The final thing to remember is to start taking measurements before the project launches. It might seem like a no-brainer, but in my experience it's common for companies to forget that without information on starting conditions, there'll be nothing to compare to.

Let's just not build teams

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Robert Brook writes an impassioned post about his distaste for artificial games and the overuse of competition as a motivator. I'll write more on that later, but I wanted to pick up on one thing that Robert says at the bottom of his post:

Lindsay Marshall, of Bifurcated Rivets fame - I'm a long-time reader - reminds me of another grim manifestation: team building. Real teams come together organically, or emerge - they are rarely, if ever, built. That false application and bonhomie is dreadfully thin stuff, especially in comparison to emergent groups.

This reminds me of a story a friend of mine once told me about how he was chastised by his boss for not being a 'team player' because he didn't join in office conversations about football.

Team building is not about creating groupthink. The kind of mutual respect and understanding that underpins the best teams is something that can't be forced.

So here's a thought: How about we use social media to build internal communities from which teams emerge spontaneously? How about providing people with the means and opportunity to get to know each other, understand each others' skills and ways of working, and then let teams coalesce around projects? Turn Google's 20% Time on its head: Instead of giving staff one day a week to work on whatever project they want, give them four days to work on projects that they get to choose from a list of things that the business needs doing (which they also get to contribute to), and one day where everyone has to do unavoidable unpopular tasks. If you share the good, you have to share the bad, after all!

What kind of company might that create? I would hazard a guess that it would be highly creative, innovative, productive and successful. It would be a company that retained its best staff because they are happier there than they could ever be in a traditional management structure. And if you only have one day to do chores, then the needless administrivia that gets created out of nowhere and which serves no purpose other than to feed the bureaucracy will just die off.

Who's going to give it a go, then?

Metrics, Part 2: Are we measuring the right things?

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(If you haven't already read it, you might like to take a look at Part 1: The Webstats Legacy.)

Anand Giridharadas asks in the New York Times, Are metrics blinding our perception?. Giridharadas begins by talking about the Trixie Telemetry company which takes data about a baby's naps, nappy changes and feed times and turns it into charts, graphs and analyses to "help parents make data-based decisions". He then goes on to say:

Self-quantification of the Trixie Telemetry kind is everywhere now. Bedposted.com quantifies your sexual encounters. Kibotzer.com quantifies your progress toward goals like losing weight. Withings, a French firm, makes a Wi-Fi-enabled weighing scale that sends readings to your computer to be graphed. There are tools to measure and analyze the steps you take in a day; the abundance and ideological orientation of your friends; the influence of your Twitter utterances; what you eat; the words you most use; your happiness; your success in spurning cigarettes.

Welcome to the Age of Metrics -- or to the End of Instinct. Metrics are everywhere. It is increasingly with them that we decide what to read, what stocks to buy, which poor people to feed, which athletes to recruit, which films and restaurants to try. World Metrics Day was declared for the first time this year.

But measure the wrong thing and you end up doing the wrong thing:

Will metrics encourage charities to work toward the metric (acres reforested), not the underlying goal (sustainability)? [...] Trees are killed because the sales from paper are countable, while a forest's worth is not.

The same is true in social media. Count the wrong thing and you'll do the wrong thing. As Stephanie Booth says, in the second video in this post:

As soon as you start converting behaviours into numbers then people adapt their behaviour to have good numbers.

She goes on to say that some of her clients believe that the number of comments they have on a blog post is a measure of success, but because of this they become obsessed with getting people to comment:

So you're going to write posts which make people react or you're going to encourage people to have chatty conversations in your comments. That's really great, you get lots of comments, but does it mean that what you're providing is really more valuable? [...] I don't believe that more is always better, that more conversation is always better. It's "Is it relevant?" And that's something that we do not know how to measure in numbers.

If the key metric for assessing success is a simplistic one like 'page views' or 'unique users' or 'comments', the emphasis in your web 2.0 strategy will be on creating something populist instead of something that meets a business need.

Let's say you're in eCommerce and you sell pet supplies. Your business goal is not 'get more people onto our website', it is 'get more people buying pet supplies from our website'. The two are very different indeed. A company that believes that they need to just lots and lots of people through the virtual door will focus on anything that might get them more attention and traffic. A company that understands they need to attract the right people will focus on communicating with passionate pet lovers who arrive at the site primed to buy.

This is why niche blogs can command higher advertising rates than general news sites. Advertisers can see that more of the people who click their ads will actually buy their products and are willing to pay more for these higher quality visitors.

Equally, let's say you want to 'improve collaboration' internally and to that end you start a wiki. You start measuring activity on the wiki and focus on 'edits per user' as a key metric. You encourage people to edit more, but the quality and amount of collaboration doesn't increase as you expected. Why? Because people learnt that changing a single typo boosts their 'edits per user' count and took a lot less effort than creating a new page, engaging with a co-worker or making a substantive change. Focusing on the wrong numbers changes the wrong behaviour.

In order to think about metrics, you need to know exactly what you're using social media for. Figure that out and you're halfway there.

Saatchi and Saatchi get it horribly wrong for Toyota

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Tim Burrowes explains just how wrong Saatchi and Saatchi got Toyota's Australian social media campaign. There are key lessons here not just for social media marketing, but for social media use across business.

  1. Do not assume that the agencies you work with, whether they are marketing, internal communications or PR, understand social media. The chances are high that they haven't got a clue.
  2. Do not assume that your internal departments, whether they are marketing, internal communications, PR or any other department, understand social media. The chances are that they haven't got a clue either.
  3. If your clue-free marketing/internal comms/PR department is working with a clue-free agency on a social media project, all your warning lights should be going off and your klaxons blaring. Danger, Will Robinson! Danger, Will Robinson!
  4. Social media is easier to mess up than to get right. And it's easier to think you know what you're doing when you don't than it is to recognise when you don't know what you're doing. All that known unknowns and unknown unknowns, y'know?

The commonest excuse I hear about why companies aren't going to bother learning about social media themselves is that they 'don't have time' or 'want results now'. Which is a bit like opening an office in a foreign country, without anyone on staff who can speak the language, and then demanding 'results now' whilst expecting nothing to go wrong.

With attitudes like that so prevalent, I expect that social media cock-ups will continue to entertain us throughout the foreseeable future. Maybe I need to start the social media version of FailBlog or ClientsFromHell.

Instapaper: Managing your 'To Read' list

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I have this dreadfully bad habit of leaving lots of tabs open in my browser. Since the day Firefox introduced tabs, they have been my default way of "managing" large numbers of articles that I want to read. Whether someone has sent me a link by email or IM, or I spot something on Twitter, I'd open it up in a tab, glance at the headline and think, "Oh, I'll read that later." Then it would sit in my browser for weeks, sometimes months, whilst I did other stuff.

When Firefox grows to 60+ open tabs it becomes a bit of a resources pig and more often than not would crash horribly, maybe taking down the rest of the OS with it. I'd be forced to restart my Mac and when Firefox reopened I would feel compelled to reopen the 60 tabs that had caused it to crash in the first place. Sometimes I copy all URLs into a separate document and start afresh with an empty browser. I almost never go back to this list of URLs (which now goes back to 10th August 2006!).

I recently discovered Instapaper and now my workflow has totally changed. Instead of leaving tabs open, I open the article I want to read, save it to Instapaper, and close the tab. I can then read it either later on, in my browser, or I can read it on the Instapaper iPhone app. Once I'm done, I can archive the link, or I can share it on Tumbler, Twitter, Feedly, Google Reader, Facebook or via email. Instapaper also plays very nicely with Tweetie on the iPhone, so I can save links direct from my phone without having to star the Tweet and open it on my Mac later. The only thing I miss at the moment is that I can't save links to Delicious, which is my current link storage facility.

It's not often that an app revolutionises my reading in this way. RSS did it, years back. (If you're curious, I use NetNewsWire which syncs to Google Reader and thence with Reeder on the iPhone - a fab combination.) But nothing has come close to changing how I consume non-RSS content until now.

The great thing is that I don't feel the need to read everything that passes into view, but have a much more streamlined way of saving the link and assessing it later. And because Instapaper on the iPhone works offline, I can use some of that wasted time spent sitting on underground trains to flip through my articles. Win!

Metrics, Part 1: The webstats legacy

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Probably the hardest part of any social media project, whether it's internal or external, is figuring out whether or not the project has been a success. In the early days of social media, I worked with a lot of clients who were more interested in experimenting than in quantifying the results of their projects. That's incredibly freeing in one sense, but we are (or should be) moving beyond the 'flinging mud at the walls to see what sticks' stage into the 'knowing how much sticks' stage.

Social media metrics, though, are a bit of a disaster zone. Anyone can come up with a set of statistics, create impressive-sounding jargon for them and pull a meaningless analysis out of their arse to 'explain' the numbers. Particularly in marketing, there's a lot of hogwash spoken about 'social media metrics'.

This is the legacy of the dot.com era in a couple of ways. Firstly, the boom days of the dot.com era attracted a lot of snakeoil salesmen. After the crash, businesses, now sceptical about the internet, demanded proof that a site really was doing well. They wanted cold, hard numbers.

Sysadmins were able to pull together statistics direct from the webserver and the age of 'hits' was born. For a time, back there in the bubble, people talked about getting millions of hits on their website as if it was something impressive. Those of us who paid attention to how these stats were gathered knew that 'hits' meant 'files downloaded by the browser', and that stuffing your website full of transparent gifs would artificially bump up your hits. Any fool could get a million hits - you just needed a web page with a million transparent gifs on it and one page load.

This led to the second legacy: an obsession with really big numbers. You see it everywhere, from news sites talking about how many 'unique users' they get in comparison to their competitors to internal projects measuring success by how many people visit their wiki or blogs. It's understandable, this cultural obsession with telephone-number-length stats, but it's often pointless. You may have tens of thousands of people coming to your product blog, but if they all think it's crap you haven't actually made any progress. You may have 60% of your staff visiting your internal wiki, but if they're not participating they aren't going to benefit from it.

Web stats have become more sophisticated since the 90s, but not by much. Google Analytics now provides bounce rates and absolute unique visitors and all sorts of stats for the numerically obsessed. Deep down, we all know these are the same sorts of stats that we were looking at ten years ago but with prettier graphs.

And just like then, different statistics packages give you different numbers. Server logs, for example, have always provided numbers that were orders of magnitude higher than a service like StatCounter which relies on you pasting some Javascript code into your web pages or blog. Even amongst external analytics services there can be wild variation. A comparison of Statcounter and Google Analytics shows that numbers for the same site can be radically different.

Who, exactly, is right? Is Google undercounting? StatCounter overcounting? Your web server overcounting by a factor of 10? Do you even know what they are counting? Most people do not know how their statistics are gathered. Javascript counters, for example, can undercount because they rely on the visitor enabling Javascript in their browser. Many mobile browsers, for example, will not show up because they are not able to run Javascript. (I note that the iPhone, iTouch and Android do show up, but I doubt that they represent the majority of mobile browsers.)

Equally, server logs tend to overcount not just because they'll count every damn thing, whether it's a bot, a spider or a hit from a browser, but also they'll count everything on the server, not just the pages with Javascript code on. To some extent, different sorts of traffic will be distinguished by the analytics software that is processing the logs, but there's no way round the fact that you're getting stats for every page, not just the ones you're interested in. Comparing my server stats to my StatCounter shows the former is 7 times the latter. (In the past, I've had sites where it's been more than a factor of ten.)

So, you have lots of big numbers and pretty graphs but no idea what is being counted and no real clue what the numbers mean. How on earth, then, can you judge a project a success if all you have to go on are numbers? Just because you could dial a phone with your total visitor count for the month and reach an obscure island in the Pacific doesn't mean that you have hit the jackpot. It could equally mean that lots of people swung past to point and laugh at your awful site.

And that's just web stats. Socal media stats are even worse, riddled with the very snakeoil that web stats were trying to mitigate against. But more on that another day.

Professionalism

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First we caused the twin evils of poor communication and inability to learn from each other through our systematisation and bureaucratisation of the world of work. We devalued relationships and trust as twin pillars of human endeavour. Then we made it worse by sticking plaster on the wound, adding layers of "professional" intervention on top in the form of "internal communicators" and "knowledge managers" in our attempts to make things better. We buried the people trying to do things under increasingly collusive layers of "grown ups" pretending that this is the way things have to be.

And then... (Euan is a great read - if you're not already subscribed, he's well worth it.)

Professionalism is, at best, a veneer of objectivity. At worst is a false persona that distances us from our colleagues, complicates collaboration and erodes trust. Social media turns all this on its head - instead of being "professional" we can be ourselves, we can have genuine relationships with colleagues that promote trust and understanding. We can finally acknowledge that we are real people with real emotions and that those emotions matter.

danah boyd and digital anthropology

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There's a great interview with digital anthropologist danah boyd in The Guardian. I love danah's work. We so desperately need more people like danah who take a calm and evidence-based view of the way the internet and social tools are changing society (or not, in some cases). She proved to be an essential source for my work on digital natives earlier this year, and her work should be essential reading for everyone in recruitment and HR.

The article says:

Lately, [boyd's] work has been about explaining new ways of interpreting the behaviour we see online, and understanding that the context of online activity is often more subtle - and more familiar - than we first imagine.

Last week she outlined some examples at the Supernova conference in San Francisco, including the case of a young man from one of the poorest districts of Los Angeles who was applying to a prestigious American college. The applicant said he wanted to escape the influence of gangs and violence, but the admissions officer was appalled when he discovered that the boy's MySpace page was plastered with precisely the violent language and gang imagery he claimed to abhor. Why was he lying about his motivations, asked the university? He wasn't, says Boyd: in his world, showing the right images online was a key part of surviving daily life.

This is possibly an extreme case, but an important illustration. There are so many examples of people who have been fired or had job/univiersity offers withdrawn because of their behaviour on social tools. As a society we need to be really careful about how we handle the occasional mismatch between what we see and what we want to see. Sometimes it's just more complicated than it seems and people deserve to have that complexity examined before people leap to a conclusion.

Social tools bring into the light behaviours that were previously hidden and we risk making very poor HR decisions if we don't examine the nuance of each scenario individually. Is it right that employers expect a potential hire's Facebook page to reflect the employers' values rather than the reality of the new hire's life? How long do youthful transgressions linger? After all, how many managers making hiring decisions have an entirely unblemished past? The fact that their mistakes are buried in the mists of pre-technological history doesn't mean that they didn't make the same ones that we witness young people making online now.

Incentives in social media

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I found myself explaining to a client the other day why incentives don't work very well for encouraging people to get involved in social media. Indeed, incentives can have the very opposite effect so must be handled with extreme caution.

This excellent video from Dan Pink explains very succinctly why incentives do not work for anything other than simple mechanical tasks, and goes on to examine the importance of autonomy.

You should also read Johnnie Moore's blog post Incentives, innovation, community which adds yet more flavour and context, including lots of quotes from and links to studies in the same area. And you might also like my post on incentives from earlier this year.

It's unsurprising that these flaws 'business operating systems' affect the way that social media projects are rolled out, as companies try to remake social media in their own image. But it's also interesting to (sometimes) see how the more autonomous processes of social media can rub off on business culture. Might social media even be a powerful enough force to change the default settings under which business operates? I hope so.

Google's real-time search ups the misTweet ante

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Google has announced that it is going to be indexing the web in real time:

Now, immediately after conducting a search, you can see live updates from people on popular sites like Twitter and FriendFeed, as well as headlines from news and blog posts published just seconds before.

[...] You can also filter your results to see only "Updates" from micro-blogs like Twitter, FriendFeed, Jaiku and others.

[...] Our real-time search features are based on more than a dozen new search technologies that enable us to monitor more than a billion documents and process hundreds of millions of real-time changes each day. Of course, none of this would be possible without the support of our new partners that we're announcing today: Facebook, MySpace, FriendFeed, Jaiku and Identi.ca -- along with Twitter, which we announced a few weeks ago.

This announcement should make people with twitchy Twitter fingers pause. There was once a time when a mis-posted Tweet could be deleted in time to ensure it never made it into Google's cache (although never fast enough ensure no one saw it in their timeline). Google hasn't explained how they will now deal with deleted updates, but my own experiment this morning showed that deleted Tweets are not deleted from Google in a timely fashion (if at all).

This is good and bad news. On the one hand, Google Cache has allowed me to do a bit of forensic Twitter searching to piece together deleted conversations. There will be times when it will be an important tool for holding public figures accountable for what they say in public. On the other hand, everyone makes mistakes. Shouldn't we be able to delete and forget them?

However Google ultimately decides to deal with deleted content, it's a timely reminder not to update in haste.

Notes of caution and notes of hope

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Stephen Baker writes an interesting piece over on Business Week sounding a note of caution about social media snake oil (and publishes some paragraphs that didn't make the final cut on his own blog). The comments take Baker to task about the case studies he selects, but I think the point he makes still stands: It's very easy to become a well-known name in social media regardless of your actual knowledge and experience, and quite a different thing to achieve results.

The problem of social media carpetbaggers is something I've mentioned before, but it's a topic worth revisiting regularly because it's not one that's going away. People can be suspicious of consultants at the best of times and now that the job title "social media consultant" draws the same reaction as "estate agent" or "used car salesman", it's clear that the carpetbaggers are having a strong and negative impact on the perception of social media.

Therein lies the problem. Social tools can be incredibly powerful, but they have to be used well to stand even the slightest chance of success. If you have a crappy email client, you just have to learn to live with it. A crappy social media project is not only something that people can reject out of hand, it's also likely that when it fails it is social media that is blamed, not the implementation.

Baker suggests that there is "danger of a backlash". I'd say that the backlash is already happening - I see it already in the scorn some people heap on not just consultants but the tools themselves.

We saw exactly the same thing happen after the Dot Com Crash. Companies that had invested in expensive web projects, many of which were doomed from the outset due to being patently stupid ideas, failed to look at their own poor decisions and instead wrote off the web as a bad idea. "Internet" became a four letter word. (If you tried raising biz dev money in autumn 2002, you'll know that!) The baby was thrown out with the bath water.

Seven years later, companies that had been quick to throw their digital talent under the bus have found themselves way behind competitors who reacted more sensibly to the end of the boom. Those who invested wisely in the web and ensured they had good digital people on board have flourished. The nay sayers are still running to catch up.

So here are two basic truths about social media:

* Social media is not a panacea. It cannot perform miracles. It cannot turn a sow's ear into a silk purse. It can go horribly wrong horribly easily.
* Social media is not a waste of time. It can be transformational. It can empower your staff and your customers. It takes time, effort and understanding to get it right.

Companies making bad decisions now about social media are going to have a lot of running to do in five years' time when they suddenly realise how far behind they are.

Why does a blog look like a blog?

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Smashing Magazine has an article titled The Death of the Blog Post, wherein UX designer Paddy Donnelly examines a trend amongst web designers to play with their blog's design and layout in what he calls a "blogazine" - a blog with a magazine-style layout. Donnelly's main point seems to be that he, and other designers, find traditional blog designs boring, and feel that that each post deserves to have its own design to service its own needs, rather than have to fit in with a single blog-wide design.

I can understand why this is deeply attractive to designers. The creative freedom to tailor a page's design perfectly to fit the text must be something designers often crave. And the examples he gives, particularly those from Dustin Curtis, look lovely. But the idea of designing each post afresh is only going to work for a very tiny minority of bloggers with the time and skills. For the vast majority of bloggers, this is just not an option.

But more than that, conflating blog and magazine is a really bad idea.

In unpicking why, we have an opportunity for some important lessons for enterprise. The first is that your blog design really, really matters. There is no excuse for you not to have a beautifully, professionally designed blog that is readable, accessible, and flexible enough to be read on different monitors or devices. If your blog is just slapped onto your corporate website with the same navigation, styling and layout as the rest of the site you should get it redesigned right now. No excuses.

The next lesson is relevant not just to enterprise, but also to web designers shifting from site design to blog design: Blog design patterns matter.

When you look at a well-designed blog you will see a number of features that I call "blog furniture". There are many pieces of blog furniture to choose from, and not all blogs use all pieces, but most use a combination of:

  • Calendar
  • Search
  • Categories
  • Archives
  • Recent posts
  • Recent comments
  • Meta information (e.g. the admin sign-in link, RSS feed link)
  • RSS feeds from other sources, e.g. Delicious, Twitter, or news headlines
  • Badges from third party sites, e.g. Flickr badges
  • About the Author text, photo or link
  • Blogroll or list of external links
  • Tag lists or tag clouds

These are really important not just because they are useful, but because they provide the visual cues that tell visitors they are somewhere different from the rest of the site, somewhere more personal, more conversational, more informal. Take those cues away, and you risk confusing your readers, even if only momentarily.

If I pitch up on a page that looks just like the rest of the site - or, indeed, nothing like any other page on the site - then it's going to take me a while to understand what it is and what it's for. When we arrive on a new site, we give it less than a second to impress us. If the visuals conflict with the content, for example, we are expecting to see a blog but we are presented with something that looks like a magazine, we are less likely to hang around. The fact that it looks pretty isn't going to make up for that moment of disconnection. (In this precise case, designers may be the exception, but that also means they are profoundly unable to judge whether or not a page causes a conflict of expectations.)

Thirdly, RSS matters. A cornerstone of the blogging world, RSS strips out all design and present, very simply, passages of text interspersed with any graphics. Donnelly's post looks awful in RSS. Compare and contrast:

From the website

The Death Of The Blog Post - Smashing Magazine

From the RSS feed

NetNewsWire (1536 unread)

A blog post that reads in a disjointed way, with too many graphics, in your RSS reader is going to be a post you don't bother to finish. Beautiful layouts that rely on the juxtaposition of text and image to make their point are likely to fail horribly in RSS.

I would say that if you're creating a site with lots of bespoke pages, no blog furniture, which loses its coherence in an RSS reader, you're not actually writing a blog at all: you're using blogging software as the backend of a website. Now, there's nothing wrong with that and I'm glad that such talented designers are flexing their online creative muscles. But let's not confuse our spades and our shovels.

Over the last ten years blogs have evolved conventions because those conventions are useful. There is no reason why those conventions should hamper design, but you throw them out at your peril.

The other Two Cultures

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What are the implications of reducing bureaucracy? Bill Vlasic of the New York Times asked that question in his piece about how General Motors is trying to get rid of needless form-filling and shed its "hidebound, command-and-control corporate culture". GM is trying to shift from a company where dissent was marginalised to a culture of openness and honesty.

I agree wholeheartedly with Johnnie Moore, when he says:

My feeling is that what appears to be happening at GM needs to happen in a lot more places. It often seems to me that everytime we experience a crisis, the solution is to write more rules. [...]

The intention is good, but the practical effect is to engulf people in explicit, complicated systems and reduce their freedom - based on an unconscious assumption that everyone is not to be trusted. We give ascendancy to people who are really great at theory and effectively degrade practice. I think its rooted in the idea that one person or a group of people can effectively oversee a system and control how it works with written instructions.

In order to get things done people have to find elaborate work arounds for the rules, often with anxiety. The result: it's actually harder to create real trust the human way, using our judgement and instincts.

This reminds me of theories of management that I stumbled once on Wikipedia, Theory X and Theory Y, which were proposed by Douglas McGregor in the 60s. In Theory X, management assume that employees are "inherently lazy and will avoid work if they can". In Theory Y, managers assume that employes "may be ambitious and self-motivated" and enjoy their work.

Whilst reality tends not to fall into two neatly opposing mindsets, the framework is still useful, especially when think about how social media fits into a corporate culture. One could extend the theories thus:

Theory X companies are inimical to social tools, because they simply do not trust staff. Concern that people will 'abuse' the tools in some way leads to attempts to control employees' access to them. The company's public blog winds up with an editorial committee, only approved managers are allowed an internal blog, and access to sites like Wikipedia or services like Twitter are curtailed. Social media projects generally fail in these cultures, if they are ever started in the first place.

Theory Y companies, on the other hand, are ready to trust their staff to do the right thing. Social software is made available to all, small talk and social uses of the tools are allowed (sometimes even encouraged), and people build stronger relationships with colleagues which increases trust and ability to collaborate. Departmental silos are broken down, communication across time zones and locations improves, duplication of effort is reduced. Social media projects generally succeed in these cultures.

Of course, in reality, corporate cultures are not homogeneous. One department may have a much more open, collaborative and sharing culture than another. The question is whether Theory Y cultures are nurtured and growing within a wider Theory X company, or are they seen as aliens to be disposed of?

(The other Two Cultures, in case you're wondering, are CP Snow's.)

ATA: Who are your favourite social media bloggers?

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So I reckon it's time for a bit of audience participation here on The Social Enterprise, so I've decided to create a new "Ask The Audience" category. I shall, unsurprisingly enough, periodically and at random ask you a question about your thoughts on social media. Simples!

Today's question:

Who are your favourite social media bloggers?

Who are the trusted old voices whose opinions you value? Who are the up-and-comers that provide you with insight? Which social media blogs can you simply not live without?

Let me know in the comments!

When provided a choice, do people choose?

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Social software is a strange beast in terms of corporate software. The best social tools are developed by small software houses or ad hoc groups of open source developers. Often they are much more usable than traditional corporate tools, more lightweight and more flexible. Comparing Wordpress, which is basically a content management system, with some of the CMSes I used back when I was a web designer/developer, the difference is stunning. Wordpress is just so much simpler to use and easier to manage.

But for me, the key difference between traditional enterprise software and social software is that in almost all cases, social software is elective. If your business decides to change its email client or accounts package, for example, there's nothing users can do but get on with it. Social tools, on the other hand, frequently replace existing tools/processes such as email and meetings and are almost always optional. Users often opt not to bother.

The successful implementation of social software doesn't stop with a technically successful roll-out. In fact, that's when the process begins because that's when your adoption strategy should kick in.

Adoption is ultimately about behaviour change: persuading people that, for example,
instead of sending an email to everyone with a new version of a document they are working on, they should put it on a wiki where it's easier to collaborate. This might seem like a small step - and for a few people it is - but for the majority that's a fundamental change to the way that they have learnt to work on documents.

When we are faced with these sorts of changes we tend to resist. I'd hazard a guess that neophobia is much more common than neophilia (which is why you can spot us neophiliacs a mile off!), and the assumption that people will resist should be front and centre in social media project roll-out plans.

In short, the implementation of social software is not a technical project, it's a behavioural change project.

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This page is an archive of entries from December 2009 listed from newest to oldest.

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