Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Once upon a consult...

Once upon a consult, I had a client who was at once:
  1. in love with the web and the opportunities it could provide his organization,
  2. reasonably savvy about new and creative approaches to using the web,
  3. dealing with enormous gaps of information in his web knowledge that made him unsure of his decisions, and
  4. an ego the size of Cleveland that wouldn't made it very painful for him to admit mistakes.
We were going through a painful redesign of the web site -- the final of three big redesigns in less than a year.

"It has to be right the first time," he said. "Iteration isn't an option."

"Well, with the dynamic environment of the web," I said carefully, "it's actually pretty hard to get everything right...."

He glared at me. I gulped. "OK," I said. "We'll do our best."

"It HAS to be right. The FIRST TIME."

Weeks pass... we go through as exhaustive a design process as we can considering our total lack of a research budget and the short time line. We come up with a different approach that addresses the audiences and goals of the web site, working with the client the whole time. We have thoroughly explained and documented the rationale for what we are doing. We create a mock-up and give it to the client for final approval.

Then the client goes to a conference.

At the last minute, he decides to take the mock-up with him. The conference is about search engine optimization (SEO). Oddly enough, a speaker at the conference uses the client's current site in his presentation -- as a model of what should be done for good SEO. This is, of course, the current site that we are redesigning because it isn't meeting the stated goals set by the client.

After the speech, the client shows the mock-up to one of the speakers -- an SEO expert from Amazon.

The SEO expert doesn't like the mock-up. "It doesn't have enough text," he said. "It doesn't address any of the SEO best practices that we use successfully at Amazon. Don't do it."

The client comes back and confronts me on this person's assessment. "What were you thinking? Don't you know anything about SEO?"

I was floored. I do know about SEO. Early on, however, we had all decided to focus primarily on other concerns. I couldn't speak. I just kept thinking about all of those meetings, all of that documentation... and he still had no idea why we made those design decisions.

"My understanding of the goals was that we were designing for people to successfully interact with the tools on the site, rather than designing for search engines," I croaked out finally. "The design approaches can be pretty different...."

"The guy at Amazon said this is absolutely the wrong way to go. Amazon is a large, successful web site. Why should I believe you over him? We won't be requiring your services any longer." He got up from his chair and walked out of the room.

*******************

I don't tell this tale* as a plea for sympathy (though I'm sure there are one or two of you out there who feel the pain). The fact that "my services were no longer required" was best for all involved. My client no longer trusted that I was giving him good strategic advice and I no longer trusted that he ever listened to a word I said. I would rather this came across as a cautionary tale to well-meaning web consultants and conference speakers across the web industry.

Think before you cut loose with that free advice.

Imagine you are the guy from Amazon. You had just finished a speech and your adrenaline is probably still flowing. There's a good chance (if the speech was toward the end of the day) that you have a drink in your hand. Someone comes up to you out of nowhere and shows you a home page mock-up. He asks you to tell him your opinion of it. Please don't assume that he:

  1. is sensitive to the fact that you are speaking from your own unique, potentially narrow, experience,
  2. is sensitive to the fact that you are speaking from your own, potentially narrow, specialty (such as SEO), or
  3. actually knows that many of the best practices needed to make a web site the best it can be are in conflict with each other and that sometimes you have to choose which are most important.

You aren't thinking about all of the competing goals and audiences for the site. You don't know anything about the strategic goals of the organization. You don't know any of the stakeholders. You don't know what content is or is not available.

You are most likely thinking about dinner.

You just answered a question and you probably forgot about it an hour later.



*This story is based on a real interaction but most of the details have been changed.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Are journalists doomed?

There was a time -- not so long ago -- when all that journalists had to worry about was getting credible facts checked and assembling a cohesive story about a topic.

That's harder than it sounds. People are terrible sources of information for a journalist. They forget stuff, they remember important details wrong -- sometimes they just lie in order to get attention or to get the journalist to stop talking to them. Journalists are taught this early on and are expected to wade through a lot of information, follow the consistencies for a thread of truth, and then tease out that thread into a story that is as well-rounded as possible.

Granted, not all journalists actually do this, but this is how they are trained.

We're awash in information from television and Internet -- say nothing of those informative folks in your car pool or standing around the proverbial water cooler. Let's look at H1N1... or breast cancer screening... or the war in Afghanistan. There are lots of very credible-sounding people passionately saying things that are polar opposites of each other. Is one person or group wrong? No. Typically they are both right at some level, but you have to really pick through the details to figure out what applies to you.

Try it. It's really hard to do.

I recently ran across an article on Mashable.com about the eight must-have traits of tomorrow's journalist that made me laugh. You can read the article to get the real traits... I've paraphrased these to serve my own nefariously bloggish purposes.
  1. They need to be entrepreneurial and have enough business savvy to start their own publications when the ones they work for inevitably go under. *smirk* Yeah.. there's some motivation for you.
  2. They need to be a computer programmer with the skills to not only tell a story across different media, but also build and manage the computer platforms the story appears on.
  3. They need to be able to keep a completely open mind about... well... everything. That means encouraging more facts/opinions than fewer while somehow still finding a coherent story to talk about.
  4. Have the skills and experience to tell a story using video, text, graphics, audio and photography -- all at the same time.
  5. Become an online community manager to build and grow a community who think you (the journalist) are the cat's meow. You do that, of course, by routinely engaging in some kind of thoughtful back-and-forth with with the people who follow you -- often one individual at a time. If you do this well, this means thousands of people.
  6. Create and maintain a blog of your own, and also constantly scan the whole Internet to find and identify "the good stuff".
  7. Be "multi-skilled". No shit.
  8. Have and maintain the fundamental journalism skills of good writing, ethics, news judgment, investigation, and verification.
This list is... ummm... how should I put it... COMPLETELY INSANE. Mastering storytelling on every possible media? Tough, but probably doable. Building and maintaining the computer platform that your stories appear on? Oh, please. Creating and growing an online community that is large enough to have any kind of impact in our fragmented information world is sort of a lot of work. You can't do that over a couple of hours a day.

I believe that the industry of journalism is going through some fundamental changes. Many of the basic principles I learned in school -- namely around the disdain of those who aren't professional journalists and the inherent credibility of large publishing organizations -- will be very different in ten years.

I do not believe, however, that a single person will represent these eight traits. Web sites and web communities (as well as small businesses) are built and maintained by teams of people -- even Mashable.com.

I believe they always will be.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

A more positive spin

I feel like I've been complaining a lot lately. I've decided to post something positive, though dubiously connected to stated purpose of the blog.

No matter the long-term effectiveness of social media, the future of book publishing, the cost issues around multimedia, or the chances of getting maimed or killed by a person rolling around in a mobile desk, kittens and puppies will always be cute.




Bunnies, too. I like bunnies.



Have a great Tuesday, y'all!

Why publish?

I worked for a book publisher for nearly ten years early in my career. During the time, a lot of my romantic preconceptions about book publishing were smashed.

  1. Photo thanks to svenwerk on FlickrI found out that acquisitions editors were often given lists of books that they needed to find authors for. Rather than reading anything that was sent in, they developed "hit lists" of people who were already famous... so that marketing costs could be brought down. An unknown author without some kind of existing fame getting published is a million-to-one shot.

  2. I found out that book publishers work on razor-thin financial margins and are constantly scrabbling for something -- anything -- that will make money with minimal investment. This will, on occasion, lead to questionable ethical decisions on the part of the publisher.

  3. I found out that publishers only aggressively market the books predetermined to sell big. The other books are left to do the best they can on their own merits (reviewers or the unpaid marketing efforts of the author).

  4. I found out the there is a complex economy of relationships (financial and personal) between book publishers and brick-and-mortar bookstores -- particularly the monster chains like Barnes & Noble or Borders. This was in the old days before Amazon existed but I assume the relationship model still exists. These relationships had nothing to do with the quality of books. The publishers need the books that aren't New York Times bestsellers put on shelves that don't require people 20 minutes of searching to find. The big bookstores (many of which are also working on pretty tight margins) just wanted to sell as many books as possible and didn't much care what they were. The bestsellers got each and every visible spot. The books that aren't big bestsellers get stuck wherever was left.

  5. I found out that anyone who isn't a part of this economy of relationships (small publishers or individuals) have no hope of ever seeing their books in a big bookstore chain. Small, independent bookstores are an exception to that, but they are few and far between these days.

  6. I found out that authors -- if they are very, very lucky -- get seven or eight percent of what each book sells for. For an average $20 book, the hardworking author gets a royalty of about $1.50. If the author had an agent to get the manuscript read and published, the agent's payment comes out of that $1.50.

  7. I found out that for $1.50/book, an author will likely sign away all copyrights to the book... "in all media, current and future, in perpetuity". Even if a publisher prints 100 copies of the book and then glues the books together to use as furniture in their office, the author can't take that book to another publisher or do something with it herself without another contract negotiation. The contract negotiation would likely involve the author paying for any publisher investment (editing, book cover design, etc.).

I look through this list and, as an author, this looks like a bad deal to me. Why should I sell my manuscript to a publisher if I'm going to have to do all of the marketing myself anyway? I am pretty much set up from the beginning to have no hope of making enough money to do more than buy a new laptop unless I'm the next JK Rowling or Dan Brown.

I've self-published two books. I haven't made a dime on either one, but I still own the copyrights. They will never see the light of day from a Borders bookshelf, but they are on Amazon. When technology changes and unexpected opportunities pop up, I'm much more agile than a thin-profit-margin publisher.

I have a third manuscript that I've shopped around unenthusiastically, but why should I self-publish that as well? As an author who hasn't had a book "published" before and who hasn't done something so crazy or horrible that I got a few moments of widespread fame, I just don't see the advantage of a traditional publisher.

Can anyone set me straight on this?


*****************************************************
I read some interesting predictions on the book publishing business by Richard Nash here. I don't know if his predictions will come true, but they seem pretty logical.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

When multimedia makes your head explode

My husband and I attended a lecture recently about digital storytelling. (Having this sort of thing local almost makes dealing with Washington, DC traffic worth it.) The speakers represented two extraordinary storytelling organizations: National Public Radio and the National Geographic Society.

Honestly. If any two groups can do this stuff, it's got to be them. Right?

Well, yeah... kinda.

I typically walk out of these lectures a little disappointed. I don't think it's because I'm jaded... quite the opposite. I am an eternal optimist. I keep thinking surely someone has figured this stuff out so the rest of us don't have to just keep...

...guessing....

As of last night, nobody's got it figured out. These two groups have lucked into some success. I'd wager the success is based more on the brand awareness and audience built over decades than any social media effort to date. That said, it was a very interesting evening filled with beautiful pictures projected 20 feet high and some interesting thoughts and insights about how to use multimedia to tell a story.

The current model seems to be one key story complemented by side stories, using different kinds of multimedia, to either give broader context to the key story or to dive deeper into detail. By doing that, you can actually get enough value added to your storytelling to justify the effort.

There's a lot of effort involved.

Andrea Hsu is a producer for All Things Considered on NPR. She described how, on top of thinking about the details of getting the best possible audio for All Things Considered, she was now carrying around a camera and looking at her situation for opportunities to take good photos. Keith Jenkins, also of NPR, said that the photographers he manages are encouraged to learn about audio and collect that as well (though he didn't exactly say they are actually doing that on a daily basis).

So I'm thinking about this as I'm driving up 16th Street, avoiding the crazy cab drivers and random pedestrians walking in the middle of the street. So you've got people working at NPR who are very good at their jobs. People who are very good at their jobs keep a thousand details in their brains... that is what makes them so good. They've also got egos so they'll apply that level of detail to anything they do: writing the story, recording audio, and taking still photos and video.

At what point do their heads just explode?

I've worked in book publishing, print journalism, Web, and television production. Of all of those experiences, the only one that comes close to what it would take to create consistently focused, high quality, robust multimedia is television. Television production assumes a lot of teamwork: writers, graphics people, directors, producers, technicians of many kinds, and "talent".

Television production is ridiculously expensive. Information on the Web wants more and more to be free. Does anyone else see a fundamental problem here?

If nothing else, just figuring out how to make multimedia pay will make your head explode.

Monday, November 2, 2009

…And now for something completely different….

It’s not been the best of days so this diversion from the day (thanks to Lisa Gold: Research Maven) was a delight. The original of this delightful index of supernatural collective nouns is at Wondermark by David Malki and it inspired the poet in me.

Keeping Your Problems In Perspective

Should a dignity of dragons ever darken your door,
with a clangor of robots that crash in the night…

Should a fondle of unicorns find you famished
Or an opulence of succubi blot out the light….

Should a compass of cherubim sing loudly (off key)
Or a quiver of geniuses find themselves lacking…

Should an audacity of gargoyles go for a swim,
And send a gossip of mermaids angrily off packing….

Should a hustle of brownies, in childish malevolence
Bring out the badness of an indulgence of leprechauns…

Take a look at your problems, for what they are
They can’t be nearly as bad as a tangle of Gorgons.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

A design for disaster


Take a look at this. Just let it soak in for a minute. How many ways could this little gadget get you into trouble?

Now I've run into doors, walls, cars, and other people just by walking while I check my phone for email. Imagine an office where people are zooming around on these little babies, eyes glued to their laptops, and (for good measure) earbuds probably stuck to their ears.

Don't get me wrong... it would be hysterical to watch (through a tempered glass window set into a cinder block wall), but I have to wonder what the designer was thinking when he or she came up with this.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Communicating H1N1

I've tried really, really hard to not react rashly to the information coming out of the CDC and national media about the H1N1 flu. It's hard since it's been kind of nonstop since last Spring. I understand the communications issues around talking about this kind of thing are complex, but this is getting out of hand.

I'd like to submit that sometimes -- when talking about something complicated and potentially dangerous -- the best thing to do is get the simple message out and then just stop talking.

I just ran across an Associated Press article about H1N1 risks for kids. Let me tell you what I -- as the mother of a young child -- got out of it.

  1. H1N1 WILL KILL YOUR CHILD!
  2. H1N1 probably won't kill your child... only maybe... most kids don't die but some do even without being sick otherwise... we don't really know why... but SHE MIGHT BE DEAD IN DAYS!
  3. If your child is sick, freak out immediately.
  4. Go to the emergency room BEFORE YOUR KID DIES.
  5. Don't go to the emergency room because if she's not really dying, she'll be in the way of all of those car crash victims, heart attack victims, and other bleeding people who actually have medical emergencies.
  6. Go to your child's doctor BEFORE YOUR KID DIES.
  7. Don't go to your child's doctor since you and your child might get in the way of other kids who might actually be sick.

My favorite line in the article was

Alexander, the Chicago doctor, said he always tells parents, "Trust your instincts." Then, if it goes beyond the typical flu experience, seek help, he said.

OK... except that the article started out with the following story:

Max Gomez was a bright-eyed 5-year-old happy to have just started kindergarten when he developed sniffles and a fever. His mother figured it was only a cold. Three days later, the Antioch, Tenn., boy was dead, apparently from swine flu.

So the overall message I get out of this is: Trust your instincts... but don't guess wrong OR YOUR CHILD WILL DIE!

I went to journalism school. I know the importance of an attention-grabbing lead that pulls at a person's heart strings, but let's get real here -- it's a cheap trick to get people to read something important (ie., boring). I know the importance of a reporter asking all of the questions and then laying out the answers in an unbiased (all right... minimally biased) way so that people can come to their own conclusions but this stuff is important. Is it really helping the greater good to relentlessly highlight the fractional percentage of DEAD KIDS to get people to pay attention?

I'm sorry, but that's the only clear message coming through in this and many other news reports: YOUR CHILD WILL DIE FROM H1N1... so... you know... be vigilant.. and... ummm... get a shot... and... umm... have a nice day.

We are all intelligent people. None of us want our children to die. Is fear really the best way to communicate this stuff?

Friday, October 9, 2009

Twittering

I have spent the day eavesdropping on the NPR Think In session run by FrogDesign via Twitter. While I was frustrated at the lack of coverage of the breakout sessions, it was interesting to see what got picked up on and retweeted.
  1. Katie Couric's salary.
  2. The fact that NPR's iPhone app is successful.
Yeah. Those were the two big ones. For a while there, the Katie Couric thing was taking on a life of its own.

*sigh*

And those are the professionals.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Deep Thinking About Gathering Places

I've been messing around with an idea for a long time and it looks like the messing will continue. Thank you, dear readers, for indulging me in this. If I don't get this out of my head and on (virtual) paper, I might have to do something crazy....

Like blow my diet with a candy bar in the middle of the day or (heaven forbid) go shoe shopping.

*deep breath* OK. Here goes.

As information designers, we should be thinking about our information spaces in the same way that urban planners look at physical spaces. As web sites become less about content and more about human interaction, the parallels between the two disciplines become more pronounced.

Human communities tend to follow similar interaction patterns whether they are online or face to face. Different norms pop up, but the basic interactions are the same: we like to connect, we need to sell or shop, we learn.

I look around the small suburban community I live in and notice where people congregate. It's actually not an easy town to congregate in. It was built right after World War II and epitomizes the culture of the car. The arteries of the town are dangerous, heavily trafficked roads. The shopping is made of a seemingly endless series of strip malls, all with aprons of parking lots spread out before them.

You have to drive everywhere... and that's less about physical distance and more about avoiding becoming roadkill. That's what first got me thinking about physical and online environments. Moving fast to avoid becoming roadkill... well, that kind of resonated with how I look at the Web.

So I went looking for some information on urban planning.

In 1961, Jane Jacobs wrote a book called Death and Life of Great American Cities. It was a big deal at the time, going against a lot of tightly held assumptions. Jacobs compared cities to living things that change over time as they interact with their environment. If the city is the organism, then the sidewalks, parks, streets and neighborhoods are the various systems, each with a different function but tightly and seamlessly integrated. By viewing cities in this way, planners can better understand their structure and make more efficacious recommendations.

Diverse shared areas are connected and then work together as a whole, creating efficient community. Makes total sense. Let's go another step.

So what would be a digital example of each? I'd argue that search engines are the streets -- maybe more like bridges over the rich, swampy, unorganized muck that is the World Wide Web. I know from my own research, as well as others', that most people start with a search engine (or bookmarks, RSS readers, or a single "portal" site). They start with a road.

That's sort of where I lose the parallels, though. We've got roads through the muck, but they are all individualized. In the physical world we share those roads and, because of that, interact with each other. The web isn't organized into neighborhoods that have some kind of underlying commonality about them that we must, as humans, acknowledge as unchangable... something like physical location. On the Web, an individual has to build his or her own digital neighborhoods (groups of web sites) based on a personal set of commonalities like taste, preferences, and beliefs. Some of those things are shared with others, but never in exactly the same way.

Basically, the roads are built for a single person, by a single person, and pretty much disappear without a trace as soon as the person travels it.

In a physical community, people are forced to share. We have to share physical spaces. We have to share services. Within that sharing comes a sense of community.

On the Web, we aren't forced to share anything.

I'm starting to think that I got this information spaces as physical spaces all wrong -- particularly around online community. While we want to come together on the Web, it is a completely different environment. Any attempt to mimic physical place on the Web is artificial. The same base rules simply don't apply.

It's like living on Mars... scratch that. It's more alien than that. It's like living on Jupiter and swirling around on the poisonous winds with 40 million other people in space suits... only able to communicate through radios and the rare, occasional wave.

How would you build a sense of community on Jupiter?

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Reflection on the miracle of technology

As I am clearing the dishes from dinner, I am listening to the father/daughter bonding happening in the dining room and pause for a moment to reflect.

To reflect on technology.

Why, you may ask, would I take that particular moment and that particular context to start thinking about technology?

Oh, please. Let me tell you.

Because, while I am in the kitchen dealing with the leftovers, the child comes and takes my iPhone out of my pocket. She gleefully takes it into the other room. I hear low voices. Suddenly, my phone rings. I move out to the dining room in case it is something important for... you know... me... since it's my phone and all.... It's not. It's my husband calling calling the child from two feet away.

Thus, I paused for a moment to consider the technological achievements that went into creating this device -- a beautifully designed cell phone that looks like nothing more than a piece of black glass but does so much more. This wonderful device takes his voice, beams it into outer space, finds my equally lovely device (now sitting in a five-year-old's greasy hands), beams it BACK down from space to a physical location two feet from where it started.

What does this amazing process communicate? An "I love you?" No. The sound I hear lingering in the hallway was nothing quite so sweetly elegant.

I heard a belch. A belch echoing as only a cell phone speaker hearing itself from two feet away can belch. Then comes the child's sad little attempt to imitate it. Than another, and another.

It sort of puts the world of technology into perspective, doesn't it?

Thursday, July 23, 2009

The value of lurkers

In online community management, the holy grail is to have active participation from the majority of the members of your community. That is what online community managers work so hard to achieve. A lot of time and effort is put into getting everyone participating (posting comments or forum posts, friending each other, etc.).

As someone who is naturally a bit of an introvert, this always struck me as a little odd. Maybe I don't want to spend all of my time talking. Maybe I get more value out of an online community by reading (ie., listening). If you look at physical human communities, it is a diversity of personalities that makes them work. If everyone was standing in the town square -- all the time -- all trying to talk at the same time, how is that useful to anyone?

...Unless your goal was to measure and increase the amount of noise in the town square.

Lurkers (people who just read and don't actively contribute content) make up the vast majority of any online community. Are they of no value at all to growing a vibrant online community? I'm a lurker. I visit sites often, I subscribe to email newsletters, and I click on ad links. I feel a personal affinity to the site. I also talk about what I read to friends and family and I will buy (or not buy) things based on what I read on the community site.

Most of the experienced community managers I've met would meet this challenge with a heavy sigh and say "No, it's not that simple. Of course you need diversity. Of course every community member has value."

So why are community managers constantly setting up participation rates as community goals? What are participation rates so often the basis of a community's ROI (return on investment)?

I can make an educated guess. From a business perspective, providing an online community can be expensive. It takes a lot of people to keep everything running and friendly. Finding an overt measure of its value to a business is tricky. You often can't tell if reading a random blog post actually influenced a lurker to follow through with an action such as trying out a new brand of peanut butter, cleaning up a neighborhood park, or voting for a political candidate.

Are we using participation rates for ROI as a convenience because the web servers give it to us? Heaven knows I've done that. I was pushed into a corner and had to come up with something I could measure. I knew as I did it that it was a convenience and that it would likely bite me later. It did. What I found is that those participation rates didn't really do anything to predict or support the end goals of the community. I found myself managing two things:
  1. Making sure I met my participation goals, and
  2. Trying to move the community toward the stated goals of the community/organization.
I believe with all of my heart that the online community was doing what it was supposed to. I just couldn't prove it. If you can't prove something, it's hard to keep getting funded. I came away from the experience thinking that we need two things:
  1. Some more targeted, creative ways to measure ROI, and
  2. Some realistic expectations based on organizational goals.
If the goal is to sell gadgets, no problem. It's an easy value proposition. If your organization is a nonprofit with a goal like "improving the quality of life of one-legged hermaphrodites around the world", that's a bit trickier. A community, logically, must support the organizational goal. How do you measure that?

Come on. Really.

Will having 500 one-legged hermaphrodites whining to each other on your forums really make their quality of life better? Isn't it more likely that allowing people to see that they are part of a larger, global community -- whether they choose to put up profile photos or not -- is supporting the organizational goal better?

I'd like to argue that lurkers are an important part of any online community and need to find their way into more ROI measures. Some quick ideas:
  • You can measure the number and turnover of lurkers.
  • You can segment users into groups and start tracking email open rates more carefully.
  • You can measure how long a person remains a quiet part of your community.
I know I'm not the first person to think or write about this, but I think the value of lurkers to your online community is easy to forget. It's worth raising the flag every now and then and, as we learn more and more about the ROI of online community to business, brainstorming how to measure their value.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Did you just get stuck managing a web site?

It's been a crappy economy and companies/organizations are scaling down dramatically. If you are a "survivor" of layoffs, you are probably doing the work of someone who... well... wasn't.

Maybe you are now managing the corporate web site -- whether you know anything about managing a web site or not.

What's the first thing you should do? Cover your butt. What's the adult, professional version of a Huggy's Pull Up with princesses on it?

Talk to your boss about your personal performance expectations and expectations for the site.

If you still have another full-time job to manage, you really need to be clear with your boss about how much time is to be spent on this. If you are stepping into a web site that either has been running along pretty easily with no big redesigns on the horizon, you'll probably be able to manage it on a part-time basis. If your web site has been sort of ignored and you are stepping in to "get it back on track". You'll be able to manage the amount of time you have to spend if there aren't already many expectations around it. If you get to set what is going to get done, you can control your time.

Just be really conservative about what you plan to do.

If you are being asked to oversee a large-scale redesign or replatform, you are looking at a full-time job. This is true even when you are outsourcing the design and technology. Here's a quick list of the things you'll need to do even if you are outsourcing all of the work:
  • Work with internal stakeholders to figure out what the site needs to do/look like.
  • Document this in as much detail as possible since you'll need to communicate it to vendors.
  • Create an RFP to find a vendor (or multiple vendors).
  • Analyze the proposals as best you can with a limited background in this stuff.
  • Sit through the "dog and pony" shows from vendors and try to figure out who is bullshitting you.
  • Negotiate a schedule and contract with the vendor(s).
  • Work with the vendor's project manager to write up some requirements for design and technology.
  • Talk to the vendor's designers about what your need.
  • Talk with internal stakeholders about the designs you came up with. (Everyone is a designer so stakeholders will demand approval of visual designs and ignore discussions about the technology. That's a little backwards, but such is life.)
  • Make a million micro decisions about what the site does and looks like in order to keep it on schedule and on budget.
  • Find or create graphical resources (logos, photos, etc) for the designers.
  • Find, create, or get others to create an awful lot of editorial content.
  • Make a million more micro decisions about the technology. The programmers need a lot of information from you. For example, a coder working on a form would need to know what the questions are, what the answers are, what font and typesize they need to be, what colors need to be on the form, whether each question is multiple choice or yes/no, and what happens when the "submit" button is pushed.
  • Deal with changes/new ideas from internal stakeholders as time passes. Keep managing these changes to your budget and schedule.
  • Write more content. You'll need a little backlog of stuff so the site changes shortly after its launched.
  • Do technical and content QA (checking for mistakes) on the initial software. This is important. The minute you say it's OK, the vendor has completed his or her contractual obligation. Additional changes will cost you extra.
  • Communicate internally to your boss and your coworkers about the new site and how it will help them/impact them.
  • Oversee the launch -- do another QA. Fix any problems you uncover.
  • Create some documentation for the person who will follow behind you and maintain/grow the site.
  • Possibly hire the person who will follow behind you and maintain/grow the site.
I don't care how amazingly organized you are, you won't be able to effectively maintain your other job. Just trust me on this. Save yourself the ulcer and find a way to take a leave of absence from your other role until about a month after the redesigned site has been launched. (You'll need the month to clean up little things that came up during the main development process and get everything organized for the person who will come in after you to do the maintenance.)

If that's not an option, then you'll need to start getting creative. One possible alternative: Get a buddy. See if you can get your organization to assign at least one other person to help you manage all of this. Two organized people who work well together could pull this off while doing other jobs.

If you are going to be juggling another job, here's another hint. Be really up front with your vendor when you are talking to them initially -- before you sign a contract. Tell them that you are juggling two jobs here and that you'll have limited time for feedback. They can take a lot of the microdecision-making, stakeholder stuff, and documentation off your plate. You'll need to pay the vendor for the extra time, but it'll be cheaper than hiring a full-time person.

A note on social media. Be careful here. Participating in other social networks takes a mind-boggling amount of time over and above the time you are spending on just maintaining/redesigning the site. The catch is that, in order to be noticed, you have to participate a lot -- many times every day. You have to be offering valuable information to the community you are participating in. You have to create personal relationships with people in this community. If you don't slog in the hours, you are just part of the background noise. You won't be noticed, you won't push new people to your web site, and won't hit your organization's goals.

Don't try to keep up with more than one or two social networks. Prioritize according to where your site's people are already congregating and then focus on those. If you are pretty sure that the members of your site's audience aren't heavy social media users, then lobby to get this off your plate until you have some help.

*salute*

Good luck. You'll need it.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Usability, part 2: What could go wrong?

So just plan for regular site-wide changes a couple of times a year. Sounds easy enough. Well, as with so many things in life, it is easier said than done. I do still think this is the way to go and the solution most likely to work, but there are some things to kind of keep in the back of your mind.

1. Keep everyone busy and focused

If you have an in-house staff, don't plan to do a bunch of design work or testing during this time without giving them something to do. With all due respect to software and hardware engineers, interface design generally isn't the thing you are best at. If you are going to focus on bug fixes, don't leave those design/content folks sitting around bored in their offices (I'm bunching editors and designers together as they have to work together to do site-wide changes). *sigh* It goes both ways. Bored design/content people and bored techs will get you into equal amounts of trouble.

Make sure everyone knows what they are supposed to do and by when. Keep a "scut list" of little tasks useful to the entire effort that someone can do when he or she hits a stopping point.

2. The stakeholders

This sort of depends on the culture of the place you work in. I've been in some places where everyone is just so busy that being left out of a furious two-week development effort will get you a wide grin, a kiss on each cheek and happy "see you in a couple of weeks!" This approach works beautifully in that environment. I've also worked in places where paranoia reigns and if you tell someone they can't participate in something -- anything -- like a six-hour, unanesthetized root canal -- they'll beat you about they head and shoulders until you vacate the dental chair because they are sure you are hiding something really cool.

If you are in that kind of place, this approach might not work. When I faced this, it didn't work. The paranoid stakeholders demanded a place at the table in a way that I couldn't stop and then proceeded to derail every conversation back into the day-to-day noise where they were most comfortable. *sigh* They weren't trying to be evil. They honestly wanted to learn more about web strategy and to participate in the effort... but two weeks is just not long enough to bring people who don't live this stuff up to speed.

Regardless of which culture you are dealing with, be sure to communicate to anyone who is interested:
  • what you are doing,
  • why you are doing it,
  • how what you are doing will affect their stuff,
  • what you hope to accomplish, and
  • when it will be over.
Even if no one asks, being able to answer these questions keeps you honest and focused.

3. Keep everyone in the loop

If you are pretty much a one-man- or one-woman-show, be sure that your tech vendor has a heads up that you are going to be messing with things site-wide. Be specific that this is A VERY BAD TIME to do "routine maintenance" since you'll start losing your changes randomly. Make sure that the vendor has done a good backup of the site before you start. If you have a team sitting with you, you can usually run screaming down the hallway and find someone to undo your mistake. If you are by yourself, the scenario will likely look like this:
  • You make a change. Shit breaks. Your heart stops and you start hitting the backspace button crying "no... no... no..." under your non-existent breath.
  • You call your tech vendor. The ONE PERSON who has the passwords to your site is sick/on vacation/at lunch/with another client or otherwise unavailable for some indefinite length of time.
  • You request that he or she contact you as soon as possible and slam down the phone.
  • You stare at the monitor for a few more minutes. The adrenaline spike starts to come down and you decide that since you broke it, you should be able to fix it.
  • You try a few things and nothing happens.
  • You try a few more things and bad things happen.
  • You get a phone call from your tech vendor. Your person with the passwords urgently requests that you STOP TRYING THINGS.
  • You sit at your desk, hitting Refresh every 15 seconds to see if the site is fixed while chewing your thumb down to a bloody stump.
Yeah. Been there. Done that. If you have a good site backup, you might be able to save your thumb.

4. Don't try to do too much

Two weeks sounds like a lot. It's not. If you are going to accomplish anything, you'll need to be organized and everyone will need to work together like a well-engineered watch. Even with all of this, you'll be working your butt off trying to get one or two solid site-wide improvements done.

Don't try doing this more than twice a year. This takes a lot of planning and you'll wind up feeling like you are on a treadmill... so will your staff. It affects the quality of both these special efforts and your day-to-day work.

Don't try to load up too many changes concurrently. Don't have the techs upgrade the servers at the same time you are redoing your templates or trying to purge every instance of the phrase "click here". Seriously. So much can go wrong that it's not funny. You are going to be doing this every six months. Just schedule your little nuggets out.

5. Measure and assess what worked and what didn't

This sounds like a no-brainer... and it is, but you'd be surprised how often "no brainers" get forgotten or put aside until there is more time. Engineer in measurement (or testing) to everything that you do, no matter how small. Schedule time ahead of these routine efforts to assess the changes from last time for what worked and what didn't and align the new changes to what you learned.

Document your assessment results and thinking... even if you are sure no one will ever read it. Just like the communications thing, this sort of documentation keeps you honest and focused.

There are still lots of things that can go wrong. It's really tough to keep this up as the daily noise keeps getting louder and louder. You have to force yourself to go through it sometimes, but you'll wind up with a much better web site and a lot of hard-won best practices to go with it.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Usability, Where for art thou, usability?

Ah, sweet usability research/design/architecture/whatever... it's like an unrequited love. It's always just a bit out of reach and, being there, remains unsullied by the day-to-day messiness of living together.

Usability testing is something that web people know we should do more often... well... every time but somehow never get around to it. Even if there is an opportunity to do a little testing (or to just apply insights learned from reading about some testing on someone else's site), we rarely get to act on it because we haven't the opportunity at that particular time to make significant site-wide changes. The problem might be a lack of money to apply a change that would make a site more usable, but it's most likely time. Your to-do list never seems to shrink and so you tack your golden nugget of an idea up on the bulletin board on top of the ten other great ideas that you'll likely never get around to.

It's an amazing stupid reason to not improve a web site. You know that and I know that... but it can't be helped. Real life keeps getting in the way. The days pass and you watch your golden nuggets get more dated and irrelevant.

What could you and your site have accomplished if only you could get your head above the daily noise and try out some new theories?

Here's one idea.

The next time you get the chance -- when you are sitting down for a yearly strategic planning session or the next time your site is getting complete overhauled with a new platform or design -- make a suggestion. Why not just plan for a twice-a-year review of the site. Pick two or three items from you and your team's list of golden nuggets. Any more than that and you won't actually finish anything. Plan for a couple of weeks (around the winter and summer holidays) of
  • assessing test results from any formal or informal testing,
  • reviewing your site stats, and
  • quickly implementing some site-wide changes.
Keep it web team focused because you'll be indulging in some seriously geeky stuff. Try to keep any stakeholders who aren't directly connected to your changes out of the meeting. Make it a party. Bring in M&Ms. You'll need them. This will be rapid development at its best.

By actually planning for small, strategic changes more often, you might be able to push off the inevitable, soul-sucking redesign/replatforms that tend to come very 12-24 months. If you are smart about measuring your efforts, then you can also make smarter choices about design and technology when it really is time to redesign and replatform the site.

Tomorrow, Part 2: What could go wrong?

Friday, June 5, 2009

To microsite or not to microsite... that is the question

That is the question if you are a web information architecture geek anyway.

For those of you who aren't web information architecture geeks and have little idea what this is or why it is important, here's a quick summary. A traditional "microsite" is a section of your web site that looks... well.. different. It's usually put up in support of specific marketing or outreach campaign. The design will (if it is done well) look like part of an existing brand, but the interface (how the page actually looks) and the navigation (the names of the buttons you click on) of the microsite is usually significantly different.

Needless to say, ad agencies with bigger graphic design staffs than technical staffs, LOVE microsites to boost the billing. They are little (ie., have an end point where the client can sign off on a deliverable), the sites usually have lots of flashy, moving things on them, and it's rare that there are large quantities of high quality (or any quality) written content on them.

They are mostly about the pretty pictures.

The Web developers' community typically don't like microsites. It adds a dangerous level of inconsistency to what is already a very complex environment. When the Web was young, web sites were a series of individual pages that had to be coded and then maintained separately. Since you had to touch every page for every little change anyway, maintaining some slightly different page designs (microsites) was a pain, but not a show-stopper. Now most sites are run on content management systems. Those are database-driven computer programs that remember a series of rules and apply those rules to individual pieces of content (words and graphics) to build the individual web pages "on the fly" as a person on the website clicks on links.

Anyone who has worked with a computer for any period of time knows that computers are mind-bogglingly stupid. The more rules you give a computer to remember, the more likely it is that the computer will apply those rules... stupidly. That means already-busy people need to spend more time managing the rules and that leads to poor maintenance: updates being forgotten, links breaking, and a certain lack of timeliness.

Every time you create a design that is different, you need to give the content management system a new system of rules.

Search engine optimization (SEO) experts don't like them because it basically dilutes the efforts. The idea of search engine optimization is to make sure that a particular web site appears at the top of the search engine results for as many searches as possible. If you've got microsites with similar goods and services to your main site, you are essentially competing with yourself for space on that first page of search results.

The designers I've worked with (we'll just take the agencies out of the mix for now), are mixed in their feelings about microsites. On one hand, a microsite is a chance to stretch those design muscles when a designer has been trapped into a consistent look and feel. This is particularly tempting to designers who work in corporate environments in support of enterprise-level sites. They just don't get to do a lot of "fun" stuff with the site.

On the other hand, consistency rules in graphic design. That is drilled into any designer by grouchy design teachers in school or by grouchy art directors at work. Advocating for microsites feels a little selfish.

So if everyone is against microsites, what's the issue? Well, people who are not developers, people who don't spend their days typing sweet nothings into the virtual ears of stupid content management systems trying to get them to function properly... people who tend to hold the purse-strings in a professional relationship, love them. The corporate web site is like the family minivan. It's important, but boring. A microsite is a chance to have something genuinely cool that a person can point to around performance review time.

It's a chance to buy a Jag without begging the wife.


Like it or not, microsites are part of life... and they aren't all bad.

Addressing the needs of all members of a corporate web site audience is always a challenge for the person designing a user interface. The more (and more diverse) people you try to please, the fewer people will actually be served. You have to compensate for what one group wants vs. what another group needs. A microsite could be a way to address this. Say you have a set of customers or a constituency base that is significantly different from what you are mostly marketing to. Perhaps it is a growing group, and you want to make sure it keeps growing. A temporary microsite could be a way to create a very targeted conversation with this new audience. A small site, separated from the "mother ship" of the main corporate site could be flexible enough to adjust products, messaging, interface design, and information architecture to see what appeals most to the new group. That knowledge could then be folded into the design and structure of your main site. Your group can be pulled into the main site with minimal loss and the microsite can be closed down.

Now there are catches to this, of course. You have to be really strategic about using this tool. You can't achieve this if you are trying to maintain 15 of these suckers to find out about poorly segmented and overlapping audiences. You have to pick one audience. You have to pick a time frame so that there is an ending. The goal of the microsite needs to be learning about the audience, not about becoming the most popular site on the Web. The measure of the success of the effort has to be the number of people who engage with the main site (per the main site's engagement goals) after the microsite has been shut down.

If microsites stay "behind" the main site instead of serving as jazzy doorways to the main site, I think they can help an organization build in an economical, day-to-day, ongoing and consistent tool for targeted learning about how best to serve their audience. Carefully selecting the audience for your microsite will minimize SEO cannibalism problems. Make sure that the testing and learning that happens on microsites are done and shared routinely with the internal web site staff (if there is one) another interested corporate stakeholders. Don't outsource. The information about your audience is too valuable to let it disappear when a contract ends.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Appropo to nothing...


In the part of the country where I grew up, it was common practice to plant big, strong trees around the house. The land around here is pretty flat and once the fields were cleared for planting, the wind whips through without mercy. The trees break the wind in the winter and keep things cool in the summer.

It's just part of the landscape -- Victorian (or older) farmhouses surrounded by tall, strong trees.

This is valuable farm land that isn't particularly close to any population centers. It has largely escaped the fast urban development I'm accustomed to seeing in central Maryland. The landscape changes more slowly.

When the old farmhouses are taken down, the grass always returns to cover up the remains but the trees remain. They sit like living guardians or ghosts in the general shape of the houses that they once surrounded -- gates to a place that doesn't exist anymore.

It always struck me as sad.

Friday, May 15, 2009

How to manage a web site... flexibly

One of the realities of being in the web business is that sometimes you have to do things -- create interface designs, define information architecture, move that stupid home button 6 pixels to the right because someone just HAS to make some random change to prove him- or herself worthy of a big salary. You know that the change is wrong. Maybe it's more than wrong. Maybe it's making your site unusable.

...And you do this wrong thing knowing that you will be considered the reason that the web site failed.

Such is life. Every creative deals with this on a regular basis. The only way to have full creative freedom is to do all of your work the darkness of your own basement -- unpaid, unseen, unshared, un-commented upon.

Where's the fun in that?

So in return for a tiny bit of notoriety, the mindblowing joy of getting a paycheck, or just the human need to FINISH SOMETHING FOR ONCE we become...

...flexible.

Flexibility is tough -- kind of like falling into a fast-moving river with really big rocks everywhere. I've seen many "true believers" in the art and science of information architecture and interface design fall before the firing squad of clueless web site owners. They would not budge from their golden path; would not consider a different way to achieve the same (or very similar) results. Instead of talking to their clients, they would clutch holy books of taxonomy, data structure and usability in white-knuckled fists and, red faced, would preach from the gospels of heuristics.

I have a deep respect for both holy books and for doing the right thing in the face of those who don't want you to, but what if your books are wrong? The Web is still a mind-bogglingly complex and fluid environment. Every web professional has stories of how they tried to duplicate a successful strategy, only to fail completely because, in the time I took to build, the strategy became irrelevant.

How can you be sure what you are doing is right? Isn't it prudent to keep your attitudes as fluid and flexible as the environment you work in?

If you do, how do you avoid going completely nuts?

There are strategies to navigate this river, but they won't be the same for any two people. The environment you work in (your organizational goals, your audience's expectations, new technology) keeps changing so you can't follow the route of a predecessor (or pricey consultant) exactly. You'll be making what feels like a long series of micro decisions in order to move ahead toward your goal.

Here are some things to keep in mind as you make these micro decisions.

Have a clear and realistic goal. Whenever you read a book or listen to a consultant, this whole goal thing is the first thing to hit you in the face. Actually, it sort of sounds a like a cop-out first step. I know when I was starting out, I'd read this and say to myself "well, duh".

It's not a cop-out. It's serious. Respect for having clear and realistic goals comes from soul-sucking experience of having to work to a vague goal... or no goal at all. Having clear and realistic goals suggests the following:
  • You understand what your goals are.
  • Your goals are complementary (one doesn't completely undermine the others).
  • Your boss/client has exactly the same understanding of your goals as you do.
  • You have ways to measure the success of your efforts toward your goals.
  • You have a timeline against which to measure the success of your efforts.
Your "goal" could be a sentence or two (although those tend to be too vague to be useful) or 10 pages (yikes). Most of the time, it'll fit on a single, easy-to-post-on-the-office-corkboard page and have a lot of bullets.

Here's the really sneaky part of creating clear and realistic goals, however: Be ready to change them.

You are going to learn new things about your audience along the way. You'd be stupid to ignore these learnings just because you are stuck with the goals you came up with before you even started. That is part of the fluid environment you are working in. When you gain a new insight about how your audience wants to interact with you, incorporate it into your efforts. You should be able to incorporate them into your original bulleted list without too much trouble.

In fact, you should probably just schedule in hard review of your goals into your timeline... as often as monthly.

If you find that you are completely trashing your original goals in order to incorporate these new learnings, you should stop what you are doing and talk to your boss/client about rethinking your goals and strategies completely. You got something seriously wrong.

Now a bit of a warning on this: People with a background in traditional business really, really hate this -- so do most computer programmers and technical project managers. You might, in fact, be thinking the same thing: Well, if you are just going to change the goals, what's the point of having the goals? Well that is where you need to be making your micro decisions. Use your own common sense (that'll actually take you pretty far), business experience, and knowledge of your corporate environment to weigh how much you can change the goals. Little tweaks here and there in response to properly measured and documented customer response is common in business and won't be a problem. Just be sure you are properly measuring and documenting... and sharing these insights with other web site stakeholders (ie., boss/client) as you go along.

Be absolutely, positively sure that you aren't suggesting the goal changes in order to make your life easier or to make yourself look better. You'll need to defend these goal changes. Personal convenience is really hard (and quite awkward) to defend.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I do know that from personal experience -- on both sides of the situation. Seriously. You don't want to go there.

Goals (and measures) are critical. If you don't have them you never know if what you are doing is having any affect. That is hugely frustrating -- like trying to find your way home from a strange city all while wearing a blindfold. Set the goals, keep re-evaluating them, and keep measuring your effectiveness.

Flexibility with your goals in this case isn't being spineless, it's about being agile. When you are building and maintaining an effective web presence, agility is everything.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009



An intriguing ad, I must admit…. Is it a bottle that, perhaps, once tasted like a platypus? What does a platypus taste like? I admit that I’ve never tasted one and, while I suspect they taste pretty wretched, I could be wrong. Probably not.... particularly if REI feels the need to advertise that their bottles DON’T taste like a platypus.

I’m also curious about the “& More”. Goodness. Do we have any other exotic animals that we don’t have to taste in bottles?

Honestly people. This is basic editing. I know you don’t have much space to work with, but a few more minutes of wordsmithing would have really helped.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Thinking about changing behaviors

I had a conversation with a doctor recently that got me thinking. This doctor works in a large, inner-city teaching hospital. He was talking about how to get groups of people to do something... in this case getting people tested for HIV.

It's a significant behavior change. It means addressing at lot of things that people don't like to think about, much less talk about.

He was gently trying to tell me that computer mediated-communication wasn't the best way to change behavior. He said that, in his experience, the most successful outreach was through traditional broadcast media. It was important to reach people with their own communities. There was also a need to have a physical presence in those communities somehow.

But even that doesn't always work. His point was that to make people change dangerous behaviors (like smoking, not getting tested for HIV, or even not getting enough exercise), you are dealing with a lot of complicated norms and attitudes -- some very social and some very personal.

Creating healthy behavior (like creating world peace or fixing the environment) is a "wicked problem". It impacts a very large number of diverse people -- all of whom have different ideas of what "success" looks like and all of whom have problems and issues in their lives that impact making these healthy changes in some significant way. "Wicked" problems are basically problems that are impossible to solve.

Yet things do change.

The doctor I was talking to said that people needed a catalyst to make these behavior changes a priority. They needed a close call -- a close friend or family member unexpectedly dying perhaps -- to pluck this one issue out of mad soup of day-to-day problems and make it a priority. If the issue stayed a priority in the person's life for more than about three months, it tended to become a permanent behavior change.

As a strategist who spends a lot of her time working wicked problems, this is an interesting insight -- a subtle consistency to hang a theory on. It tells me that:
  • There is probably not much my web site will do to change a behavior, except keep reminding people that there is a behavior that should be changed.
  • I need to be ready when this person experiences his or her "close call" and strongly support the changes that he or she is willing to make for about three months.
  • This is all happening on a very personal, very individual level and that I need to speak to that person with a very personal voice.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Get A Grip: The Summary

Yeah. I'm finally going to climb off my soapbox on this. I just thought I'd summarize things a bit.

At some point (I don't really remember when anymore), I asked five questions. Here's your executive summary of the answers:

Now what do I do?
  • Make sure that this social media tools actually support your goals.
  • Make sure your intended audience members are actually using the tools you choose (as opposed to just jumping into whatever online tools make the morning news shows).
How fast does it work?
  • Not fast. Get over it and set your expectations appropriately. Be suspicious of people or organizations offering "quick results" for a price.
How much will it cost to run?
  • Unless you are very lucky, a lot. Adjust your strategy and budget to allow for a long haul.
What can I do to get results?
  • Look for ways to engage many voices toward your communication goals. That helps the credibility of your efforts, as well as spreads the tasks across many people (giving your team energy for the long haul mentioned above).
Now what do I do?
  • Clear your mind of the "overnight success" stories about using a social media tool or network. I think that you'd find that very few happened "overnight" and that even fewer were "successes" when measured against the original goals or (*gulp*) corporate ROI.
Social media is here to stay. To not engage with it is to miss a wonderful opportunity for really talking with your customers or members in a very individualized way -- but be realistic about it. People have lives and loves and joys and problems and aren't just visiting these networks hoping that you'll pop up and tell them what to do. You can't ignore the customs and norms of human communication just because you are talking via a computer.

I like to keep going back to a wonderful list of "reality checks" created in 1999: the Cluetrain Manifesto. Nine years later, many of the cautions listed here are still valid for most organizations:
  • "These markets are conversations. Their members communicate in language that is natural, open, honest, direct, funny and often shocking. Whether explaining or complaining, joking or serious, the human voice is unmistakably genuine. It can't be faked."

  • "Most corporations, on the other hand, only know how to talk in the soothing, humorless monotone of the mission statement, marketing brochure, and your-call-is-important-to-us busy signal. Same old tone, same old lies. No wonder networked markets have no respect for companies unable or unwilling to speak as they do."

  • "But learning to speak in a human voice is not some trick, nor will corporations convince us they are human with lip service about "listening to customers." They will only sound human when they empower real human beings to speak on their behalf."

  • "While many such people already work for companies today, most companies ignore their ability to deliver genuine knowledge, opting instead to crank out sterile happytalk that insults the intelligence of markets literally too smart to buy it."
You can use these tools strategically and effectively. Just do your homework, speak with a genuine voice (or many voices), and get a grip on your expectations.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Get A Grip: How much will it cost to run?

Twitter is free. That's the part that usually hooks people. "Whoa! Free access to millions of people who are just sitting around waiting to do our bidding! Let's do it!"

Then this excited person skips lightly to wherever the web team (or web person) sits and shares this fantastic new insight.... only to be crushed by the lack of enthusiasm in the web person. You might see frozen smile or the rolling eyes and probably assume that person thinks you are an idiot.

Let me fill you in on what's really going on inside that web person's head....

*frozen smile* "Great, they've discovered Twitter. Now I have to maintain that on top of the 50 other random requests I get from you people every day plus the stuff I'm actually committed to doing in order to keep my job... and, of course, there's the stupid custom code that blew up about 10 minutes ago that I'm trying to band-aid back together with digital duct tape and spit so that the site doesn't go down...." *eyes rolling* ..."And you think I should drop everything to start tweeting I-don't-know-what because no one gives me any content."

Most often it's not arrogance... it's panic overlayed and mellowed by being really tired.

What does this all have to do with cost? The biggest cost you will have (assuming you aren't reinventing the wheel by creating your own version of Twitter because you can't stand the thought of people interacting on a site that isn't your own) is in human resources. If you dump this on the web person described above, you will get negligible (if any) response. He or she is probably juggling too much already to do it properly.

Hire a full-time "tweeter"? Probably not. What does that job description look like anyway? Alternatives? One organization I ran across took a bold move to make this happen -- though the solution had some problems.

This organization identified the web site as central to doing business and demanded that social media become part of everyone's job -- basically a small, controlled crowdsourcing of this task, extending well beyond Twitter into participation in other social networks and blogging. You train everyone about social media culture and etiquette and give them talking points. This gives your organization a diverse group of voices all pointing toward a single set of coordinated tasks and goals. Sound strategy.

Here's the problem: Not everyone in the organization thought that they had bandwidth for another responsibility and they definitely didn't think that "tweeting" was a good use of their valuable time. Others had personal presences on these social networks -- some rather extensive -- and they weren't anxious to mix business with personal. Others were straight-out technophobes (or just nervous perfectionists), afraid of "doing it wrong".

Here's what happened: The efforts were lackluster. People did only what they were specifically told to do and tended to do it only when told to do it... by their immediate supervisors. These supervisors weren't all completely bought into the strategy or sophisticated about social media and so the specific instructions were not always coordinated or strategic. The problems snowballed to the point where the strategy just couldn't work anymore. Responsibility for the social media efforts once again fell to small group of "web people" and consequently fell far short of both stated organizational goals and its real potential for effective outreach.

I still think this is a useful strategy, but I'd suggest some adjustments:
  • The supervision and management of this task needs to be constant and strong. If there needs to be a full-time person anywhere, it should be the manager of the effort rather than the "tweeters".

  • A 2-hour briefing about online etiquette won't do it -- education needs to be constant as well. Everything makes sense in the briefing... the questions come up when people sit down and start to apply what they learned.

  • There needs to be a constant sharing of what different people are doing, what information and insights they are uncovering, and best practices. People can't just go back to their desks and do this in isolation.

  • This might have worked better if people came into the organization more experienced with (and enthusiastic about) web. While this would have been an unreasonable expectation ten years ago, it's becoming more reasonable with every wave of people graduating from college.
It's going to be a significant outlay of time and will impact the rest of your business.

I know I started out writing about costs and seemed to devolve quickly into whining about human resources again. It's a constant theme in this series because it is the fundamental barrier you are facing. It takes a lot to maintain these presences the way they are need to be maintained in order to "move the needle" on your overall web strategy. Human resources cost a lot, at every step -- the person doing the work, the person managing him or her, and the organizational resources needed to support this person.

The tools are generally low cost or free. Your costs are in the craftsmen.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Get a Grip: How fast does it work?

Unless you are very, very, very lucky, it'll take some time. For every YouTube video that goes viral and hits the morning news shows, there are hundreds of thousands that never see the light of day. Don't wrap your strategy and measurements around... you know... luck. Strategy takes patience and work.

Look around at what else is happening in the world. Look at what's on the news and what people are talking about. If you are talking about a guarenteed way to land a job in a bad economy, you are more likely (at this particular moment) to get a following more quickly. If you need to talk about travel to exotic four-star resorts... well... maybe not.

You are going to be building an audience. It takes the same amount of time (and a lot of the same steps) it took to build the audience/market/customer base that you currently have. Look at these tools as a way to enhance your communications with people, not build a new audience. A great example of this is how Comcast decided to use Twitter. They scanned the tweets for complaints and then proactively dealt with the problems. It became viral when the people who had been helped reported back to the larger Twitter community. While this looks like a no-brainer use of the tool, there was certain amount of social context around this. Comcast needed to have a reputation for incredibly bad customer service for this sort of thing to become "news" and proliferate. An organization that has a much better reputation for customer service would likely not see nearly this kind of buzz.

Remember that this isn't like advertising on the Super Bowl. Social media isn't about people randomly stumbling across you. You are walking into a party where everyone is already talking in little clumps all over the place. The easiest thing to do is join a group where you are already known and ask to be referred to other groups hopefully becoming the center of a larger and larger group. You need to talk to people -- as much as humanly possible -- as individuals or very small, tight groups. Applying traditional mass marketing techniques* and assumptions won't work.

What do you do?
  1. Don't treat your Twitter account as the "silver bullet" that will save you from your online goals. It will let you down.
  2. Start by using your account to better support your existing customer base. You can reach out from there.
  3. Set reasonable expectations for this tool and then adjust your effort and financial support accordingly. If you are just going to use it for talking to a group of 50 people who need tech support on your widget that probably should have been better designed to start with, don't put a full-time staff person on it.

* I am watching an organization that is trying to apply mass marketing techniques to building social media engagement. So far, the return on the investment has been... well... disappointing. They are doing some interesting things around marketing and incentives, though, and I plan to keep watching. This world changes very quickly and any solid statement like "traditional mass marketing techniques and assumptions won't work" is likely to be proven wrong at some point. Stay tuned.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Want to take over the world with Twitter?


So you've decided that Twitter is the way to jump into this Web 2.0/social media thing that everyone is buzzing out. If that's where everyone is, then maybe this is the "magic bullet" that will finally get you to those crazy traffic goals you were given last year.

I have one bit of advice (given with all due respect and great humility for my own mistaken attitudes in the past).

Get a grip.

You aren't going to suddenly "move the needle" on you web goals by starting up a Twitter account. Having a Twitter account does not automatically mean that your organization is "Web 2.0" (this is quickly becoming a meaningless term so you should probably stop using it) or social-media savvy.

It means you have an account on Twitter.

That's true of Facebook, Ning, Yahoo Groups, niche online communities and all of those other social networking hotspots. These are all different tools -- like hammers, screwdrivers and saws. Got an account on all of 'em? Great. You've got a full toolbox. Now you need a plan, materials (content), and a crew to do the building. Take any one piece of this away and it won't work. If you expect a single person to do all of the building, it's going to take an awfully long time. If you "crowdsource" the work and don't have a plan (or oversight), the effort will be hap-hazard and unfocused in terms of your goals. Think about your content -- what you are talking about on all of these platforms. The expectation of your audience is that you'll be contributing valuable content to the community... not tweeting "where should I go to lunch to today" or "@whoever You Rock".

So... what do you do?

First of all, look at these communication tools and see how they align with your organizational mission and goals. I'm not talking about the goals that say "10 million web visitors by July", I'm talking about the big, organizational goals like "we want to make boatloads of money as quickly as possible" (I paraphrase here) or "we want to make the world a better place for the backyard chipmunk". Whatever your board of directors bought into, dust that bad boy off and take a look. Will having a Twitter account move you in the right direction?

Yes? Awesome. Excellent. We're on a roll here. Will it move you toward your goal faster than other communications options (marketing, public relations, large donations to key political campaigns) or even physical options? If you are trying to get more schools built in Sao Paulo, would you get to that goal faster by actually giving grants to schoolteachers who live in that community or by paying Paris Hilton to pout into a television camera?

Think hard about it. Just because Twitter exists doesn't mean you have to use it. If you decide to use it, it doesn't need to be central to your communications strategy. If you are trying to reach a small, targeted group of people (such as chipmunk lovers), they've probably found each other without your help and are connecting somewhere. It might be Facebook, it might be Yahoo Groups, it might be a listserve run out of a server in someone's basement. Whatever the case, go to them.

You spent a lot of time and effort coming up with those goals. Stay focused on them. Don't retrofit your strategy to fit the tools.

OK. So after all of this the broad social media tools still make sense in light of your organizational goals. Now what? How fast does it work? How much will it cost to run? What do I do to make sure I get results?

Stay tuned for the next exciting episode of "Get A Grip", coming up really soon. I promise.

Monday, March 16, 2009

How I learned to stop underestimating social media* efforts

* For the purposes of this blog, I view social media as a set of tools used to create online community -- connections between people. I don't see social media as an end in itself.

Most of what I know about building online community is self taught. I talk to people... I see what else is working or not working... I make a few informed guesses and then I dive in. I've worked strategically and hard to push a campaign making use of both an online community I oversaw and other online communities.

It wasn't all successful, but I learned a lot.

Most importantly, I learned that it's a lot harder than it looks.

I knew what the steps were... find and empower mavens within your own community. Try to stand back enough to allow the community to find and speak in its own voice. Use incentives to encourage members to bring in other members, and to behave appropriately. Make sure there is a constant stream of new people coming into the community to keep it alive. Keep on top of your server stats as a real-time indication of what the members of your community want. Establish valuable presences on the other communities you want to participate in as an inexpensive and credible outreach mechanism. Make sure that your participation in those communities is visible so that your rating within the community rises and your content (with your name attached) floats to the top. Set yourself up to be an expert on whatever message you want to push, and then push (ever so gently so that you don't lose your credibility).

I checked these steps with other very smart people who were doing the same thing I was doing. They said the steps were basically right. I skipped gleefully back to implement them. I had six months and a map of steps to take. I was sure I could do it.

I really should have asked those very smart people some more questions, such as

  1. "did it work?"
  2. "how long did it really take?"
  3. "what, exactly, was your definition of success?"
  4. "were you able to make success happen more than once?"
I think I would have gotten some interesting answers.

Let's break these steps down a bit.

Community growth
In our business, we often joke about the "if you build it, they will come" cliché. Funny how often we still do it. It takes time for a community to build and even longer for it to find its voice. I felt that starting with a relatively small, friendly group who had real-life experience with the topic would be the way to go. I didn't press for a big marketing budget. I figured it would be easier for the mavens to get comfortable and safer for the members to invite friends and coworkers in if it wasn't the digital equivalent of a rave party. It would make community management a lot easier since a small community is a lot less attractive to trolls... and, besides, I didn't have a lot moderator of help.

The community that got built using these assumptions was solid and active... Just small and not growing much. That was considered a failure. There were statistics somewhere that my boss got hold of: it said gave a rule of thumb that if participation a community wasn't doubling in size every month, it was dying. That didn't make sense to me. Communities see so many ups and downs that why should a period of marginal growth be a reason for panic? If the quiet lurkers of the pages continued to increase, is that a success or failure? I wasn't running a community centered around software or games, it was around on-the-ground, off-the-computer community involvement. How much do these "rule of thumb" numbers really apply from one kind of community to another?

I resisted a lot of pressure to just keep heaping more people into the community via marketing or incentives and I wonder how that would have changed things. My gut says that we would have had a huge mess on our hands in terms of moderation and PR (as the one-the-ground action we were trying to generate was child-serving)... but we might have made our numbers.

Community mavens
They come and go so you need to keep a string of "mavens in waiting" going. Setting aside the issues around identifying and engaging these folks, just keeping them "in waiting" a management trick in and of itself. Really good "mavens" tend to be ambitious, outgoing, fairly aggressive, somewhat obsessive "type A" personalities. They are characters. That is what makes them so much fun. It's tough to keep someone like this waiting in the wings -- keeping him or her engaged and excited about your community -- while someone else gets the glory.

I'm not sure that pitting people against each other but allowing them to set up their own competitive cliques is the way to go, either. If your goal is page views, this probably works. If your goal is to get people to work together toward a common goal... probably not.

There are so many options for people that we have very little opportunity to attract and maintain high value participants. If a potential maven comes to my online community and doesn't like the voice or tone or clashes with the current set of mavens, he or she will likely just move on to the next community.

Bringing in new members
I know we got some referrals because people would say so as part of an introduction... but most of our new traffic came from search engines. A person participated in the community (for a long time, consisting only of threaded forums) only if he or she couldn't find the answer to a question in the existing, freely available content. These people did tend to come back and answer other questions, but this was a very small number and they protected their own personal networks like the networks were their children.

According to the "rule of thumb" mentioned above, the community was not growing... and actually qualified as "dead".

We tried the following to kick up registration and participation:
  • Google Adwords
  • Banner advertising
  • Significant mentions on national media
  • Celebrity endorsements
  • Emails to existing members to increase participation
  • Phone calls to existing members to increase participation
  • Contests with large and small prizes
The banner ads, national media, and celebrity endorsements were nonstarters. For all the effort involved, particularly with the national media and endorsements, the return was crushingly disappointing. Obviously, there was no money for research so I'm not really sure what the problem was. My guess: People don't always do what celebrities tell them to do, particularly if what they tell them to do is one or two steps removed from what the celebrity is famous for in the first place (like a TV show).

...Or it might be that we just had too big an "ask" in terms of action. (We were asking people to do real-world, community organizing.)

We also experimented liberally on the organization's staff, who were true believers in the mission, but not all of whom were completely bought into or aware of how we were using the Web to further the organizational goals (another unpleasant surprise). We got some interesting insights from that... If you want people to do something, be very, very clear about what that is -- and pay them (through incentives).

Strategically, that wasn't the result we were looking for.

Incentives for behavior
We found that across the board with all of the contests. If you pay them, people will do what you ask. All of the smart people I was talking to generally considered prizes (paying people for a particular online behavior), a bad idea. It was a Pandora's box, they said. Once you start, you can never stop.

I think that there is a place for contests and prizing in generating activity in online communities, but there is an important trick to it. You have to know what behavior to reward. It's a classic Hitchhikers Guide to the Universe situation. The answer to life, the universe and everything is 42. If you want the question that led to the answer 42, that's a whole other problem that you should have thought of a long time ago. If you are using contests and prizes to encourage a behavior, make sure that behavior actually supports your goals for the community. If you are asking people to randomly post photos to a site in return for a tee shirt, for example, will that entice them to continue participating? Probably not. They'll post their photo, get their tee shirt and then move on. If your community goal is 1,000 new photos, you are probably OK.

I found myself spending a lot of time and effort on contests that met short-term goals put on me as benchmarks to assess my success and the community's success. It broke my heart every time. While I recognize the importance of measuring the effectiveness of different efforts, that's not the way to build an online community.

Establish personal and credible presences on other communities
The challenge here that I completely underestimated was the amount of time required to do this right. Everyone knows this takes a long time. Take that assumption and double it... then double it again. The bigger the community, the harder it is to get noticed. The harder it is to get noticed, the longer you have to work. This is fine if becoming a recognized member of a particular online community is your only goal for the day... but we were also maintaining our web site: creating/updating content, moderating our own community, doing other outreach, analyzing what was working and what wasn't, and building new tech as needed.

Even if I had the luxury of a full-time person focused only on this, however, I'm not sure that would have solved the problem. When I started this effort, I identified at least a dozen targeted communities that I wanted my message visible on. Looking back at my list after a year, only four of those communities really took off and are pulling the kind of audience that would have justified this amount of effort. In order to correctly identify those communities from the start, I would have needed either incredible luck or someone who was paying very close attention to what was happening in the industry. I would have needed someone who was on top of the fact that XYZ community had a bidding war between Disney and Rupert Murdock going on or that the ownership ABC community was really just two sleep-deprived teenagers on a hacked Linux server someplace and that the site would disappear when one of them broke up with his girlfriend.

Thinking the logistics of this through made my head hurt... and made straight-out advertising looks pretty darned attractive.

So I come back to the questions that I would have asked my smart people, had I known then what I know now:
  1. "did it work?"
  2. "how long did it take?"
  3. "what, exactly, was your definition of success?"
  4. "were you able to make success happen more than once?"
These are the answers I suspect I would have gotten then (and would probably get now).
  1. "It depends on what you consider success."
  2. "Dunno, it's not 'done' yet."
  3. "Ummm, yeah... well... that keeps changing...."
  4. *shuffling feet* *looking away* "I'm not really sure we got it even once..."