Attacking tech

February 25, 2010

I’m glad to see that we’re coming to a consensus about texting and driving. Most people these days recognize that it’s a dangerous activity — one that should be avoided at all costs. As my friend at aplaceforthoughts.com writes, Oprah is using her considerable influence to raise awareness, and many states are enacting laws to keep people from texting in the car.

Though I’m glad to see so many doing their part to stop this dangerous activity, it bugs me that texting has become such a target while many other dangerous activities are still legal behind the wheel, including eating, drinking, smoking, adjusting the radio, putting on makeup and reading. Yes, reading.

Just about everything on that list has been causing accidents since the dawn of the automobile age, and yet none of them has been outlawed. In fact, most of us are guilty of at least a few of them. Some of us are guilty of them every day. Personally, I drink coffee on the way to the office every day. I fiddle with the radio. I’ve even been known to scarf a burger or a burrito while barreling down the road.

Ever try eating a burrito in the car? Bad idea. Especially when the thing bursts all over your good shirt.

Studies have shown that eating and drinking hot beverages are more dangerous than talking on a cell phone or sending text messages. So why are we allowed to eat in the car? Why is every automobile equipped with a radio? Why are there NO warnings on car stereo systems that adjusting them while driving is hazardous?

The reason is simple: We all do these things. And it’s easier for lawmakers — many of whom are not particularly tech savvy — to condemn something they don’t understand, rather than look at the bigger picture.

And the bigger picture means we need a real “distracted driver” law — a broad law that penalizes drivers for any distracting behavior they take part in while driving. And that means everything.

The law wouldn’t have to prohibit a person from eating, drinking, or even talking on a cell phone. But in the case of an accident, the driver would be ticketed and their insurance would take a hit when it was found they were distracted.

When I worked as a crime reporter, I saw way more accidents caused by people fiddling with the radio or yelling at their kids than when people were talking on cell phones. To be fair, cell phones were a lot more rare in those days, but it doesn’t change the fact that distracted drivers have always been a danger on the roads.

Let’s all pledge to stop texting while driving. But if we’re going to make laws, let’s make sure we’re going after the behavior, not the technology.


Location ain’t everything (or, how you’re ruining Twitter)

February 14, 2010

Edelman Digital’s David Armano recently tweeted out a thought that pretty much sums up Twitter’s future:

It’s unlikely people will abandon networks unless they become so polluted we have no choice.

Twitter can be pretty awesome. I use it every day to catch up on local news, national news and tech news. In the past couple of weeks I’ve found a service I needed desperately, gotten some help with some tricky code, donated some cash to help fund childhood cancer research and even helped answer some InDesign questions. It’s the quickest, easiest way to crowd source, to track zeit geist and just see what people are talking about. It’s a good place to make connections (folks all over are holding tweetups to meet Twitter friends in real life) and it’s an even better place to go when you just want to scream into the void — when you have nobody to talk to but yourself.

Because of all of those things, Twitter is addictive. And when something’s as addictive as Twitter, Armano is right: Users are unlikely to walk away.  But Armano would be more accurate if he said “People will abandon the network when it becomes so polluted we have no choice.”

Enter foursquare, Gowalla, and the “check-in” phenomenon.

You could already argue that Twitter is a cesspool. Besides the bots, spammers, automated feeds and the like, there are too many people who still fill feeds with what they’re eating for dinner, what physical activity they’re partaking in or where they’re doing their laundry. Do. Not. Want. If this is you, you will be unfollowed. Let’s add to that crowd the number of PR, SM and SEO types who talk incessantly about Twitter, as if anyone with 1,000 followers or more is suddenly qualified a social media expert. And while we’re at it, let’s add the fake celebrity tweeps. I have no problem with celebrities on Twitter; I hate spokespeople for celebrities on Twitter.

If you add all that up, Twitter is already headed to that deep, dark place MySpace and Facebook entered a few years ago — that pit of despair filled with spammers, porn and slimeballs peddling junk.

But you can add to that mix the location-based check-in games, which MySpace never had.

Frankly, I don’t care where you’re having dinner. I don’t care that you’re at the airport. I don’t care that you’re at the grocery store. I will not be meeting you there, and no part of me is grateful for the knowledge of your location. I don’t care that you’re the mayor of Starbucks on Main Avenue and I don’t care who you ousted to get that title.

I skim Twitter for thoughts, recommendations, ideas. I’m looking for things that are actionable. The most annoying thing ever is “I’m at Taste of Philly” and a link…that takes me to a foursquare page. Here’s what I like: “Taste of Philadelphia has the best cheesesteaks in Syracuse!” Maybe link me to a photo of the sandwich you’re about to devour. Next time I’m out to lunch I might give the place a try, and I’ll credit you with the recommendation.

The point is there’s nothing inherently interesting about what a person is doing or where they are. The interesting part is what they’re thinking…how they view the particular place or activity. Think of it this way: Do you call your mom, best friend, significant other every time you walk into a building? Of course not. Don’t do that to your Twitter followers either. It’s lame, and it pollutes my stream. I know, I know: “If you don’t like it, don’t follow me.”

Okay. You’re unfollowed.


Just why is “conversion optimization” the “new SEO?”

February 1, 2010

According to this post at Search Engine Land, there’s a new game in town. It’s called conversion optimization, and it’s the next big money maker for the SEO crowd. Apparently the columnist has just discovered that the promise of SEOs — getting lots of people to your site — just isn’t enough anymore. Now visitors actually have to do something, or they just don’t count.

I agree with that, and I’ve said it before. I believe now, and have believed for years, that SEOs can only provide raw numbers, and way too often those numbers are accidental. The question is this: Why are SEOs turning to conversion marketing now?

Up until now, SEOs have been able to prey on frustrated website owners who just know in their hearts they could make a killing online if only they had more traffic. And since the early days of search, SEOs have always had a degree of success in providing raw numbers. But all too often the client is still not happy. Why? Because their 300 percent increase in visitors has equated to a 0 percent increase in sales. The SEO always begs off: “It’s not my fault,” he says. “I brought you traffic. That’s what you paid me for.”

Usually, this is followed up by an offer to tweak the search terms or some other tactic that will cost the client more money.

Clients aren’t having it anymore. And for good reason.

I love and hate the change from SEO to conversion marketing. Here’s why:

I hate it because it allows the same smarmy tricksters to keep stealing your money. Look, if they weren’t honest or capable before, can you believe they’re honest or capable now? I’ve been talking to clients about conversions ever since I got into this game. When a client asks me about their traffic and whether they get enough visitors, I always tell them the same thing: It’s not the number of visitors that’s important; it’s the number of customers.

I’ve always told my clients to save their SEO money and put it toward advertising. Generate desire for your product before the potential customer gets to your website. When they get there, make sure they know how to order and make the order process easy. The only time you need to convince someone to buy after they’ve gotten to your site is if they didn’t mean to be there in the first place. That’s the traffic SEOs have been generating from the beginning.

I love it because it means the tide is finally turning. People are starting to see that there are no accidental customers, and fooling people to come to your site is never the right way to start a healthy buyer-seller relationship. I love it because it will help continue to expose the big lie behind SEO — the idea that all you really need are stats and a high Google rank.

I can’t say enough what a hoax SEO is. (The only SEO you ever need should come from your designer. If your designer doesn’t know best web practices, you’ve got the wrong guy.) It says a lot that in the past couple of years, the SEO crowd first attached itself to social media, promising thousands of Twitter followers and Facebook friends, and is only now talking about conversions — way too late in the game. And I’m not just talking one or two. The Search Engine Land column has been tweeted 390 times as of this writing.

Be careful out there. These are the same people, using a different tactic.


What the iPad can’t, and won’t, do

January 30, 2010

Like every other tech enthusiast, I’ve spent the last couple of months lapping up every little rumor surrounding the Apple tablet. The leaked photos and specs were enough to make any geek drool. And this week, the iSlate was finally coming.

The iSlate was going to revolutionize personal computing. It was the most important thing Steve Jobs had ever done.

After all the anticipation, though, we didn’t get the iSlate at all. Not even close. We didn’t get a revolutionary product. Hell, we didn’t even get an evolutionary product. We got…the iPad.

Don’t get me wrong here; I’m sure the iPad runs well. It’s certainly slick and pretty, and I bet there are lots of Apple fanboys and coffeeshop hipsters who will line up to get these. I’ve read and heard these folks online, extolling the virtues of the iPad, and haughtily turning up their noses at the rest of us because, well, we just don’t have Steve’s vision of the future. “Just wait,” they say. “THIS is the future.” But here are a few things the iPad can’t and won’t do:

1. It can’t replace your computer. I have a desktop and a netbook. If my desktop were to mysteriously die, my netbook could get me through. I could hook it up to my external hard drives and access any data I need. I could even install iTunes and sync my iPod to it, so I could keep up with my podcasts. The iPad can’t do that. Which brings me to…

2. It can’t work on its own. You can’t use an iPad without a computer, because the iPad syncs to iTunes. You manage it just like an iPod — through a desktop or laptop machine. That fact renders moot the whole argument that this is the perfect personal computing device for youngsters or seniors who just don’t get technology. The iPad won’t have your music library on it if you haven’t put together a library first. But at least you can surf the net, right? Well…

3. It won’t deliver the whole Internet. I’ve had an iPod Touch for about a year. I love it. But there’s nothing more frustrating than the lack of Flash support. Some sites can’t be viewed at all, and the vast majority of video content online is out of reach. Jobs’ argument that the iPad will offer the best browsing experience ever would be laughable, if the reality weren’t so damned depressing. But hey, you can use it to keep in touch with friends and family, right?…

4. It doesn’t have a camera. I could see the iPad as a perfect Skype device. From the comfort of your couch, you could dial up Aunt Lucy and she could see what the baby was up to. It would be great for videoconferencing or broadcasting live to the web, the way you can with the iPhone. Unfortunately, there’s no camera. At all. Which basically limits you to communicating through e-mail. But at least you’ll be able to open attachments and edit documents and photos…

5. It doesn’t print. I’m guessing you could print from the iPad, but not out of the box. A search of the App Store shows a few printing applications available for the iPhone/iPod Touch, but they aren’t free. So you can edit that photo of Suzy, but if you actually want a print to hang on the wall, you’ll have to e-mail it to someone with a real computer or maybe save the photo to a USB drive or SD card, but…

6. It doesn’t have removable storage. Nope. No USB, no Micro SD, no anything. To get whatever you’ve done from the iPad to anywhere else, you can e-mail it or sync back to your PC. So maybe the iPad won’t let you be all that productive, but at least it will be the perfect entertainment pad…

7. There’s no HDMI out. Nope. You won’t be able to hook the iPad to your plasma and watch movies that way. You can only watch them on the iPad itself. Even the Zune HD can stream to your TV. If it’s video you’re looking for, you can definitely get anything you’re looking for online. Well, except…

8. Video stops at YouTube. You don’t get Hulu on the iPad. Or any other Flash-based video. Anything outside of YouTube is generally hit or miss. Once in awhile you’ll find mp4 videos to watch, but it’s a gamble. Even with these limitations, you say, it’s still pretty revolutionary, isn’t it?

9. It won’t change the world. The iPad isn’t even evolutionary. If anything, it’s a major step back — not just for personal computing, but for the tablet market in general. If you want to see a revolutionary product, look at Lenovo’s IdeaPad. It’s a tablet that runs a Linux hybrid OS on a Snapdragon processor. It’s got a slick UI. But the genius is that it plugs into a keyboard, becoming the monitor of a laptop. Once plugged in, it becomes a Windows 7 machine, running on an Intel chip. You cannot argue the iPad is a technological advancement compared to that. Let’s also not forget that the tablet is not an Apple invention; Microsoft has been trying to get tablet computers off the ground for decades now. Apple has tried it before. There is little “new” about the concept and nothing new about the execution.

Jobs and his loyal flock laughed at netbooks during the iPad launch. He said he believed there was space for the category of gadgets between the smart phone and the laptop; netbooks, he said, just don’t cut it. But my netbook can do everything listed above that the iPad can’t do (it even multitasks). Not only that, but it has double the storage capacity and cost me only $350.

I don’t hate Apple. I admire its attention to design, its marketing acumen and its ability to make people spend a lot of money on products they really don’t need. I admire its ability to create products like the iPhone that change the way people think about a class of products. But this time, Jobs and Apple are testing the limits of their reality distortion field. We have all learned to expect better from Apple. I’m disappointed that after all the hype, all the speculation, all the guesswork, we got a product that seems underpowered, rushed to market and not particularly well thought out.


Returns on your Facebook investment

January 14, 2010

Throughout 2009, the mantra was that all companies and organizations needed to live in the social media space. Don’t have a Facebook page? A twitter account? You aren’t on LinkedIn or uploading videos to YouTube? In 2009, you were a dinosaur.

At the dawning of this new year, we’re starting to hear something much different. This time it’s noise coming from the other side — a single, damning, awesome question: “What’s my ROI?”

I like this question because it does exactly what needed to be done throughout 2009: It rocks the so-called “social media evangelists” back onto their heels just long enough to expose the enormous heap of BS they’ve been shoveling for the last couple of years. And the best part is when the answer is, well, you’re asking a stupid question.

“Evangelists” don’t like the question because it threatens their business model — which involves taking lots of your money so they can help you, ahem, leverage social media platforms and SEO to maximize your company’s growth capacity. Or something like that. Truth is, social media doesn’t have to cost anything. The only reason it does is that the “experts” are taking advantage of the fear, uncertainty and doubt in corporate culture, where the thought of free anything is highly suspect.

Businesses are terrified of jumping into a space they don’t understand. They don’t want to look stupid on Twitter. They’re afraid of what will be posted to their Facebook page. They’re willing to pay for someone to execute a plan with precision. And for that, they’re gonna pay.

But the dirty secret is that these experts aren’t any smarter than the rest of us. They sure as hell don’t have it “figured out.” And after they’ve sucked up many thousands of your company’s dollars, they don’t want you figuring out what rats they are.

Let’s look for a minute at Twitter. It’s a cesspool of social media experts and SEOs. They amass a few thousand followers and claim to be “thought leaders.” They’ll tell you the more followers you have, the more influence you’ll have. And being part of the conversation is the important part, right? Well…read this and this. Anil Dash has done some of the most interesting reporting on follower counts on Twitter. One of his most interesting observations? He’s not replied to or retweeted more now (he has 300,000 followers) than he was when he had 15,000. And that’s because the vast majority of those following him are, as he puts it:

Some of them are inactive users, some are spammers, some just ignore the noise of the accounts that don’t interest them, like spam in an email inbox. But they can’t count as “followers” in any meaningful sense.

Here’s the thing: I’m not against social media for companies. In fact, I think social media can be a very good thing. I think it’s important for most businesses to play in the same spaces their customers play in. And it makes sense to give people a place where they can connect with you, talk to you, complain to you.

The problems, however, start when when you pay someone to make your company sound authentic on Twitter. Don’t sound authentic. Be authentic. Are you a nerd? A dork? Are you shy? Are you worried people will pick on you? Are you worried that you, as CEO of your company, are going to ruin your brand by speaking on behalf of your company?

What did your mother always tell you? Just be yourself. The people who are going to like you will like you no matter what. Don’t worry about the people who don’t. If the CEO doesn’t want to use Twitter, pick a person or two in the office you’re comfortable with. Allow them to be the eyes and ears and voices of the organization online. Set a few rules, but let people get to know them. Let them grow into the role.

In that way, social media costs next to nothing. A few minutes of time each day to send out a few lines, reply to the chatter, and monitor the conversation. Keep your investment and your expectations low. If you do that, you won’t be asking about ROI anymore. And you won’t want to kick yourself when you get a bill from an “expert.”


Managing your online identity (Or: Why I unfollowed you)

August 26, 2009

“Authenticity” is a huge buzzword these days, mostly amongst the so-called social media evangelists, who promise to help companies manage their brand identities on Twitter and Facebook. If you’re lucky, you may even get the chance to see one of these evangelists speak, and they’ll tell you how important social media is in building your brand.

First, I want to dispense quickly with that claim: You don’t need social media to build your brand. And before any company throws its eggs into that basket, it must consider that nearly every dominant brand in the world was built before today’s social media was conceived.  Twitter and Facebook can be tools to communicate and converse with the public. Sure, they can help your brand. But you don’t need to pay a social media expert to teach you how to do it or, God forbid, to do it for you.

I don’t use Twitter to talk about what I had for lunch. Nor am I necessarily trying to build a brand. Primarily, I use Twitter as a news feed, and though I follow acquaintances, I most often follow news organizations and thought leaders, so I can get headlines and ideas. I can keep up with trends and innovations. My own Twitter posts are often retweets of things I find interesting, links to things I’ve stumbled on, and the occasional reply to something interesting I’ve read.

Do you know what that is? Authenticity.

Let’s get one thing straight: Authenticity isn’t pretending to be the real thing; it is the real thing. So when the social media moguls tell you how to be authentic or how to create an authentic voice for your brand, understand from the get-go that the very act of trying to be authentic ruins authenticity.  No question about that at all.

Is authenticity a good thing? Let me give you a couple of examples, because the answer isn’t all that simple.

This week I stopped following two of the most annoying Twitterers I’ve ever willingly followed: Jennifer Bull and Lisa Barone. Bull started following me, so I checked out her stream. She seemed to have some interesting posts, so I followed back. In the ensuing days,  I noticed my home page filling up with Bull’s posts. I clicked through a few of them, and found they all went to her blog. And several times, she posted links to the same blog post, using different words to draw attention. And several times a day she’d send out links to old posts on her blog. Clearly, Jennifer Bull is not providing an authentic experience. She’s merely stuffing Twitter with self-promotion. Sorry. You’re unfollowed.

I don’t remember how I found Lisa Barone. But she bills herself as “Co-Founder (sic) and Chief Branding Officer (sic) of Outspoken Media, Inc. Lisa has been involved in the SEO community since 2006 and is widely known for her honest industry observations, her inability to not say exactly what she’s thinking, and her excessive on-the-clock Twittering…”

She comes from nearby Troy, NY, so I thought maybe she knew what she was talking about. Turns out, what I found was a stream of curse words and inappropriate, juvenile commentary. Like these gems:

“.@sugarrae and I are about to cut a bitch. Srsly. Fucking overprotective mothers. Bet she mommyblogs too. #ireland

and

“Dear liver, I am so incredibly sorry. I promise, nothing but water once I return. Assuming, we’re still alive. Love, Lisa #ireland

This is a business person? Someone who claims she “saves brands?” From her Twitter feed, I wonder what exactly I’m supposed to think about her brand. Perhaps that she’s drunken, prone to violence, condescending and intolerant of “mommybloggers?”

Clearly, Lisa Barone is an example of taking authenticity too far. If there’s an upside to what she posts, it’s this: I will never hire her to do anything. Ever. If she can’t manage her own identity online, I will never trust her to manage mine.

So the straight answer is this: If you’re faking it on social media, people will know. Say what you think, but don’t forget that showing disrespect and offering too much information isn’t good for anyone. If your company wants to Twitter, be sure that the person tweeting for you is responsible, cordial, respectful and stays on message. It’s nice to give shoutouts to those who mention your brand. It’s even better when there’s a personality behind the whole endeavor (see @comcastbonnie), but if the person doing the tweeting is abrasive, unpleasant and unprofessional, the last thing in the world you want is “authenticity.”

UPDATE: I love when people say I’m wrong, and then prove me so very right. Lisa Barone was kind and measured enough to respond to my post below, and I truly appreciate that. Her business partner, Rae Hoffman, on the other hand, got a tad angry. From her Twitter feed:

@LisaBarone fuck em… and he’s wrong – it’s not that he’d never hire US. It’s that WE would never work with HIM

@sugarrae He has every right to hold that opinion. I just don’t agree. Hopefully he’ll approve my comment.

@LisaBarone oh, he does… and I have every right to think he is a superficial douche because of it

@sugarrae you’re such a bully. :p

@LisaBarone I’m not a bully babe, I’m a realist and I just don’t give a fuck… he can chase <shiny object> the pretty flags

The thing I absolutely love about Rae’s posts is not the juvenile tough-guy act, but the assertion that her company wouldn’t work with me, if I were willing to pay. The fact is that I stated quite clearly above that they will never get a chance to turn down my business because I won’t offer it to them.

I want to be absolutely fair to Lisa Barone here: The above posts were between Rae to Lisa in Twitter conversation. Lisa’s responses were quite tame and measured. She truly handled my criticism the way a professional would. I can only thank Rae for her “authenticity.”

My point stands.


AP just doesn’t understand the Internet.

July 29, 2009

If the Associated Press wasn’t so important, I would laugh hysterically at the utter foolishness it’s been displaying. Unfortunately, we need the AP, despite the arguments to the contrary, which makes the organization’s complete lack of understanding the Internet quite terrifying.

AP claims the Internet is stealing the news. Of course Google is the big, bad bully in the equation, but even bloggers, AP says, are stealing journalists’ work, by posting headlines and links to the original stories. To counteract the thievery, AP says it will roll out DRM on the news, with some bizarre news registry idea that will use tracking beacons and other Big Brother technology to tell AP exactly how its news is being used.

Look, I understand the fear of the Internet. I come from a newspaper company that was terrified of spreading news online. But by the time I left, the online division I headed up was generating revenue, drawing readers, and building value. I never worried about whether Google was stealing my headlines. In fact, I wanted Google to index my headlines.

What AP doesn’t seem to understand is that Google drives traffic; it doesn’t steal traffic. Google has no content of its own; it merely directs users to the content you’ve got. AP should beg, borrow and steal to ensure its stories are linked up properly to drive readership. Instead, we get this.

The AP’s job is to bring together and disseminate the best, most important journalism. To do that, it must take advantage of all possible mediums. I argue that AP’s mission (and the mission of every journalist) should be to serve the public’s best interest — not its own. Any time you try to keep the news from the public, you are abdicating your responsibility to those you’re supposed to serve.

Not long ago, the AP contacted a member organization, demanding the paper remove an embedded AP video from its website. The paper, of course, was dumbfounded: The video came from the AP’s own YouTube account, and an embed code was provided.

I think that vignette shows everything you need to know about AP’s understanding of the Internet. You can’t report news and horde it. You can’t get attention and credit if we can’t link to it. And you can’t get paid if nobody cares anymore.