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.”

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Dear newspapers: You’re doing it all wrong

November 28, 2009

My local newspaper (or, more correctly, the website associated with the local newspaper) recently put out a call for reader input. How, the bloggers asked, can we make the newspaper better? How can we bring you back? How are we doing?

You can see the suggestions here (hint: though the article was posted a month and a half ago, there’s not a single response).

I like to help and I do still hold a place for newspapers in my heart. So here are my suggestions and observations:

1. Stop asking me how to run your newspaper.
I’m a reader. I’m not I’m paid to run your newspaper; you are.

These pleas for public comment have been going out for years, especially as newspapers began to see their readership numbers decline. In my years in newspapering I was guilty of making similar overtures. The idea, of course, is that it makes the paper look like it cares what readers think — that it allows readers a greater stake in the newspaper. It doesn’t.

Instead, it makes newspapers look pathetic and lost. It makes them look rudderless and incapable of solid decision-making. You are supposed to be an organization of trained journalists. Don’t whine and beg readers to make your decisions for you. If you do, you undermine your authority, and your readers’ trust in you.

Speaking of undermining your authority…

2. Stop dumbing down your design.
There’s a reason everyone wears jackets and ties on TV news: Authority.

If new anchors wore T-shirts and jeans, you wouldn’t look up to them, would you? So why have all our newspapers gone from the stately, authoritative nameplates and designs to T-shirt and jeans equivalents? When I started in the newspaper business, the big metro daily’s flag screamed authority, in stately capital letters that demanded respect. The last two redesigns have reduced that nameplate, first to a friendlier font with lower-case letters and now, well, it’s become just initials, tucked away into the top left-hand corner.

Beyond that, the paper has moved to more digest items, fewer long-form stories, bigger photos, and all the little things readers have said they wanted for years. Guess what? It ain’t working.

3. Stop trying to prove you’re cool.
I’m glad you’re on Twitter. For me, the easiest, fastest way to catch up on the news of the day is to follow news outlets I trust, grab their headlines in my Twitter feed, and hit up the stories I’m interested in. So that’s working for you.

What doesn’t work are the news stories about Twitter, the constant references to your Twitter feeds in the newspaper, quoting Twitter feeds in the newspaper. It wastes valuable newsprint and it alienates readers who aren’t on Twitter — and that’s the majority of your readers. In fact, it’s more than 80 percent of your readers.

Speaking of Twitter…

4. Stop cluttering your Twitter feed with stories you didn’t write.
I don’t follow you for world and national news.

The Associated Press is a great resource for newspapers, if used properly. A good newspaper will include bits of world and national news of importance, and local writers and papers are just not equipped to cover that stuff. But national stories do not belong on local news websites unless they’ve been localized. I get my national news from sources with the resources to cover those stories. I follow them on Twitter, or I visit them daily. Including such stories on your websites and feeding them to Twitter waters down your strength, which should be covering local news.

The same really should go for the newspaper as well. More care needs to be put into what wire stories are chosen for the print editions, and in every possible case, those wire stories should be localized. If there’s not a local angle, why put it in the local paper?

I am a fan of newspapers. I spend every Saturday and Sunday morning with mine. And every weekend, I struggle with whether I will continue my subscription. As the quality of local coverage drops, the paper’s usefulness declines as well.

Unfortunately, nearly everything they’ve done to bring readers back drives readers the other way.

So maybe they really do need help.

Cuz it’s almost too late.


Snake Oil: Losing your money on SEO

October 12, 2009

As a web developer, nothing has been more frustrating over the years than talking to clients who’ve spent big bucks on SEO firms in hopes of raising their Google search rankings. The one that really sticks out in my mind is a client who spent several thousand dollars with an SEO firm for a report and recommendations for increasing her traffic; my job was to take several thousand dollars more of her money to implement those suggestions.

To be fair, many of the suggestions were solid: include meta-tags, use the right title tag, use alt-tags on your images, make sure your text includes your search terms. But added to those suggestions were several that just blew my mind. I won’t go into them, because it’s too tangential, but suffice to say they would have made the site unreadable for most visitors, and the text would clearly have been written for search engines instead of people.

For any business running a website, it’s heartbreaking to have a great product or service, only to find your traffic nonexistent and your search rank at the bottom of the pile. SEOs prey on that feeling of helplessness and, for a steep price, offer you hope. Unfortunately, if you read the fine print, they’ll admit they can’t promise you more traffic or — more importantly — conversions. And they shouldn’t.

Generally speaking, the companies with the best search rank are exactly who you’d expect them to be. They’re established businesses that already boast lots of traffic. In that way, the Internet as an ecosystem is no different than the actual business world. If I want to buy a computer, odds are the first places that will spring to mind are Best Buy or Dell or HP — not Chuck’s Computer Warehouse in Great Bend. Chuck’s been in business now for six months. He builds the machines in his basement, but uses substantially the same parts as the big boys. If Chuck wants to compete with the big boys, how does he do that? If he’s running a primarily Internet-based business, the temptation is to hire an SEO firm and get his site on the first page of Google search results for, say “buy a computer.” Right?

HP, Dell and Best Buy didn’t get where they are by SEO alone. They got there using tried-and-true advertising — print, television, radio, online. As power players, they’ve held quite a bit of authority over the computer sales market for a considerable amount of time. But if you search “buy a computer” on Google right now, HP and Best Buy don’t even show up on page 1. Instead, you get newegg.com, tigerdirect.com and a few others. Some of which I’ve never heard of, and would never send my money to. But that’s the company Chuck would be in with the help of an SEO. He may see a dramatic spike in traffic, but will it translate into sales?

SEO can’t sell a computer. Maybe it will drive traffic, but those numbers are false comfort; they’re often inflated and many of the “visits” you track are accidental or worse. You don’t want someone stumbling on your website; you want them heading there on purpose with the intent to buy.

I’d venture to guess that almost nobody visits the Dell website just to hang out. You visit when you’re ready to buy a computer. The same thing applies to Chuck. If he’s got a great search rank and lots of traffic but isn’t selling anything, the immediate reaction is that his deals aren’t good, right?

Not really. Chuck’s problem may be that his website looks unprofessional, and thus his business seems untrustworthy. Or it could just be that he isn’t getting the traffic he really needs: direct traffic from people who are ready to buy. There is only one way to get that traffic: Advertising.

Save the money you’d spend on SEO and put it into advertising. Carefully identify your target demographic and try different ways of reaching them. Create a real ad campaign that creates top-of-mind awareness for your company or product. Make sure it can’t be ignored (remember Head On? Yeah, apply directly to the forehead), and advertise in places you know your target demographic visits. Chuck needn’t worry about advertising in the local newspaper, but if he can afford an ad with C-NET, he might actually see some results. But if Chuck is only interested in selling to the local market, national ads are the exact wrong way to go. And Chuck must make sure to tell his story: What makes Chuck’s computers different or better than his competitors?

The bottom line is this: You want your site to be a destination. If customers aren’t thinking of you before they type in their search terms, seeing your name in their search results will not change their mind. Rather than focusing on visits from those who stumble across your site, focus on getting visitors who went there on purpose — with money in hand, ready to buy.


Found money and hypocrisy.

August 7, 2009

Back in May, we had a miracle in Syracuse. In a fairly distitute section of town, business owners and passersby found money in the street. Lots of it. Police say about $328,000 stuffed into 14 plastic bags littered Wolf and North Salina streets.

Folks who worked in the shops, store patrons and others found the money — which they learned spilled from an armored truck with a broken door — and all had an important decision to make. What would you do with that money?

Most of them gathered it up and called the police. It was returned to the Brinks operation on Lodi Street, where it was headed. All except for the 10 grand Peter Eppolito picked up and brought home with him.

Eppolito didn’t go out partying. He paid some bills. He gave $1,000 to a friend who needed it. He bought himself a decent pair of sneakers. And then he was arrested.

Eppolito is charged with grand larceny because, police say, the money he picked up off the street didn’t belong to him. Now he’s lost his job, and has borrowed to pay back what he found.

And let’s make that distinction now: Despite what the police say, Eppolito didn’t steal the money. He found it in the street. He didn’t hold up the armored car. He didn’t plot or plan a heist. He found money. He took it home.

If that’s the law, so be it. If the state believes it’s our responsibility to find the “owner” every time we find a dollar, a quarter or a penny on the sidewalk, who am I to argue? But let’s face it, none of us do that. And there’s not a cop in this great state who’d slap cuffs on you for pocketing a five you found on a park bench. Or a ten you found in a pair of jeans you bought at the thrift store. Or the $50 stuffed inside a figurine you bought at a yard sale.  And what about the philanthropists who specifically leave $100 bills in the streets or public bathrooms in the hopes they’ll go to someone who needs them?

What’s disgusting about this case is the fact that the state can’t seem to make its mind up. Last night I saw a television commercial for the New York Lottery, in which money was left around on the streets, and hidden cameras filmed the lengths folks go to to climb through fountains or scale walls to grab a $10 bill. Even worse, they rigged an ATM machine to spew out bills, and filmed people scrambling to pick up the money. Aren’t all of those people criminals?

On one hand we have a state that has already taken a man’s livelihood and is threatening to take his freedom. On the other, the same state uses a very similar set of circumstances to actively promote its lottery system — the happy coincidence of found money…

And isn’t that really what happened to Peter Eppolito? Didn’t he finally have the little miracle each of us hopes for just once in our lives?

The only people to blame for the “lost” money are the Brinks employees who didn’t make sure the door to the truck was closed. Their jobs should be on the line because they are clearly not capable of handling the delicate and important job of transferring money. Eppolito should be allowed to keep the money. And the state should apologize for being hypocrites.

But you know what? That ain’t gonna happen.


R.I.P., press releases? Not quite.

August 3, 2009

Yesterday, Jeff Jarvis used Twitter to declare the death of the press release. To quote Mr. Jarvis: “How can I tell flacks that I don’t open ANY of their press releases. The press release is dead, folks.”

In subsequent posts, Jarvis says “I love PR people asking what replaces the press release as if it is a needed element in the universe” and “PR is meaningless. Customer service is the real PR.”

All of this goes to show, once again, how deeply engaged Jarvis is in the workings of his own mind, and how out of tune he is with the way the world actually works. I don’t disagree with Jarvis that customer service is PR. But there’s a whole lot more to the story.

In the interest of full disclosure, I must say that I’ve worked on both sides of Jarvis’s argument. I’m a former journalist and I now work in public relations, as a consultant and designer.

First of all, public relations is not meaningless. In fact, PR can and should be customer service on a grand scale. The challenge is to do it respectfully and effectively. In my consulting work, the challenge is always to help clients find their unique story–the one worth telling the world about. Despite what Jeff thinks, good customer service is not enough. Consider:

In college, I worked for a new restaurant, owned by a very nice, smart couple. Their plan was to offer a dining experience that would rival the chain eateries on the same strip. The food was remarkable. The service was excellent…these two had 40 years of restaurant experience between them, and challenged the wait staff to exceed expectations. If anyone had an issue with their meal, they’d get a personal visit from the owner, Tom, at their table. And Tom made sure everyone left happy. The food, the service, the atmosphere were all impeccable. And yet the restaurant was out of business in six months.

Why?

Public relations.

There was never really enough money to pour into a media blitz. A fairly small radio ad campaign kicked off the grand opening, but we couldn’t compete against TGI Friday’s, Olive Garden, Ruby Tuesday’s, or Red Lobsters for television spots. We had satisfied customers who returned week after week. But bringing in new customers proved too difficult and too expensive.

Had I known then what I know now (and had the owners known as well), we could have gotten a boost by contacting news departments as well as advertising departments. We could have asked to be reviewed in the local restaurant guide. And even the story of this experienced couple striking out on their own to start a business would have made good fodder for the business page. Would it have saved the restaurant? I don’t know. But it certainly wouldn’t have hurt.

All organizations need to learn how to effectively and efficiently reach out. And while Jarvis may be annoyed by the press releases he just throws out, many journalists can be grateful for well-written releases — those that are pitches for coverage of an event, a product or more — because a journalist shouldn’t have to dig to find every nugget you read in the paper.

An innovative software release? Shoot me an e-mail. New product launch? Absolutely! New hire? Definitely.

Sound lazy? It can be. But real journalists don’t do what Jarvis accuses them of — which is simply retyping the release (seriously, Jeff, that’s what copy and paste is for!). Real journalists use press releases as jumping-off points, and determine whether there’s a story to be written. Maybe there really is news in the press release. Maybe the release just leads a journalist to a bigger, better story.

Journalists should not have to dig to find positive news. And let’s face it: Bad news rarely comes in press releases. If you force journalists to dig for good news, you will never read any of it. Not ever. We aren’t wired that way. Journalists are programmed to dig for whatever it is you’re hiding. By sending us what they want us to know, companies give us more time to dig around into what they might not want reported.

And what of community announcements? Must a community journalist scour every church, hospital and funeral home to uncover the marriage announcements, birth announcements, obituaries? Should they send Freedom of Information requests to all colleges and universities to determine who graduated? All of these things are handled by press releases. And, I believe, these things are important to communities.

Jeff can declare press releases dead, but he’s got it the wrong way. To the PR world, Jeff Jarvis is worthless. He isn’t going to read your releases because he isn’t reporting on anything but his own thoughts.  His goal is not to inform but to opine.  And for him, it’s a lot easier to declare PR’s death, post about it on Twitter and grandstand about it than it is to just hit “delete.”

For more on this, see Bing’s blog, which includes a response from Jarvis.


This is why we can’t have nice things…

July 31, 2009

The Internet is going haywire over the case of Gary McKinnon, the autistic hacker the U.S. is trying to extradite from the U.K. to stand trial for snooping around in NASA and Department of Defense computers seven years ago.

The U.K. is especially in an uproar, with McKinnon supporters screaming that an autistic man shouldn’t serve 60 years in prison, or that McKinnon shouldn’t be tried in the U.S., but in the U.K. instead.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in reading about the McKinnon case, it’s how ignorant the rest of the world is about the United States. And make no mistake: They are ignorant. Appallingly so.

Let’s backtrack for just a moment:

McKinnon admits that he broke the law by hacking computers belonging to the Army, Navy, Air Force, Department of Defense and NASA between 1999 and 2002. He’s a UFO conspiracy theorist, who  took it upon himself to dig around in U.S. government computers in search of proof that the United States was hiding proof that UFOs exist (I’ve seen no report indicating he found such proof). While snooping, he left messages, warning he would continue to disrupt and accusing the government of being behind the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Needless to say, he was caught. And since then, the U.S. government has been trying to bring him across the pond to stand trial. And, in the intervening years, he’s managed to be diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, a form of autism. The maximum sentence for his crime is 60 years in federal prison.

To get a flavor of how the Brits are looking at the case, check out Henry Porter’s blog in the Guardian. To save you time, I’ll excerpt:

“…over 55 British defendants have been forced to submit to the often crude and vindictive criminal justice system of the United States. Sixty years for a rather hopeless individual who believes in UFOs is obviously absurd, and British law should have the ability to ensure that a citizen is not exposed to harsher treatment in America, then Americans accused of the same crime would face here.”

Absurd, Henry?

Here’s what’s absurd: Acting as if the U.S. should treat McKinnon with kid gloves because he’s a Brit. That’s absurd. The U.S. has a “crude and vindictive criminal justice system?” Really? We have trials where the accused is innocent until proved guilty. We have a system where Mr. McKinnon will be given attorneys to represent him at trial, to make sure he’s fairly treated. We have juries who are charged with hearing both sides of the story before judging a defendant’s guilt. Sure, our system is not perfect. But it’s not crude.

In fact, if Porter — or the myriad Internet experts — had done a shred of homework, here’s what they’d learn:

1. Though the maximum term for the crime McKinnon is charged with is 60 years, there is little to no chance he’ll actually receive that sentence. The maximum is reserved for the very worst offenders. It’s entirely possible that McKinnon would serve no prison time whatsoever.

2. Judges weigh many different factors in determining sentences. In this case, McKinnon’s mental state, his behavior since he was arrested, his mental state at the time of the crimes and the actual damage caused can all be considered mitigating factors.

3. If in fact McKinnon is sentenced to federal prison, it will most likely not be in a maximum-security facility with violent criminals, but in a medium- to minimum-security facility where white-collar criminals generally serve. In America, we call these “country club” facilities. Considering his special needs, he would be closely monitored for his own safety.

If McKinnon was inwilling to suffer the consequences of breaking U.S. law, he should have taken care not to break U.S. law. He was completely aware of what he was doing. He carried on, and should therefore suffer the consequences, whatever they may be.

The larger issue here is ignorance. The fact that Brits continue to holler about this case as though Americans have no other goal than to capture, beat and imprison a pathetic autistic man does nothing less than illustrate the arrogance and elitism — unwarranted, mind you — of Europeans, who believe we are uncivilized (we spell that with a ‘z’ here, thank you) barbarians following Hamurabi’s code.

When all is said and done, this case will prove to be much ado about nothing. McKinnon will serve about 18 months in Club Fed. And then he’ll go home. And it will be over.

But Americans should take note of what Europeans think of us. And we need to ask ourselves whether we prefer to bend over backwards to prove ourselves to them, or stand up for ourselves and lead by example.

I, for one, choose the latter.


Sometimes the customer is wrong.

July 23, 2009

Up until a couple of hours ago, I respected Jeff Jarvis. I follow him on Twitter and read his buzzmachine.com posts. Like me, Jeff recognizes we all have the tools to be publishers. He’s a frequent critiic of those old dinosaurs in the print industry who fail to build value in their products but look for handouts to stay afloat.

Earlier this week, however, Jarvis started pumping out diatribes against his cable provider, Cablevision. I didn’t care, quite honestly, because I’m a Time Warner customer. I know little to nothing about Cablevision. Probably will never have to. Today, however, I became interested after hearing the story of therocco and ComcastBonnie…a disgruntled Comcast subscriber and the Comcast tech who tried to help him. I thought maybe I’d blog a bit about how badly therocco misinterpreted the situation (you can read therocco’s take at nerdofsteel.com) and decided to read up on Jarvis’s experience.

What I found was truly disheartening.

I’ll save you all the details (you can read them for yourself at buzzmachine.com). At first, I really felt for the guy. He says his Internet was out, and the cable company told him it would be three days before they’d get a tech to his house. Ouch, right?

So, Jarvis did what any reasonable person would do: mentions that he’s buddies with the head of the company (he is not). When the name-dropping doesn’t work (the Comcast employee called Jarvis’s bluff), Jarvis took to Twitter to bash Cablevision. And then he blogged about it.

Know what Jarvis did to everyone who stood up for the cable company? He checked their IP addresses. And berated them in his comments section. Because he’s Jeff Jarvis, and he can’t be wrong. Except he was wrong. Not only was he wrong, but he was lying.

In his blog, Jarvis states “they offer to send someone out … in three days.”

The ellipses hides a very important fact Jarvis left out: He was offered service the next day, and he turned it down (this according to a comment left by someone Jarvis identified as a Cablevision employee). They did not screw him by telling him to wait three days, as he led his readers to believe; the next day wasn’t good enough for Jeff Jarvis, who thought he was entitled to service NOW, dammit, because he has a blog!

So, when the powerful Jeff Jarvis turned down the next-day service, he was offered the next best thing: an appointment in three days.

Jarvis’s post is dishonest, and disrespectful to people who offered him help.

It also puts an enormous dent in Jarvis’s credibility when he lauds the truthfulness of online journalism; if the evangelists are liars, is the religion a sham?

Jeff, you owe your readers an apology. Anything less is demanding less of yourself than you do of your targets in the news industry.

The bigger point this leads to is the fallacy that the customer is always right. Because, sometimes, the customer is wrong. And sometimes (as in the cases of therocco and Mr. Jarvis) the customer is so hell-bent on getting things their way, that they completely lose sight of the idea that we should treat each other with at least a degree of respect. When that happens, you become a bad customer. And bad customers are bad for business.

Many companies keep lists of bad customers — people who call with unreasonable demands or become irate or insulting when things don’t go their way. And make no mistake: Those customers are treated differently. And not in a good way. That’s because they help destroy employee morale and take up valuable time and resources. They will mostly likely never be satisfied. In that case, it’s better to not do business with them at all.

I do believe companies should bend over backward to serve customers. But the fact that a person pays for a service — any service — does not entitle them to treat employees without dignity.

For more on this, check out this very well-done piece on why “The Customer is Always Right” is wrong.

UPDATE: Jeff Jarvis has a new, much more reasoned post on his blog, which you can find here. I give Jeff credit for listening, and for admitting there was more to the story.