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.

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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.


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.”


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.


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.


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.