Category Archives: Branding

Community management under the bonnet: 23 things

Online communities have been around for as long as the internet itself, but the path technology has travelled in the last decade means the options for what you can offer and what you can do with them today have exploded.

Despite this, they’re still viewed as a bolt-on or feature of a brand’s web presence and their internal workings and dynamics are little understood. This has led to what’s been termed as the “iceberg effect of community management”. In other words: there’s much more going on in an online community than is visible from the surface. Especially in the initial stages, just as much of this hidden activity involves the community manager as it does the community members.

Image courtsesy of Rita Willaert, Greenland, 10th September 2005 on Flickr

Image courtsesy of Rita Willaert, Greenland, 10th September 2005 on Flickr

The full-spectrum of web and social media tools is now being vacuumed up into and integrated with communities: so beyond forums and chat, we now have blogs, RSS, aggregation, email, polls, Q&A, photos, video, audio, virtual worlds, groups, ratings, attachments, events, microblogging, profiles, focus groups, networking, widgets and wikis, to list only the most obvious…

These tools protrude the ocean’s surface, along with the reams of content created by community members. But that is only a small fraction of what is happening. As more brands and organisations come to recognise the potential value of facilitating their own communities – but still consider it as an “add-on” to their main website – what does this mean for the role of community manager? What do they need to know and what do they do all day?

Image courtesy of The Brain Toad on Flickr

Image courtesy of The Brain Toad on Flickr

This is my off-the-cuff list of community management under the bonnet. I prefer the engine metaphor because communities commonly have a goal – they’re supposed to get you somewhere. I’ve also included the pre-launch stages. Depending on your product and whatever way you slice it, there’s a lot to get stuck into!

1. Business Plan
Translating business objectives into a workable plan that is agreed with stakeholders across the business. Finding and agreeing a budget. If you’re already on board at this stage, you’ll need to be involved in this in order to understand the business needs, if you’re hoping to translate it into a successful product that is…

2. Technology Platform & CMS
Choosing a technology platform – low-cost off the shelf packages you can tailor to suit community interaction, eg. Ning, Squarespace, Joomla; bigger-budget customised developments based on for example Drupal (the system I’ve worked with in my last three roles); or maybe you go totally bespoke whether in-house or with an agency (potentially the priciest, and beware proprietary lock-ins that could come back to bite you).

3. Personas & User-Centred Planning
Personas are a useful heuristic for surfacing the needs of the different key groups who’ll be using your community. You think you have your audience all figured out, but have you thought about their activities and requirements in community terms? Explore this in workshops if you can.

4. Design & Build
If you’re around during this phase, you could be called upon to input from the following (and more) perspectives: web design and wireframing, information architecture, usability, accessibility, user experience, on site search, SEO, taxonomy and folksonomy, APIs, browser compatibility and web standards. Many brands are still lacking in some or all of these departments, so your broad knowledge and experience can help make or break the end product! In terms of collaboration and notation around refining design and navigation concepts with your devs and designers, I can’t recommend Conceptshare strongly enough. I used it for that purpose in Chinwag‘s previous re-build and it is genius.

5. Registration & CRM Integration
The first experience of a community member is often to register; don’t make it painful and onerous, you’ll annoy and lose people from the get go. Communicate the importance of this to direct stakeholders, preferably with story boards and demos of best practice. The experience generally is so poor and under-thought that Joshua Porter’s writing a book about it. Get advance estimates for the costs of integrating community registration / login with your current CRM system (preferably when you’re in Business Planning stage). The figures – and actual effort – can be unexpected. Is there another solution?

6. Testing & Tweaking
When you have early “alpha” versions of the site to play with, plan for an extended period of UAT (user acceptance testing). Get people across the business involved. Allow for some less structured “guerilla” usability testing too, at different stages of the build. You can learn as much from this as from pre-scripted interactions. Make sure your community manager is involved for most if not all of it and has oversight on the final sign-off.

7. Guidelines
Social networks revolve around me and are a bit of a free-for-all, they’re social but generally selfish. Communities bring benefits to people by having a common purpose that may facilitate but also overrides pure self-interest. So community rules and a general etiquette are essential. These guidelines need to be agreed by your organisation, and include some legal considerations. You may also need specific guidelines: for your bloggers, for group managers, for staff members and for sponsors, depending on the scope of your endeavour.

8. FAQ / Help
The more multi-faceted your site, the more bases your FAQ will need to cover! Basic instructions on your different areas, tools and registration are essential, should be visibly linked to everywhere and also feature somewhere in the site-wide navigation. Keep them readable and concise. A good FAQ is not an afterthought, and harder to write than you’d imagine. Be community-minded and have a site help discussion forum too, where your input and peer support can mingle to the benefit of all concerned.

9. Seeding: pilot before launching
There’s nothing worse than being told of some cool new community or cutting edge network, and hoofing it over there only to find it bereft of visible life forms. Counter this by running a closed pilot, while you also beta test the site’s taxonomy and functionality. Invite a segment of your audience to participate in the pilot. Make sure they know they’re getting a special preview, listen to their feedback and iterate rapidly to solve key technology, content and user experience design issues during this period. Allow for a couple of months minimum, or at least until there is lively activity before opening up. Then when the world turns up, they won’t be confronted by a confusing environment of unusable tools and tumbleweed. [See also .17]

10. Moderation
Think about posting controls, editing permissions, alert systems, freezing tools, spam filters and of course, moderators! Which is better for your community: external agency moderation, user-mods, or moderation by the experts, contact centre staff and people who know the answers and issues themselves inside the business? As community manager for CIMAsphere I run staff training workshops, and oversee the moderation workflow and rolling schedule. A closed group on the community for geographically distributed moderators to discuss issues and share best practice is another plus. Relying solely on external mods can be un-feasible and also means the brand is not fully engaging.

11. Inboxes
Not everything happens *on* your website, so common community inboxes you may have to set up and manage include: info, help, feedback, and abuse; plus the community manager’s personal inbox of course. That’s a lot of email! Who else can help you mange these inboxes? Hunt down the most apposite or amenable folks and spread the inbox love to spare the pain!

12. Enhancements & bug fixing
Gotta love those bugs as a community manager! Living in perpetual beta with a modest budget, bugs follow you wherever you go. Users complain on the site, people email for help, some people struggle to even login if your registration process isn’t perfect (and whose is?). Bugs perkily await you in the morning, and they’re there when you go to sleep each night. The thing businesses need to consider is that bugs impact users much more directly and frequently in communities than in other websites. And who else can communicate these bugs’ intricacies and preferred fixes to developers apart from the community manager? Prioritise ruthlessly, and use a good bug-logging or collaborative project management tool. I recommend TracAdminitrack, or even Basecamp (but not Bugzilla – it’s strictly for the engineer contingent). Realise you’ll never get them all fixed if your support budget is minimal. Communicate with your users about the bugs, and discuss with the business how they plan to support product development in the future.

13. Analytics
Unique users, dwell-time, page views, referring sites, search traffic, browser and device breakdown, exit pages, pages per visit, popular keywords and content, campaign tracking… this is just the beginning, but if you can’t report on the above, something’s wrong. Even if you use a paid analytics vendor like Neilsen, Omniture or Nedstat, it should be possible to also plug in the wonderfully free Google Analytics. But realise there’s more to GA than meets the eye – look into its deeper facilities.

14. Community & engagement metrics
Another beast from analytics entirely: clicks are not the bottom line! Value comes in many forms. Most active participants; most active groups / forums; total posts / interactions; average posts per user; ratio of posters to passives. These are some fundamentals, but don’t tell you much more than if you’re properly monitoring the community from a managerial perspective in the first place. But how many go onto recommend you, or redistribute your content elsewhere? How many buy? How many change their sentiment from negative to positive, and vice versa? How many act creatively? How many contribute valuable feedback and knowledge to other users and to your organisation? Only some of these metrics are directly monetary, others contribute to site and business objectives in the broader sense and longer term. Think about types of value, what you want to measure, and what you effectively *can*.

15. Bloggers
Internal or external, expert or enthusiasts, detractors or advocates? Okay, it might not be the most sensible move to hire detractors as bloggers, but critics will have a voice on your site nonetheless, and are part of the positive future of your organisation, catalysts for beneficial change. This is because they often speak loudly the frustrations and uncomfortable truths that the brand smoothes over. That’s because they’re passionate, so some could be bloggers eventually 🙂  Get a mix of bloggers on board, make sure a variety of business and community interests are represented, and within your guidelines allow for freedom. Give them ongoing feedback. Run training for internal bloggers and monitor their progress. Try out different things and don’t expect it to purr along like a dream. Expect it to be bumpy.

16. Groups
Groups are very powerful clusters: a key trait of people is to identify by similarity of experience, location or interest. According to the Ruder Finn Intent Index, 72% of people go online just to become part of a community. Groups in communities facilitate this clustering further. Do you have pre-defined or user suggested groups, or both? Devolving group control to community members is common practice. Group guidelines and moderation can ameliorate the risks involved, as well as reassure the group managers that you’re taking their group’s good health and sanity to heart.

17. Advocates, evangelists & early days participants
Prior to launching, identify and open a communications channel with brand or business advocates who can get motivated to sign-up and post when you launch, and help spread the word. These could be dynamic individuals already championing your brand elsewhere in the social mediaverse, or people who present themselves and have good ideas when you (for instance) do a mail out to your audience asking for ideas and involvement before the community goes live. In turn, your first active users should be carefully listened to and responded to. Those first weeks are critical. Having turned up first to the party and said hello, they deserve special attention!

18. Getting to know you
If you don’t “know” your community, you’re onto a loser. By know, I mean get familiar with them as participants. You don’t need to be the resident expert on the community’s focus (though input from experts is essential) but you do need to know who’s unhappy, who’s helpful, who’s critical, and who’s smart. Many community users will be a combination of these and other types. Some people can even be accidentally evil and destructive. Unless they’ve been heinously bad, don’t jump to cast judgement! We’re complicated creatures after all.

19. PR, content and attention planning
Do you know why you’re building your community? Then the PR and content planning should be seamless. Schedule in some eye-catching events and content around your launch; but remember it’s not about broadcasting “messages” or parading shiny baubles. Instead it’s about being interesting by providing value and being relevant and useful. If your event isn’t going to really matter to those early days and ideal users, then all the press coverage and email-outs in the world aren’t going to get people logging in and participating! It’s the same with content and event programming going forward. What might impress journalists and influential bloggers on the one hand and what tickles your community on the other don’t necessarily correlate.

20. Culture shift and cross-business input
The governance and ongoing development of the community shouldn’t be left to one person, or even one department. A cross-business steering group is one way of bringing a range of business eyes and knowledge to bear on the project and prevents it being siloed or becoming a political football for competing fiefdoms in the organisation. Communities languish and fail every day due to the latter scenarios. Breaking down those barriers is one of the great leaps forward that a community can begin to facilitate. People talk about operational efficiencies, but they’re rarely delivered in a meaningful or positive way. Well managed communities make this approach tangible, and eat away at the barriers and inertia both within businesses and between them and their customers.

21. Direct engagement and response
Follows from the above. If your community is a platform for CRM, R&D, product development, PR, marketing or customer insight, direct engagement must be baked in. As community manager you should liaise across the business to make sure the right people are aware, listening and acting upon feedback – whether that’s publicly, or off-line, or in specific community spaces. And the community needs to know you’re listening, even if you don’t respond publicly on every single occasion. Ignore them at your peril. Creating community areas and content that your users have suggested and asked for is one of the best outcomes of engaging with them. Hosting raw, unfiltered and real-time feedback is also a wake up call to complacent businesses; you can gain insight and improve your key business offerings based on monitoring conversations and analysing positive and negative comments.

22. Communications & Marketing
Communities do generate their own buzz, but those who can gain most from community often don’t have the time or aren’t in the right context to pick up on these vibrations. That said, neither does traditional marketing always reach the parts that other, more context-specific comms can. Marketing in and for communities often falls flat, or as one marketer has put it “there’s a hole in my funnel“. It’s got to be clear: what’s in it for them? Reaching out and partnering with other networks is likely to be more fruitful (see 23.). In turn, setting up group, discussion and blog alerts, and a community newsletter, can also spur new members and accelerate activity. Working with advocates in your community and elsewhere also has a grassroots halo effect.

23. Off-site community: partnering & networks
Linking with or extending to external communities can create a virtuous circle, with value for the brand and community flowing in multiple directions. Are there directly-related or relevant groups elsewhere? There were already 30+ CIMA student and member run groups on Facebook when I started at CIMA, which up until then had been ignored by the business. We decided to work with some of the livelier groups rather than starting our own, we recently set up a Facebook page and Twitter accounts, and we’re reviewing other networks. Think about the positive impact of reaching out, but beware duplicating your product and effort on a platform you don’t own. Be realistic about your workload but inform the business that your customers are out there – they’re organising themselves and being courted by others. So for how much longer will your brand be relevant, or will it soon be surplus to requirements?

Think a lot of this is a job for other people? Web editors, web designers, CRM staff, digital marketing and PR folks, web producers, brand managers, product and business development, perchance even some community assistants? That’s as may be, but community management is an emerging profession and – in the main – little understood.

Online communities are viewed much like websites were 10 years ago – “oh, that new thing, let’s get one”. As time goes by, community management will become more specialised. But for now, it’s a whole lotta skillsets rolled into one…

So it follows that I’ve actually left out some things – 23 things is enough to be getting on with 😉  What else do you think goes on under the bonnet of community management?

In line with this (if you’ll forgive me for mashing my metaphors) it’s also time to ask: what other new roles will emerge to power communities forward and keep the iceberg’s complex ecosystem intact?

Alchemy in the micro media maze

Micromedia makes my life better. For one thing – I don’t have to take comprehensive notes at Chinwag events, because there’s always the trusty podcast 🙂 Thus I spent more of this event using my more evolved faculties of listening and thinking. Amen to that!

L-R: Umair Haque, Ewan McIntosh (The Guardian), Steve Bowbrick, Mitch McAlister (Last.fm), Miles Lewis (Last.fm), Gerd Leonhard

L-R: Umair Haque, Steve Bowbrick, Neil McIntosh (The Guardian), Mitch McAlister (MySpace), Deirdre Molloy (Chinwag), Miles Lewis (Last.fm), Gerd Leonhard

Another good thing about micromedia is that it can re-combine or aggregate into different – often richer – things than its constituent ingredients. The whole is indeed greater… usually. And that’s exactly what happened at Chinwag Live Micro Media Maze last Tuesday 20th May.

PANEL

Umair Haque – Director, Havas Media Lab / Bubblegeneration
Gerd Leonhard – Media Futurist, Author, Entrepreneur
Mitch McAlister – Product Director (Europe), MySpace
Miles Lewis – SVP, European Advertising Sales, LastFM
Neil McIntosh – Head of Editorial Development, Guardian Unlimited
Chair: Steve Bowbrick

From the premise of widgets, and disaggregated, widgetised media more generally – it quickly took off into a much broader debate about the value of media, the challenges for advertising, and the potential of openness for brands, innovators and society more generally.

That’s an exciting leap – and it’s alchemy in my book. Like a previous event we held in Manchester in April – User Centred Advertising – raising bigger questions and breaking out of the ‘media as entertainment’ mindset triggered a much more stimulating conversation with the audience and pointed to an almost boundless horizon of opportunities.

Syndicated companies vs dinosaur brands

And if you’re looking to the future, then Media Futurist (and author of books The Future Of Music and Music 2.0) Gerd Leonhard is your man. Gerd has a way with metaphors and was on good form that evening. He predicted that in the future, there will be one bookmark that represents me, which I can reveal and share different parts of with my friends, colleagues and network.

In the future, most companies are going to be 90% syndicated, he said, as few can afford the huge investment it takes to create a major centralised [aka monolithic?] brand.

Coming from a massively widgetised service, Miles Lewis had some fascinating facts and insights – Last.FM‘s homepage only has 3% of its total hits. They’ve built their success by being all about music and nothing else, he observed. As such, I guess they are one of the leading niche networks – certainly the leading one founded in the UK! [aptly – they spoke at the first NMK Beers & Innovation event I organised in February 2006 on Start Up Culture]

Steve Bowbrick, Umair Haque and Ewan McIntosh at Chinwag Live: Micro Media Maze May 2008

Steve Bowbrick, Umair Haque and Neil McIntosh at Chinwag Live: Micro Media Maze May 2008

The writing on the crumbling walls is that they’re doomed

Lewis estimated that by the end of this year 55% of their users will be partaking of Last FM via widgets (currently that already stands at 40%), of which the largest has 50,000 users, and the smallest just 3. Regarding those thousands of smaller widgets, he wondered – somewhat archly – how the big media buyers and agencies [with their dinosaur mindsets 😉 ]can reach down into these micro audiences.

Mitch McAlister threw his and Myspace’s support behind the tenets of and movement towards openness – what Gerd is doing, and Lawrence Lessig, and a whole lot of other people, plus open source technologies and development. Collaboration, data portability and more are all key.

What’s more, Mitch expected to soon see the majority of traffic to Myspace on non-PC devices. The main stumbling-block has been the mobile network operators but that’s starting to change. Social nets shouldn’t be walled gardens, he stressed.

Brands in the wild and the benefits of remixable culture

Neil McIntosh of Guardian Unlimited said micromedia is good news for journalists, quipping that “nobody wants to be a channel”. The difficulties he saw were twofold. Firstly, it’s harder to serve ads against feeds. The second challenge was context – if you have a brand built around trust, what happens when your content is presented in an upsetting or inappropriate context off your site.

Umair Haque of Havas Media Lab explained that he wrote a long piece entitled The Age of Plasticity in 2005 (accessible as a Powerpoint download from his Bubblegeneration blog), wherein he first articulated and explained at length the idea that we get productivity and efficiency gains when we are allowed to remix things. Haque didn’t mention that he was also one of the two people who independently coined the term micromedia – also in 2005 – the other being leading new media theorist Lev Manovich]

Coops on the mike and Ian Delaney (lurking left) at Micro Media Maze

Coops on the mike and Ian Delaney (lurking left) at Micro Media Maze

Last FM and Myspace have revolutionised and solved the problem of the music industry, Umair said. But what is happening now – apart from micromedia being seen as yet another way to shove shitty advertising down our throats?

Going beyond the trivial mindset…

Umair (who also blogs as a discussion leader at Harvard Business Online) loathes the term ‘monetize’, he said, because you have to *create* value before you can capitalise on it; you have to have a purpose before you can profit from it. It’s not about creating games for Facebook. We in London labour under the delusion that media is entertainment, but media is so much more than that, it’s the interface for so much activity and experience in the world.

He challenged the panel and the audience to come up with something that would help solve real problems, not trivial ones, and create value at the same time.

Gerd Leonhard drew this analogy: in old media control = money; in new media trust = money. In companies embracing new media, collaboration with the audience is supplanting the old business model of control. Gerd’s remarks on a trust-based market reminded me a lot of the ideas of social capital getting a published articulation in Tara Hunt’s book The Whuffie Factor due to drop this autumn.

Media and ad agencies looking in the wrong direction?

Paul Fisher of Advent Capital Partners was first in from the audience with a question. If industries are creating less value, does this mean there will be fewer jobs in the old companies? In turn, where should he be looking for growth areas in terms of investments? For its sheer audacity, this got a few laughs from the audience.

Miles Lewis of Last FM had an interesting perspective on this. He argued that it is media agencies and ad agencies that are the dinosaur industries. The billions of spend they control are not going to where people are, it’s all going into TV and search.

—-

PODCAST ACTION!

Well, that’s what I’ve deciphered from my pleasingly sparse notes… but the debate was long and lively, and continued as people stayed to chat and have a drink afterwards. You can catch it all on the Chinwag Live podcast due later this week. Subscribe here or for iTunes go to the event page.

MORE COVERAGE OF MICRO MEDIA MAZE:

There have been some superb write-ups already from people who attended.

Jonathan Hopkins – Middledigit
Ben Matthews – Pudding Relations
Jemima Kiss – PDA Blog, Media Guardian
David Jennings

[NB. cross-posted on my Chinwag blog]

Facebookology – the Mark Zuckerberg SXSW 08 keynote interview

Looking at the man who created an addiction I have recently recovered from, whose product I have read and thought about way too much, I was conflicted.

I mean how many layers of information/identity/experience etc can one person process in a split second, right? Facebook has been useful, work enhancing, fun, valuable, diverting, strange, compelling, addictive, aggravating, blundering, wasteful, alienating.

In terms of where it ranks in the social software services I use (for a host of reasons), that depends, but today I rank the top ten thus: Flickr, Drupal, Twitter, Facebook, WordPress, Upcoming, Linked In, Delicious, MediaWiki, Bloglines.

I might rank these differently tomorrow, or if you ask me a specific question about my purpose, but that’s the broad order right now (sad how my RSS reader has dropped down the list, huh?) .

Zeitgeist platform

So I adopted my “industrial (floor) era” reporter stance and took copious notes at the SXSW Interactive keynote interview with 23-year-old Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Lurking in the shadows, I also drank coffee and ate a superzised muffin. I was coping 😉

And after the webstorm around the “Sarah Lacy / mob-rulekerfuffle died down, and putting aside the business issues per-se, a few seemingly innocuous par-for-the course points lingered.

Zuckerberg was keen to stress the neutrality of the platform, stating over and over that they just want to “help people communicate more effectively and efficiently”. While the case studies he raised of how FB has been used to co-ordinate politically in Colombia and Lebanon could both (naturally) be interpreted as politically skewed, and he flagged up the fight against global poverty, Mark saw social facilitation via technology – not ideology – as the philosophy driving Facebook.

“We’re just trying to build an infrastructure on top of which people can operate.”

Myface or Ourspace?

But this impartial view that Facebook simply lowers the barriers to communication and activity was muddied somewhat when seconds later he remarked:

“People should be able to be heard without any large organisation of millions of people. The world is an increasingly complex place and we need something – an infrastructure – on top of which people can communicate and do it [organise] from the bottom-up.”

Isn’t that an (albeit bland) endorsement of decentralised activity? So bland that it’s in fact very slick. Zuckerberg comin’ on like a talkshow equivalent of Clay Shirky. But lest we forget while caught in the swoon of emergent online communities, centralised political activity abides.

New ecosystem of value-creation a closed book?

So, it’s grassroots activity FB is (apparently) facilitating: the organic, the makeshift social milieu… hmm. Perhaps Zuckerberg should steer clear of sociological points, but the folksy grassrootness was blurred in the context of later comments he made:

“We see the company as a collection of social services,” he said, adding that opening up the developer platform allows people outside to make these services too and they’re “an increasingly important part of the ecosystem”.

“Revenue is a trailing indicator of the non-revenue value you are building,” he observed further into the interview, mid-way through an exploration of Beacon, spammy apps, and the Microsoft / IPO debate.

Beware the quicksand…

Facebook as a brand is rightly a mighty force, whether as a closed system (and open source hate object) or gradually opening space. Speaking of news community aggregator Newsvine, The Guardian’s Charles Arthur recently summed up the power of the Web 2.0 brand:

“[it] is a brand, buoyed by its community of users; without the users it would be nothing, but without the brand, the users would just be people milling around on the web, looking for a forum in which to post their thoughts and be heard.”

…but we’ve seen how easily media (oops, “platform”) brand allegiance can shift, and how heckishly difficult it is to create revenue.

Concurring with Lacy’s point that Facebook considers itself a technology company and not a media company like Myspace, Zuckerberg said: “Yes, and we hire senior people with a technical background, this makes it pervasive in our culture – to be a platform that enables other people to build businesses [that’s anyone from Coke to your 16-year-old neice of course] and build things.”

Ah, a pure marketplace, got it. Oh, but what’s this? Some libertarianism with your platform sir? With some baked-in diversity, vanilla flavour.

All kinds of everything… [*]

“In terms of community we consider it to be a very personal thing. People aren’t being forced into any community, it’s more about allowing them to communicate more and keep in touch with people.”

Egad, Zuckerberg posits Facebook as platform for mass diversity shocker! And yet it’s not so clear-cut. Maybe Mark’s been reading Jaron Lanier? Or perhaps his advisors have been. In turn, spare me the conspiracy schtick; I think it’s a whole lot more confusing and interesting than that. In my book (sic), as both a creature and driver of the complex world, the Facebook story is not over yet – whether you consider it evil, benign or a panacea for all ills.

It’s been an interesting year now social media’s gone mainstream. We’ve lived it, and learnt a few lessons. The gist of it all? Like the SXSW interview, it’s been messy.

[* Dana’s #URL correction# 1970 Eurovision winner says it all]

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The other Pandora’s Box point to emerge from his interview I’ll leave to a later post. Suffice to say it relates to the whole privacy-identity-openness debate.

[NB: I haven’t cross-checked my hand-written notes with either the official SXSW session podcast or the Allfacebook video posted on Valleywag – apologies for any inaccuracies my account may contain]

Widget Week part 2 – Chinwag Live: Media Widgetised

Potent openers are thin on the ground at events, mine especially. Having often developed and programmed the events, I’m normally found delivering safety instructions and other such vital messages in a vaguely ironic monotone (see photos).

So props to Steve Bowbrick for his scenesetting observation at Chinwag Live: Media Widgetised on Wednesday 16th May that the opposing life forces of disintegration and re-formation are encapsulated in the widgetisation of media.

Getting the second event in Widget Week properly underway, Steve canvassed the panel for their definition of a widget and the answers were both resonant and diverse. For their answers, you have to listen to the podcast due this Thursday 24th May.

PANEL:
Mark Taylor – Head of Content, Eircom & founder, Sleevenotez (blog)
George Berkowski – Head of Internet Strategy, BT Retail
Fergus Burns – CEO & Founder, nooked
Jonathan Gabbai – Solutions Manager, eBay
Kaj Häggman – Business Development Manager & Inventor, WidSets (blog)
Chair: Steve Bowbrick

So are widgets internet famous? 😉 George Berkowski, Head of Internet Strategy at BT Retail flagged-up Adsense as the most successful widget to date. He also cited Photobucket, which gets 1% of all internet traffic in the US.

Nooked CEO Fergus Burns was quick off the mark with some headline info about the widget economy. Last year was the year retailers and advertisers started asking “how do I get onto Myspace and onto Vista Gadgets?” You want your widget to be viral, but how do you drive traffic back to your site from RSS and the widget, Burns continued. The challenges ahead mean it has to be fun and it has to give value to the consumer (can you tell Fergus wasn’t giving away too much..?).

Kaj ‘Hege’ Häggman of Widsets stressed the widget proposition has to be simple. They now have 14,000 widgets in their library, 99% of which have been created by users. Doing profile-base widget recommendations is edging very close to advertising he noted.

Widgets – socking it to the portals?

Eircom Head of Content and Sleevenotez founder Mark Taylor explained that the “Kwaydo” engine that powers Sleevenotez (get more info by clicking on ‘Navigation’ on the Zythe homepage), is in fact a platform that powers what he terms “thin portals”.

He acknowledged that on the one hand – with Kwaydo – he is trying to disrupt portal models, but on the other – with his (Irish incumbent telco) Eircom hat on – to maintain them. He said widgets can extend your brand’s borders, but as a widget sceptic he is concerned that widgets are going to become another marketing and advertising tool.

Outfits like Ning and PeopleAggregator are going in one direction against the old portals, he said, but portals still have a role to play and while we are trying to figure out what that role is, it is clear that there is a value in aggregating large audiences. In turn, those portal-type aggregators can also provide access to exclusive content that you can then widgetise.

Utility versus monetisation?

eBay Solutions Manager Jonathan Gabbai stressed that widgets facilitate the distribution of content – which begs the question how do you monetize that? eBay is good for that because it is time-sensitive. The newly launched eBayToGo widget can be embedded on a blog or website giving you live updates on your auction. It this scenario, it’s important to have an open API, as has Amazon and Google, he added.

From the audience Pauli Visuri described a widget rather poetically as a “tear-off” from a website. Robin Gurney of (Estonian-based) Altex Marketing sounded a more cynical note, saying this monetized widget “sounded like a glorified version of affiliate marketing”.

Jonathan Gabbai concurred welcomingly that widgets do lend themselves to affiliate marketing. Someone else said the whole widget phenomenon must be like a “freak-out nightmare” for content owners and publishers, and George Berkowski noted that that is part of it, but there is also a real value for the user – the widget services from Slide, Photobucket and RockYou have great usability and utility for users. They have an altruistic and positive brand effect, and at the same time those companies are monetizing widgets very well.

Applications for and by the masses?

Kaj Häggman observed that it’s as much about allowing users to generate applications, and it’s a new paradigm that that not only gives users control to create their own apps, it’s also about giving control back to the developers. The mobile industry needs to be able to talk the language of the web industry, he stressed; a remark that triggered a flurry of comments about how the mobile industry’s business models were being put on the line by the arrival of the mobilized web, hence their reluctance to embrace it until the last moment possible.

Steve Bowbrick mused on the impact on site owners who have to host the applications and content of others via embedded widgets; the prospect of that happening on phones struck him as even more iffy.

One widget into 25 platforms does not compute…

A delegate from Profero noted that the arrival of Apollo from Adobe opens out the Flash platform to developers and he suggested that this would make it all more popular and widespread. Fergus Burns countered that the recent launches of Silverlight (from Microsoft) and Apollo means that we will end now end up with about 25 different widget platforms that developers will have to develop differently for.

This issue was thrown into even sharper relief by Opera Software ’s Charles McCathieNevile two nights earlier at Mobile Monday: Mobile Widgets. If development work around incompatible widget platforms is not in itself going to become a barrier to the development of widgets, he reflected, support needs to cohere around the notion of a standardised widget spec which is validated by the W3C (more here).

Dave Markham from Vodafone wondered wasn’t it all more about making sure it all works. Vodafone want it to work with widget builders, he said, and he asked the panel whether it would be a better experience for mobile users with downloadable widgets or online widgets.

Widgets as symbiotic parasites

Kaj Häggman commented that a widget is a very personal thing and there is a possibility to put an ad in that space that is not intrusive. Jonathan Gabbai observed that the big question here was one of trust. For kids, you could see a widget as a Harry Potter sticky note. So does that mean it’s all pre-packaged content?

A widget can be classified as a web service, said Burns. Dave Hornick on Ventureblog reckons it can be symbiotic (the Harry Potter-type, providing value for both host and widget provider), or that such as found with Slide, which is a parasitic widget that makes revenue for the widget provider.

Steve then interjected with a vivid analogy of an ecosystem of parasitic widgets leeching around the place and monetizing the attention of hosts on the one hand, and benign widgets that that swung freely between the trees.

Personalisation and widgetised identity

George Berkowski cited the robust personalisation of SnapVine. In turn, he continued, you have the phenomenon of widgetised startpages, whereby you can go to a celebrity’s page, for example on Netvibes, and it has all her content aggregated, plus you can leave voicemails and comments on it.

Lingo allows you to do the same with video and audio. There’s nothing to download, sort of like Skype without the download.

Alex Cooper of 1UpSearch asked if the Widsets business model was one of collecting demographic information and he wondered how that will pan out – will we be spammed by Nokia? Häggman explained that it will be opt-in as they value peoples’ privacy. Steve commented that it all was a bit like widgets as Big Brother or CCTV on your desktop.

Widgets atomised or widgets humanised?

Mark Taylor cited the utility of a private banking widget and Fergus Burns flagged-up the Ding! widget produced by South West Airlines, noting that it had 2 million downloads and there was no privacy issue with that. Jonathan Gabbai remarked that there’s a difference between installation and download, for example, with Firefox you download the extensions but it’s a low barrier to entry.

Finally, Gavin O’Carroll of Rememble asked the kind of mind-melting question that I had hoped audience members might ask in a previous post about this event. Where does it stop? Can you widgetise widgets? For example, will we have banner ads in widgets, and is there any reason why you can’t advertise in widgets?

Check the podcast (due Thursday 24th) for attempted answers to that, as at that point my humble penning skills failed and minutes later chair Steve Bowbrick said it was a wrap.

Stowe Boyd (who discovered the event via Dopplr when he arrived in the UK that afternoon) remained quiet during the discussion but told me afterwards he thought the event was too focused on monetisation (he also tweeted this) and didn’t really look at the user. Fair dos, but isn’t it fair enough to examine potential business models when you want to make a living?

Freakout nightmare or scent of a persona..?

What I felt was also missing was the publisher and brand perspective in terms of future media (although there were plenty of mainstream media publishers in the audience) – how do they maintain their brand identity in the web feed, widget and mash-up space without hugely irritating or inconveniencing people, and how do they fund widgetisation? Alan Patrick is convinced advertising in feeds will fail (see his post on the event). So what will work?

The broader issues of widgetisation outlined in the event webpage were barely touched upon and I would like to have heard more from panellist Mark Taylor too. Check out Mike Butcher’s excellent post on Sleevenotes from back in December 2006 for more on what Mark is up to.

Priya told me later that evening she thought a widget was like a digital perfume. But then we started quibbling over whether she meant natural human scent, perfume or aftershave, and then whether or not we favoured aftershave. And so the lights went down and off I hobbled to Madame JoJo’s for the tail end of the book launch party for Richard Barbrook’s Imaginary Futures: From Thinking Machine to Global Village.

Yep, another Chinwag Live to remember when we’re in yr rockin chairz gluing captions to yr cats…. (cheers Ian). Hmm, did I already mention the photos?

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Please bear in mind my notes were sporadic and atomised 😉 For the complete lowdown on what was said, subscribe to the Chinwag Live podcast via RSS or iTunes.

Internet World snippets

The Chinwag posse pulled-off what I’m dubbing a “pop-up event” at Internet World last week.

Much like the pop-up restaurant phenomenon – one minute there’s nothing but an empty shell auditorium, then all of a sudden you have a well run event in full flow, with a big audience and high-level discussion.

Thanks to the lackadaisical support of IW’s on-hand sound technician, our recording of the Wednesday 2nd May event for podcast was royally screwed. Luckily however, the panel was a re-run of our 27th March event (for which there is a podcast) PPC Earthquake – although each discussion was quite different and the audience had different questions, plus we had Yahoo joining the panel at Internet World.

The expectant generation

I dipped into a few other sessions later that afternoon, including one in the Brands Reignited stream ‘Client 2.0 – Best Practice Strategies for Running an Agency Focused On New Generation Clients – The Millenniums’. Beat that for a snappy title 😉

The observation that struck me most was made by panellist Alex Wright, MD of Agency.com, in reply to a question about the opportunities and challenges brought on by a new generation of connected clients and staff:

“They expect to become Marketing Manager and they expect a 20-30% pay rise and if they don’t get it, they’ll change jobs every 12-18 months. A sense of entitlement [and personal sovereignty, I’d add] defines them [the millennials] and this is something we’ll see in both agencies and clients.”

Subscription-based social networks

Then I happened upon (Chinwag UK-netmarketing mailing list stalwart) Richard Gale’s session on the development of social networking in Playboy TV UK – ‘Platform Hopping with the Bunnies’. His standout point for me was:

“The concept is now the vital element, and understanding the nature of ego and how it affects premium rate social networking.

A strong concept can go multi-platform and become a brand in itself…. You can make a social network that operates in the black from month-one.”

The snippable web

Amid the rush of last-minute event preparations that morning, I missed the talk in the Web 2.0 Experience strand given by BT Retail‘s Head of Internet Strategy, George Berkowski on ‘Aggregation, Web-clipping and the Right Web Platform’. So I’m still intrigued to hear his contributions as a panellist at our upcoming Chinwag Live session on 16th May – Media Widgetised.

And then of course there was the Chinwag Drinks afterwards at the pub down the road. A lovely bunch of people came along and we had a grand time in the beer garden 🙂

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[BTW, I expect some of the above URLs may not work by 2008, as the Internet World website spurns several of the basic tenets of good web design – unbroken URLs being one of them. A good list of further tips for reference – 43 Web Design Mistakes You Should Avoid]

SXSW notes: Using RSS For Marketing

I dipped into this session on Sunday 11th March 2007 a little after it began, and the panel was already in full-flow. The session overall was an interesting elision of technology and marketing, and drew a 200-strong audience – pretty good going for a 10am slot!

While I left knowing feed adoption was certainly on the up, a strong sense prevailed that the technological and design issues around it were also hampering its growth.

Anyway, onto the report. Discussing the uses of and issues around RSS for marketing were a very insightful and affable panel…

PANEL
Emily Chang – IdeaCodes / EmilyChang.com
Bill Flitter – CEO, Pheedo (blog)
John Jantsch – Duct Tape Marketing (blog)
Greg Reinacker – CTO & Co-founder, Newsgator (blog)
Chair: Tom Markewicz – EvolvePoint

Difficulties around tracking RSS user statistics and data were first on the agenda, and Greg Reinacker of Newsgator was stressing that they do have good data, but that what they don’t have is data on people using Firefox and Outlook for their feeds.

John Jantsch said their clients and prospects are getting information in lots of different ways. There’s a segment that want it in RSS and he wasn’t worried by the adoption rate. The trick is to easily enable all the ways people want to get information.

Emily Chang countered that we don’t get good data. However NBC are already using RSS internally to send out information; and many people may be using RSS without being aware of it.

Bill Flitter of Pheedo said that last year (2006) saw a huge spike from clients and brands in the automotive industry; there was a 500% increase so it is going towards the mainstream via these hobbyist channels. Last year when Google Reader and some Microsoft products launched, he added, there was another big spike.

It’s the plumbing stupid…

The moderator asked if RSS will remain a specialist term like POP Server, etc, or will it go mainstream like “email”? And if there’s a difference between RSS and Atom, can we use RSS as a generic term?

As browsers and other products integrate RSS into the toolset we will need the term less, reckoned Chang. It’s about receiving information by subscribing to content, Reinacker added, “RSS is just plumbing.” Just like no-one knows what SMTP is, he observed, RSS is under the hood and will stay there.

If you look at things like Pageflakes, there are widgets pulling information in. What excites him is the example of a publishing site that is putting all the content reconfigured for RSS through XML mark-up [not sure that I noted this correctly – will check podcast and amend if required].

RSS moves to enhance your marketing

What marketing is being done, Markiewicz asked the panel. Jantsch noted that on Pageflakes you can set up RSS feeds on different topics and areas around news stories. Reinacker observed that you don’t need to build your own RSS reader; rather, there’s a big cloud of content out there and you can access everyone’s content the same way using a desktop aggregator to tap into the cloud and pick stuff out of it.

Or if you’re in an industry sector for example, Reinacker continued, look at all the content specific to your area and pull bits of it into your site [eg. via a widget]; this way you can become a thought leader by leveraging others content.

Ford are doing blogs for auto shows (eg Detroit, NY), Flitter explained. They’re sending a person there to cover the show, not just to write about Ford but to write about what’s happening in the industry. They’re creating content on their blog and then looking to get that content syndicated elsewhere, leveraging the written word to build affinity with customers. Understand the power of content, Flitter stressed.

Markiewicz reflected that as with any aspect of marketing, you need to measure it. With marketing as a discipline there are no pre-defined answers, but with RSS you can know instantly if people are paying attention.

Search, SEO and indexing content

Jantsch added that you can use RSS to get better search results. It’s very easy now for a company to build upon their content to get better search results by having themed pages that are re-published as feeds – a really powerful way to get some nice rankings and hopefully some traffic!

Chang concurred – if you have your pages optimized, Google is rapidly indexing all feeds already. Flitter agreed – better indexed content begets better found content than all the merely beautifully designed sites out there.

You can repurpose content from your own site, Jantsch interjected. You don’t have to go out to the world. Markewicz took it a step further positing that you can use RSS as a content management system.

The truth about full versus partial feeds

So what mistakes are being made? What are publishers doing wrong, Markiewicz wondered. They’re being too stingy with their information, Flitter reckoned, by putting just the headline out, or a partial feed.

But are their audience ready for full feed content? The difference in response on full feeds and partial feeds is marginal, Flitter argued. There’s something inherent in the way we interact with feeds in that people want to poke around and see what else is there. So for response rates and marketing / branding impact, think about being more generous.

If you want to secure your feeds, Reinacker said, http authentication works across the board; secret URLs don’t work, because Google, Newsgator, etc will index it anyway! Jantsch added that as marketers we have to make it easier to subscribe. He’s been using AddThis which means he can avoid using all the little chicklets [the little branded buttons for Feedster, Bloglines, Netvibes etc].

Covering all the bases

Markiewicz said we should be consistent if we want subscribers because an RSS subscriber is going to be a lot more valuable over the long term than an email subscriber – so make it so that you can auto-subscribe.

Chang commented that the problem is where people think that your RSS strategy is something different from your overall content strategy.

Flitter raised the instance of where the reader is just looking at lines of text; they may open all their feeds in one long river of news, but then it all looks the same. How then does your information stand out? For every article, start it with your company name at the start of the headline so when it’s syndicated your brand will be visible there too and you’ll also benefit in the search realm too [this idea did not appeal at all to me, but that’s the dormant journalist thinking, I guess 😉 ].

Tracking, content and objectives

The question was raised as to regularity of feed posting by an audience member. Markiewicz stressed consistency. Chang said if your company is doing product updates, then at least make it once a month, like an email newsletter.

Jantsch argued that it all comes down to goals. Reinacker said put quality before quantity; you can’t put garbage out there with the occasional nugget. Jantsch disagreed – get a PDA and note down everything interesting you hear, it’s not that hard!

Are there tracking tools other than standard web tracking, someone asked. This can get done in-house, responded Markiewicz but there are services like Feedburner that can package that data for you.

Approaching it from a marketing perspective, remarked Flitter, it’s all about how to leverage feeds and what to do with them. Do you have campaign-specific objectives and data needs, or overall objectives? Feedburner is good for general and publisher feeds; Simplefeed is good for the enterprise; and Pheedo is suited to marketers. Is it impressions, views or clicks that you seek? These tracking packages are just a guideline for measuring feeds.

From chicklets to auto-discovery

If you have a built-in fanbase, an audience member asked, and they’re mostly not technically skilled, how do you make RSS easy to use if it’s positioned as plumbing?

If you have a large target group you know how to speak to them, Markiewicz replied, and you need to make that effort. Customise your language to your audience, said Chang. So if it’s a cookery site, say “get a daily recipe”. People should also be able to subscribe to your feeds by email, Jantsch suggested.

Reinacker differed regarding the orange RSS button. If you don’t need it that assumes that your site supports auto-discovery. But major aggregators like Google, Newsgator and others don’t support auto-discovery, so leave the chicklets and the orange button there, and also support auto-discovery.

You should probably do your first reach-out via email, added Chang. The orange button was created to remove the need for multiple chicklets. It was created for the early adopters – to get them to use RSS and spread the early adoption take-up. From a marketing perspective, Flitter said, keep testing to figure out what is the best way to get uptake.

Video descriptors in feeds & breaking the US stranglehold

Dealing with video was the next question raised from the audience. If your content has a lot of video, and you have a one minute or thirty second spot, would you recommend a short description of it that’s not actually visible on the site but is to aggregators and search engines?

While you don’t have to transcribe every word, Flitter reckoned, you should have a summary of the content, both from a marketing standpoint and from an indexing standpoint.

Use Flash or an embedded YouTube / other trusted player, recommended Reinacker. Make sure you see how your feeds render in all the top news readers; so be careful of putting shiny little objects in the feed.

A French man in the audience got the last word in. He remarked that all this stuff about plumbing is just a big turn-off; we should be talking about stories, not the technology. He said that he used Feedburner and that all the stats are very US-centric, but in the morning you get more RSS readers from abroad. With services like[Vancouver-based] NowPublic, he observed, you actually get a different audience.

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This is the first of my reports from SXSW Interactive 2007. No doubt, like last year, it’ll take me another 10 months to get all these babies written up! In the meantime, here’s some other good coverage and commentary on this session:
http://www.readwriteweb.com/archives/sxsw_using_rss_for_marketing.php
http://www.darowski.com/tracesofinspiration/2007/03/11/sxswi-using-rss-for-marketing/
http://christopherschmitt.com/2007/04/03/sxsw07-rss-for-marketing/

UNSUBTLE HINT…
If you found this report of interest, then can I (Amazon-stylee) suggest that you might also like these upcoming events…

Chinwag Live Media Widgetised – 16 May 2007, London
http://live.chinwag.com/mediawidgetised
“How will the growth of widgets, aggregators and web-feeds effect the online media landscape?” Speakers from eBay, BT Retail, nooked and Eircom / Sleevenotez [disclosure: I’ve organised this event]

Widget Week! – 14-22 May 2007, London
Chinwag Live: Media Widgetised on 16th May is part of the inaugural Widget Week – the world’s first co-ordinated cluster of events to focus on the widget phenomenon and explore its business, marketing and cross-platform potential. Move over Silicon Valley – the UK and Ireland is where the best of media and technology intersect! Brought to you by Chinwag, NMK (Beers & Innovation) and MoMo London

Upcoming listings:
If you like to watch, share or just aren’t sure yet, your needs are catered for on these Upcoming pages:
Chinwag Live: Media Widgetised – 16th May 2007
Widget Week 2007 – 14th – 22nd May 2207

Dawn of the widgeteers

Funny how things change. One minute we’re all shouting about websites, WAP sites, social networks, the mobile web, and the need for these to be branded, marketed, accessified, monetised and measured to within an nanometer of perfection.

Then what do you know – along comes the widget.

When Sam and myself at work settled on the idea of doing an event on this, as we batted the concept around amid the usual multi-tasking mayhem, the questions that came out of our minds were more far-reaching than we’d anticipated.

Do newly launched brands and businesses even need a website? Isn’t mobile the better platform for RSS feeds and widgetised content? Are web services the new black? [okay, the last one’s a bit less pondersome].

As I’ve written in our latest Chinwag Live newsletter [and BTW I *know* most of you don’t subscribe because you’re strict RSS discplinarians, but patience people 😉 ]:

“One thing’s for sure, widgets are shaking up the way we consume information. When you can get all your favourite bits of the web delivered to a feed reader, blog widgets or personalised homepage, bypassing the “destination website” setup, what are the implications for brands, marketing and digital media?

Do we really know where we’re going as media is delivered by RSS and content is “widgetised” – deportalized, snipped, aggregated and mashed up everywhere?”

To which I would add, how do we search widgetised and dis-aggregated content? How do we enable its discovery? How do we archive it? Some folks out there must be cooking up the answers.

Springtime for widgets and feed readers…

Hopefully YOU, or your partners in crime 🙂 And along with our panellists at Chinwag Live: Media Widgetised on 16th May, perhaps we can start to get more of a handle on all this upheaval. Or, at the very least, over a few drinks, we can come up with some even more mind-melting questions (feel free to pop them in the comments here too why dontcha).

Who are the panellists? Mark Taylor, Head of Content at Eircom & founder of Sleevenotez, George Berkowski, Head of Internet Strategy at BT Retail, Fergus Burns, CEO & Founder of nooked and Jonathan Gabbai, Solutions Manager at eBay, with Steve Bowbrick chairing (more info and bookings here).

It’s also on the newly Yahoo-ified Upcoming.

So, if the widgetsphere is starting to remake the web, does that give you the late-night-sweats, or are you downright hugging-yourself excited? Either way, this event is made for you.

Newsweek declared 2007 the year of the Widget. Well I reckon May 2007 will be the month of the widget (more on that soon). You heard it here first.