Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Stubborn Persistence of BBS

I was holding this post back but when I heard Loren Feldman of 1938 Media call Twitter a BBS, I had to post it right away because I thought, "Hey! I thought of that too!"

When a computer protocol was written by Ward Christensen so that one could dial up a Bulletin Board System in 1977, the early precursor of the World Wide Web was born and the sharing of information freely through networked computers residing in the homes and offices of “some other” people became possible.

The World Wide Web really started at CERN (No Al Gore joke here), European research Lab. Tim Berners-Lee set up the first web server. From the CERN website: “The idea was to connect hypertext with the Internet and personal computers, thereby having a single information network to help CERN physicists share all the computer-stored information at the laboratory.” The ability to find, browse, search and create information that can be viewed by anyone with a computer and an Internet connection came to be.

Connecting to others, having conversations and exploring beyond your own physical borders must be ingrained in our collective DNA. We need to share information with other people who may or may not be like-minded. In Twitter we have found yet another way to accomplish this.

Twitter has managed to blend many of the greatest aspects of the Internet as it has evolved and put them into one succinctly designed application that, 1) Connects us to others outside of our physical community and B) Allows us to share information with those people that we find.

So with all this history an over 30 years of innovation what is the best thing we came up with? Twitter. That’s right. We have finally developed a way for people to log in and talk to other people over long distances in 140 characters or less. What does that say about us as a culture?

The Internet started as a means of transmitting scientific and academic information, with the real stress on information. When you look at the evolution of the World Wide Web (I still love calling it that!) it’s all been just a refinement of achieving that objective.

Everything else is just exploding soda bottles and LOLcats.

Lon S. Cohen

Blogs R Us - A Controversy

On Business Week’s website, Ben Kunz of Media Associates wrote about the controversy surrounding Chris Brogan’s sponsored blog post for K-Mart in his story titled, “A Modest Blogging Proposal.” I thought it was a good article. Though I think it oversimplifies the controversy. Advertorials are commonplace in publishing. Chris Brogan's blog is a publication as well as an outlet for his personal opinion. K-Mart asked him to write a sponsored post, which was clearly and obviously noted in the piece. He did not shill for K-Mart and wrote what he says are his honest opinions.

I thought Kunz did a great job of satirizing the subject but we’re a long way from sponsored blog posts to sponsored personal opinions. As I mentioned, Chris Brogan’s blog and his personal brand provide a service. He is a publisher. While some blogs are random thoughts and others are filled with reposted items (I am guilty of lazily reposting news items in my blogs too) the blog itself has become elevated to a higher status in many ways. It is a genuine form of publishing adopted by many MSM websites. In that respect, it is open to many different interpretations, and Chris Brogan offered an experiment in one way an advertiser can take advantage of influential bloggers in a non-traditional way. (Traditional being relative here since by traditional I mean sponsored links and banner ads, which themselves are relatively new to the ad game on the whole.)

When the sponsorship is ambiguous or outright hidden and then offered as honest opinion, that’s when a blogger endangers his reputation and trust. In this case, I think it elevated Brogan’s rep because he is, after all, considered a cutting edge marketer and he’d be doing his clients a disservice if he didn’t practice what he preached whenever possible.

That all said, I agree (shudder) with Robert Scoble about devaluing a blogger’s time and posts to marketers. I could make a living writing $500 posts at 500 words all day long if I didn’t have to do any research, or self-promotion or reputation building or pretty much anything else. Unfortunately I have to do all those things and the marketers are not knocking down my door to offer and endless stream of $500 posts to me (or anyone else). That means my time is worth more than $500 per post. A lot more.

Marketers are getting a pretty sweet deal at that price. If I were them, I’d do the same thing any day of the week and get away with it. If Brogan, with all his influence and Internet fame gets five hundred measly bucks for his K-Mart post, then what hope do I have of making a living off my blog?

While a great idea, in theory and one that if done correctly will not devalue the reputation of the individual blogger, the real issue your article raises is the pittance bloggers can expect to get paid if the trend continues. At this rate, I’m going to have pay K-Mart for the privilege of writing about their crappy store. (Hey K-mart. Consider that one, pro bono.)

Lon S. Cohen
Twitter: @obilon
Web: lonscohen.com

Monday, December 29, 2008

I'm Waiting For Web 4.0, DAMMIT!

By Lon S. Cohen

I’m skipping right to Web 4.0. I like Web 2.0 so much that I’m going to wait for Web 4.0 to roll out before I upgrade my stuff. That’s the day when the Internet will ingrain itself into my real world in such a way that it will be virtually inseparable from my environment and approach a certain Artificial Intelligence aspect, the total integration of the Internet into all my appliances.

I want the Web 4.0 house. I want my refrigerator to send me an email when the filter in the water dispenser is low. Better yet, I want to set the preferences on my refrigerator to order me a new filter when it needs to be replaced and then email me an alert to expect the filter to arrive in the mail by UPS and by the way here’s the tracking number and here is where that package is in transit right now. Same for the air filters in my forced hot air system. What about my light bulbs in my recessed lighting? Why the hell am I still counting mileage on my car against a stupid little plastic sticker on my windshield to know when I need an oil change? I want the car to send an email to me: Excuse me master, but my oil needs changing.

If some Luddite finds this disturbing I say get a dog. Dogs are great at having you guess what the heck they want. They’re unpredictable and it takes time to train them. Better yet, have kids. Those are some Web 1.0 little units. They don’t do ANYTHING by themselves, true analogs.

I ask this question of myself all the time: Why do I have to stick my DVD into my computer to access the web content? With WiFi technology and a simple operating system loaded with a browser interface, my DVD player can show me the content right after I watch the movie. (Advertisers are you listening because then you know exactly my tastes by what DVD I was watching and can target those banner ads accordingly.)

Here’s another question I ask myself: Why can’t my stove give me access to the latest recipes when I am feeling inspired to cook like Emeril while watching the show on TV? I can tell my stove to access one of many websites where I can find recipes and then get a list of ingredients emailed to me or better yet WiFi the information to the printer directly. That way I can run out and get exactly what I need. There’s probably a thousand brands out there who would love to be the exclusive sponsor so when my list prints it doesn’t simply say to buy butter but Land O’ Lakes butter.

It’s like movie product placement but in your real life. And when is it too much networking? Does my lamp or my cheese grater really need a WiFi connection?

Probably not, but that would be cool.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

To Follow or Not To Follow. A Brand Dilemma.

By Lon S. Cohen

After my post about brands on Twitter at Mashable.com where I took the position that they should and can thrive there, I got a great follow up question from @amykchulik via Twitter. While I was crafting my reply I found that it was going to take a few more than 140 characters to do the topic justice.

Over multiple Tweets @amykchulik asked about brands on Twitter and the strategy (for lack of a better word) of following back those that follow them:

amykchulik: Hi Lon -Great article on brands using Twitter! I am curious as to your thoughts about brands following followers back on Twitter –

amykchulik: Do you think it's essential and that not following others back, or picking & choosing who they follow back as a non-company-related

amykchulik: person might, is a reflection on their company & a rejection to that person/potential customer? Do they have a greater responsibility

amykchulik: to treat all as a customer/reciprocate? I've love to know your thoughts. Sorry for the long messages. Thanks!

(First, I want to say, Aw shucks! Thanks @amykchulik for the compliment on my article.)

It’s no surprise that I was somewhere in the middle when it came to answering this question and it was more than just a yes or no. Brands come in all shapes and sizes. Some are global behemoths while others are small and locally minded. Some are specific to an industry and others to a particular interest group. Many want to appeal to as many people as possible. I am sorry to say that there is no one size fits all when it comes to following back when you are a brand on Twitter. (For that matter, there is no one size fits all for anyone on Twitter.) I have outlined a few of many ways you can go about this question of whether to follow everyone or not on Twitter and what it means. (Or you can save time, skip down to the end and see where I throw the whole thing out the window.)

Still with me? OK. Here it goes:

The Auto-Follow Variable:

I thought of many instances where a brand might want to strategically follow only a few people, one that comes to mind is the auto-follow feature. If I am auto followed by one of the huge personalities on Twitter then they will start to see my Tweets automatically and may be engaged before they either tune out or block my brand from their stream. So a brand would probably do well to start by following some big names in the Twitterverse.

For whatever reason people like to auto-follow, it is their own choice. Personally I do not. Some people like the huge stream of Tweets and thrive on it. I can’t process information that quickly no matter what tool I use. But luckily, some either auto-follow or manually follow just about everyone that follows them. If you chose the right influencers on Twitter then following them to match your goals on Twitter would be a great idea. (For the record, I have never used auto-follow and apparently it is not even a public feature but one that you have to request.)

The Auto-Follow Caveat:

This would probably be best for smaller brands. Target some very popular Tweeple that match your audience. Follow them. Watch what they do and if a moment comes up, engage like the Enterprise going Warp Factor 5. That said, you can also gain followers by @ replying to people (wisely!) and seeing what happens if you have patience. For big, gigantic brands, this is probably not needed. Just publishing your Twitter Account on your website, company blogs or specific advertising may do the trick.

The Media Equation:

Say you are a Media Company. Now I know that we’re all media companies in one way or another with our blog, Twitter, Delicious and YouTube RSS Feeds but take a large media company like the New York Times. For the most part they want to transmit their content to as many places as possible. Following back people only places false importance on the people you follow since all you are doing is re-feeding your news, videos, pictures, etc. through an auto publisher to your Twitter Account. For large media companies I’d say, don’t get caught up in who to follow and not follow. Following many, many people may not be the best tactic. Keep it simple. Keep it safe. As old Gandalf used to say.

For example, below are two media companies and their follow stats:

Name: The New York Times
Following: 32
Followers: 15,480

Name: CNET News.com
Following: 2
Followers: 9,574

The Media Caveat:

My caveat for the Media Equation is that if you have your official Twitter accounts under different reporters’ names or specific customer service channels, then of course, it’s best to have individual follow strategies as you see fit. But in that case it is a personal choice not one that necessarily reflects on the brand itself.

The Customer Service Calculation:

You are a brand. You have a specific reason for being on Twitter. It’s not to expand your brand’s narrative into a new Social Networking channel to create awareness or seem hip. It’s just to be there when people are looking for you and want help. In this case I’d say go with both guns blazing. Follow everyone whom could possibly be a customer, a potential customer or a customer’s father’s, friend’s brother’s cousin’s former roommate. What does that make you and that customer? Absolutely nothing. But in this case, when a question comes up you can pick and choose out of your own stream to answer questions, head off vicious roomers and make every feel like you are that desperate person who wants to be friends with them, because that’s who you are. You want to know everyone even if they don’t want to know you. Rev the ol’ follow button up to Ludicrous Speed.

For example look at two well-known brands. They follow everyone. Maybe even you too:

Name: Frank Eliason (Comcast Director of Digital Care)
Following: 6,100
Followers: 6,107

Name: Zappos.com CEO
Following: 28,125
Followers: 24,465

Like two big, shaggy dogs, these guys follow everyone who follows them and then some in many cases. Not coincidentally they are both famous for their Customer Service on Twitter.

I’d also say that if you are a retailer with a very wide appeal and especially if your business is on the web (who’s isn’t these days, really) then this is probably a good strategy. My best example: Amazon.com.

The Customer Service Caveat:

None really. Customer Service should follow as many people as it can. But be careful not to abuse that and start thinking you are there to be all their friends and talk to them all, responding to every single Tweet about the weather in Des Mois (Unless you happen to have an office in Des Mois.)

And Finally,

The Specific Brand Axiom:

If you have a brand that is not a big national media company, or a customer service nut (though we all should be customer service nuts—but that’s another story), or an enourmous brand name that’s been around for hundred and fifty years then you may want to craft your own follow strategy. Here’s where it gets iffy. For the most part, everything I read about etiquette on Twitter or Twitterquette says that you should not be too concerned that people aren’t following you back, or answering your @replies right away, or answering them at all, or talking to you. Twitter is not email. It’s not IM. People don’t expect that you are going to engage them and have specific conversations with every single person on there. It’s just not possible and it’s understood.

The Specific Brand Caveat:

Just don’t go insulting people with your Tweets. Don’t tell @obilon that you’re not following @joe_blow because you think his Tweets are blasé. You still are a brand and need to protect your image. There are many Twitterquette articles out there to guide new brands on Twitter in that subject.

The Sum of All Tweets

I could have saved you a lot of time from reading this post by just telling you up front that it just doesn’t matter. In the end, there are multiple ways a brand can attack its follower strategy.This is what I meant when I said in my last article that in a new media space, new media rules still apply. You have to learn the audience and the way people are using Twitter. Brands can’t worry too much on Twitter (or many other Social Media spaces) that they are “insulting” people because they are not being “friends” with them. It doesn’t work like that all the time. You can selectively befriend people on Twitter without risking a backlash of complaints from others. It is a social network. People are connected by degrees of separation to almost everyone else on the network. That’s the point.

There are so many exceptions to my suggestions that this article could have been written from the exact opposite position on every point and there would be plenty of data to prove it. I thought of adding IMHO after every single paragraph but thought it overkill.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Brands on Twitter

I wrote a response to a post on Mashable.com about brands on Twitter. I disagreed with the writer's POV. Mashable did a fantastic job with my response.

Read it here.

As a supplement, there is a great New York Times article by Randall Stross about the trouble many brands are having marketing on Social Media.

No wonder they're having a problem on Facebook. They don't have any good ideas.

@AdamIss sent out this response to that New York Times article. "I have been saying these things for two years now…no one wants to be a friend of laundry detergent."

Sure if you put it like that, it makes sense. I don't want to be friends with a newspaper either but I am on twitter. And on facebook I'm friends with a dead Cubism artist and a fictional character. People also throw "snowballs" and "80's memorabilia" at me all the time. Too much in fact. So laundry detergent can find SOME way to be relevant, can't it?