Twitter Whimsy: Twanalyst.com

April 23, 2009

AxisPortals isn’t a big believer in personality tests, but does have an appreciation for the whimsical and clever, as in the Twitter Profile Analysis tool from twanalyst.com

The statistics are informative, and the analysis light but with a positive educational spin, so this tool is very appealing, and increasingly popular.  If you’re an active Twitterer, why not give it a try?

AxisPortals Aphorism:  When useful information is delivered in an engaging fashion, the line between tools and toys blurs delightfully. 

(Note:  For a counter perspective, see Lois Gray’s recent blog entry on his Twanalyst results.)


The Small Business: Bridging the Digital Divide

April 21, 2009

As we have seen, small businesses too often miss opportunities to make good use of websites and other aspects of online presence. Robert Scoble notes that this is an area in which the leading tech bloggers have failed to offer much leadership, and AxisPortals agrees.  There are many blogs devoted to things such as  

But often this advice is aimed at early adopters and current enthusiasts of technology, not at those who are just beginning to explore these spheres.

Only 44% of small businesses have a website.

Where to begin?  With the very basics.  Here are some initial suggestions for small business owners who want to begin bridging the digital divide:

  1. Secure a Domain Name:  If you haven’t already purchased a domain name to match your company, do so immediately.  Because the internet is now a quite a crowded space, your first choice will not always be available.  Use a tool such as Register.com  to search for available names and variations. Choose something relatively brief, descriptive, and easy to remember.  Then, make sure that you fully own and control the name.  This may seem obvious, but AxisPortals has too often worked with business and organizations whose domains were owned and controlled by a former employee or a long-since disappeared web designer. Owning and controlling your own domain name is key.  Keep your ownership current, and your user name and password secure.  Do not pass this responsibility off to an employee or a web designer without ensuring that he or she is putting everything in the company’s name, and without insisting that you can access the account.  
  2. Launch Your Initial Website in a Timely Fashion:  It does take some time to design a good website, but it does not and should not take months and months.  Select a competent designer; provide the designer with key content about your products, services, location, personnel, vision, and goals; review and revise an initial draft or two, and then publish.  For the vast majority of small local businesses, this is not a process that should take months and months of painstaking review and effort.  Review a list of some of the basic qualities of a good website, get those items checked off in a timely manner, and then put your website where it belongs:  online where clients and colleagues can access it, not on the drawing board, where it serves no one.
  3. Continuously Revise and Update Your Site:  Keep in mind that print publication and web publication are entirely different creatures. Once the process of revising a print publication is over, it heads to press, and then distribution can begin.  Not so with a website or any online presence.  Online, texts evolve, and content is constantly refreshed and regenerated.  Move online quickly, then, and make updating and maintenance priorities.  Unless you a) have an internal employee who is very talented in this arena and b) can afford to allow this person to devote a good portion of his or her time to working with your online presence, consider outsourcing this funtion.  It will be most cost-effective for you in the long-run if your web design company also provides ongoing maintenance services, as well.  That way, the integrity of your design will not be compromised by necessary updates.
  4. Track and Analyze User Statistics:     Make sure that your designand maintenace company also provides feedback about your users: How many people are visiting your site?  How often?  Which sections do they most frequently visit?  Which portions of various pages do they click through on?  How loyal are your visitors?  Where are they located?  How do they find your site?  Gather and evaluate this information on a regular basis, and revise your site accordingly to optimize the user experience.
  5. Don’t Mistake the Chassis for What’s Under the Hood: A website is a lot like a car.  We all drive cars.  We know how to get from point A to point B inthem. We know how to keep them fueled, and we know we need to service them regularly to keep them in tip-top running condition.  Most of us, though, aren’t experts on what’s beneath the hood.  Just so with a website.  A very nice lookingcar-red, sporty, and fast looking–might be a perfect lemon beneath the surface,  and this can also be true of a website.  Keep in mind, then, that while looks are important, they aren’t everything. Your website should both look good and fulfill it’s basic purpose, which is to allow users to locate you, learn something about you, and contact you.   Just as you test drive a car, you should test drive your website, approaching it as a user would.  Once the site is up, head to Google and put yourself in the role of a customer or colleague who is looking for you. Then, test the site itself.  How easy is it to navigate?  Do all the features load?  Do all forms and interactive elements work flawlessly? Does the site not only look good but also function well in a variety of browsers (e.g. Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome)?  Ask a few trusted colleagues to test drive the site on their computers as well, and to offer you feedback.  Then, bring your questions and concerns to your design and maintenance team, and make sure that they are quickly addressed.

AxisPortals Aphorism:  Now is always the best time for a small business to begin bridging the digital divide.

Next Time:  Adding interactive features and social networking elements to your site.


The Small Business and the Digital Divide

April 20, 2009

Cartoons by Andertoons

Today, AxisPortals has been pondering this article on the ways in which small businesses are often either entirely missing out on online opportunities, or are growing frustrated by their early marketing efforts in this sphere.   Consider these facts:

Though less than half of small businesses do have a website, the ones that do are not necessarily seeking to get traffic to it, and are not happy overall with their online marketing. Among those small businesses that have a website:

  • 51% believe both the quality and ability of their site to acquire new customers is only “fair” or “poor.”
  • 30% of business owners feel that they typically do a better job of marketing than a close competitor.
  • 78% believe they advertise in the same places as their competitors.
  • Only 7% of small business owners say their primary marketing goal is to get more visitors to their website.
  • 61% spend less than three hours a week marketing their website.
  • 99% of small business owners are directly involved in the marketing.
  • 65% believe it is very important to know where their customers come from.
  • Only 9% are satisfied with their online marketing efforts. 
  • 78% of small business owners dedicate 10% or less of their budget to marketing. Of those, half spend less than 10% of their marketing budget on internet advertising, while 30% do no Internet advertising.

The upshot?  Small businesses (which aren’t always all that small in terms of either income or number of employees) are missing important online opportunities.  Local businesses, in particular, need to consider the reality of consumer behavior today:  when current clients and colleagues  and potential customers and connections are looking for you, they will inevitably begin their search online, and this is true even when their initial contact with you or awareness of your name or service has come in another forum.  When these folks enter your name, the names of your key team members, and/or your company name in a search engine, it’s crucial to ensure that they not only find you, but find rich, appealing, informative, polished, and positive information about you.  When a search yields either limited information or shoddy information, you lose important opportunities to extend your success.

AxisPortals Aphorism:  Small businesses can’t afford to make web presence an afterthought.  

Tomorrow:  Towards Bridging the Divide


Your Health Online: Widgetized

April 17, 2009

Searching for medical information and community support is one part of supporting your health online.  Now, let’s have a look at another aspect of online health:  the health widget.  Fun, convenient, informative, and potentially motivating, health widgets can easily be embedded in web pages or blogs.  Some can also be downloaded to your smart phone or your computer desktop. Health widgets come in many flavors, including those that focus on weight loss, calorie counting, fitness, pregnancy, exercise, meditation, and health news. Here are a few examples:  

 

Calorie Counter

Calorie Counter

 

Yoga Pose of the Day

Yoga Pose of the Day

 

The CDCs Flu IQ quiz widget.

The CDC's "Flu IQ" quiz widget.

There are health widgets to suit every taste and interest.  Try exploring to find the ones that suit you or your online audience the best.  You might also consider developing a widget of your own.

AxisPortals Aphorism:  Exercise and diet regimens can grow dull, and health tips can seem preachy, but it’s always fun to widgetize.

 


Social Media Meets Main Street–Or Does It?

April 16, 2009

Don’t miss Robert Scoble’s great piece on how leading tech bloggers and tech gurus often utterly fail to communicate effectively with Main Street businesses.  Here’s his question, which is part lament: 

It’s to the point where I’m wondering if I’m missing something. Is anyone doing a good job of explaining how to bring a business into the modern age?  

AxisPortals suggests taking the time to read the ensuing comments, as well. There, Ken Camp proposes a provocative alternate take:

I’m not convinced every business needs or wants the web. It’s a tool and has value, but if the return on the value is minimal for a business doing well . . . the ROI/ROE may not be worth the investment to embrace social media.

Five minutes on Twitter means encountering scores of tweets pointing to web sites and blog posts about how to increase social media followers or how to transform a blog into a money making venture.    That can get to be a long five minutes.

In many respects, tech blogs and the tweets that relentlessly point to them form an enormous (and growing) echo chamber of tech-to-tech noise. There’s not much opportunity for a Main Street type business owner who is not interested in becoming the latest and greates tech guru to learn anything of specific value to his or her business enterprise.  Worse, the chatter can be confusing.  

It strikes me that to the extent that tech bloggers really aren’t connecting with business owners, this is true because tech bloggers deal in broad trends and issues. Conversely, how (or whether) a blog, a Facebook presence, or other embedded web interactivity can serve a given business is all about particulars.  

Exploring those particulars with a business owner, and guiding a given business toward building an overall IT profile that is effective,  economically feasible, and flexible enough to evolve along with the business requires rolling up the shirt sleeves and digging in.  It’s a matter of nitty gritty details. It’s a matter of practice.  

Often, too, it’s a matter of teaching.  

It can be difficult for tech leaders and trend setters who are wont to focus on a much bigger picture to manage this down and dirty teaching effectively. Imagine your favorite tech guru taking on the following teaching tasks: 

  • Defining Social Networking: Never mind that “Web 2.0” is a term so overused that many of us are loathe to invoke it yet again.  There are still plenty of folks who just don’t get it.  At all.  A person who wants to persuade a business to have a go at the thing will often have to begin with the basics, and then to cope with the inevitable fears and objections:  Won’t interactivity open my product up to criticism?  Won’t this all be terribly time consuming?  Won’t this entail giving away ideas and approaches that I should be selling?  Won’t my competition too easily be able to take my measure?  
  • Defining Blogging:  Yes, most folks have at least heard the term, but an incredible number of them still haven’t the faintest clue, really, about what a blog is or what one can be.  Even the bits and pieces that typically make up a blog will likely have to be explained.  Then comes the challenge of explaining and demonstrating that blogs can actually function in many different ways–practically as many as a person can dream up.  
  • Explaining Search Engines:  Again, everyone uses Google, but few grasp even the basics of how to get a site to show up in search results.  I’ve seen business owners spend hefty sums on web sites that are not only poorly organized and difficult to navigate, but also unlikely to yield desirable results in any popular search engine. Often, these sites are, at first glance, rather pretty.   Not many folks are really equipped to lift the hood and kick the tires, and that lack of technical knowledge makes them vulnerable to the allure of sweet little flash effects that ultimately can’t hide a paucity of content.  The secret?  A person really doesn’t have to be able to make heads or tails of the “neath layer” to make smart administrative decisions.  It’s enough to grasp what ought to happen when the name of the company or its chief operatives are entered into a search engine.  Still, even acquiring that basic end-user ease and confidence can require instruction.
  • Pushing Past Text-Based Understandings:  Not long ago, a business acquaintance who was working on developing a new website proudly informed me that, because he’d selected the basic “look” of his new site, he was essentially finished–well over half way home, he figured, and he couldn’t wait to be done. When I asked about the content and how it would jibe with the look he noted that not a shred of content had yet been developed.  In my experience, this colleague is fairly typical of business owners who are actually attempting to engage with today’s web.  In short, as these things go, his understanding is fairly advanced.  Notice, though, the difficulties.  First off, he’s thinking that a web site is the whole of the task, and that web presence is something that can be finished.  You create the look–just a container, really–and then you stick content inside of it, and then you publish the thing, pass the web address around, and that’s it.  I suggested that there was a good way to go yet, and explained that, unlike a print publication which is developed in toto and then distrubuted, web presence (of any sort) is never really done, and is constantly being distributed even as it’s in the process of being constantly developed.  Sounds simple, but that’s a great big new idea for lots of business owners, who are often deliriously happy just to have a reasonably sharp looking website up and running, and who often pay a pretty penny for sites that will be designed once, published once, and entirely forgotten about for a few years, when the whole process will begin again.
  • Halting the “Just Throw Money At It and It Will Be Okay” Phenomenon:  It’s all too easy for folks who are just looking to make money to take advantage of the technologically interested but overwhelmed.  It does seem to me that someone who is really interested in helping businesses discover how to thrive with today’s web tools has to begin by being ethical.  Not everybody really needs every single shiny new toy, and there are plenty of free and inexpensive tools that are well worth exploring.  The deeper cost of becoming a technologically sophisticated business–taking the time to explore these things first hand, to seek the support of more experienced users, and  to develop an approach that suits the business’s goals and culture–is intimidating.  It can seem easier to write a check.  Plenty of folks out there will take that check and leave the harder work undone.
  • And so on:  Working with a group of partners or a sole proprietor?  A former C-Suite type gone entreprenuer or a self-starter from the get go?  A family business or start up? Are there any tech savvy folks among the trusted employees, or no?  Has the owner historically managed his or her own web site?  What other kinds of advertising and marketing campaigns are or aren’t already underway?  Is there a dream of rapid growth, here, or a happily boutique mentality? How clearly defined are the product or service lines?  What kinds of networks (digital or otherwise) have already been established?  All of that really matters.   Which basics to teach and which services to champion depend on the answers to such questions, and no matter which direction proves best, sheparding a business into the technological present requires tact, patience, and a deep appreciation for what it means to be a beginner in this sphere.

There are plenty of folks out here who are, indeed, working hard to bring businesses  into the modern age. That’s the very service AxisPortals sells.  It’s fun and satisfying work, but in some essential ways, it’s not really a tech blog deliverable.  

(AxisPortals is, though, a huge fan of CommonCraft’s series of “In Plain English videos, which promote exactly the sort of learning that’s wanted here, and in delightfully approachable fashion.)

AxisPortals Aphorism:   Bridging the chasm between the Tech Bloggers and the Main Street Merchants requires remembering the very beginnings that Tech Gurus all too easily forget. 


Collaboration: A Happy Dance

April 3, 2009

AxisPortals defies anyone to be gloomy while watching any of the entries in this series of videos.

 

AxisPortals Axiom:  When human beings cooperate, beautiful things can should do happen.


A Study in Online Collaboration: Open Mosaic

April 2, 2009

Open Mosaic makes for an interesting study in the ways of collaboration. Earlier this evening, AxisPortals visited the site to add a tree.  The tree was all branches and leaves.  It wasn’t fruit bearing, and it had no background.

Less than five minutes later, the tree was dotted with apples,  and surrounded by a jaunty teal sky with its very own square yellow sun.  Grass and a hot pink and red flower in full bloom soon followed.  Who knows what’s next?  Before the evening is over, the tree could be part of an entire forest, or it could be entirely gone.

Watching the mosaic evolve reminds AxisPortals that digital collaboration with far flung colleagues often requires a certain je ne sais quoi.  To participate fully in the process, and to enjoy it–and to allow others the freedom to do the same–one must be enthusiastic and willing to chase a vision, but must never be so unyieldingly focused on a single vision that it  disrupts emergence of the always shifting whole.  Yielding gracefully, after all (as gracefully as the digital branches in the mosaic yield to the pixel wielder of the moment) , plays a crucial role in collaboration.  There’s plenty of room for individuality and originality, here, but there’s little room for the fixed or the permanent.

Collaborative Mosaic

AxisPortals Aphorism: Online collaboration isn’t really about thinking outside of the box.  It’s about sharing the sandbox willingly, with good humor, and with grace. (So, wish AxisPortals’ tree good luck, but don’t mourn its passing when it goes–something new is sure to grow there.)