The Automatic Investment: Social Media Presence and Your Company

July 30, 2009

For AxisPortals, the lesson to take away from the much talked about case of the Chicago realty company suing a Twitterer who was critical of their services is that all of us–every company, every brand, every product, every service, even every individual professional–has an automatic investment in the online social sphere, whether we realize it or not.

To the Twitter aware, it was immediately apparent that the company’s move was ill-considered, and the company’s official explanation of the background involved did little to alter that take,  which was swift and widespread.  The case immediately passed into the permanent archives of “how not to approach social media” lore.

AxisPortals, though, is less interested in the particular case at hand than in the larger lesson:

The Online Social Sphere Automatically Matters, and you Automatically Belong to It

You may not have a Twitter account or a Facebook profile, or belong to any of the other  similar services.  Nonetheless, you are always only a post away from participation, and because a good portion of your customer base or audience is likely to be participating actively, there’s a good chance that such a post will come sooner rather than later.

Are you ready?

The renter and the property mangement company apparently had a contentious relationship well before the twiticism and the overreaction to it ever hit the news,  so perhaps nothing much could have been done to repair that particular situation. Nonetheless the case makes a good illustration of how crucial it is to respond to criticism in the social sphere in productive fashion.

The main thing is not to fear it.  Indulging in the fight-or-flight response leads to either escalation or avoidance, neither of which are productive.

These strategies are better by far:  listen, learn, offer to repair the problem, extend a genuine thank you for the feedback, and make your moves towards establishing good will apparent.  After all, your response, too, will enter the social sphere, whether you deliberately put it there or not.

Here’s are just a handful of the many products, institutions,  and brands that AxisPortals has referred to via Twitter or Friendfeed over the last few hours:

St. Marys School, West Chicago

St. Mary's School, West Chicago

Good N Fruity

Good 'N Fruity

Dennis Uniforms

Dennis Uniforms

Cascade Drive-In:  Pretzel Coupon

Cascade Drive-In: Pretzel Coupon

Blackberry Smartphone

Blackberry Smartphone

Add in the products that friends and colleagues have referred to, reviewed, discussed, and provided links to, and such a list would run for pages and pages.

These spontaneous references are the natural result of people interacting with products and with each other.  We share our passions, our complaints, our desires, our gut reactions, our criticism, and our praise.

No company or product is immune.  Every company or product has a stake in the conversation.  It’s an automatic investment, and one that should be tended wisely.

AxisPortals Aphorism: Your automatic investment in the social media sphere costs you nothing, but failing to understand its worth can cost you everything.

For Your Summer Reading List: Social Media

July 27, 2009

The Authoritative Book On Social Media Finally Published | Social Media Explorer.

Something to add to the summer reading list!

AxisPortals Aphorism: Social networking strategists need handbooks, too.  Devote a few shelves to reference works worth keeping on hand.

Summer Tech: Nature vs. Technology

July 14, 2009

To see the Summer Sky
Is Poetry, though never in a Book it lie –
True Poems flee.
~Emily Dickinson

AxisPortals has been spending a good bit of time involved in extra-technological pursuits this summer:  perched on metal bleachers absorbed in baseball’s eternal dance of swings, slides, stretches, signals, and silences; crouched in gardens planting flowers and pulling weeds; settled quietly outside on cool nights,  head tilted toward the sky where lightning bugs blink high in the trees and bats scribble crazy black paths against the evening’s deepening blues.

AxisPortals has been to the carnival, too–braving Pharoah’s Fury, the Tilt-A-Whirl, and the Sizzler, and reaching once more for youth’s elusive brass ring with a few spins on the carousel.  She let cotton candy dissovle on her tongue, held her arm obediently still as a large but temporary tattoo of a tiger was applied, and gamely toted the assortment of toys won at various “give us three bucks and we’ll give your kid a cheap prize” booths.

Oh, yes.  AxisPortals has been technologically indolent, and has the fading sunburn and the collection of mosquito bites to prove it.

Work must always be tended to, of course, but this little bit of backing away from the various keyboards and virtual connections that sometimes dominate our day-to-day lives seems important.  Even though this bit of flowing with the rhythms of summer does only qualify as a small break–after all, AxisPortals did send several text messages from the carnival, and does tend to have the Blackberry clipped to her waist even while gardening–there’s nonetheless something peaceful and revitalizing about purposefully stepping away from tweets and blogs to dance to summer’s fleeting music.

AxisPortals Aphorism: If you can’t remember what bug spray, sunscreen, or an approaching thunderstorm smell like, back slowly away from your tech, and step outside, into summer’s dance.

Update: Glad to know that AxisPortals isn’t the only one who feels this way.  See “Twitter Slammed by Summer Doldrums”.  (Then, go for a nice summer stroll or swim.)

Community Health: Digitized and Widgetized

May 5, 2009

Over the last few weeks, AxisPortals has been deeply impressed by the public health community’s embrace of the digital, particularly in the form of widgets, but also in the form of embeddable audio and video public service announcements and press conferences.  

Initial fears of swine flu, and the accompanying gallows humor concerning the “aporkalypse”  rapidly gave way to solid information and education about H1N1 influenze prevention and treatment.

Digitized, widgetized information–prepared by authorities and designed to be portable and shareable–largely accounts for that movement away from hysteria and toward the calm dispensing of useful information. Consider these examples:

Information spreads quickly online.  Indeed, it spreads quickly enough that producing the bit of information that succeeds in becoming viral is every online marketer’s dream.    Often, the most successfully viral information is either sensational or just plain silly,  as was the case with the following picture of a toddler kissing a pig, which flew around the internet at record speed:

Public health organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Health and Human Services are wise, indeed, to take advantage of social media and multimedia to promote education and awareness.   

An awareness pandemic?  That’s the one form of pandemic we can all happily embrace.  

AxisPortals Aphorism:  If you want to spread a message fast–and make it portable and engaging–digitize it, widgetize it, and certainly don’t hesitate to Twitter about it, too.

The Small Business: Bridging the Digital Divide II

May 1, 2009

All the world’s a stage,

And all the men and women merely players:

They have their exits and their entrances;

And one man in his time plays many parts

AxisPortals quotes Shakespeare this morning for two reasons.  First,  she loves the Bard of Avon, and does hate to miss an opportunity to work in some of those classic lines.  Second and more importantly, though, it occurs to AxisPortals that all the world’s a multimedia, interactive social network, and that the wise small business will therefore provide its web visitors with plenty of opportunities–plenty of entrances, if you will–to interact with both the site and with the business itself.

So, how to go about making your website not only a static web presence, but an active staging area for forging interactions, relationships, and connections? Here are few quick and simple approaches:

  1. Icons and Badges and Buttons, Oh My!  The major social and business networking platforms all make it very easy to create attractive, clickable connections to your profiles so that visitors can quickly connect to you and interact with you.   FriendFeed, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and Plurk, for instance, all provide easy, built-in badge or widget creation tools.  Some of these simply provide links to your social networking profile.  Others actually display your status updates and activities.  Simply customize your page to suit your purposes and the style of your destination page, then copy the code and insert it into your website or blog.  Then, your web visitors can rapidly scan your online network, and can easily connect with you. If you are working with a web designer, ask him or her to work with you to ensure that your website and/or blog include badges that represent your main public social and business networking profiles.
  2. It’s Alive, It’s Alive:  Every website does need some core information that is relatively static (though religiously kept fresh and up to date) and always easy to find.  For instance, you will want to ensure that your contact information and product and service descriptions are stable and easy to access.  However, today’s web is multimedia driven.  That means that your small business website would do well to incorporate not only polished prose but also arresting graphics and absorbing audio and video elements that not only inform and create interest, but also make it easy for users to share your key content with others.    Note, for instance, how effectively the Centers for Disease Control and the Department of Health and Human Services have leveraged podcasts and videos to disseminate authoritative information about the Influenza A H1N1 virus. Multimedia elements bring your website to life, often quite literally giving it a voice.
  3. Feed Me!  Websites are a lot like teenagers:  they require nearly constant feeding.  Fortunately, the web itself provides abundant sustenance for your business site in the form of newsfeeds.  Select appropriate newsfeeds based on the nature and focus of your business. What kinds of information can you feed to your site that will most interest and best serve your visitors, whether they are current or prospective clients?  Once you identify the relevant feeds, configure RSS widgets to match the style of your site, and embed the feeds in your pages.  Embedded news feed widgets ensure that there are areas of continuously refreshed content on your site.  Embedded podcast widgets are also a good idea, for they not only offer all of the advantages of a feed, but also add another multimedia element to your site.
  4. We Really Have to Talk:  You might also consider adding real-time discussion tools to your site.  If real-time web-based discussion plays a major role in your business plan and you can devote personnel to monitoring your online chat tools, then investigate paid services such as Bold Chat, Volusion’s LiveChat,  or WebsiteAlive.  If you are just beginning to explore the possibilities of real-time web-based discussion, then it might be worthwhile to experiment some of the free or less expensive tools, such as those offered by Meebo and CoffeeCup. Embedding your Skype badge also introduces an element of real-time communication to your site.

AxisPortals Aphorism:  Make your website an active staging area for forging interactions, relationships,  connections, involvement.


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. 

Social Networking Fatigue

February 18, 2009

For well over a year now, social networking fatigue  has been in the news, and it’s not hard to see why.  After all, attempting to participate fully in multiple social networks–LinkedIn, Twitter, Plurk, Facebook, Spoke, and on and on–would get tiring.  Add to that efforts to keep a blog, a podcast, and a website going, and it quickly becomes easy to see why some have opined that social networking fatigue is the next big hurdle facing these sites and services.

Meanwhile, AxisPortals has been, it seems, receiving more social networking invitations than ever.  Well over a year after some of the earliest advocates of social networking started complaining of burnout, it seems that more and more professional adults are discovering these sites for the very first time, and just beginning to explore their business potential.  How can relative newcomers to the social networking scene avoid fatigue?

Some suggestions:

  1. Explore First:  Before committing yourself fully to any social network, try playing around with several versions to see which of them best suits your style and your purpose.  Keep in mind that what you may have heard about a given site is no substitute for experience, and that it can take some time to grow familiar with the functions and local expectations of that particular space.  AxisPortals suggests using a screen name as you explore, and asking colleagues who are familiar with that space to add you to their friend lists so that you can get the best the possible feel for its possibilities.  If you explore first, then when it comes time to pare down your social networking profiles, you’ll be making an informed decision.

  2. Just Say No:   Many sites and services offer new members the option of issuing invitations to everyone in their address books.  Almost always, it is possible to turn off this option, and it’s a good idea to do so.  Netiquette dictates that it’s in poor form to abuse your contact list that way.  Meanwhile, if you are on the receiving end of of a mass invitation, please understand that it is not only okay to say no, but often wise to do so.  If you don’t really know the one who is extending the invitation (and AxisPortals assumes that almost all of us have some fairly distant contacts in our address books), then you needn’t feel even a twinge of regret over simply deleting these things from your inbox.  “Just say no,” after all, is one of those bits of advice that tends to deserve high ranking on most any list of suggestions for avoiding burnout.

  3. Clarify Your Purpose and Your Audience:   Exactly what do you want to accomplish with your social networking activities?  If your goal is to stay connected to friends and family, and you intend to make your interactions fairly casual, then it may be that a Facebook account is perfectly suited to your needs.  If you are looking mostly for professional connection, then concentrating your efforts on LinkedIn or Spoke might make the best sense.  If your business demands that you be a leading source of breaking news in your area of specialty, then you might find that some combination of Twittering and blogging works best for you.  On the other hand, do keep an open mind.  You may think of Facebook, for instance, as strictly youth oriented and not at all relevant to the business world, but the over 30 population is actually the most rapidly growing demographic  on the site.   As usage increases across all age groups, corporate presence on social networking sites expands in kind.  It seems natural for youth oriented Pepsi to have both a Facebook and a MySpace presence, for instance, but you’ll also find H&R Block and Hewlett-Packard on Facebook.  Local businesses, too, have found that establishing social networking profiles can be an effective marketing strategy.  So, explore a variety of sites, and know what you want to accomplish, but don’t automatically rule any site out. 

  4. Set Boundaries:  AxisPortals suspects that boundary blur is one of the leading causes of social networking fatigue.  Colleagues who are college professors, for instance, often note that they aren’t exactly sure how to approach friendship  requests from students.  Since the way that we interact with friends and family members is often quite different than the way we interact with our professional peers–or with  students, teachers,  employers, and employees–it makes sense to set some clear boundaries, and to guard them.  No matter which of the sites you utlimately choose to make your social networking home, you might consider setting up one profile for your business or your professional persona, and a separate profile for your personal interactions.  That way, you never have to worry that the casual tone and the personal details that are right in one setting will bleed uncomfortably into settings where they aren’t as appropriate.  You might also spend some time thinking about how you want to address your privacy settings.  It may be best for your personal details to be available only to close friends and family members, but for your business information to be readily available to all.  Some online marketing experts would disagree with this approach, but AxisPortals is going with common sense and personal experience, here:  I do want to hear which conferences my professional peers are attending,  what kinds of projects they’re working on , and which books are influencing them at the moment, but really don’t care to know what they had for lunch, much less how much they’ve had to drink.  From a rhetorical standpoint, it makes sense not to dilute your professional voice that way.

  5. Have Realistic Expectations:  Social networking is a rapidly evolving phenomenon.  Setting up a LinkedIn profile or establishing a Facebook page won’t turn you into an instant millionaire, and a new blogging or microblogging account will take some time to establish in an already crowded marketplace.  So, do keep your expectations realistic, and do understand that the time you devote to social networking is a long term investment.  Even if it doesn’t pay off in immediate profit increases, it will pay off in deeper and subtler ways for a long time.  Actively participating in the Web 2.0 revolution puts you in the enviable position of being able to make informed decisions about the role of technology in your personal and professional lives.  An added bonus: social networking humor will make a whole lot more sense to you.

AxisPortals Aphorism:  Don’t burnout, but do begin.