Archive for the ‘ Interactive writing and design ’ Category

Tweeting against a playoff

Push marketing has survived every new development in media over the past century, the Internet included. Instead of just interrupting your reading, ads started interrupting your listening, then your viewing, and now your web browsing.

But one thing has changed. Now you can push back.

Two-way conversations and relationship-building dialogue were the underlying themes of all three fantastic research presentations I heard recently on web marketing. The details differ, but the overall mantra is the same: talk to your customer base and also also listen to what they have to say.

My fellow classmates sum up this philosophy much better than I can, and I highly recommend the online versions of their presentations. You can find David Hollander’s presentation here, Cathy Freeman’s here and David Parsons’ here.

It all makes the process of talking with consumers seem so engaging, so uplifting, so affirming.

Now try it as the voice behind college football’s loathed Bowl Championship Series, the entity standing in the way of the playoff system so many fans passionately want.

It isn’t pretty, as the BCS’ brand new Twitter account, INSIDEtheBCS, demonstrates. As it touts the benefits of the bowl system and the flaws of a playoff format (they even created a website dedicated to bashing playoffs), the feed is clearly meant to convince some fans that having polls decide who plays for the national championship isn’t such a bad idea.

What’s happening instead is that the BCS’ many enemies have a place online to rally. Try searching insidetheBCS on Twitter and you’ll come across the barrage of negative comments lobbed against an institution most fans feel is standing in the way of fairly crowning a national champion.

But does that make the attempt a failure? Whoever is manning the BCS account has taken the time to respond to many of the negative posts since the feed started a couple of weeks ago. This is exactly what marketers are supposed to do with social media, as criticism comes with the territory.

It’s in addressing the criticism and winning over new converts that social media marketing has its value, and the jury is still out on whether the BCS will win in this regard. Having the BCS actively respond to proponents of a playoff is much more endearing than conference commissioners arrogantly proclaiming on network TV that the current system must stand.

But it’s doubtful the BCS cares at all what its Twitter followers have to say. Despite heavy media and fan pressure to do so, BCS officials have shown zero interest in a new format. Unless they’re taking input into account for possible changes to the bowl system, then this is a social media effort that’s all talk.

If you’re going to stick with the traditional push marketing tactics, there’s not much use for new media. That’s a forum best saved for those eager and willing to act on their audience’s input.

National identities on the web

As kids we identified far-off countries by flags. As teens we picked them out based on geographic shape and location.

But as adults, our identifying image for a country overseas could soon become its homepage. We already instinctively seek official websites for companies, organizations and individuals. Nations surely aren’t far behind.

So what are they showing us?

It’s quite a mixed bag, and the results are interesting enough that they were the basis of some really insightful research by one of my best professors this semester.

They’re also fodder for some much-deserved criticism by web designers. This immensely entertaining blog post got me thinking about the topic, as it lines up government websites from around the world and scrutinizes the flaws of each. There are some really puzzling examples. Why is it always fall in Cypress? Must people be blurry in Greece? Do the French really think red and purple make a good color scheme?

But there’s more to analyze here than just aesthetic design. Approach the sites from a public relations standpoint, and you can see how different nations have very different goals for their web portals. Nations like Poland, Denmark, Israel, and Singapore have appealing sites that seem aimed at attracting new visitors and outside investment.

On the other end of the spectrum, you have sites where informing native residents appears the primary goal. This can be done with style like in Belgium and Australia or with visual clutter like in Mexico or Cameroon. You could even be like the United Kingdom and come up with a color scheme and design that has no visual connection to your actual country.

There’s also something to be said for simplicity. It’s easy to criticize nations like Ireland, Thailand and South Africa for their bare-bones design. But keep in mind that these nations have large rural populations. A simple site may be uninteresting, but at least it properly loads on old browsers or dial-up connections. Argentina even found a way to make simple look stylish.

What’s most important is that the site have a public relations purpose, whether that’s attracting outside attention or informing the taxpayers. Effective design only comes about when the nation is clear on this goal.

Otherwise you can turn up some pretty ghastly results even in relatively wealthy countries. For all their oil money, the governments of Saudi Arabia and Russia still can’t seem to buy a website that doesn’t make them look like third-world nations in cyberspace.

Social media offers little if there’s no plan in place

If you’re reading this blog, chances are you’re an active user of Facebook and Twitter. So quick show of hands, how many Facebook fan pages do you actively check? What about commercial brands you follow on Twitter?

For all the talk about the potential of leveraging these social media spaces for profit, few companies enter with a real strategy on connecting with customers. As a result, you get a glut of Facebook pages and Twitter accounts and very few that have active audiences following their content. They’ll sign up. Maybe check in every now and again, but ultimately move along to their friend’s photo album from the weekend.

This is of course a gross generalization. There are some smart and creative users of Facebook and Twitter who build an audience for their company/organization. But it’s highly unlikely anyone who just shows up is going to build a following.

This is where web analytics come in, enabling the companies with a plan to comprehensively track activity on their site and see if it matches up with their predetermined goals.

That’s assuming you have a plan. Many don’t.

Being able to clearly articulate your social media objectives is absolutely essential before making the Web 2.0 plunge. That was the central point my classmates and I heard today from PR and Marketing professional Mark Tosczak, who has worked with many clients in tracking their web presence and expanding into social media.

“Being on Twitter is not a plan,” Tosczak told the class. “It’s not a strategy. It’s not a goal. It’s just being on the web.”

Merely being on the web may have been impressive for a company …. in 1996. Nowadays corporate organizations need to define their goals for cyberspace. Is it just to get a bunch of page views? Is it to sell a product online? Is it to get consumers to sign up for a mailing list? Is it to expand into a new region? Is it to foster customer loyalty?

These are goals that can be measured through analytics by looking at the concrete results of what people are doing once they reach the site. It’s here that an organization can keep tabs on whether their website or their Facebook page is fulfilling it’s intended purpose or just taking up server space.

Once the objective is defined, then comes the challenge of wading through all the data and putting it in proper context. That’s a valuable skill where firms like RLF Communications, where Mark Tosczak works, can provide a great service to corporations.

But nothing happens unless the goals are there first. Nowhere is that more evident than on the social media spaces that are created just to exist. As I’ve blogged about before, these pages need to be offering valuable content, building customer relationships and offering something unique in order to stand out.

Just existing on the web isn’t enough.

Taking tags to the top

deliciousWhen it comes to new media, I’m often just ahead of the curve (joined Facebook in late 2004, Twitter in early 2008). But when it comes to social bookmarking of the likes facilitated by Delicious, I never grasped the purpose.

My loss.

Having just now discovered Delicious and started putting it to good use, the web has suddenly become a more manageable, easier-to-navigate place. The bottomless pit of information online, hard to wrap by brain around at first, is given order by the self-made categories created through the abundant use of tags.

Let’s back up for those unfamiliar with the program. It’s a web-based tool that like Twitter is deceptively simple. You sign up for a free account and download an application to embed into your web browser. Everytime you visit a site, you click the icon on your browser and enter a few tags (one word descriptions of the content). Then save.

That’s it.

What comes next is where Delicious proves its worth. My classmate Linda Misiura has already given a ringing endorsement more eloquent and enthusiastic than I can muster. So instead I’ll give you a few reasons why bookmarking pays practical dividends.

1. It preserves the best of the web: We all come across hundreds of websites we enjoy over the course of the year, 90 percent of which we’ll never be able to find again. But tag those sites with Delicious, and you can recall them in seconds to enjoy or share.

2. It keeps us from overlooking something useful: Links providing information related to our jobs or hobbies often pile up on busy days. Instead of ignoring them because there’s no time, we can quickly tag them instead. If their subject matter is needed for a task at a later date, we’ll know where to find them.

3. It’s a search alternative to Google: Using Delicious isn’t a solo act. The site is storing the tags of others, and searching those tags is a great way to find new sites on an obscure topic. You can even subscribe to a tag and get regular updates every time it’s applied.

4. It’s a more efficient way to share information: Do you have friends that clog up your Twitter or Facebook feeds with endless steams of links. What if they all used Delicious instead? The program has a social networking component, so you can see what your friends are tagging on the subjects you want to learn about.

5. It expands the way we seek knowledge online: It doesn’t take much tagging before it becomes a habit. At that point, you’re not just reading websites, you’re categorizing them. It’s one thing to consume content, it’s quite another to recognize key themes and unique perspectives within a broader discussion. Tagging is a wonderful exercise to build the mental muscles needed for the job.

Want to learn more? Check out my Delicious page and click on the sites I’ve tagged with “delicious.” Each offers a distinct take on how tags make navigating the web all the more gratifying.

Braving the new world of social media

A year ago, I never expected dialogue with my favorite reporters.

Now it’s expected.

The rules all changed once traditional media outlets began embracing social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. Some resisted, thinking the “comments sections” after every story sufficed as feedback. But the smart ones realized that you can’t have meaningful exchanges in virtual spaces where everyone is anonymous and most are emotionally overheated.

Attach a name and face to the comments, however, and the civility and level of intelligence goes way up. Actually respond to the negative posts, and what emerges is a general sense of camraderie between reader and journalist even in disagreement.

That’s what makes Facebook fan pages, when done right, such great communities. Look for New York Times or Washington Post and you not only get lists of stories but an honest dialogue on each.

It works even better when you can break up your readership into segments, like Slate does with fanpages for each of its podcasts. These podcasts themselves feature top Slate reporters and drive traffic to the main site. So each fan page serves as a fun mini-community for political junkies, sports nuts or culture mavens. Post to the page, and you often have a host of the podcast respond to you directly. The pages got me hooked on Slate’s podcasts and overall news site as well, since I have an open invitation to reach out and comment to the creative forces behind the content.

This approach isn’t limited to news. It works well for just about any company looking to actively bond with its customer base (and really, what company isn’t?). The corporate world is beginning to catch on. A recent survey by PR Week of 271 marketers found that 63 percent use social media for their companies. Facebook emerged as the most popular tool, as “connecting with customers” was the most common social media goal marketers listed as “very important.”

In interviewing these early adopters of the trend, a theme emerges of representing the company honestly and openly. Blatant sales pitches (or worse, sales pitches disguised as user-generated content) are highly frowned upon. The marketing executives who have had success in boosting their brand through social media did so by having productive exchanges with their customers, responding to feedback and taking it into account.

It’s not always pretty. The company on Facebook will hear a lot more negative comments than the one hiding behind a static website. But those comments will get said regardless. Only through social media can the company not only hear them but also respond, often solving the problem and building a long-term relationship at the same time.

Blogging for bucks

For all the hoopla surrounding new media (blogs, podcasts, social media), it’s still a rough landscape for those looking to turn a profit. Take Twitter, which has tens of millions of users and active accounts from every organization and corporation out there. For all the investment it has generated, it still struggles to find a viable business model.

It should come as no surprise then that very few are using blogs as a direct money generator. Technorati’s annual State of the Blogosphere survey for 2009 shows that very few are cashing in just through a blog. The survey polled nearly 3,000 bloggers, and less than a quarter are blogging professionally. Of that subset, just 17 percent say it’s their primary source of income.

So why is everyone under the Internet sun launching and nurturing a blog? It’s because they have potential as a marketing tool driving customers to the main product. It’s hard to sell ads on even a well-trafficked blog. But if the blog has built up a loyal readership, it can then turn that audience into customers.

There’s a tricky balancing act to follow. Straight-up shilling will be recognized as advertising and tuned out the way we fast forward through commercials when given the chance. But if the blog is offering useful info, it becomes both an engaging read and a chance to demonstrate expertise in a topic. This builds relationships that will create customer loyalty for a commodity or service.

It’s the same thing with Twitter. A growing segment of users aren’t signing up to tweet about their lunch plans, they’re marketing their companies. News organizations have recognized this value. Travis Lusk, director of new media for WCBS, spoke to my class today about what works in the New York radio market and emphasized the importance of actively using Twitter to cultivate an audience and drive followers to top stories.

Anyone who evaluates new media in terms of direct revenue is doomed for disappointment. But viewed as a marketing tool for a larger campaign, its value is immense. Not only can it be effective in generating sales, it’s far cheaper than traditional print and broadcast advertising, and builds the kind of loyalty no sum of ad dollars can buy.

Flash vs. Dreamweaver: let the debate begin

At the start of my iMedia graduate program, web design was introduced via the sole conduit of Adobe Dreamweaver, the highly detailed but somewhat clunky (at least to the uninitiated) industry standard for building websites.

As those of us new to the task stumbled through mismanaged div tags, misplaced folders and just general mishaps, the web designer veterans promised something better was one the way. Something called Flash.

Three months later, Flash is here in all its smooth, dynamic and easy-to-grasp glory. Sure, some of its intricacies can be tricky, but you won’t gum up the whole project because you misnamed a file or tagged the wrong item back in the beginning. Everything is stored in a single document, compared to the mess of folders and assets that must be properly tracked through Dreamweaver.

Put it this way. It took me several days to create this somewhat flawed site in Dreamweaver. But it took just a night to create some satisfying pieces in Flash like this festival promotional piece, these web banners or this slideshow.

So the verdict is in right? Dreamweaver is relegated to hard drive exile in favor of its hipper cousin in the Adobe Creative Suite.

Not really. Rather than embrace Flash, my program is doubling back to Dreamweaver, with a reboot of lessons on the program’s detailed interface in my two production classes. It’s become apparent that for all of Flash’s pizzaz, it does a poor job at presenting large quantities of information. And sometimes its fancy graphics aren’t needed as much as a more clean-cut organization of content.

Learning more about Dreamweaver is a good thing, because in my three theory classes I’ve got at least four major website projects on the horizon. In interactive media, it’s not enough to simply write a report on a topic, you’ve got to visually demonstrate your research online.

For each project, I’ll have to make the choice of Flash or Dreamweaver as my program of choice. It’s a good debate to start having now, because companies and organizations are constantly evaluating which of the many software tools best gets their message across.

In the book Groundswell (a bible of sorts for the theory component of this program), one of the key warnings is not to employ technology just for the sake of using it. Even great software or fantastic social media platform falls flat if its function doesn’t fit with the strategy at hand (assuming you even have a strategy to begin with).

So as I get more proficient in both Flash and Dreamweaver through the next couple of months I’ll be taking notes not just on how to make the software work, but also what kinds of projects each is best suited for. By semester’s end, I expect every one of my web projects to have a little bit of both.