Paving Media Cow Paths

CowzzzzI recently flew into San Jose airport with the task of making my way to San Mateo, nearly 30 miles up the peninsula. In the name of saving my hosts a rental car charge, I hopped the shuttle bus to the Santa Clara train station to pick up the usually reliable CalTrain to my destination.

I arrived at the train station at about 1 a.m. body time, looking forward to napping on the hour-long ride north. Only the train didn’t come. For a long time. After about 20 minutes hour of waiting, I pulled out my smart phone to check Twitter. Success! CalTrain had an account. Surely there would be an explanation of the delay there.

Unfortunately, the most recent Caltrain tweet was from several hours earlier, referring to an unrelated schedule change. There was nothing to explain the current delay. As I made my way slowly northward that night by alternative means, I kept an eye on the CalTrain Twitter feed but could find nothing to explain the outage that had stranded thousands of people in one of the nation’s busiest rail corridors.

Dashed Expectations

CalTrain deserves credit for adopting an important customer communication tool, but it deserves a spanking for failing to understand the consequences of that action. It’s easy to sign on to any social platform these days, but having an account and using it appropriately are two different things. CalTrain had created an expectation that it would communicate with its riders and then failed to deliver. It would have been better off not using the tools in the first place.

This wasn’t my first brush with Twitter dysfunction. A couple of months earlier, I had tweeted frustration about my credit card company’s practice of suspending accounts over unspecified security concerns. I was surprised to receive a reply tweet from a representative of the bank offering to help. I quickly posed a follow-up question and waited for a reply. That was in February. I’m still waiting.

Coincidentally, a few weeks later I found myself across the dinner table from that very same bank representative. He explained that for the past several months he had been the sole person assigned to monitor Twitter at a company with well over 100,000 employees worldwide. It was an impossible task.

The bank was shooting itself in the foot. Regardless of whether it earnestly desired to engage with customers or was just trying to be trendy, it had created an expectation that it couldn’t possibly fulfill. Enabling someone to respond a little bit was worse than not responding at all.

Paving Cow Paths

Social media has turned the corner in the last two years. Twitter and Facebook badges are now everywhere, and a company that is active on social platforms uses an average of eight of them.

Unfortunately, a lot of these businesses don’t know what they’re doing. Scan the Twitter pages of a few big brands and you’ll see lots of self-congratulatory promotional messages but precious few “@ replies” or retweets. These companies are doing the 21st century equivalent of paving the cow paths: applying new tools to old processes.

What many marketers have failed to grasp is that the tools of new media aren’t just about publishing; they’re also about conversing. A Twitter feed, blog or Facebook page that delivers a message without acknowledging replies is an insult. As a rule of thumb, every Twitter inquiry should be answered within 24 hours. Blog comments should be answered within 48. Are you ready to make that commitment? If not, then limit your activities until you are. It’s better to be late than clueless.

Over the next couple of years we’re going to hear a lot of companies complaining about the ineffectiveness of their social media programs. In most cases, the fault will be their own.

Weinberger Wisdom

David WeinbergerMy definition of a good speech is one in which the speaker tells you something you already know in a way that you’ve never considered before. That’s why David Weinberger is one of my favorite speakers.

Here are my notes from David’s presentation this morning to the Mass. Tech Leadership Council’s Social Media Summit. These are adapted from my tweets from the event, but hopefully are self-explanatory. They’ve been cleaned up and expanded for clarity:

  • The Web has always been social. The only difference with Web 2.0 is that it’s easier to build a presence.
  • The page-centered Web paradigm has yielded to a people-centered one.
  • Apple is about art. Google is about scale. We don’t know yet what Facebook is about. That’s unsettling, because Facebook is to the social Web what Google is to the Web.
  • Media is frequently mis-characterized as publishing. The definition of media is that which  mediates between parties. Media isn’t content.
  • We are the media. We recommend knowledge to each other. New media transforms as it moves, unlike traditional fixed media like TV. Telegraphs are a fixed medium for sending messages. The Internet sends messages but it isn’t fixed. It changes every second.
  • We take on properties of our media and our behavior comes to reflect the media we use. For example: The phone is intermittent, interuptive communications driven by a reason to make a call. The Web is rolling sets of instantaneous, always changing fragmented networks. These networks may be transient or last a lifetime. This is a completely different model than traditional media.
  • Network sociality is more like a party than a phone call. Telephones are interruptive; the Internet is distractive. People interact with the medium differently.
  • In the days of broadcast, markets were abstractions created by advertising. Now they are real and social.
  • Transparency is now an imperative. For example, on Wikipedia you can always find out why an item of information is there. The entire process is open. More businesses will operate like this.
  • We are getting comfortable with fallibility. The most popular stuff on YouTube is about humans screwing up. This doesn’t embarrass us as much as it used to. This acceptance of our own weaknesses will change the way organizations operate.
  • People don’t buy drills or holes. They buy a nice place to hang towels to impress their relatives. Abstract to the level of basic human needs in order to understand behavior. This also works in marketing, BTW.
  • There are four types of transparency critical to Social Media: sources, self, humanity, interest.
  • Newspapers traditionally provided a curated mix of content reflecting a professionally derived combination of what we wanted to know and what we needed to know. News about Sudan is an “eat your broccoli” story. We don’t like it, but we need to know it. It’s not clear where we will get that kind of information in the future.
  • The social media generation now expects important information to find them. That’s a dangerous attitude.
  • Diversity is important but uncomfortable. Without shared interests, it’s hard to converse. When you have a truly diverse group, you get smalltalk because people don’t have a common platform for conversation. Nevertheless, diversity is important. We must fight the tendency to stick with people like us. Diversity requires conscious discomfort. We want to interact with like-minded people.
  • Media is increasingly an echo chamber in which we choose to listen to people who share our views. Echo chambers are bad for democracy and culture, but marketers like them because they say what marketers want to hear. Echo chambers aren’t necessarily bad, but if that’s the only place you ever talk, you’ll never hear other points of view.

A New Kind of Search Engine

Between South by Southwest and the Cognizant Community 2010 Conference, I’ve heard some fascinating presentations over the last couple of weeks. I want to tell you about one in particular, though, because it introduced me to whole new ideas about how we acquire information.

The speaker was Andrew McAfee, principal research scientist at the MIT Sloan School, fellow at the Harvard Berkman Center and author of Enterprise 2.0. McAfee specializes in the application of advanced Internet technologies to corporate communications, and his observations about the impact of Twitter and Facebook on the way we find information raise the possibility that a new kind of search is emerging.

Speaking at the Cognizant conference earlier this week in Scottsdale, McAfee described how much the process of finding information has changed in just the last 15 years. As recently as 1995, the most common reference source we had was a library where professional human curators made decisions about what we needed to know.  Information was not only scarce but constrained by space and the limitations of indexing systems that forced information into uncomfortable categories (David Weinberger’s Everything is Miscellaneous describes this brilliantly).

When the Internet went mainstream, we initially tried to recreate the curated model online. Remember that Yahoo started as a structured taxonomy designed by humans that organized the Web into categories. There is some value to that, but few people access information that way today.

Instead, we discovered that search engines are faster and bring us directly to the information we’re seeking. It’s amazing how quickly people have discarded the library metaphor that dominated our thinking just a decade ago in favor of search. In December, people conducted more than 4.7 billion searches worldwide every day.

A New Approach to Search

Now there may be a new kind of search taking shape based upon the ask-and-answer principles introduced by social networking. Twitter users understand this well. Let’s say I’m in Chicago looking for a place to take business colleagues to dinner. I can search the Web for restaurant reviews, but I can also ask a question of my followers: “Recommend a good restaurant within 10 minutes of McCormick Place?” Both actions yield useful information, but the Twitter inquiry may actually provide superior value because the response comes in real time from people I know and trust.

I’ve already noticed my behavior changing as a result of this network effect, and perhaps you have, too. When I’m about to make a major purchase decision, I often ask my Twitter followers for advice. In effect, I’m conducting a search against a database of unpublished information that’s stored in people’s memories.

If we can unlock and share this untapped resource, we can potentially open a treasure trove of new information. In McAfee’s words, “Your ignorance makes everyone smarter.”

Organizations that are experimenting with Web 2.0 tools behind the firewall are discovering that this is remarkably powerful idea. For 20 years, we’ve tried to capture knowledge by interviewing veteran employees and storing what they told us in databases. That’s never worked very well because it’s an unnatural knowledge-transfer mechanism. It turns out that people are more generous and spontaneous with expertise when they answer ad hoc questions from peers. Some organizations are beginning to scrap the old tools in favor of this free-form exchange.

The trick is how to preserve, organized and rank this wisdom. You can bet that Google and others are trying to figure that out right now. I was a little mystified last month when Google acquired Aardvark, a “social search engine,” for a pricey sum of $50 million. Aardvark is sort of a structured Twitter; its members can ask questions of others who have a self-declared area of expertise. Having listened to Andrew McAfee’s insights, I now understand better what Google executives were thinking.

This doesn’t mean that today’s search engines will become irrelevant. Social search is an extension of an already-powerful metaphor, and it has some very exciting implications. What do you think? Are there scenarios in which social search could replace the ubiquitous Google query box?

How Twitter Got Shannon Her First Job

Shannon LehotskyShannon Lehotsky (SLehotsky) is a 2009 graduate of Emerson College, where I often speak to marketing and communications students. Last fall she contacted me to ask about ideas a new graduate could use to find a job. I gave her a few, but she went much farther that my advice. I got an e-mail from her last week about how she’s been leveraging Twitter to build a network and find work. The new crop of graduates who are set to hit the bricks in a couple of months could learn something from Shannon. The sentence in bold below is my own emphasis.

I’d like to share with you how Twitter has been helping me build my professional network (thanks to your advice!). I started when I moved to New York City after graduating in December, knowing no more than 5 people. I only had one or two job leads, so I pretty much had to start from the ground up:

– I created a new Twitter account and starting following industry professionals, job listings (@nyprjobs, @InternQueen), and industry publications (@Mashable).

– I started tweeting things relevant to my career to attract followers in the industry and make me develop a a brand as a thought leader.

– I avoided inappropriate or annoying tweets. On a few of my interviews, the interviewer mentioned that they looked at my Twitter account to learn more about me. (It seemed like a similar situation to Facebook, where a social platform is visible to professionals which can be detrimental to your career.)

– I joined the conversation! My goal was to get noticed, so I tried to keep all of my tweets thoughtful and relevant and directed to people so they weren’t just floating aimlessly in the Twitterverse. For example I’m following @EmersonAlumni, and they retweeted me once. I gained a few followers from that, including one fellow alum in New York City who put me in contact with another alum who was a job recruiter.

– A few people who I worked with previously would retweet job postings to me. Since it’s microblogging, a quick tweet isn’t too intrusive and it is less time-consuming than an e-mail.

– It is easier to find out people’s Twitter names rather than their e-mails. A quick tweet to a company to show that I was interested in them was sometimes the best way to contact people, especially smaller companies. It also shows that you are media savvy.

– Checking out Twitter accounts is also a good way to find out about company culture. When I applied for jobs, I would look them up on LinkedIn, Google, and then Twitter to see what topics they were talking about.

So those are just a few ways that Twitter has helped me to brand myself. I’ve found that sending out a resume is not enough to get a job in this market – networking is a necessity in the process and Twitter has definitely been helpful.

Job hunting has been a long process but I’ve accepted a job at a website ( and I’m excited to continue to work online.

More about Shanon.

New Media Demands New Leadership

I don’t go to the South by Southwest conference for the sessions as much as for the people. The most interesting conversations usually happen outside of the conference rooms. One discussion that stuck with me this week occurred after a presentation by MIT’s Andrew McAfee entitled “What Does Corporate America Think of 2.0?”

While I was waiting in line to introduce myself to Mr. McAfee, I eavesdropped on a conversation he was having with the young woman in front of me. She gave her age as 28 and said she had recently been hired to coordinate social media at a real estate company where her bosses were mostly in their 50s. She was clearly demoralized and frustrated.

The young woman had been brought on board to get the realty company up to speed in the new Web technologies. She understood that conversational marketing requires a culture change, but her management wasn’t interested. Her bosses, she explained, saw social technology as simply another way to distribute the same information.

For example, she had been ordered to post press releases as blog entries and to use Twitter strictly for promotional messages. She had been told to get the company on Facebook but not to interact with anyone on its fan page.Her communications with the outside world were to be limited to platitudes approved by management.

I felt bad for this young lady and also for her bosses, who will no doubt lose her in short order. I suspect they hired a social media director in the belief that she could create new channels for them, but they didn’t understand the behavioral change that was required on their part.

Open Leadership

A couple of nights earlier, I attended a dinner given by Altimeter Group, whose founder, Charlene Li, co-authored the ground-breaking book Groundswell. Charlene was handing out galley copies of her forthcoming book called Open Leadership. In it, she suggests that management strategies must fundamentally change in the age of democratized information. I’ve only read a third of the book so far, but I can already tell that it will cause considerable discomfort in corporate board rooms.

In the opening chapter, Charlene notes that “to be open, you need to let go of the need to be in control… you need to develop the confidence… that when you let go of control, the people to whom you pass the power will act responsibly.” This notion of leadership replacing management will shake many of our institutions to the core.

The traditional role of management has been to control and communicate: Managers pass orders down from above to the rank-and-file who are expected to do what they are told.

In the future, communication will increasingly be enabled by technology. Employees will be empowered with information and given guidelines and authority to do the right thing. Middle managers won’t be needed nearly as much as they are today. Organizations will become flatter, more nimble and more responsive because information won’t have to pass up and down a chain of command before being acted upon. This will result in huge productivity gains, but progress will only be achieved when top executives learn to let go of the need to control and to accept the uncertainties of empowered constituents.

No Pain, No Gain

The real estate company’s mistake was in believing that it could participate in a new culture without changing its behavior. It saw social media as a no-lose proposition; distribute the same material through new channels but don’t accommodate the reality that constituents can now talk back. Any company that takes this approach will fail to realize the benefits of the media. Once its customers realize that their opinions don’t count, they will stop engaging with the company. That doesn’t mean they won’t do business with the company any more, but the benefits of using the new media will be lost.

I have never advocated that all companies adopt social media. Each business has a different culture, and some adapt more readily to open leadership than others. If employee empowerment and institutional humility don’t fit with your style, then social media is probably not for you. You may do just fine for several years without changing your practices. But if you choose to play in the freewheeling markets enabled by customer conversations, then you’d better be willing to let go of control.

Over time, I believe all companies will have to give up the belief that they can control their markets, because interconnected customers are an unstoppable force. In the short-term, however, businesses need to do what feels right for them. If you work for a company that can’t adapt itself to the concept of open leadership, then start circulating your resume. These days, there are plenty of businesses that are eager to change.

Business Social Media Goes Multi-Platform

Chinese plate jugglersBusinesses are spreading their social media wings in a big way, creating lots of new opportunity but also questions about how to manage their suddenly overflowing baskets of online goodies.

Recent research I’ve been conducting into business adoption of multiple social media platforms is turning up some striking results.  The 53 respondents to a survey I posted in December report that their organizations are using an average of eight social media platforms today, compared to less than one in 2006. They also report nearly unanimous satisfaction with these platforms in the area of value for the dollar and performance against expectations.

These results are only preliminary and are based upon a small sample base. We’ll continue to seek responses to the survey and sponsors for the project as we move toward a goal of 150 total responses. People who take the survey get an early look at the numbers with a preliminary report to be released at South by Southwest in Austin next month.

While I can’t share any numbers at this point (you’ll have to take the survey to get those), here are some general observations.

  • Marketers are having really, really good experiences with social media so far;
  • The metrics they use are all over the map, though some consensus is beginning to emerge on what matters;
  • Few organizations are taking a disciplined approach to measuring ROI at this point. That may come later, but they’re busy with governance issues right now;
  • Marketers say Twitter is the killer app;
  • The next big challenge is to get procedures and organizations in place to integrate social media into other communication programs.

In-depth interviews with 10 organizations, including some very big brands like Coca-Cola and Ford, indicate that a federated approach to social media adoption is emerging. In other words, large businesses are developing centers of excellence at the corporate level to share tools and best practices but are leading implementation to individual business units. On Facebook, however, some companies are looking at the example set by Honda, which has taken a disciplined approach by building separate fan pages for each of its brands around a consistent set of guidelines and aggregating those communities on a corporate fan page.

The report on the first stage of the research will be available in about three weeks and I’ll let you know where to get it.

New Presentation: Twitter for Business

I’m delivering a seminar for International Data Group this week on how to use Twitter for business. I’ve never done an in-depth seminar on this subject before, so I’ve spent some 20 hours preparing the all-new slide presentation you see below. This is intended to be a comprehensive guide to getting started with and building Twitter as a driver of business and conversation in a business environment. Topics include:

  • Creating a Twitter presence;
  • Building a follower base;
  • How to gain visibility;
  • Business uses of Twitter;
  • The future of Twitter in the enterprise.

This presentation features plenty of examples and best practices from successful businesses that I’ve gathered in my research and writings over the last year or so. It’s distributed on a Creative Commons Attribution license, so download and enjoy!

Welcome to the Site-less Web

Posterous is a new service that radiates a person’s social media activity out to a network of community sites such as Twitter, Facebook, Flickr, Tumblr and Delicious. Posterous is one of a host of new services that automate the once-tedious manual process of cross-posting information to multiple websites and social networks. Other pure-play entrants in this category include, and the WordPress plugin Supr, but the basic capability to cross-post information across multiple social media is rapidly becoming a part of nearly every Web application. Google Buzz, which was announced just this week, has some of the same functionality.

These are the first ripples in a wave of new technology that will make the Internet effectively site-less. By that I mean that the metaphor of the Web as we’ve known it for the last 15 years is breaking down. The Internet is increasingly not about sites but about content and people. As technology makes it possible for our online scribblings to appear wherever we may choose, the task of assessing influence will become considerably more complex.

The big change in the landscape is that information no longer needs to have a homepage in order to reach an audience. Facebook kicked off this trend when it created a service that was so popular that some brands found it was more desirable to use Facebook as a homepage than their branded websites. Honda is a notable example of this. The auto maker has started listing a Facebook fan page as the destination URL in its TV ads. The tactic is a bit of a gimmick, but it’s also indicative of a shift in marketer perceptions. As Coca-Cola’s Digital Communications Director Adam Brown told me recently, “Our philosophy is to fish where the fish are.”

Only it’s becoming more difficult to figure out where the fish are. As social networks integrate their content, the contributions of individuals will become detached from discrete websites. On Twitter, for example, conversations exist in a stateless form that finds a home on, TweetDeck, Seesmic, blog widgets or any other listening device that catches them. How do we assess influence in this environment?

In the early days of social media (and by that I mean 2006!), online influencers used their blogs as a home base and relied upon word-of-mouth, inbound links and search engines to deliver an audience. Today, the blog is almost irrelevant. With Posterous, a blog entry can be created as an e-mail message and posted automatically to a couple of dozen social outposts, formatted for the unique capabilities of each destination. Some of these services publish fan and follower counts but others don’t. Determining an influencer’s “share of market” is a matter of picking through search results and the metrics provided by various channels to measure a person’s total footprint.

In time, services will emerge that make sense of this chaos, but for now this is a classic case of technology outpacing people’s ability to understand it. For marketers, the key point is that the website as we have known it is diminishing in importance, influencers are magnifying their voices and the rules of engagement are being reset. The good news is that everyone can use these tools, so if you’re currently limiting your publishing activities to a blog or Twitter, consider expanding your scope. The bad news is that the influencer you thought you had identified and corralled is now blasting messages to a whole lot of different audiences. Only time will tell what the impact of that new reality will be.

Welcome to the Site-less Web

Twitterville Explains It All

Shel Israel’s Twitterville is currently sitting at number 62,000 on Amazon, which is disappointing because a lot of people should be reading this book. I suspect that Twitterville’s performance has been impacted by the flood of how-to-tweet books that have hit the market this year, but this book isn’t microblogging for dummies. Rather, Twitterville is a celebration of a new platform that has unleashed the creative energies of a community in ways that few of us could have ever conceived.

Israel says he interviewed more than 100 people for this book and it shows. Its scope spans everything from politics to nonprofits to law enforcement to giant corporations. Each Twitter member finds value in different ways.

Israel was co-author of the groundbreaking 2006 book Naked Conversations, which was the first book to  dramatize the game-changing nature of social media. Twitterville is no less important in framing the context for a revolution. Israel starts with the story of James Buck, a freelance journalist who was arrested by Egyptian police in 2008 and whose plight (and subsequent release) was communicated around the world by a single tweet: “arrested.”

Buck’s case was emblematic of the multiplicative power of Twitter. He had only a few followers at the time of his arrest, but a sequence of re-tweeted messages by some prominent Twitter members quickly spread word to the State Department, which intervened within 24 hours.

This idea that an individual can attain great influence by virtue of telling a remarkable story is central to understanding the power of Twitter and of social media in general. It also dramatizes the triumph of the individual over the impersonal corporate entity. “An individual brand now impacts the corporate brand,” Israel writes. Twitter “is a community of millions of personal brands. They are shaping the present and future of individuals and the companies they represent.”

That doesn’t mean businesses can’t develop a brand on Twitter, and Israel provides many  examples of companies that have. His point, however, is that you can’t think of the Twittersphere in terms of mass. Brands are built in Twitter by imparting wisdom, helping others and contributing to the collective knowledge. Corporations that experience the most success are those that let their people come out from behind the brand wall and act human.

The value of contributing to the collective good permeates Twitterville. Israel calls this “lethal generosity.” It’s the idea that people who “are the most generous to their communities almost invariably acquire the greatest influence.” This concept is central to another recent book I recommend: Trust Agents by Chris Brogan and Julien Smith. Coming at a time when the world is still reeling from a financial crisis precipitated by greed, it’s refreshing to see celebrations of  generosity. In one section on fundraising, Israel recounts several stories of charitable success that would have been unimaginable before a medium like Twitter existed.

Twitterville isn’t all celebration. In Chapter 15, Israel analyzes the seamy underworld of spammers, bots and phishermen and relates a couple of hair-raising stories of people whose reputations have been trashed by identity thieves. As Larry Ellison once said, “Every ecosystem has scavengers.” Twitter is no exception, and by acknowledging Twitter’s dark side, Israel makes the argument for the medium’s value all the more compelling.

The book provides useful advice on how to keep out of trouble as well as how to optimize the Twitter experience, but it  isn’t a book about how to amass 100,000 followers. It’s about how relationships work in a world constrained by limitations of space and time, yet liberated by the ingenuity and spirit of its citizens. If you still don’t “get” Twitter, then read Twitterville. You’ll quickly understand.

This Crafter is No Dummy

Jenny Rohrs of Craft Test DummiesI met a woman this week at the Supergenius conference  who’s quietly making her mark on the giant crafting business. If I was writing a book, I might even call Jenny Barnett Rohrs a New Influencer.

Jenny is a professional music therapist who put that career aside for a few years to care of her kids. But the artistic instinct didn’t die amid the PBJ sandwiches and homework. The Lakewood, Ohio mom continued her passion of crafting and nearly two years ago launched a blog under the clever name of Craft Test Dummies.

Jenny was urged on by husband Jeff, who works at ExactTarget, an e-mail marketing term. Jeff knows a thing or two about digital promotion, and he urged Jenny to sweat the basics in organizing her site, writing good headlines and tagging all content. Jenny further promoted her own brand by volunteering to write for, a popular reviews site. Her Facebook fan page is a cornucopia of advice and offers. There’s a Ning community. And she’s on Twitter because, well, who isn’t?

The result: Craft Test Dummies is now the number nine result on Google for the keyword “crafting,” beating out even very large retail enterprises. Imagine that. In a population of hundreds of millions of crafting enthusiasts worldwide, this blogger has reached search nirvana in less than two years all by herself. Now Jenny gets hundreds of daily visitors, invitations to speak and samples from crafting supply makers around the country who hope to get one of her coveted reviews. She gets paid to demonstrate at trade shows and craft fairs and recently signed a contract to consult for an online retailer.

Jenny Rohrs is successful because she took care of the basics:

  • The blog is polished and well-organized. Categories are selected with care. Entries are thoroughly tagged;
  • The site is optimized for search. One trick: nearly every page title contains the word “craft” or “crafting;”
  • Jenny’s a good member of the community. She links to crafters she respects and they return the favor;
  • She uses every platform to her advantage, and the cross-links create more search awareness;
  • Most importantly, Jenny writes good stuff. Her entries are conversational, friendly and easy to read. They’re also full of ideas and advice. Not only does this appeal to crafting enthusiasts, but Google is tuned to love that kind of content.

With so many millions of blogs out there, you might fear that it’s too late to get into the game. But look at the results that this recent entrant has achieved. The secret is to deliver good content in an accessible format and to spread the word through as many channels as possible. The total cost of all the social media platforms Jenny Rohrs uses is $0. Her time may be invaluable, but the tools are cheap.