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.

The Future Will Be Twittered

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The annual South by Southwest (SXSW) Conference in Austin, Texas is a showcase for geeks and their new toys, but the event held earlier this month broke new ground in another way. Anyone who runs corporate events or works in a time-dependent business should be fascinated — and maybe a little scared — by what transpired there.

The highlight was the keynote interview with Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg by BusinessWeek’s Sarah Lacy. Evidently, a lot of people in the audience didn’t much care for Lacy’s rather interruptive questioning style or her cozy familiarity with the subject. They were also put off by her failure to involve the audience more directly in the line of questioning.

So they started Twitteringabout it. And as the interview went on, the comments passed between attendees took on a life of their own. By the 50-minute mark, the emboldened audience was actively heckling the moderator. Lacy was a bit flustered, but she finished the interview. When she walked out of the auditorium a short time later, bloggers armed with a video cameras were there to record her reaction to the audience’s behavior. Here’s a video of the entire interview, annotated with audience tweets.

Sarah Lacy is a professional, and she will be just fine. She posted a response on her BusinessWeek blog and noted that the incident was actually good for pre-sales of her forthcoming book. What struck me about this incident is how it portends change in the speed of customer feedback.

The Feedback Conundrum
Veteran conference organizers know that getting audience feedback is like pulling teeth. They’re lucky if 20% of the attendees at an event even fill out evaluation forms, and it can take months to tabulate those results. Events are intimidating to audience members; they don’t control the microphone and they can’t communicate with each other very well. Services like Twitter change that equation.

The reason events at SXSW unfolded as they did is because audience members were able to communicate with each other. That’s the scary part. No speaker likes to think of a scenario in which his or her performance is judged in real-time, although I can certainly think of times when I wished I could pull a speaker off the stage.

The potential upside of this trend, however, is enormous. Imagine if you could stage an event — whether a conference, media campaign, product demo or something else — and get real-time feedback from the people watching. Or what if you could tie promotions to timely responses: “Text this number now in order to receive a 20% discount.” The technology to enable this interaction is here right now. I’m sure I’m only scratching the surface of the possibilities. Twittervision, Tweet Scan to tap into these conversations or to initiate new conversations themselves. All it takes is familiarity and imagination. An excellent list of third-party Twitter applications is available at the Twitter Fan Wiki.

Dan Rather underwhelms

I didn’t expect much out of Dan Rather’s appearance at South by Southwest and so wasn’t very disappointed that it didn’t deliver. It was a missed opportunity, though. There was the chance to question Rather about all sorts of things that the audience cared about, including the relevance of mainstream media in market with millions of voices, the low public perception of the media in general, the future of citizen journalism and the relationship between social and new media.

Instead, the moderator, Jane Hamsher of FireDogLake, opened the one-hour session with a question about Rather’s confrontation with Richard Nixon more than 30 years ago. That was an event that I suspect scarcely 10% of the audience even remembers, much less cares about, and it got the session off to a bad start. The rest of the hour proceeded through a short series of relatively tame questions about the state of journalism, along with rambling answers by the newsman (this may not be the moderator’s fault; sometimes interview subjects put restrictions on topics they’ll address). Rather had some good messages for journalists, but they weren’t his audience. The issues that I believe the audience really cares about weren’t even raised until a brief Q&A.

The highlight was Rather’s pointed criticism of what he called “access journalism,” or a style of reporting that trades off aggressive reporting for access to inside sources. Journalists too often protect their sources in order to become part of the inner circle, he said, and political and business figures willingly exploit this weakness. He blamed this trend, in part, on the decline of media competition as media ownership consolidates and the increasing distance between news operations and their parent companies.

“Very often the source is using the reporter and the reporter is using the source, but when the source begins to believe that the reporter can be part of the team, that’s when things get dangerous,” he said.

Rather said that journalism needs a “spine transplant,” a return to its role as an independent advocacy for truth and disclosure. The role of the journalist is as a watchdog, he said. A watchdog barks when it suspects danger but doesn’t lie down or attack. It’s a warning system that keeps those in power on their toes.

“Do we still believe that the documents of government belong to the people and not the people in power?” he asked. “The president is not a descendant of the Sun God. This person is elected by the people and part of what [journalists are] expected to do is check on them.”

Rather’s message was a welcome call for a return to the values of Edward R. Murrow, whose name he invoked twice. But I think the audience was interested in hearing more about social media. Rather’s own knowledge deficit in that area – he didn’t mention YouTube or podcasts once and appeared awkward using “Google” as a verb – was painfully evident. As someone whose CBS career was arguably brought down by bloggers in the Rathergate incident, you’d think he would have more to say. But the question about Rathergate, like so many others, never came up.

Las Vegas as a standard for user design

The best session I’ve attended so far at South by Southwest was also the shortest: a 25-minute presentation by interaction designer Dan Saffer called “Learning Interaction Design From Las Vegas.” Perhaps it’s because I just came from a visit to Las Vegas, but I found the analogy to America’s Sin City to be a strikingly appropriate as guidance for good design.

Citing Vegas’ remarkable success at appealing to its target audience, Saffer pointed to the Strip’s excellence at human factors design. “Vegas understands user experience,” he said, noting examples like carpet patterns that are designed to keep people within a building and ceiling painted like daytime sky in order to rob the visitor of a sense of time. He displayed a quotation – “Withholding judgment may be used as a tool to make later judgment more sensitive” – to illustrate the need for designers to suspend the urge to create designs that meet their own standards of beauty in order to build products that people want to use.

Examples: the extravagant buffet lines in Vegas casinos like Champion League agen judi bola terpercaya appeal perfectly to the overweight middle-American tourists that are their best customers. Wedding chapels that announce themselves in bright incandescent lights may offend many people, but they do a great job of appealing to their target audience. And hotel complexes like Paris allow customers to experience France without the inconvenience of dealing with the French.

In particular, he dwelt on slot machines as examples of a near-perfect user interface. From type so large that it’s readable by the legally blind to the more than 400 sounds that some machines emit to the tactile feedback they provide, slot machines are finely tuned to give users a satisfying experience, on average, every six seconds. Which is why, he said, they’re a bigger business that the four largest fast-food chains combined.

Saffer’s playful jab at designers was to discard their upper-middle-class tastes and just design for their users. He said one reason MySpace is so popular is that it provides a Vegas-like experience for its customers. In aggregating so many functions in one place, it’s the online equivalent of a Vegas casino complex.

If you’ve worked with many designers – and I’ve known some very good ones – you know that their Achille’s heel is a tendency to design what’s elegant rather than what’s useful. Saffer’s message is something more designers should consider. I couldn’t agree with him more.


Why there'll be no social media bubble

South by Southwest is my seventh social media conference in about a year (the others were Syndicate, Gnomedex, BlogHer, Podcast Academy and New Communications Forums in Boston and Las Vegas) and I’m again impressed with one thing: the lack of interest in financial rewards or profit motives on the part of the participants.

That fact was driven home to me again this evening, in a panel session called “Production Companies 2.0: Taking Online Video to the Next Level,” which featured some of the early winners in video blogging. In contrast to the industry panels of a decade ago, which were all about creating huge new brands and reaping rich rewards for the founders, this session focused on issues of artistic control, voice, independence and freedom from the pressure of commercial interests.

Ryanne Hodson of spoke about the importance of not signing away control over content to investors, while Andrew Baron of Rocketboom boasted about new features on his site that enhance social networking features and make it more useful to viewers. “The vast majority of our discussions about Rocketboom are about how to make it better for the audience,” he said.

Where money was discussed, it was always in the context of how video bloggers could manage to make a living from their craft. Rock-star blogger Robert Scoble actually drew oohs and ahs from the audience for mentioning that he had signed a sponsorship deal for his video blog totaling $300,000. A decade ago, such a small amount would have prompted snickers.

As a veteran of forward-looking industry conferences going back more than 20 years, I find this spirit remarkable – and refreshing. Ten years ago, the tony Internet industry confabs attracted swarms of bankers and venture capitalists looking for the next billion-dollar company. Entrepreneurs who played the game successfully at the time were rewarded with billion-dollar payouts. In contrast, Jason Calacanis, arguably the most successful social media entrepreneur to date, sold out to AOL for $25 million. That’s nothing to sniff at, but it’s a far cry from the payouts awarded to the founders of Yahoo, Lycos and

Last September, I wrote a column in BtoB magazine (the original doesn’t appear t be online since BtoB revamped its website) arguing against the probability of a social media bubble. “Bubbles need air supply in the form of venture capital and inflated expectations for investors. They also need a payoff. Almost none exists in this market,” I wrote at the time. I still hold firm to that position. Perhaps the big money is still waiting on the sidelines for a viable business model to emerge, but I think they’ll be waiting a very long time. The Internet bubble of the late 90s was driven by investors’ misguided assumptions that the Internet was a channel for big media and big brands to emerge.

In fact, the opposite is true. Social media is fulfilling the Internet’s promise to make it possible for millions of small communities to form around very specific areas of interest. People now have the tools to share and comment upon information that’s compelling to very small groups – and to do it at almost no cost. Political super-blogger Glenn Reynolds calls this phenomenon An Army of Davids and the terminology is apt. The Internet is all about specificity, not generality. It just took us a decade to realize that.

More Tagging Insights

An interesting panel on tagging explored some of the applications and the social and commercial implications of tagging as these tools mature.

One angle that interested me is that groups develop their own syntax for tags and the characteristics of those tag lists are different as a result. One panelist pointed out that “,” “social_network” and “socialnetwork” have different meanings on different sites and in different communities because the groups who agree on these syntaxes are using them to tag different kinds of content. On, people tagging “design” are referring to visual design while on Magnolia they’re referring to software design. Same tag, different groups, different meanings.

I was also interested in some interesting applications of tagging to more traditional collecting. Some libraries are making it possible for their visitor to tag books in their collections. This makes it possible for libraries to build super-catalogs that are much richer than traditional card catalogs. Some museum curators are finding that visitors to their collections have very different descriptions of what’s in them than the curators themselves. Tagging enables them to unlock that consensus of critical opinion.

One panelist pointed out that tagging serves a hierarchy of needs and as you advance in the hierarchy, it becomes more important to tune in to the syntax that others are using. At its most basic level, tagging is a way to save information. As you move into community applications, it’s important to understand and adapt to standards used by others. It’s also important to become more thorough in tag selection so that you help refine content descriptions for others.

Tags can affect traffic to your own content. One panelist noted that his sister’s photos tagged “voyeur” get more traffic than any other photos, clearly because they appeal to a base human instinct.

They’re also a way to find out what groups are thinking. Look at these tags for an album by Kevin Federline. Does this tell you something about this artist? Incidentally, Amazon has moved into tagging in a big way as a means to help customers find products that interest them. In this application, Amazon is relying on other customers to recommend products through their tags, without the intervention of professional editors or retail professionals.

Tips on designing consistent user interfaces

Notes From Getting To Consistency: Don’t Make Your Users Think
SXSW, Saturday morning
Panelists: Paul Schreiber from Apple; Jennifer Fraser, Corel ; Alex Graveley, VMWare and Steve Johnson, Adobe.

Products don’t have to look the same, but they should perform the same. When you do something in one program, the same sequence of keystrokes or clicks should do the same thing in another program. Example of shortcut keys, which frequently don’t work the same from program to program.

Example of the USPS automated postal counter. It makes you answer yes/no in awkward sequence. “Is there any question that the package will fit? Will your package fit?” First question sets you up to answer “no,” but second requires you to answer “yes.”

Consistency doesn’t mean staying consistent with your entire legacy base. Apple was smart in ditching the floppy drive and just moving on. You shouldn’t let the needs of a very small number of users constrain you from innovating.

There are costs to inconsistency. Tech support costs are higher. You may actually alienate customers if they believe that you’re ignoreing their platform or designing an inferior product for it. You could incur costs to reverse-engineer consistency later.

Electronic Arts hasn’t changed the UI for Madden Football since version 1. What’s the customer’s goal and what can we do to help them achieve that goal as quickly as possible? If you can do that using consistency that users expect, then that’s great. But if you have to break a sequence to achieve a goal for the user, that’s what you have to do.

Go out and watch customers. If what they’re doing to achieve something doesn’t make sense, redesign it.

Adobe saw wide-screen monitors coming into widespread use and so provided a way to easily reconfigure the UI for different aspect ratios.

But they won’t always tell you what they want. Malcolm Gladwell was recently talking about spaghetti sauce. He said that spaghetti sauce makers used to think there was one ideal kind of spaghetti sauce. But it turned out there were different groups of tastes that people wouldn’t admit to. They liked chunky spaghetti sauce but didn’t think to say that. Prego figured this out and made hundreds of millions of dollars.

Who are your users going to be? You don’t need to be consistent between interfaces for a fourth grader and a legal secretary. Likewise, when you introduce something new, do you do it for your new customers or existing customers? Different expectations if you’re introducing something that helps people get started with the product. In that case, you don’t need to consider consistency with previous versions.

Cross-platform considerations. How much do you make it look like your product on another platform and how much like the other platform’s conventions. There’s “OK-Cancel on Windows, “Cancel-OK” on the Mac. You need to conform to these conventions. VMWare is creating its first Mac product and has had to revisit its whole approach to interface design to make the experience consistent for Mac users.

Features are the F-word. This was a point Steve Johnson made. Engineers fall in love with new features, but features can disrupt the user’s experience. Are you introducing features for the user or because you think it’s cool?

SXSW contrasts

I’m at the South by Southwest (SXSW) conference for the first time in its 14-year history. It holds great promise as a fusion of film, music and interactive digital media, but my first impressions are that the organizers need to drink more of their own Kool-Aid.

This conference is about the leading edge of design and user experience in digital media. However, the conference website is anything but intuitive. Try finding the schedule of sessions there. Compliments to the organizers, though, for providing a nice interactive calendar app.

Registration just doesn’t make sense. Even if you’re pre-registered, you need to fill out a card to have your badge processed (why wasn’t this done in advance?). You fill out the card on the bottom level of the Austin Convention Center, then ride the escalator to the top level to get your badge, a process that requires having your picture taken (why is this necessary) and then waiting for a prinout. Then you have to go back to the floor level to get your schedule, then back to the top level to attend a session.

The show bag is being given out in an enormous first-level room that looks 90% empty. Why this wasn’t used for registration is unclear. For a conference designed by techies who pride themselves on efficiency, the whole thing is pretty chaotic.

Let’s hope the content is worth the aggravation!