How to Moderate a Great Panel

This topic is a little different from my usual fare. It’s about moderating panels, a function that many of us are called upon to perform at events from time to time. When these sessions go badly, it’s usually because the moderator either hasn’t prepared the speakers or fails keep control.

A lot of people treat panel moderation as a chore, but I enjoy it enough to have done it at least 50 times over the last 15 years. The reward of a successful panel is seeing the audience interact both during and after the event, and hearing that all your panelists enjoyed the experience.

Here are some tactics I’ve learned to make a panel session successful and memorable. Please embellish these tips with your own comments.

Before the Event

1. Know your place. Moderating a panel is akin to conducting an orchestra. Like conductors, good moderators do their work in advance to bring out the best performance from the speakers. I say “performance” because that’s what a panel really is. Each participant demonstrates his or her expertise at the appropriate time without overwhelming the ensemble. Improvisation is encouraged but kept within limits. Musicians will tell you that good symphony orchestras actually improvise a lot, but they only do so when everyone knows the time is right. A panel is no different.

2. Convene a pre-event meeting. I can’t emphasize enough the importance of this preparatory session. A conference call enables all the panel members to get comfortable with each other. It also establishes the ground rules that everyone must live by. Keep the call brief – a half hour if you can manage it – and cover these key points:

  • Restate the topic and modify it if necessary;
  • Define the audience;
  • Describe what the session will and won’t cover (don’t forget the won’t);
  • Go over the format: How much time is available? Are prepared presentations permitted? How long can each panelist speak? How will audience questions be handled?
  • Summarize questions you plan to ask. Note that those questions may change based upon the flow of the event;
  • Ask the panelists if there are any questions they want you to ask. Take these as suggestions, not requirements;
  • Confirm a time to meet just before the event to go over last-minute issues.

Take notes during this meeting and send them to all panelists, whether they attended or not. Minimize surprises on stage.

On Site

3. Spend a few minutes one-on-one with each speaker before the event. This is your chance to establish familiarity, answer last-minute questions and learn something that may be useful during the panel. Ask what your speakers have been doing lately in the topic area. I often get anecdotes from these three-minute discussions that I can use in introductions.

4. Be in control. You are the conductor, the ringmaster and the emcee. Your job is to control the flow of the session. If you piss off one of your speakers in the process, that’s okay, as long as you’re fair to everyone. It doesn’t matter how rich or famous your panelists are; there should be no question that you are the boss.

5. Keep introductions brief. Experienced speakers know the discomfort of sitting to the side while a person they’ve never met reads a 500-word introduction in a monotone. Your audience deserves better. Three sentences, that’s it. And don’t read from the bio; instead, paraphrase the bio and include a personal comment if you can. In general, reading from a podium is a bad idea.

6. Be a time Nazi. Time is the most precious resource you’ve got on stage, and when you squander it by starting late or letting participants waste it, you do a disservice to everyone. I personally prefer to forego opening statements whenever possible. If I have to use them, I limit remarks to three-to-five minutes and don’t let responses to questions run over 90 seconds. You can set whatever limits you want as long as you communicate them in advance and enforce them on stage.

What to do about speakers who don’t listen to you? I start by shooting them a glance when their time is almost up. If they keep going past the cutoff point, I stand and walk purposefully toward them. If they still don’t get the message, I interrupt at the first opportunity with a good-humored comment and take back the stage.

Be fair to everyone. If you let one person run over, you penalize everyone else. You can even make a game of it. I was once asked to moderate a Power Panel at Comdex during its heyday. I had five panelists and a controversial topic that would stir up a good deal of discussion. I told the speakers in advance that I was going to bring a bell and gong them if they went over time. I did that and even staged a fake wrestling match for the mike with one passionate speaker. The audience and the panelists enjoyed the theatrics and the session was a success.

7. Maintain constant eye contact with your panel. Your speakers should be able to tell you with a glance that they want to address a question or follow up on someone else’s comments. Don’t be afraid to call on them directly. Bridge the discussion whenever you can. Look for opportunities to create a segue, such as “Sarah, John just said we should do X. Do you agree?”

8. Go off script. Never stick to a prepared set of talking points or questions if a good conversation is developing along other lines. Make sure your panelists know in advance that you retain the right to go off script. Keep a notepad in front of you at all times and jot down points to bring up later when the time is right. It’s great when you can say, “Michael, you said a few minutes ago that that we should do Y. In light of what Stephanie just said, do you still believe that?”

9. Be ruthlessly fair. Group discussions tend to be quickly dominated by a few strong personalities. Your role is to equalize. If one or two panelists start hogging the microphone, direct questions to others for a while. Remember that not everyone has to answer every question. My rule of thumb is to permit two panelists to speak unless others indicate they want to get in.

10. Control the audience. We’ve all attended question-and-answer sessions at which an audience member stood up and delivered a sermon or diatribe disguised as a question. I have little patience for this. When a question exceeds 30 seconds in length, I may interject with, “Get to the question, please,” or the somewhat more acerbic “Is there a question in here?” People who abuse Q&A sessions are rude. You sometimes have to be rude right back to restore order.

If some of these tactics sound a little heavy-handed, I don’t apologize for them. Good panels really are like orchestral performances: They work best when everyone contributes to making each other look their best. Your satisfaction is to see smiles on the faces of your panelists and your audience as the session ends and to have people walk up and tell you, “That was great!”

Podcast Daddy

Doug Kaye introduced me to podcasting. It was 2006 and I was just getting the hang of using my iPod for something other than music. I stumbled across IT Conversations and was hooked. Here was a library of hundreds of speeches, lectures and interviews from the leading minds in technology. Presentations like Eben Moglen’s 1,000-year tour through the history of memory and Steve Wozniak’s autobiographical history of Apple remain some of the most memorable lectures I’ve ever heard, and I wasn’t even there!

Doug is still podcasting, only he’s got a much bigger goal in mind now: to organize the world’s library of recorded spoken information into a single card catalog. is an experiment in what is being called “curation,” or the organization of assets from other places into master directories (I wrote about this recently)

. David Strom and I recently got the chance to stretch out for an interview with Mr. Podcasting himself. Doug has some interesting observations about why podcasting is widely (and mistakenly) perceived to have underperformed its potential, the unique relationship people have with the spoken word and the possibilities for curation to cure information overload. Listen to the podcast with Doug Kaye.

Tip of the Week: iWisoft Free Video Converter

If you watch a lot of online video, you know what a mess format incompatibilities can be. QuickTime doesn’t read Windows WMV files, PowerPoint can’t see Flash FLV and videos that look fine on your PC screen look terrible when played on your HDTV.

Video conversion software has historically commaned licensing fees of $50 or more, but I recently came across a free program that handles everything I throw at it. iWisoft Free Video Converter supports a dizzying number of formats for devices ranging from cell phones to DVDs. It can even crop and adjust video, although I’ve never tried those features. I’m just thrilled to have those YouTube video downloads ready for PowerPoint with a couple of mouse clicks. Learn more and download here.

Just For Fun: Dog-Owner Lookalikes

Dog-Owner LookalikesThis was my fourth year at Pet Rock, a local celebration by dog and cat lovers of their best friends. We’ve all heard the cliché that dog owners look just like their pets, but I have found it to have a lot of truth. A couple of years ago, I started training my camera on people who I thought looked just like their dogs, and the collection is now up to 36 images. Here’s a slideshow. if you have any photos of your own like this, tag them “lookalikes” on Flickr and let’s share!

Millennials: Coming Soon to a Cubicle Near You

This weekend I’ll pack my daughter off to college, so as a little celebration, I took her and a friend to a Six Flags amusement park this week. As we drove west on the Massachusetts Turnpike, I took the opportunity to eavesdrop on the conversation in the back seat, affording me one of my too-rare glimpses into the world of Millennials.

During the 75-minute drive, I listened to the girls talk excitedly about the people they would soon meet in person for the first time. They already knew many of them, of course. Thanks to Facebook, they had been building connections with future classmates since the late spring. When today’s students arrive on campus, they already know dozens of others.
My daughter, Alice, had already “spoken” to her future roommate several times. I use the term figuratively because Alice hates to talk on the telephone, as do most of her friends. By “speak”, she means text messages, instant messaging sessions, wall posts and maybe a few webcam interactions. For today’s teens, interaction with friends is multi-channel and multimedia.
I actually shouldn’t say Alice hates talking on the phone. She just can’t fathom doing nothing but talking. Her favorite context for conversation these days is a massively multi-player game where friends can slay dragons and battle wizards while chatting about the same things their parents talked about: music, school and romance.
Much has changed there as well. Thanks to MySpace pages and BitTorrent, Millennials have constant and immediate access to the latest music and video. They like the top artists, of course, but along with Lady Gaga (left) they favor an assortment of bands I’ve never heard of that cater to eclectic tastes. When I was their age, I learned of new artists from cassette tapes exchanged between friends. Today, a link in an instant message does the same thing, and Apple’s Genius and Pandora make the process programmatic.
Relationships? Well, after listening to two teenagers talk for an hour, it dawned on me that there were people they felt very strongly about whom they had actually never met. One of Alice’s best friends lives in Texas. Their relationship was already well established last year long before they met each other for the first time.
It’s not unusual to hear terms like “boyfriend” and “girlfriend” applied to virtual relationships. Nor is it surprising to hear of relationships ending in novel ways. Two years ago, I listened in as a group of Alice’s classmates spoke of a friend who had just ended a romance. Everyone in the group knew the news except the guy who had been dumped. He hadn’t read the message yet.
Sound strange? A survey of teens this year by textPlus found that 30% percent said they’ve broken up with someone or been dumped via text message. Call it passive aggressive or conflict avoidance or whatever you want; it’s the way things are.
Coming To Your Town
And so they head off to college, and in four years they will enter a workplace that understands little about their values and systems. They will encounter managers who believe that Facebook is a productivity drain and who would rather employees spend an hour in traffic jams each day than get work done from home.
They will have their first brush with cover-your-ass thinking and will sit in meetings that waste hours of time so that everyone in the room can be “in the loop.”
They will encounter rigid, top-down hierarchies in which risk is avoided and decisions are unchallenged. They will find mid-level managers who hoard information out of fear that sharing will threaten their job security.
They will wonder how anything gets done in environments like these and they will gravitate toward those companies that discard tradition. They’re young, confident and coming to your town. Are you ready?

MediaBlather is Back

Shortly after recording our 100th episode of the MediaBlather podcast, David Strom and I took a break during the first half of this year. But we’re tanned, rested and back in action now with new podcasts posting every couple of weeks.

In Identity Crisis, we discussed the helplessness that BP felt as its Twitter identity was hijacked by an anonymous critic. Freelance Destruction looked at the plummeting pay rates in the freelance market and assessed the impact that would have on traditionally trusted sources of advice such as product reviews. The bad news: technology reviews have taken a turn for the worse. The good news: people like David Strom are figuring out new models.We’re always looking for guests and ideas, so if you’ve got an interesting story to tell or a new book to promote, drop me a line and we’ll get you on the show.


Tip of the Week:

Twitter has unleashed a torrent of creative energy in the form of applications and websites that do everything from automatically unfollow people to calculate the total potential reach of a tweet. The problem is keeping up with them all. The crowdsourced Twitter Fan Wiki is a great resource, but its organization is weak and it’s not always up to date. It can also be overwhelming: The apps listing page runs to 20,000 words.
OneForty.comEnter, a startup dedicated to finding and rating the best Twitter applications. Its site is clean, easy to use and chock-full of intelligent reviews, many by business customers. The founder and CEO is Laura Fitton (@pistachio), co-author of Twitter for Dummies, and a visionary who saw the potential of this platform long before it became a staple of corporate marketers. Check it out; it will help you tell your app from your elbow.

Just For Fun: Amazing Tattoos

Amazing TattoosI’ll admit I’m not much for tattoos. It’s not the pain that scares me; it’s just that they’re so, well, permanent. Nevertheless, I do appreciate great craftsmanship, and this selection of 40 amazing tattoos demonstrates what today’s technology can achieve using flesh as the principal medium.

Note: Some of these images are a little disturbing, so if you have a weak stomach, look elsewhere. At least you don’t have to live with them etched into your arm!

Seven Questions to Ask About Your Website

People usually call me for help setting up and optimizing their social marketing programs, but in the early stages of our engagement the conversation almost always takes another turn.

In about two out of three cases, in fact, we wind up focusing first on the client’s website because so many basic issues still need attention. Clients are sometimes frustrated by this. After all, they want to get started with the cool new tools and usher new business in the door. But if the most important source of new business – the website – isn’t doing the job for them, the new tools are a waste of time. After all, why would you want to bring new visitors to a site that does a poor job of telling your story?

Websites are developed by people who work at the company and who are very knowledgeable about the business. It’s natural for them to assume more knowledge on the part of the visitor than the typical visitor actually has. Messages are often focused on selling a solution rather than solving a problem, but people don’t care about your product; they care about what’s troubling them right now. That’s a fine distinction, but it’s critical to conveying an effective message.

A well-crafted message communicates understanding of the visitor’s needs and frames the solution in the context of relieving pain or creating opportunity. Focus on results rather than process. Here are some questions that can help you determine whether your website is hitting the mark:

Is the message clear and succinct? Ask a few people who are familiar with your industry but not with your company to spend exactly one minute on your website. That’s about the amount of time an average visitor will grant you. Then ask them to tell you what your company does, what problems you address and who the target customer is. If they can’t answer those three questions after one minute, then your message isn’t clear enough.

Are you optimized for search? Navigate through your website and look at the page titles at the top of your browser. Do they include the keywords that customers use to find you? Do some of your pages have generic titles such as “About” or “Services?” How about PDF documents? Are the titles and meta-tags clear or do they still have gibberish file names that machines generate? Are your images and videos tagged? These are simple things that mean a lot to search engines.

Does your message communicate understanding of the visitor’s problem? Put yourself in the shoes of a typical prospect visiting your website. Think about the problem that person is trying to solve. Does your message demonstrate that your solution was designed with that problem in mind? Or are you selling aspirin when you should be selling headache relief? Does your choice of words show that you’re committed to easing the visitor’s pain?

Are you using all the available tools? Many business websites are heavy on text, which may have been all that was available when the site was built. But 65% of people are classified as visual learners. If you’re not using all the media you can, you’re under-serving your audience. I’m not talking about stock photography but rather about illustrations that clarify and explain. Today it’s cheap and easy to point a camera at a product manager or engineer and ask the person to explain a product. Voice-annotated screen shows or PowerPoint slidecasts are also inexpensive ways to illustrate complex concepts.

Is it easy to join your list? Every page of your website should have an invitation for visitors to become prospects. These can be in the form of newsletter sign-ups, white paper downloads, requests for more information or invitations to view a webcast. Why would you want to miss any chance to turn an interested passerby into a lead?

Are your pages easy to share? Every page should also have embedded widgets that make it easy for visitors to e-mail, bookmark, tweet or otherwise share your content. In most cases, these are easy to add to a template and there’s no downside to having them.

Do you humanize your company? This is particularly important for b-to-b companies, which establish long-term relationships with their customers. Does your site include faces, biographies and personal messages? What do you do to create personal connections that increase a visitor’s comfort level with the people behind the product? Does your website have personality or does it read like a research paper? If you’re interested in social marketing, start with the social part. Let your people go.

I’m sure I’ve missed some things, so let me know your own thoughts in the comments section. What makes a business website work for you? (Valerie Everett graphic)

B-to-B Social Marketing Innovators

As Eric Schwartzman and I research our forthcoming b-to-b book, Social Marketing to the Business Customer, we’ve been recording many of our interviews with experts. Here’s a sample of new podcasts that have resulted:

Tip of the Week: Buying Collaboratives

We’ve written before about Woot!, a site that sells overstock and surplus merchandise at amazing savings. Now you can add to that, a regional service that offers big savings on everyday services using an arbitrage model that guarantees the merchant a certain number of responses in return for the discount but changes the terms if enough people don’t apply. You have nothing to lose by checking it out, so please do so and tell us what you think.

Just for Fun: How Dogs Talk

Is a dog really happy when it wags its tail? It depends. Wagging to the right is a sign of positive feelings, but wagging to the left means Spot is feeling blue. This is just one of the fascinating insights I gained from this short article called The Secret Language of Dogs. I’ve owned pups since I was five and never knew that a paw slap is equivalent to a pat on the back or that barking really does have a language of its own. While you’re there, check out Why Dogs Do Strange Things.

How To Be a Successful Podcast Guest

Recording a radio play, 1949As a producer, host or speaker on more than 300 podcasts, I’ve learned a bit about the craft. Here are 11 tips for making your appearance as a podcast guest the best it can be.

1. If  possible, read the questions or script in advance

Unless you’re comfortable shooting from the hip, you should know what questions will be asked of you. Change or delete any questions you’re uncomfortable with.  Hosts usually want you to sound your best and will willingly comply.

2. Jot down a few notes…

…but don’t prepare a script. If you script your answers, the interview will sound wooden and artificial. It’s better to work from talking points.

3. Find a quiet place

Avoid open windows and doors, shut off air conditioners for the duration of the recording and silence cell phones and computers.

4. Use a landline phone

When it comes to reliability and sound quality, you still can’t beat a wire.

4a. Use Skype

The quality of VOIP services absolutely rocks, but you need access and a few dollars’ worth of hardware to use them. Also, many corporations block Skype access and the service does you no good unless both parties on the call are using it. That’s why this recommendation doesn’t merit a full-blown tip.

5. If possible, use a headset

It’s more comfortable and minimizes the risk of distortion from contact with the microphone.

6. Speak at a measured pace

You’re talking faster than you think you are. Slow down and articulate. Think about what you’re going to say before you say it. This is a recording, so we can edit out the pauses.

7. Be animated

Use your voice to add texture. Vary the pitch, speed and volume to emphasize or downplay parts of the message. Avoid speaking in a monotone. Nothing will lose a listener’s interest faster than that.

8. Don’t hesitate to start over

If you start a sentence and then get lost, stop, take a breath, collect your thoughts and begin again. Fumbles can be edited out.

9. Time your answers

Figure 60 to 90 seconds for an answer. Beyond that, you had better be interesting, because your audience’s attention span begins to wane.

10. Beware of verbal tics

These really stand out in a recorded interview. Some common bad habits include “Like,” “You know,” “OK” and “Ummmm.” Minimize them. No one is competing with you for the microphone, so take your time and speak deliberately and in complete sentences. Sometimes you can’t help your tics. In that case, they can be fixed in the editing process. If losing them is too distracting, don’t let this point trip you up.

11. Review the show notes

Podcasts should always include a written companion in the form of a blog entry. Be sure this information reflects accurately what you said. It’s the only information the search engines will see.

A note on length

The most common question I’m asked about podcasts is what is the ideal length? At the risk of being flip, my answer is “As long as it’s interesting.” I really mean that. If you look at the 10 most highly rated podcasts of all time at IT Conversations, they average a remarkable 55 minutes. Having listened to many of these programs, I can tell you that the speakers could easily keep me engaged much longer than that.  In contrast, I have listened to excruciatingly dull podcasts that lasted less than 10 minutes.

What’s the difference? Uninspired content – often rooted in a product pitch – and lack of stories that bring the message to life. Storytelling is the most basic of human communication devices, yet it’s amazing how few communicators use it. A podcast is not a research paper or a collateral sheet. It is a human voice, which is the oldest form of rich communications. Use your voice to its fullest potential, tell stories and make the interaction personal. That’s what will keep your audience engaged. And when they’re engaged, no one cares how long you talk.

Influencer Marketing: Not Your Typical PR

In my last issue, I made a case for extending PR strategies to encompass influencer marketing.  With mainstream media rapidly declining in scope, influence is increasingly being exerted from below by individuals using the power of self-publishing to reach out to their peers.

In recent influencer engagements, we’ve learned a few things about how to work with these new media. An important point to remember is that they do not behave like reporters. Journalists are skilled in the “game” that goes on with public relations professionals. You know, it’s the one in which PR is paid to keep pushing and the journalist is paid to be skeptical. The two parties engage in this back-and-forth with a wink and a nod, knowing that each has a job to do.

Influencers often don’t work this way. To them, their online outpost is a display of their passion for the topic that they cover. They care deeply about the subject matter and they usually know at least as much as the PR person who contacts them. Often they know quite a bit more. In some ways, engaging with influencers is like pitching to product reviewers.

Know Your Stuff

You’d better come prepared to this engagement, because some influencers will take lack of knowledge on your part as an insult. This can capsize junior agency people who aren’t prepared for the depth of questions they will get or the scorn they may endure if they can’t answer. Again, journalists know how the game is played, but influencers are more likely to expect the person on the phone to share their enthusiasm. I recommend you put experienced people on this job.

Influencers are also likely to have an opinion. While journalists are expected not to share any biases, bloggers often do what they do precisely because they have opinions to share. Fortunately, a little advance reading can often clue you in to someone’s agenda and even help you decide if they’re worth contacting all. You don’t want to come in with a strong Windows pitch, for example, to a blogger who’s passionate about the Mac. You also don’t want to be blindsided by someone who has made his or her opinions clear and who is offended by the fact that you don’t know them. Again, 15 to 20 minutes of reading can save you a lot of aggravation.

Finally, influencers are more likely to want to get their hands on the product or to talk in depth with the people who develop it. Unlike journalists, they’re probably not interested in analyst quotes or customer case studies. It’s more likely they’ll want to talk to the VP of engineering or the CEO than to the head of marketing. Before you start an influencers program, be sure that you have these people on board.

Their time will be well spent. The right influencers have as much credibility in their community as product reviewers or analysts. They usually have extensive networks of online and real-world contacts and they’re likely to have experience with not only your products but those of your competitors. Engage in a conversation. You might learn something from them.

Our Podcasts are Now Slidecasts

For the past three years, podcasts have been one of our most popular businesses, with nearly 300 programs produced for our clients as well as our own MediaBlather series. Now we’re pleased to take the service to the next level with the addition of slidecasts. A slidecast is an audio podcast with slides built in. It’s a great way to add a visual element to your audio program. Slidecasts are encoded as movie files for viewing on a desktop computer or iPod. Since about 80% of all podcasts are listed to on a PC, they help keep your audience engaged in the content while they listen. Here’s a sample we just produced for our client, Awareness.

Our slidecasts can support transitions, builds and even video clips. We’re offering them as a modest upgrade to our basic podcasts. We work with you to determine where you want slides to appear in the program and then we deliver both an audio MP3 and a video file in the format you choose. We can even add this capability to podcasts you’ve already posted. So if you want to try the next generation of Internet audio programming, drop us a line and let us create your first slidecast!

Subscribers Get Half Off at Inbound Marketing Summit

The Inbound Marketing Summit in San Francisco is less than four weeks away, and I have a small supply of 50% discount codes for subscribers to my newsletter. The Summit is for marketers who are convinced that the world is changing forever and who want to drive a new form of high-quality engagement that turbo-charges their careers. We’ll have Web 2.0 visionaries like Tim O’ReillyChris BroganDavid Meerman ScottJason Falls and Brian Solis on the program. More importantly, we’ll have practitioners from companies like Cirque du Soleil, Harley Davidson, French Maid TV and Microsoft talking about how they’re putting new media to work right now, achieving results and measuring those results. E-mail me to get this special discount!

Tip of the Week: Hosting for SEO

Are you still hosting your blog on, or one of the other hosted services? You’re paying the price in search engine performance. I recently learned this the hard way when someone convinced me to consolidate my various blogs under a single domain. Search engine performance plummeted. In one case, Google wasn’t seeing my site at all. Once I moved it out of the subdomain and onto its own hosting account, visibility improved dramatically. Hubspot has an article on why this is the case. Hosting on your own domain isn’t difficult, and we can even show you how.

Deriving Value from Social Media and User-Generated Content

Social networks are beginning to yield some interesting payoffs in applications ranging from customer support to product evangelism. This afternoon, I’ll present a one-hour webcast describing the different ways in which businesses can derive value from these networks. The webcast is sponsored by Keibi Technologies, Inc. and you can register here. Best of all, it’s free.

Just for Fun

I came across a wonderful collection of pictures online that gave me more than one smile. I wanted to share it with you somehow, then realized I have the perfect opportunity in my Just For Fun. So enjoy Marco Folio’s collection of hilarious, odd, and adorable pictures! They’re organized by month of posting, so click through to any gallery for about two minutes of delight.

FAQ on Social Media – Part 1

I’ve recently conducted a couple of online seminars about social media topics. The Q&A sessions at these events are almost always too short to get to the issues that are on people’s minds. So over the next few issues of this newsletter, I’ll run down a few of the best questions I didn’t get to. For a good, free webcast on this topic, check out the recent event sponsored by Listrak.

To subscribe to my weekly newsletter, just fill out the short form to the right.

Q: What is the best way to find blogs that are applicable to your business?

A: I have half-day seminars that address this question, but I’ll try to be succinct! First of all, remember that a blog is simply a way to display information. There is no industry standard definition of a blog, so the only way to identify one is by looking at it. Even the search engines that specialize in blog search don’t always get it right.

That said, you should start with search. The blog search tools I use are Google Blog Search, Technorati, IceRocket, Bloglines and Blogpulse. There are others, but I’m less familiar with them. Tip: Use advanced search; it will save you time and better refine your results.

When you find bloggers who look important to you, look in their blogrolls, which are lists of other bloggers that they pay attention to. Blogrolls can usually be found on the home page. This can save you a lot of time because the bloggers have already done the searching for you.

I also recommend searching social bookmarking sites like Delicious and Reddit. People share and comment upon favorite bookmarked pages there. Very often you’ll find sites on social bookmarking services that don’t show up prominently in search engines.

Q: Can you review the different social media for different communication goals?

A: Chapter 2 of my latest book, Secrets of Social Media Marketing, goes into quite a bit of detail about this, but here’s a synopsis:

Blogs: Easy, fast and flexible. Think of them as a podium. You’re the speaker and you can say your peace and invite commentary. Blogs are good for telling a story, but not very good for interaction or conversation.

Podcasts: These are basically audio blogs. They’re very good for communicating a message but have almost zero interactivity. Podcasts are very popular with busy executives who like the efficiency of being able to learn when they can’t read. They’re basically a one-way medium, however.

Video podcasts: Good for telling a story visually, but people tire of them quickly if the content isn’t compelling. Video podcasts are excellent vehicles for humor or offbeat content. They have almost no interactivity. Think of them as TV commercials that viewers can easily share with each other.

Social networks: These are great places to listen to ongoing conversations and to gain insight on customers and markets. You can also use them to pose general questions about you market. Don’t be too specific, though; social networks are public forums. Popular topics can yield insight into new product possibilities.

Private Communities (for example, Communispace and Passenger): These are next-generation focus groups. Usually run by firms that specialize in community management, the members are hand-selected, carefully nurtured and often bound by confidentiality agreements. Private communities are a great way to get advice from a lot of perspectives in a hurry. The downside: high cost

Microblogs (for example, Twitter and a host of others): Very fast, targeted and responsive, they’re a great way to ask questions and get quick answers or to promote a timely idea or service. Interactivity is excellent, but content is limited to short messages and it’s difficult to integrate multimedia.

Virtual worlds (for example, Second Life and others): These venues may be good for real-time events, but the software is still too clunky for most people to use. Virtual worlds fare best with techie audiences. They’re unique in that you can observe group dynamics, such as facial expressions and body language. They’re also good for events with a strong visual component.

Q: We run a lodging resort and saw negative comments someone had posted about their experience here on their blog. How do you turn a negative blogger into a positive blogger?

A: The tactics that work in the physical world also work online: invite feedback, listen, confirm what you heard and offer some kind of relief or explanation. In 80% to 90% of these situations, the naysayers can be neutralized or even turned into advocates with these tactics. Since bloggers can’t see their audience, they tend to write in strong terms, sort of like shouting into the wilderness. Once you personalize the interaction, they usually back down. Start by commenting on the blog and also by sending a private e-mail. It may even be worth picking up the phone. The more you humanize the interaction, the quicker you’ll bring them around.

Podcasting’s Quiet Power

Last week I participated in a B-to-B magazine webcast about social media marketing. Editor-in-chief Ellis Booker kicked things off by asking the audience which Web 2.0 applications they were using. To my surprise, podcasts came out on top, narrowly beating out blogs. In fact, some 60% of the b-to-b marketers in attendance said they’re using podcasts in some capacity.

In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised. Podcasts are one of the most useful and least appreciated social media tools. They were the subject of intense interest in 2006, but podcasting’s popularity was eclipsed by the arrival of sexier technology like YouTube video. But they’ve quietly built a head of steam in b-to-b markets in particular that can’t be denied.

Emarketer reported early this year that the audience of active podcast listeners will grow from 10 million this year to 25 million in 2012. More importantly, the demographics are compelling. The research revealed that twice as many podcast listeners have advanced degrees as non-listeners and that podcast users are twice as likely to have incomes over $100,000.

Search engine Podnova lists 90,000 podcast programs in its directory and Podcast Alley lists more than 37,000. More important than the numbers, however, is the names of businesses that are using the medium for point purposes. They include General Motors, Purina, Hewlett-Packard, IBM, Kodak, Wells Fargo and many others. Nearly every major information technology companies is now using podcasts in some capacity.

Why is this channel so popular? In my opinion, it’s all about time-efficiency. Podcasts are talk radio for your portable media device. People can download educational and informational programs and listen to them when they want. This may not be all that exciting in the consumer world, but for busy corporate executives, podcasts are a godsend.

Last year, I worked with a client that was launching a social network for chief information officers (CIOs). In the course of our research, we spoke to many CIOs about their information needs. Almost everyone we interviewed was a regular podcast listener. The reason? CIOs are busy people with voracious appetites for information. They need to learn constantly, and podcasts are a way for them to absorb information when they’re commuting, flying, mowing the lawn or disconnected in some other way.

This doesn’t mean podcasting is a no-brainer for snagging CIOs. Good podcasts are scripted, tightly edited and optimized for the target listener. I’ve produced more than 150 podcasts over the last three years and have learned that listeners have little tolerance for irrelevant chatter and marketing messages. They want useful content and they’re quick to tune out when they don’t get it.

If you’re a b-to-b marketer, you should be looking seriously at podcasting. As my B-to-B webcast experience demonstrated, your competitors are already there. This is one of our core areas of expertise. Let me know if we can help.

A Fast and Flexible Approach to Developing Content

One of my clients has been experimenting with an innovative and efficient approach to content development and I want you to know about it.

The company is in a highly specialized and big-ticket b-to-b industry. Its executives are very busy and very well paid. The VP of marketing wanted to develop some thought leadership white papers, but the prospect of pinning down these executives for hours to develop the content wasn’t practical. Instead, the marketing departing is using podcasts to construct white papers from the ground up

Here’s how it works: We schedule a 30- to 45- minute phone call with these busy executives to capture background information and hot topics in their areas of expertise. I then create a list of questions that are intended to draw out the executives’ thinking (journalists are pretty good at this!).

We record an interview of approximately 30 minutes’ duration. An edited version is posted as a podcast on the company’s website, but the marketing group also has the full interview transcribed via a low-cost outside service. Marketing cleans up and reorganizes the transcript and posts the document as a position paper.

Over a series of interviews, an executive’s observations and experiences can be rolled up in interesting ways. Multiple interviews with one executive can yield an in-depth white paper. Or point interviews with several executives can be combined into a corporate backgrounder. Customers and prospects can also subscribe to the podcast series. For the small transcription fee (services can be had for as little as a dollar a minute) and some inexpensive editing, the VP has a series of byline articles from the most visible people in his company.

Rethinking Research
I’ve recommended this approach to more and more clients lately. New online tools enable us to rethink our approach to assembling complex documents. It used to be the process demanded hours or days of research. Now we can take notes in real-time and assemble them later.

Blogs are ideally structured as collections of thoughts, observations and insights expressed in short bursts. It’s fast and easy to capture these brainstorms online. Got an idea? Twitter it for prosperity. When you go back and look at information assembled in this way, you often see relationships that weren’t obvious at the time. Between search, tags and bookmarks, it’s possible to assemble these building blocks in different ways.

Some thought leaders take this to the limit. Marketing guru Seth Godin, for example, is known for writing entire books based on collections of interesting blog posts. The blog is his notepad for ideas that can be combined into coherent themes.

In some (though certainly not all) cases, this is a more efficient way to research a topic than spending hours mining the Web or library stacks. For my client, it’s also a way to repurpose content across multiple media. Maybe it will work for you. What do you think? Twitter me @paulgillin.

Five Tips for a Killer Q&A

While YouTube has grabbed all the headlines in this young year, podcasting has quietly gone mainstream. An increasing number of businesses, particularly in the high-tech field, are using podcasts to communicate with prospects and customers about very specific messages.

Paul Gillin Communications has produced more than 70 podcasts in the past year, the majority in the simple but effective Q&A format. We’ve learned a lot in the process, and thought we’d share some best practices with you.

Q&A isn’t the only valid podcast format, but it works very well for business marketing. It exposes the talent in your organization, is reasonably fast and easy to produce and segments the program into manageable soundbites that are easy to consume. There’s a big difference between a Q&A that excites your listeners, though, and one that bores them. Usually, the following five factors make the difference.

Be interesting— This may sound blatantly obvious, but it’s advice I wish more of our interview subjects would heed. You need to get your message across, but you also need to wrap it in a bigger message that gives the listener immediate value or new insight. Too often, speakers just fall back to delivering a product pitch. This is death. Podcast listeners have lots of choices and they will quickly pull the plug on content that doesn’t interest them. Try to give your listeners at least one nugget of useful information every five minutes. That’ll keep them hooked.

Think about your answers – I always provide my interview subjects with questions for the Q&A at least a day in advance, and if it’s your podcast, I’d recommend you do the same. Your podcast will be much more satisfying if you jot down talking points and anecdotes to guide your responses. This doesn’t mean you should read from a script. Believe me, the audience will figure that out in a minute. But there’s nothing wrong with having an outline to make sure you get your points across. An outline also helps you stick to answering the question that was asked and prevents you from talking on tangents, which brings us to our second tip.

Keep it short — The most common mistake I hear speakers make is to drone on with repetitive answers that run four and five minutes for each question. You may care passionately about the details of your product, but remember that your listeners probably can’t parse your message at that level. They want to get a quick summary of the market and the issues. Here’s a suggestion: Put an egg timer in front of you and turn it over whenever you start a new answer. By the time that a timer is half way down, you should be wrapping up. If the timer runs out entirely, stop talking.

Tell stories — Reporters know that readers respond to anecdotes and first-person accounts. They bring a topic to life and frame the message in a way that listeners intuitively understand. Your case studies are a valuable resource here. Cite examples of what customers are actually doing with your products or tell a first-person story about a customer you visited or spoke with. Or just talk about your own experience using or seeing the product. Personalize your message and people will understand it better.

Speak clearly and deliberately — Be aware of any verbal tics you have — “you know” is a common one — and make an effort to eliminate them when you’re on the air. I call these “verbal placeholders.” They are a tool that people use unconsciously to mark time while deciding what to say next. Avoid them. They will be much more obvious on a recording than in a conversation. Practicing your answers before it’s time to record and sticking to an outline, which provides your next point if you lose your place, will help you prevent yourself from “you know”ing your way through a podcast.

Whoops! I lied. There are SIX tips:

Take advantage of the medium — Unlike broadcast media, podcasts are forgiving. You can easily rerecord what you say and splice it seamlessly into the program. If you don’t think you answered a question very well, just do it again. Audio editing software makes it possible to replace your old answer with the new one in just a few minutes.We are often asked what is the ideal length of a podcast? The truth is that it depends. An excellent speaker will get much more leeway from the audience than a poor one. This 48-minute speech by Steve Wozniak will have you spellbound whereas I’ve moderated 15-minute podcasts that were just awful.Personally, I like to keep podcasts to less than 20 minutes, including eight to 10 question-and-answer pairs and an introduction. I find that 15 minutes is about ideal.

Here are some links to podcast interviews that went particularly well:

Preventing Digital Crime – Government Regulation or Industry Standards – Howard Schmidt is a former national security czar, but he’s also an energetic and exciting speaker who’s on top of his subject. It was a great idea on Qualys’ part to use him as a resource like this. (You have to register to download this one.)

SaaS Advantage Podcast Series with Greg Gianforte – The CEO of RightNow Technologies knows when to stop talking and that makes his answers more effective. He’s also just an interesting person, which I would recommend your speakers be, also.

How to Encourage Innovative Thinking: An Interview With Larry Weber — Note how Larry tells stories throughout this interview to get his points across. By using examples, he brings the topic to life and makes his answers easier to relate to. I guarantee you will remember at least one anecdote from this interview.

Podcast Innovators

If you haven’t fired up your digital music player and tuned in to a podcast lately, it’s time to familiarize yourself with this technology. Because podcasting is going to be very big very soon and marketers should understand the phenomenon and its potential.

You can find a good definition of podcasting at and my column in February’s BtoB Magazine introduces the topic. So I won’t go into a detailed explanation here. There are some very innovative applications of podcasting I’ve seen recently that marketers should become familiar with. This is a story of two of them.

General Motors launched a podcasting initiative about a year ago to complement its GM FastLane Blogs. Most people don’t think of GM as an early adopter but the company has been fast and innovative in experimenting with community media.

Maybe that’s because it’s put much of the responsibility in the hands of one person and let him go to work. Michael Wiley, director of new media and a longtime public relations professional, said the decision to launch blogs two years ago and podcasts in 2005 took less than a day. GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz loved the idea and has been an active contributor to both forums.

The podcasts have been a home run for GM at very low cost. They spotlight different vehicles, often in conjunctions with re-designs or launches, and usually interview executives who are responsible for them. The short segments are nothing flashy, but they’re clean, well-paced and informative.

“You need to have a strong ethical policy and write in a clear, conversational style,” Wiley says of GM’s blogging efforts. “No one wants to read marketing copy or press release type writing.”

And do they perform. Last summer’s podcast interview with Corvette chief architect Dave Hill was downloaded more than 70,000 times. Some FastLane blog entries get more than 500 comments. Market research like that would cost a fortune. GM’s cost? “We’ve never spent a dollar on a podcast,” Wiley says. In fact, GM isn’t spending on promotion, either. “We want [the podcasts] to stay grass roots and for people to find out through word of mouth,” he says.

What’s got some people at GM really excited about podcasting, though, is its potential inside the firewall. The company has a vast network of dealers, service outlets and suppliers and all of them need constant communication. Distributing catalogs and videotapes is expensive and wasteful. Digital distribution is so much more efficient.

“It’s low- to no-cost,” Wiley says. “It’s an opportunity to give people extreme detail, if necessary. It can be used for so many different things – tutorials, help desk, service professionals. The opportunities are unlimited.”

And wait till Apple’s rumored new full-sized video iPod comes out. Bye-bye VHS tapes.

Over at Whirlpool USA, the appliance maker launched a podcast series last summer that embodies the spirit of social media. The Whirlpool American Family podcasts are updated about once a week.

There’s nothing about home appliances in these programs. They’re about child-rearing, schooling, health, work/family issues, nutrition and a host of other family concerns. They’re the brainchild of Audrey Reed-Granger, a Whirlpool publicist who admits that she didn’t even know what a podcast was until a few weeks before she suggested the idea to Whirlpool management.

“I listened to a few podcasts and it struck me that this was the reason I got into journalism,” she says. “It was very earnest, just average people reporting on things that go on in normal life. I wanted to capture that.”

Her bosses liked the idea and the nominal cost. The first podcast launched in late July. By September, the online buzz became apparent.

“There was a lot of blogosphere chatter about Whirlpool,” Reed-Granger says. “We figured out that it was about American Family. People were endorsing the podcasts in their blogs and other bloggers were tuning in. I started getting e-mail from people suggesting speakers.”

What started as interviews with friends and contacts has become a mainstream radio program. Book publishers and PR agencies pitch their clients as guests on American Family Podcasts. Whirlpool had logged more than 30,000 downloads when I spoke to Reed-Granger in January but the series is also carried on more than a dozen independent podcast sites that don’t release statistics.

The benefit to Whirlpool? It’s hard to say. Both GM’s Wiley and Whirlpool’s Reed-Granger acknowledge that ROI is a tough call in the blogosphere. You have to think about these media experiments as a branding play, like public relations.

“It gave us a fresh image,” Wiley said. “It’s humanized us.”

Adds Reed-Granger, “It’s less about the brand than the essence of the people that market the products. It’s made us more likeable.”

Both podcast series deliver the goods on usefulness. GM’s is the more marketing-oriented of the two efforts, but it’s essentially an information play to enthusiasts. Whirlpool doesn’t even pretend to pitch its products in the audio program. It’s strictly a valuable information service to potential purchasers of its appliances. This is what social media marketing is all about. You need to be transparent, honest and helpful.

In a future issue, I’ll look at some of my favorite podcasts and talk about best practices for content producers.