FAQ on Social Media – Part 2

Continuing my series of responses to questions I didn’t have time to answer in recent webcasts, this segment covers demographics, sales conversion and the valuable Google “link:” command.

Q: What can millennials best teach us about social networking?

A: How to infuse it into everyday life. There’s a myth about millennials that the group is completely tuned in to the use of social media tools. In fact, I find that most young people are active users of Facebook, instant messaging and text messaging, but not much else. They don’t blog, rarely listen to podcasts and don’t use Twitter. What’s more, they don’t have much perspective on the value of these tools beyond their usefulness in everyday life. They’ll learn those things through experience and training, just like everyone else. But they’re not really as social media-savvy as they’re often given credit for.

What they are exceptionally good at doing it is managing relationships online. They don’t have any more close friends than their parents did at the same age, but they have a much larger number of casual acquaintances that they keep alive through occasional and indirect communication. I think that’s something we can all learn from.

Q: Have you found that social media outlets are used by particular age demographics or does it apply to all age ranges?

A: Nearly all age groups use a media, though there are variations. If you want to go into detail, get Groundswell by Josh Bernoff and Charlene Li. Their top-line observations are that the most active users are the under-25 group, but that usage is quite consistent between 25-and 55-year olds. It drops off rather sharply after that. However, there are significant variations by media and industry. For example, under-25s are more inclined to use instant messaging, text messaging and online video while podcasting and blogging are more popular with older age groups. It’s also interesting that the percentage of people under 25 who prefer instant messaging over e-mail is nearly the exact inverse of people over 25.

Q: How does the Google “Link:” command work?

A: In the Google search bar, type “” substituting whatever URL you want. You can also access this command from Google’s advanced search page. This will give you a list of all webpages in Google’s search index that link to the specified domain or page.

Q: What’s the best way to convert your audience to make an actual purchase using social media?

A: There are many ways to do this, so I’ll give you an example of a direct and an indirect approach. A direct approach might be to offer a discount coupon to people who join your social network, fill out a form or respond to a contest. Or you might ask people to view a short video to get an access code that they could redeem on a website. The coupon could be delivered electronically as a thank-you message when visitors submit the form.

And indirect approach might be to set up an informational blog that educates visitors about your company or your area of expertise. You can then surround this educational content with promotions or offers.

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.

What J&J Could Have Done

It wasn’t exactly a repeat of the 1982 poisoned Tylenol disaster, but Johnson & Johnson was struggling with a minor crisis this week after some vocal critics derided an edgy ad that implied that new moms could suffer back pain from carrying their infants. What can we learn from this episode and was J&J’s rapid apology really the best response?

The video had actually been online for more than six weeks before a few vocal moms on Twitter began trashing it this past weekend. The ad suggests, with tongue in cheek, that new moms who bond with their babies by carrying them in slings and chest packs may be inadvertently giving themselves back pain. The message wasn’t that moms shouldn’t bond with their children but that they should be ready for the consequences.

Seems innocuous enough, but a few vocal mommy bloggers didn’t see it that way. They thought the ad was insulting to mothers and they Twittered their criticism, calling for a boycott of Motrin. Bloggers picked up on the controversy and posted more than 100 opinions about the ad, J&J’s reaction and the media frenzy that surrounded it. There were even parody ads making fun of the whole affair. Forrester’s Josh Bernoff has a good account of the controversy with links to background material.

A chastened J&J pulled the ad off its website and issued an apology on its corporate blog. The promotion “was meant to engender sympathy and appreciation for all that parents do for their kids, but did so through an attempt at humor that missed the mark and many moms found offensive,” wrote Kathy Widmer, Vice President of Marketing at McNeil Consumer Healthcare.

J&J probably had no choice but to withdraw the ad, since the criticism was threatening to swamp any benefit the company had hoped to receive. But you also have to wonder if the company hurt itself by buckling to political correctness due to pressure from a minority of critics. After all, the ad hadn’t seemed to offend anyone in particular during the first six weeks it was posted. It was only after a few outraged mommy bloggers began drawing attention to it that the criticism spiraled out of control. At that point, it was too late for J&J to explain its motives. Its critics had taken control of the conversation and anything the company did would look defensive and stubborn.

The incident quickly created a lot of soul-searching on both sides. A backlash against #motrinmoms developed, with some people criticizing the critics for practicing mob rule. Even one of the most vocal motrinmoms, Jessica Gottlieb, suggested that J&J overreacted in pulling down the ad. In fact most of the recent blogger activity has focused more on untangling what happened than debating whether J&J was right or wrong.

Here’s my take. J&J’s choice of language in the ad was arrogant and dismissive. The ad talked down to mothers and was begging for a backlash. However, that wasn’t necessarily a reason not to run it. J&J could have mitigated the criticism, or even turned it to its advantage, by using social media channels more effectively:

  • The company could have invited a select group of mommy bloggers to preview the campaign privately and offer feedback. Even if the company had elected to go ahead without making changes, it would have been able to argue that it had sought guidance from its target group. And if the moms had blessed the video, it would have been the ultimate defense for J&J.
  • The ad could have been presented in a humorous context on the Motrin site. A message like, “We know your babies aren’t a fashion accessory, but since this is International Baby-Wearing Week, we thought you’d appreciate this good-natured parody,” would have gone a long way toward heading off criticism.
  • J&J could have listened. When a blogger tracked down the head of corporate communications for J&J’s ad agency for a comment on the firestorm on Sunday afternoon, the woman professed to know nothing about the controversy. This is despite the fact that more than 2,000 Twitter messages had already been posted. Take note: the blogosphere doesn’t take weekends off.
  • The company could have jumped into the Twitterstream and engaged. It didn’t, preferring to post a rather brief statement on the blog and issue a press release. Kathy Widmer should have responded on the critics’ own turf. Her message was constructive, but a little too disconnected.
  • J&J could have been more profuse in its apologies. A big donation to Babywearing International would have been a start. Or it could have taken Jessica Gottlieb’s advice and distributed baby slings in maternity awards around the country. I’m not sure I agree that branding them with the Motrin logo would have been such a good idea.

In today’s networked world, there is no excuse for a corporation to be surprised by negative response to a controversial message. Social networks and the blogosphere offer a cheap and speedy way to anticipate criticism. Ironically, J&J is one of only two pharmaceutical companies to host a corporate blog (Glaxo’s alliConnect is the only other one I’m familiar with). This company gets new media more than most of its peers, which makes this online ambush particularly ironic.

Envisioning the Future of Journalism

The rapid implosion of the newspaper industry (advertising sales by U.S. newspapers fell a record 14% in the first quarter) has created a storm of debate in the media industry about what journalism will look like when information is free and everyone is a publisher. Here’s my take on the future of journalism.

The current debate centers upon assumptions that are based in a time when information was scarce and publishing was expensive. Traditionalists see the role of the journalist changing and mourn the loss of the role of reporter as a scribe of history with pen in hand and a deadline to meet.

In order to envision the future, you have to discard assumptions. Many of the practices and conventions of journalism today were actually invented to cope with an age when timely information was difficult and expensive to gather and deliver. Basically, we do what we do in large part because we’ve historically had to deal with plates and presses and trucks and news stands, all of which added time and cost. We don’t have to worry about that stuff any more. This should cause us to completely rethink our approach to the craft.

Here are the new realities:

  • Today, everyone is potentially a journalist, even if only for a few minutes;
  • Technology has made it possible for news to be reported in near real-time. People will come to expect this;
  • The cost of reporting and publishing news is now effectively zero;
  • Publishing is now a beginning, not an end. Once a “story” goes online, an update and refinement begins that may last for years or decades;
  • Any person or institution with an interest in a story has the capacity to publish facts, commentary and updates without seeking anyone’s permission. Responsible journalists need to incorporate that information into their work as appropriate.

All of these realities revise rules that have existed for thousands of years. This is why we need to rethink everything. Nearly everything has changed. But some things haven’t. People still want trusted sources of information. They want clear distinctions between fact and conjecture. Institutions need to be monitored. We need to know whom to trust. These needs won’t change if newspapers go away, so someone will need to fill the void.

Traditional Reporting is Obsolete

How does journalism need to evolve? Let’s start with the role of the reporter, because that function is likely to change the most.

The traditional function of reporter no longer makes sense. Every day, hundreds of thousands of people in cities around the world put their faith in the hands of a small number of people to gather and deliver the news. For the most part, these people aren’t experts in their topics they cover. In fact, reporters get shifted to new beats all the time. Reporters are resourceful, however. Most of them are pretty good at learning on the fly, figuring out what’s important and presenting that information clearly and succinctly. These are important skills and they’ll be needed for a long time to come.

There’s an awful lot of waste in reporting, though. Most of what a reporter learns in the process of working a story is discarded. Even more waste occurs when a story is cut for space. In the end, a task that requires hours of information-gathering may be boiled down to a couple of hundred words on a page. This was necessary in a time- and space-limited world, but it isn’t necessary any more.

The traditional limitations of print and broadcast media have required reporters to constantly make value judgments about what readers may know. An hour-long interview may result in a single sentence of published information or a three-second sound bite. This decision is entirely in the hands of one person. Reporters do a pretty good job of upholding the trust that readers put in them, but the rules are all different now. No one should be denied access to information just because there isn’t enough space. Space is now infinite.

New Journalism is Transparent

Today, nearly every relevant fact about a story may be captured and shared with anyone who’s interested. This service may be provided by the reporter, participants, observers and commentators. This information doesn’t have to be part of the story that the reporter submits for publication, but it should be available to those who want to know.

The reporter’s role expands to include not only making judgments about what information to include but also about where to link for more information. The “story” becomes an entry point to an archive of relevant content that may be of interest to different people. The ability to make these associations becomes a core journalism skill. The choice of where to link and what background to provide becomes part of editorial voice.

This new reality should be liberating for readers and journalists alike. No longer do journalists have to make difficult choices about what readers may know. No longer do readers have to regard media institutions with suspicion. Everyone is free to contribute, correct and weigh in on the story. Whatever the media entity chooses not to cite in its published account can be discovered through search. Journalists will be more accountable and readers will be more confident that they can trust the information they receive.

A lot of media veterans are uncomfortable with this idea, though. Their profession has long been shrouded in mystery. Editors are accountable only to a small group of higher-ups who share the same priorities as they do. A self-policing strategy rarely works. Very few readers understand what goes on in a newsroom, and this makes them suspicious. One of the reasons so few people trust the media is that so few people understand how the media works.

Bonds of Trust

We’re going to start opening that up. When readers and viewers have access to the source material for a reporter’s story, they feel more confident that the account is accurate, even if they never consult that background. Ironically, I believe we will see less accuracy in reporting in the future, but that’s a topic for a future newsletter.

The basic point is that the reporters will increasingly become aggregators and topic stewards. They will be obliged to present a variety of inputs and opinions because those opinion-makers will publish whether the reporter wants them to or not. Reporters will also come to write not only the first draft of history, but subsequent drafts as well. A story will evolve the same way that an entry in Wikipedia begins as a one-sentence stub and evolves into a comprehensive account representing multiple sources and points of view. In a few cases, the public will participate in this process. Mostly, they will observe, but they will have confidence that the process by which the truth is reported is transparent and accessible if they so wish.

These trends will create a new, enlightened and very different form of journalism. In the future, journalists won’t screen information from view but organize it for convenient access. We will no longer be denied information because space wasn’t available. We’ll learn to search for it in different ways. Journalists will be very important to this process. They just won’t make nearly as many decisions about what we can and cannot know

Lessons From the Campaign Trail

Businessweek’s Catherine Holahan writes this week about the big lead Barack Obama has built against John McCain in online visibility. While I’m not going to declare a preference for either candidate, I do think it’s worth noting the lessons marketers can learn from the Obama campaign’s success.

Political campaigns have long been about the 30-second television spot. Candidates staked their reputations and their success on a series of carefully crafted (and very expensive) image ads that ran in key markets. The high cost of this approach forced campaigns to bet everything on strategic media buys.

The Obama campaign has challenged this conventional wisdom. While the 30-second spot still has its place, it isn’t with the emerging population of young voters. When young people do watch TV, it’s rarely in prime time and they are usually fast-forwarding through the commercials. Perhaps one reason this group has become so politically disenfranchised in recent elections is that no one is reaching them on their terms.

The Obama campaign, however, has figured it out. Its innovation has been in understanding that mainstream media is no longer the bottleneck of communication. When candidates — or marketers — use all the media channels available, they can create significant impact without relying on traditional media or advertising at all.

The numbers cited by BusinessWeek are impressive. The Obama campaign decided at the outset to leverage every possible channel to reach its audience and to take every possible opportunity to drive home its message. The candidate is essentially broadcasting every waking minute. When Obama gives a speech, a staffer videotapes it and uploads it to YouTube. When the candidate is in the car, aides are delivering messages on Twitter. Between campaign stops, the candidate conducts chats on MySpace or distributes position papers on his own social network.

The cost of these activities is next to nothing and the young audience they reach has been almost completely ignored by other campaigns. Perhaps more importantly, the Obama strategy has centered on frequent repetition, which is a classic marketing best practice. Instead of waiting for the media gods to bestow attention upon the candidate, the candidate chooses to become the media.

What can marketers learn from this? For one thing, you are no longer a prisoner of the media. You can become the media. Secondly, if you choose a strategic combination of channels and then deliver messages consistently and frequently, you can get better results than by renting a half minute on TV once a week.

Finally, the Obama campaign has demonstrated the beauty of small markets. When you aggregate the candidate’s 43,000 Twitter followers, 60,000 YouTube subscribers, 1.1 million Facebook friends, 21,000 MySpace friends and 850,000 members of, you’re quickly over 2 million followers, each of whom has volunteered for that status. If you can convince each one of those people to spread the word to three others, well, you do the math.

Four years ago, the Howard Dean campaign tried to leverage the Internet to run a grass-roots campaign and fell short. There were several reasons for that, but lack of tools was one of them. Today, the problem is how to choose from the bounty of tools that are available. The Obama campaign demonstrates that word-of-mouth campaigns can open a whole new world of possibilities.

Web 2.0 Goes Corporate

In my 25 years in the information technology field, I’ve learned how to spot trends that are about to go mainstream. One of my most reliable methods is to attend industry conferences dedicated to some new idea or technology and to look at the name badges of the attendees. Once corporate IT managers start showing up in force, you can be certain that the idea has staying power.

This happened in the late 1980s, when corporate IT attendance at the Comdex conference suddenly surged, presaging corporate adoption of desktop computing. The pattern repeated itself in the 90s with the networking-oriented Interop conference, followed by a series of Internet events late in the decade that drew large IT audiences. The trade shows themselves rarely last for more than a few years, but the ideas they introduced become part of the corporate landscape. I hadn’t seen the trend play out for some time. Until this week.

Despite coming off a two-week travel binge, I skipped out on a pile of unanswered e-mail this week to attend TechWeb’s Enterprise 2.0 conference in Boston. This event was dedicated to uses of social media technology behind the corporate firewall, and I was curious to see who would show up. I was impressed to see who did.

The more than 400 people who packed the keynote hall on Wednesday represented a blue-chip list of the largest U.S. corporations. There were banks, airlines, consumer packaged goods and pharmaceutical companies. For more than two hours on Wednesday morning a full house listened intently as a series of speakers from Pfizer, Wachovia, Sony and the Central Intelligence Agency talked about what their organizations are doing with internal applications of social media.

Lots of Action

It turns out they’re doing plenty. Pete Fields, senior vice president of the e-commerce division at Wachovia, told how the financial firm is using an integrated social network to capture the knowledge of workers who will be retiring over the next few years. Simon Revell, manager of enterprise 2.0 technology development at Pfizer, showed off a promotion the pharmaceutical company is using to drive internal adoption of an enterprise wiki, podcasts, personal employee spaces and a social bookmarking service.

Ned Lerner, director of tools and technology at Sony Computer Entertainment, spoke of how wikis and open-source project management tools are replacing top-down hierarchy with team solidarity. All the speakers noted that Web 2.0 tools are a necessity to attract the young workers who will make up their future workforce.

The individual empowerment that social media technologies enable is even transforming corporate cultures. In one memorable exchange during a panel discussion, the CIA’s Sean Dennehy remarked that giving up control is the secret to empowering employees to do the right thing. “We need to fight against locked-down spaces,” he said. Moderator Andrew McAfee of the Harvard Business School couldn’t help noting the irony of that statement coming from a representative of the CIA. But in fact, that organization has been a pioneer in using bloggers to keep close to happenings in remote corners of the globe.

The morning concluded with a series of demonstrations from companies that are building corporate versions of popular social media tools. Among them are Veodia, Aegeon and GroupSwim. A year ago, these companies would have been showing off consumer services. Today, they’re demonstrating the same kind of cool technology you see on YouTube, but with enterprise scale and reliability. More coverage of the event is listed on the conference blog, which is accessible from the home page.

For those who remember the Internet conferences of the late 90s, this is nothing like that. Those early events were about putting up company websites and conducting commerce online. This new breed of conference is about of empowering individuals and decentralizing business decisions. It’s a much more exciting concept, because it transforms the relationship between people and institutions. It’s pretty exciting to hear conservative institutions like Wachovia speak of enabling direct discussions between employees and senior management. A few years ago, that idea was almost unthinkable. Hanging around Enterprise 2.0, I got the sense that it will soon be the way we all do business.

Social Media Tools Don’t Matter

Here’s a question I hear from marketers all the time: “We want to launch a corporate blog, but we don’t know how to go about it. Where should we start?”

My answer is that you should start a couple of steps back from where you are. Social media tools – whether they’re blogs, online communities, instructional videos or something else – don’t solve anything unless they address a specific business need. Don’t use social media for its own sake. Use it to accomplish an objective.

Unfortunately, the temptation is difficult to resist. Lots of businesses are experimenting with social media tools these days. It’s natural to think that they know something the rest of us don’t, but the reality is that most people are still kicking tires right now. There are some very successful companies like Apple Computer that are doing nothing with social media because they don’t have to. If the tools aren’t right for your culture or your business, don’t use them.

Whatever you do, don’t start the decision process with technology. The choice of a social media tool is no more relevant to the success of a campaign than is the choice of paint to the structural integrity of a house. Many tools are flexible enough to be used for multiple purposes and some strategic goals require you to leverage many tools in concert.

Stop and consider the problem or opportunity you’re trying to address. Here are a few possible business objectives, with the best tool options listed in parentheses.

  • Build customer community (blog, video, social network, private community, virtual world)
  • Counter negative publicity (blog, podcast, video, customer reviews)
  • Crisis management (blog, video, social network, virtual world)
  • Customer conversation (blog, social network, private community, virtual world)
  • Generate website traffic (blog, video, customer reviews)

Many more examples will be explored in my forthcoming book, Secrets of Social Media Marketing. It will be available this fall and you can pre-order it on Amazon right now. I also recommend reading Groundswell, the new book by Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff of Forrester Research. It has some excellent advice on how to take a disciplined approach to social media selection.

Note that blogs appear next to every bullet point listed above. That doesn’t mean blogs are a panacea. They are the easiest form of social media to implement, but far greater leverage may derive from more complex tools like customer communities. You should choose media based upon your budget, staff resources and commitment. It’s often best to start small and grow your social media footprint as you become more fluent with the tools. Blogs are a good starting point, but you may need stronger medicine after a while.

Keep in mind the importance of balancing between ease of use, simplicity of deployment and functionality. Many social media tools can be used for multiple purposes. You may be better off starting with a tool that you understand well rather than deploying a somewhat richer solution that carries a steep learning curve.

If you keep the tools secondary and work outward from the business goal, you’re far more likely to reap the rewards of your efforts.

An Online Video Strategy That Hits The Mark

I just returned from my second trip to Toronto in the last two months and was again impressed with the Web-savviness of the Canadian audience. Did you know, for example, that Canadians are the world’s most active users of Facebook? Or that Canadians spend, on average, two more hours per week viewing online video than their counterparts south of the border?

And don’t give me that “Of course! It’s cold up there!” cliché. Canadian homes are wired and its businesses are doing some very innovative things to reach those web-savvy customers.

Take Future Shop. Canada’s largest consumer electronics retailer is using online community not only to learn more about its customers, but to help sell products and support customers. It has built an online advisory and customer support service that is like nothing I’ve ever seen.

“Ask an Expert” is formulated on a high-touch model in which sales associates are taught to be valued customer advisers. The company has come up with a strategy to duplicate that real-world experience online. The screen shot shows “Aaron,” one of the video avatars who guides customers.

“We’re trying to blur the lines between the offline and online experience,” says Robert Pearson, Future Shop’s director of e-commerce. “Our goal is to become the largest technology community in Canada.”

Future Shop is well on its way to that objective. In less than a year, the site has signed up 50,000 members, which would be equivalent to about 450,000 members in the much larger U.S. market. But the community isn’t just a discussion forum. Future Shop co-developed a ranking system with Lithium that lets customers provide feedback on each other and on the quality of information offered up by sales associates. Customer contributors can earn discounts and status in the community. The most helpful sales associates can earn cash.

Next up: Facebook-like functionality that gives contributors their own personal spaces and ties sales associate profiles to store locations. Success is measured by a survey of customer affinity with the brand. It’s still too early to draw measurable conclusions, but all the trends are pointing in the right direction. “We’re getting about 250,000 visitors a day out of a population of 33 million,” Pearson says. “That’s many more than come into a store. We actually see people walking in with printouts and asking for specific experts they’ve met online.”

Future Shop isn’t using video to be cool. It’s using video to reinforce an in-store experience that is essential to its business strategy. It has also bound its customers to the company in a way that is rewarding for both parties. The company is now owned by Best Buy, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see a similar capability showing up on a retail website near you.

Bookmarking Enhances Personal Productivity

I wrote last week about the power of social bookmarking sites to promote interesting Web content and to potentially drive a lot of traffic. But they’re also anexcellent personal productivity tool. This week I’ll describe a couple of tricks that I use to shave hours each month off the process of organizing information and publishing it on blogs and websites. The publishing features are some of the least understood and most useful services that bookmarking sites offer.

There are more than 50 social bookmarking sites on the Internet, including such popular brands as Feed Me Links, Linkroll, Ma.gnolia and Clipmarks. A good list is here. Most share a common set of features: You can quickly save and annotate Web pages, share them with others and subscribe to new entries. Most offer some added value on top of those basic functions, such as page previews, e-mail and ratings. All the services that I’ve found are free.

I use two sites that each excel at different things. For basic bookmarking and sharing, has the largest audience and the best browser integration. I can bookmark any page to by hitting a control key combination, entering tags (the autocomplete feature is a nice touch here) and then hitting enter. There are no mouse movements required (I’m a keyboard junkie) and the process is fast and simple.

What I don’t like about is its 255-character limit on annotations. That’s because I like to attach comments about the articles I read and upload them to my blog. There isn’t much you can say in 255 characters. Diigo plugs that gap. It’s a bit clumsier to use, but I can annotate to my heart’s content. Any annotations that I choose to make public are shared with other Diigo users who visit that page. I can also highlight passages and attach sticky notes to sections of the page that others can see.

The real value that I get out of both of these tools, though, is in publishing. I maintain three blogs and two Web sites, so I’m posting new material all the time. Web-based content management systems are slow and awkward to use, so I like to prepare and pre-format as much content as possible before logging on to the server. has a delightful feature called “link rolls” that enable you to automatically group bookmarks according to tags that you specify and feed them into a Web page. All you need to do is plug a little piece of JavaScript code into your website. Every time you add a bookmark, it’s dynamically displayed on the Web page.

For example, on my site’s speaking page, the list of recent appearances is nothing more than a bookmark list from So are the “Latest News” and “Recent Articles” sections in the two sidebars. All I have to do to update those lists is to add or modify my tags. My site simply grabs the latest feed and displays those entries.

Diigo has cool tools for posting to a blog. When I read something interesting online, I bookmark it with Diigo and write my description and commentary in the annotation box. I attach the appropriate tags and save. When I’m ready to post to my blog, I simply check the boxes next to the relevant bookmarks and Diigo automatically produces a page consisting of every bookmark I’ve selected, along with my annotations. I can edit the entries in the site’s simple editor and then copy and paste the whole thing into my content management system. Here’s an example of what the final output looks like.

Both and Diigo also offer you the option to tell them to post certain bookmarks and annotations automatically to your blog on a daily schedule. There’s no logging in to your content management system and the whole process is transparent. You can read instructions on how to do this on Diigo’s tools page or’ settings page. Here’s an example of what the finished product looks like.

I personally think does a better job of auto-posting, but I still can’t get around that 255-character limit. Given a choice between writing more briefly or settling for a little less than the optimum format, I’ll stick with Diigo.

Don’t Let Tools Distract You

I was presenting a social media seminar to a public-relations agency recently when the talk turned to uses of blogs. The people in the room were excitedabout blogging’s potential and were eager to apply the technology to new tasks.

I cautioned them that they were asking the wrong question. The issue isn’t what tool to use, but what problem to solve. Tool selection is secondary.

There’s nothing unusual about their attitude. People often start by choosing tools and work backwards to solve problems. Maybe management has just issued an order to start blogging, or the tool is seen as a tactic to improve search performance or it just seems like the thing to do.

But that’s like starting with a hammer and then figuring out what to build with it. If your objective is to make a house, then you’re off to a pretty good start. But if you want to craft a pearl necklace, you’ve got the wrong tool for the job.

I recently consulted with a client who wanted to build a social network for a defined customer group. It was an ambitious idea, but as we talked through it, we both realized that the process of getting it through internal and regulatory approvals could take a year or more. We finally settled on a more modest idea: Launch a relevant blog, try to build customer interest quickly and then take the results to management in hopes of getting fast-track approval for the social network.

Choose tools wisely
The building blocks of social media are simply tools and they’re not well-suited for every task. For example, if your objective is to alert visitors to a new category of products and provide detailed information on the specifics, a catalog page would be more effective than any interactive tool.

But it’s human nature for people to use the technologies they understand and figure out the application after the fact. Unfortunately, that can waste a lot of time and effort. E-mail is terrible for communicating between groups of more than about five recipients, yet people routinely organize massive projects with dozens of participants by e-mail. Even if the tool is poorly suited for the task, they reason, at least people know how to use it.

A better approach is to define business objectives and then search for tools that support them. For customer feedback, for example, blogs and social networks are a good choice. However, podcasts and video won’t do the trick. So if your objective is to improve customer relations, a podcast may not be a good place to start.

Technology vendors encourage the tool focus. Many of those firms are run by engineers who love to create cool new stuff. They’d much rather talk about features and functions than how to solve business problems. You need to block that tactic. Any vendor that won’t give you references to customers who are solving problems that are similar to yours is blowing smoke.

Social media tools are cool, but they’re always irrelevant if they don’t solve problems. Don’t let technology distract you.