Twitter as paperboy: The role of distribution in online publishing

Jason Preston, VP of strategy for Parnassus Group and instigator at several Seattle online publishing startups, posted some interesting observations about the need for distribution in online publishing.

Jason Preston, VP of strategy for Parnassus Group and instigator at several Seattle online publishing startups, posted some interesting observations today about the need for distribution in online publishing.

A blog platform like WordPress, or a proprietary website, is a tool for publishing; Twitter is a tool for distribution. Using Twitter for distribution takes the published message a lot further.

This is a useful paradigm, but its limits got me thinking about the powerful role of subscription in the online world. You can subscribe to have Twitter deliver information from a blog just as you once had a paperboy deliver The Seattle Post-Intelligencer — but now you can also go directly to the publisher (blog) and subscribe by email (or newsreader), eliminating the middleman.

Whether I notice something as the teaser for it scrolls by me in the Twitter stream is pretty haphazard. However, when a post from a blog I’ve subscribed to via email appears in my inbox, I’m likely to read much of it.

Increasingly, I’m subscribing directly to the publisher and bypassing Twitter altogether.

I’ve noticed that groups like XYDO and paper.li have figured out the value of email subscriptions and allow you to subscribe to read a newsletter that displays teasers to your online friends’ favorite links. The XYDO and paper.li algorithms don’t always get it right, but, even so, I’m finding myself paying a lot more attention to the content in those emails than to tweets.

2 keys to great content strategy

The first key to great content strategy is knowing the organization, its audience, and the available tools. The second key is using that information to build realistic plans and options.

This is based on my contribution to a recent LinkedIn discussion (started by Boston web designer Craig Huffstetler) about what a content strategist should do.

1. A content strategist is responsible for knowing 4 things:

  • The communications needs and expectations of the target audiences
  • The strengths and weaknesses of the available communications tools
  • The resources (time, money and expertise) the client organization has to use the tools
  • The messages the organization wants to communicate

2. Based on that information, the content strategist builds realistic communications strategies and options.

When creating those options, it is important to:

  • Resist the lure of the tools. I see a lot of content strategists insisting that organizations use the hottest social media tools and channels — even when the organization’s audience has zero interest in receiving information through those channels.
  • Build on the existing strengths. I keep encountering organizations that have committed to content plans that, in order to succeed, would require 20 times the amount of time, money or expertise available carry them out. The plans fail — and the tools get blamed (“Facebook just doesn’t work for us!”).

The hallmarks of a great content strategist are a firm grip on reality and the ability to help the client face that same reality.

When the results come in, your client will thank you.

Twitter? (yawn) Don’t bother.

Advertising? Twitter has jumped the shark and is diving for the bottom with the fail whale hot on its tail.

My clients are, of course, anxious to get the most mileage out of their blogs by teasing their posts on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

By looking at statistical analyses of the blogs, we can see which of those teases are actually attracting readers. It’ll be no news to anyone that in most cases, the Facebook referrals are on the way up. Referrals from Google searches remain strong, and LinkedIn referrals are stable. But Twitter?

Young businesswoman sitting at desk yawning at Twitter
Are we tired of Twitter? (Photo: iStock)

Hello? Hello? Is anyone using Twitter any more?

I realized with a shock that I’d stopped using Twitter myself. I spend more time scanning Xydo.com (“social news evolved”) and paper.li newsletters (sent to me by email) and visiting Facebook (for community and social information) and LinkedIn (for hardcore professional networking news).

What’s going on with Twitter?

News that in two months Twitter will be injecting un-removable advertising posts into my Twitter stream was the signal that, for my purposes, Twitter has jumped the shark and is diving for the bottom with the fail whale hot on its tail. Enough users already are degrading Twitter with 40 posts a day of meaningless marketing babble that managing a Twitter stream has become a royal pain; stuffing advertising into the mix will soon raise stream-quality levels to unacceptable.

Nanny EdgeRank decides who you get to play with on Facebook

How EdgeRank controls the updates we do (and don’t) see on Facebook.

What did I tell you about going over to Susie's Wall? (iStock photo)

I’m willing to put up with a fair amount of behind-the-scenes nannying by a website in return for a clean, easy-to-use interface. Thus my reluctant acceptance of the way Facebook mysteriously feeds me way too much info from Kevin and prevents me from seeing the updates posted by Eloise.

Turns out the real nanny deciding which friends I should play with is something called EdgeRank, which manages this convoluted process for Facebook.

In this excellent article on lockergnome.com, Kelly Clay explains the EdgeRank system in detail.

Stop! Don’t go near social media without a strategy

Develop a social media strategy first, and you’ll save time and money on implementation.

I would no more send a client out to “do” social media without a comprehensive plan and strategy than I would send a child out in a snowstorm without a warm coat, or put my car on the freeway without gas.

Every time I see a seminar on social media “tips and tricks” for small businesses, small-to-midsize nonprofits, or any other organization without a full-time marketing communications person on staff, I cringe.

Those of you who tell me how you wasted time Twittering and wasted money buying Google ads? Your experience does not reflect badly on either of those tools. It means that you were using tools that didn’t match the problem you wanted to address. It’s like racing into the bathroom brandishing a hammer instead of a plunger when the toilet is overflowing. Even messier.

Yes, I know your budget and your time are limited. But instead of paying $100 for a two-hour tips and tricks seminar, read a good book about crafting a social media strategy*. Then budget $300 or more to have a good social media consultant (here’s how you know if you’ve found a good one) come in to your organization and talk with your team about what you’re doing, what your audience, your peers, and your competition are doing, and what your marketing communications budget might allow you to do in the future. If possible, find a social media consultant who’s familiar with your field.

Facebook? Twitter? Blogging? No hurry. Once you’ve got a strategy in place, you’ll be able to figure out what social media tools you want to carry around in your toolbox and which ones are better left in the basement.

* Recommended books on social media strategy:

The Social Media Bible

Social Media Marketing: An Hour A Day

The Zen of Social Media Marketing

The Serial Kveller and 11 other Facebook stereotypes

Isn’t it odd how many people (thought not, of course, us!) default into one of the 12 Facebook stereotypes?

According to the latest statistics, more than 500 million people use Facebook. Half of them log on in any given day, and the average person has 130 Facebook friends.

I use Facebook, and chances are most of you do, too. When I log in and check the posts on my Wall, I find myself musing: All these people, but isn’t it odd how many of them (though not, of course, any of us!) default into one of the 12 Facebook stereotypes? Surely you know…

The News Anchor
Everything this woman posts is genuine news to you, and much of it’s pretty interesting. But you start to wonder, does she do anything other than surf the net and post links to Facebook?

Mr. Cryptic
His one-phrase posts sound like intriguing snippets overheard on the sidewalk. In person, Mr. Cryptic makes sense, but on Facebook you have absolutely no idea what he’s talking about. And after a while, you start wondering if he does.

The Relentless Advertiser
Most of her pitches (er, posts) are links to her latest blog post or to events being put on by one of the 200 or more organizations she belongs to.

The Entertainer
Delightful, but dangerous. You find yourself clicking right to his Profile to make sure you haven’t missed any bon mots or clever anecdotes in the past 24 hours. He’s the one they’re referring to when they call Facebook a time suck.

The Facebitch
Everyday she posts a new tale of woe about what’s inconveniencing her. Everyone is to blame except, of course, you-know-who.

The Proselytizer
His short, sanctimonious posts are always paired with a link to a politically correct or religiously correct web page. This is the friendship for which Facebook designed its little-known “Hide” feature. Just click the little X at the upper right of one of his posts and select “Hide all by [Name].” Then you can go back to enjoying your sinful ways without guilt — or damage to the friendship.

The Status-Conscious Status Updater
His concise snippets let you know where he ate, where he works out, and where he’s jetting to on what airline. You couldn’t afford any of it if you made three times your current salary. Sigh.

The Serial Kveller
The Kveller’s status updates are about what fascinating things someone else is doing, or what recognition someone else has just received. News, information, and good vibes — is this generous soul for real? Click on the Kveller’s Profile to find out if he or she is still single and available! Or even real.

The Facebook Handbiter
His constant complaints are about big government, big technology, big business, and, of course, the evils of Facebook itself. He keeps threatening to get even with Facebook by closing his account. But somehow that never happens.

The Stressed Puppy
He posts on Facebook at 11 p.m. and on weekends, and it’s always about how he’s still at the office. Yawn.

The Fitness Gods
They’re at the gym while you’re sneaking Oreos and watching “Nurse Jackie.”

The Facebook Foodies
Facebook Foodies come in two flavors: DIY chefs versed in Larousse Gastronome and restaurant reviewers quoting the Gault-Millau guide, in French. They both carry smartphones with 5 megapixel cameras. Watch out! If it’s on a plate, they’ll shoot it.

Of course the rich conversation on Facebook can’t really be reduced to 12 stereotypes. I’m sure they’re several more I missed. Please feel free to add them in the comments.

Social Media for PR (a presentation)

You don’t necessarily have to “do” social media — it pretty much goes ahead and does you. The question is how much you want to try to shape what it’s doing.

For those of you who weren’t at the presentation at the University of Washington last night, a little explanation: Every year I give a short talk to a PR class at the university about social media as it’s used in the PR field. As you might expect, this talk changes rapidly as trends in social media change (Remember when Twitter was the hot, new thing?). This year I nearly entitled it “Social Media for Facebook.”

I promised the class that I’d post the slides from the talk, so here’s the link to the slide presentation in full-size PDF form.

This being a “new-style” presentation, the slides are meant to be used in conjunction with a talk that is pretty much counterpoint: questions for the audience, stories, and case studies. Molly Haas, head of PR for Northwest Folklife, joined me this year and she walked through the slides of Northwest Folklife’s social media presence (2010 contrasted with  2011), talking about what social media had been crafted by her team and what had “just happened.”

This slide deck is illustrated with examples of Northwest Folklife’s social media presence, but I’ve done customized decks for several of my clients and for prospective clients interested in “getting into” social media. As the presentation points out, you don’t necessarily have to “do” social media — it pretty much goes ahead and does you. The question is how much you want to try to shape what it’s doing.

Are you ready to have a great website?

You won’t get a great website until your company is ready for website greatness.

It’s easy to do a great website for a company or organization. Here’s how:

Have a homepage with these 6 attributes:

  1. Your organization’s name, clearly identifiable
  2. A picture of one of your typical products or services with a call-to-action tagline or a benefits statement.
  3. Simple, clearly labeled top or side navigation with one- or two-word links to key pages on the site — and a link that gets you back to the homepage from anywhere on the site.
  4. Icon links to your  related social media pages or channels (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc.)
  5. All the necessary “small print” links at the bottom of the page (Privacy Policy, Site Map, Contact Us, etc.)
  6. Brevity. On a multi-page website (as opposed to a blog), aim for fewer than 100 words on the homepage (about 75 is ideal) and no paragraphs at all. Think of the homepage as a lobby, and your goal is to get the customer into a showroom, a conference room, or someone’s office.

Have your home page navigation link clearly to:

  1. A “catalog” or products page that lists all of your products and services (or categories of products and services) with a meaningful, iconic photo for each (or each category).
  2. A “buy now” page where people can go to buy/order your products, find a dealer or showroom, or contact you immediately by phone to inquire about services.
  3. A “story” page where you tell your story, with professional, candid photos of two or three of your key people (founders, staff, or clients, etc.). You can link from there to staff, board, or other key-people lists.

You might also have links to:

  • Your blog or news page
  • A page for business partners
  • A page for support or discussion boards, if appropriate.

Who’s doing it right?

Here’s what a great website looks like: Feel free to give behringer.com a spin. It not only looks great, it works, right down to finding me a Behringer distributor in my neighborhood. (And, wouldn’t you know, it’s a electronics shop owned by a friend of mine.)

I particularly liked their blog. Because it focuses exclusively on the recording artists who use their products, it isn’t given the deadly name “Blog” in the navigation — it’s called “Artists.” Think about it: Are people visiting their site interested in artists or a “blog?”

Not as easy as it looks

OK, if it’s this easy, why don’t more companies do it?

Here where we get to the sad part of the story. Watch closely, and cringe as I review the FHE (frequently heard excuses):

1. Your organization’s name, clearly identifiable

  • “We paid thousands for this incredibly clever logo that turns the letters of our name into people jumping up and down. You mean, you can’t see that they spell out “McDonald Software?”
  • “We just use the acronym MSIIBG. Everyone knows that MSIIBG means ‘McDonald Software International, Inc. — Bergstrom Group.’ Don’t they?”
  • “The sales director wants the tagline for the end-of-year campaign up at the top of the page and there wasn’t room for that and the company name.”
  • “Oh, everyone knows us by our logo; we don’t need to spell out the name.”
  • “We’re going through rebranding and might change the company name, so we don’t want to feature it until we’re sure.”

2. A clearly identifiable picture of one of your products or services with a call-to-action tagline or a benefits statement that mentions your product or service.

  • “We don’t use a product photo because we keep updating our product, and don’t want to pay the web designer to update the page. So we use this nice photo of our headquarters at the office park.”
  • “We can’t afford professional photography.”
  • “What do you mean, hundreds of other organizations are using the tagline “Software Solutions”?
  • “No, we don’t sell software, we help small businesses configure it. Isn’t that clear from the pile of software boxes in our homepage picture?”

3. Simple, clearly labeled top or side navigation with one- or two-word links in “customer language” to key pages on the site — and a link that gets you back to the homepage from anywhere on the site.

  • “But we can’t call it ‘Our Story!’ We call it our ‘Organizational Mission and Vision Directive,’ and we want the link to be consistent.”
  • “We have 24 links because want people to be able to reach everything on the site directly from the front page.”
  • “Yes, I know all those pull-down menus with multiple hierarchies are a little difficult to use, but we had to get everything up there. What do you mean, the hierarchical menus break on ‘other browsers’? I thought everybody used Internet Explorer.”
  • “Oh, you can just click on the logo to get back to the home page.”

4. Icon links to your related social media pages or channels (Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, etc.)

  • “Oh, we don’t believe in that social media stuff.”
  • “Oh, we don’t have time for that social media stuff.”
  • “Actually, we don’t know how to use all that social media stuff.”
  • “I doubt our customers use Facebook/Twitter/YouTube.”

5. All the necessary “small print” links at the bottom of the page (Privacy Policy, Site Map, Contact Us, etc.)

  • “We put them up in the top navigation. I guess that’s why it’s so crowded.”
  • “Oh, nobody needs a Site Map anymore.”

6. Brevity. On a multi-page website (as opposed to a blog), aim for fewer than 100 words on the homepage (about 75 is ideal) and no paragraphs at all. Think of the homepage as a lobby, and your goal is to get the customer into a showroom, a conference room, or someone’s office.

  • “If we don’t put it on the homepage, nobody will read it.”
  • “People can just scroll down two or three screens.”
  • “We didn’t want to add more pages to the website, so we put it on the homepage.”
  • “I guess four different embedded videos in four different formats probably is too much.”
  • “HR, Marketing, Sales, and the Board Office all insisted that their stuff go on the homepage.”
  • “We had new stuff to put up, but no one would authorize us to take the stuff that was already up there off the site.”

Have your home page navigation link clearly to:

1. A “catalog” or products page that lists all of your products and services (or categories of products and services) with a meaningful, iconic photo for each (or each category).

  • “We don’t have/can’t afford good photos.”
  • “Our different in-house groups can’t agree on which categories should be featured, or in what order.”
  • “Oh, we don’t have time to keep something like that updated. People should just email us and ask us what we have.”
  • “Our services can’t be illustrated by photos.”
  • “Our marketing team insisted on a separate section of the website for each product/service, all linked from the top-level navigation.”

2. A “buy” page where people can go to buy/order your products, find a dealer or store, or contact you immediately by phone to inquire about services.

  • “Oh, they can just fill out this web form and someone from our sales team will get back to them…in a week or so.”
  • “If people want to contact us they can click on the “Contact Us” link and fill out the web form.”
  • “We really don’t want people calling us.”
  • “That would mean we’d have to keep our distributor list up to date, wouldn’t it? We don’t have time.”

3. A “story” page where you tell your story, with professional, candid photos of your key people (founders, staff, or clients, etc.)

  • “I don’t think we want to feature one or two people at the exclusion of others. We have 200 people, and we’re a team!”
  • “We have our Mission and Vision Statement on the website, so that tells people what we do.”
  • “I think we have a studio picture of the Executive Director around here…it’s 8 years old, though. He doesn’t like having his picture taken.”
  • “The founder doesn’t usually talk about how he was inspired to form the company after he installed Internet technology for two provincial governments in the aftermath of the tsunami in Southeast Asia. Gee, do you really think our customers would be interested in that?”

You get the idea. Many organizations have resource and communications issues that are barriers to effective website communication (and, often, barriers to business success — but that’s a different blog post). You can bring in top-level designers and still not get a great website if a company isn’t ready for website greatness.

NOTE: The tsunami story (details slightly tweaked to protect confidentiality) has to be my favorite FHE ever. A software company had asked my PR team to make their website more interesting to print and broadcast media reporters so they could get media coverage (including interviews with the founder) during the roll out of a new product. But the founder (an extremely handsome, outdoorsy-type dude) didn’t want to talk about anything except the relatively technical product and didn’t want a photo of himself on the website.



Is your website ready for Facebook?

Find out why many organizations that crave Facebook publicity aren’t yet putting their best face forward.

Isn’t it great that your customers and clients on Facebook can add a link, complete with images, that people can use to get to your website?

In theory, yes. But in reality, it turns out that many organizations that crave Facebook publicity aren’t yet putting their best face forward.

When well-meaning Facebook members write a nice note and link to your website’s URL, they may discover that the array of your images they can use to illustrate the Facebook post are just plain weird. Instead of a photo of your logo, or the image that accompanied your latest blog post, they get a choice of irrelevant logos of your partner agencies, or third party ads, from ‘way down at the bottom of your home page.

If you test this website, you'll see this image.

It’s easy to test your website’s Facebook readiness. Give it a try.

Fixing the problem may involve a little experimentation — particularly because Facebook doesn’t immediately register changes you make to your page. But it’s worth putting in some work on the process — if you want to get the most mileage out of Facebook publicity.

Twitter calms down

Shih Wei points to this SFGate article by Howard Rheingold as the best “why use Twitter” piece she’s seen. What I like about it is that it’s something you could send to a non-Twitter user, even someone completely uninterested in social media, and they’d “get” why many people like Twitter.

As Howard points out at the beginning of the article, Twitter is settling in to the online landscape, and there’s a shakeout happening. The trend-happy types are decamping for the next hot thing, and a core Twitter community is emerging.

I’d been drifting away from Twitter in the past couple of months, using Linkin for professional networking and FaceBook for personal networking. It didn’t help that my Twitter account got hacked last month and I had to grit my teeth and apologize to hundreds of people for the inconvenience spam messages from my hacked account had caused them (it was the first time in more than 15 years online that I’d  been hacked). But the advent of a lists feature in the Twitter interface has made things more manageable and encouraged me to give Twitter another try.

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