Web Strategy

Who owns my website, anyway?

Katie Stocking is the owner of Happy Medium LLC.

When you buy something from a vendor or company it’s yours automatically, right? Unfortunately, when it comes to a website, the answer isn’t always black and white. This is why it is very important at the beginning of your website design and development process for you and the company you’re working with to have this conversation.

Under U.S. copyright law, the creator of a work automatically holds the exclusive copyright to it. Therefore, the only way that copyright may be transferred to a customer is in a signed contract.

There are many pieces involved in a website both on the design and development side. You should take the website copy and photography into consideration as well. When you hire someone (an advertising agency, web firm etc…) to build your new website, first consider what you would like to be able to do with the site after it is launched. If you’re looking for a long-term partner and feel confident with the company you hired (hopefully!) you might feel very comfortable not having any administrator rights (full control) over your website. Generally speaking though, even if you feel comfortable with the company you hired, it is best to at least have the option to have full access to your site. You always want to protect yourself and you never know when you might want to work with someone else, or possibly have someone in-house that is able to make updates to not only copy and photos, but also the actual code or content management system of the site.

As an example, at the end of all of our website projects at Happy Medium, our clients have full rights to their website and own it outright. We often continue to work with them on periodic updates, but if they wanted to do those updates on their own they could. It’s their website. This is outlined in the language of our contract, and communicated at the beginning of relationships with new clients. Don’t be afraid to ask this question because it’s very important!

Often we’ll try to help a client with a project or an update to their website and they find out they actually don’t even have full access to their site. Then, their only option is to sometimes pay additional fees to be granted the access, or worse, it’s just not possible. They are stuck with the option to either keep the same, stagnant site (which is never good), or to pay to start over again. Consider your website an asset to your company like all others. Confirm your ownership and ask questions until you fully understand. Then, get it in writing. Good luck! 

Questions? Tweet me at @klstocking


Does anyone know my hosting information?

Katie Stocking is the owner of Happy Medium LLC.

Sometimes clients can be pretty predictable – most of them, actually. At Happy Medium, when we begin a website project for a client, one of the first pieces of information we ask for is their current hosting information (site, logins etc…) Pretty much every time, the answer from the client is “can I get back to you?” Aka… I have no idea and I don’t honestly even know where to begin to find out. It’s really simple to not know actually. To be honest, I couldn’t tell you much about the itsahappymedium.com site hosting information either. What I can tell you, though, is where our password sheet is, and I know the information is on there.

It is really important to keep your website login and your hosting information in a place where it is easily accessible for a lot of reasons. Hopefully you’re using that website login (or someone is) to log into your site often and keep it up to date. (yes, checking your site weekly is important!)

If you own a company, or are in any way responsible for your company's website, I would suggest filling out this form today and posting it somewhere visible to anyone who might need it. Otherwise, it will be the year 2017, you’ll be ready for a new website and you’ll be wondering where the heck that email from 2014 from Hostgator is with your hosting login information. When you realize you don’t have it, you’ll get to spend quite a bit of time on the phone with someone you don’t know trying to get to the bottom of this mess. Or, you could just print and fill this out, post it and get to go to a happy hour instead when the time comes.

Good luck! 

-- @interactivekate

How to treat your website like a client

Katie Stocking is the owner of Happy Medium LLC.

Your website is generally the first impression potential clients, employees, or prospects have of your company. It’s obvious the first impression is incredibly important so why don’t more people take time to make sure their website is the exact impression they want to give?

One way to ensure you are prioritizing, is to treat your website as if it was a client. You treat your clients with the highest regard right? So why not your website with these tips:

1)   Check in on it – Generally speaking, if you go a while without hearing from or reaching out to a client, the relationship isn’t going to go anywhere or do much for either party. The same goes for your website. If you set it and forget it, what positive actions can you expect from it? Make sure you are checking your website. Set it as your default homepage in your browser so that it opens up whenever you open your web browser. It’s a very simple way to be constantly checking what is there (and if it’s working!)

2)   Update it – It’s of course important in your relationship with clients to not only check in on them and catch up – you also want to make sure to update them consistently of what is happening with the job they have hired you to do. This is vital with your website content, perhaps one of the most important tasks. I just opened a website today that featured their “holiday specials” smack dab in the middle of their homepage. The holidays were weeks ago and it looks just plain ridiculous to be still promoting them. It seems (to me as a consumer) the business is not organized enough to present itself properly – so how can they be organized enough with the service or product I’m considering purchasing from them? Don’t make people wonder what is (or isn’t) going on behind the scenes at your business. (Remember, first impressions are everything!)

3)   Invest in it – Clients like to be invested in. It commits them to you because they aren’t only spending money with you; you are spending money to be better for them. It becomes a partnership. My company, Happy Medium, builds websites. We always work with clients the best we can to meet their budget and website goals. There’s an old saying that goes “you get what you pay for,” which could not be truer for websites. You should definitely invest in your website. I always tell clients to try and figure out how much/many of their products they would need to sell to pay themselves back for any investment in their website updates. Generally it’s not much, if you have a good website that is the most current technology; you’re going to get leads because of it. Spend the money to make sure it’s right. If you get multiple proposals and a company is significantly under others, find out why. More than likely they are developing old technologies, which won’t do you any good.

4)   Realize its value – Like your clients, (hopefully) your website, although ideally ever-evolving, is with you for a really long time. If you completely ignore the value and potential it has to your business, you are going to miss out on a lot of business. Just look at your own life and how you do business. More than likely for a large amount of your purchases you refer to the Internet, either to find an address, research a product, or find who carries a product. If you’re looking online, so are other consumers. The value of your website is tremendous. Treat it that way.

Action item: Visit your website right now and find something that needs to be updated. Do it – then tweet me because I want to see! Let me know if you have any questions! @interactivekate


Your 2014-friendly website

Katie Stocking is the owner of Happy Medium LLC.

For the 2013 holiday season, it was estimated that 33 percent of sales would be through online shopping. Post holidays it’s estimated a total of 40 percent of retail sales were made online (source: The Seattle Times). That is a 33 percent increase from 2012! If you are a retail business you can absolutely no longer ignore online sales if you want to stay relevant (or in business). 

This amount of online purchasing statistic should also be interesting even if your business is not retail or business to consumer. Hands down, if you take nothing else from it, realize people are looking more towards the online world for everything it has to offer. Convenience, price shopping, and reviews – does your website meet these standards? It’s the new year, make sure you don’t miss out on business in 2014.

Convenience – what is the status of your website? If you visit the site from your desktop – how does it look? Do the graphics look up to date, is the content up to date? If there are pixelated images and out-of-date content, your company is more than likely going to be judged in the same way. Your website is your storefront, keep it in shape. Once you view the site on a desktop – view it on a smart phone, a tablet, and any other devices you have. If the site doesn’t look nice or doesn’t stay user friendly on all platforms, it’s time for an upgrade. Currently 16% of all web traffic is through a mobile device (source: Mashable).  That number has continually doubled year to year; don’t miss out.

Price Shopping – This one is simple. we as consumers obviously want to pay the least amount possible for the products we want. Online shopping makes this possible. If your business doesn’t sell products online – would you consider price matching? Personally, I would shop locally if the local shop would price match (in the same way most retail giants do), what I found online. If you offer that service, the only place to tell people who are shopping online about it is on your website. Make sure your website is optimized to show up in consumer searches.

Reviews – One word: Amazon – the entire reason I personally started shopping on Amazon is because of the reviews. I don’t have to buy things and try them out myself and possibly mess with returning them. I can find the product on Amazon, read the thousands of reviews on it and then make a much more educated purchasing decision. In the same way whether you are retail or business to business - however I am doing business with you – I am more than likely going to search you online first. Make sure your reviews online are a true reflection of you. The best place to start is on your website, where you have full control.

Don’t wait until the end of this year to get your online storefront – your website – shining bright. Do it now – and you’ll be glad you did when the numbers come in next year that over half of all shopping is done online! 

Tweet me your thoughts @interactivekate!


Email marketing tips for your business

Katie Stocking is the owner of Happy Medium LLC.

Every business needs a way to communicate with its customers. This is where traditional advertising – television ads, radio ads, newspaper ads, and billboards – comes in. Of course, there’s digital advertising, too – Google Adwords, display ads, video pre-roll ads, and others.

But what about email marketing? Everyone and their uncle has used email before, and people are quite used to the notion of hearing from businesses through that medium.

However, email is complicated. It’s not like a billboard ad where it’s there no matter what, and people who choose to see it will see it. Email has to jump through many digital gates before it arrives in your customer’s inbox. And once it gets there, it can be tricky to make the content look and act like you had intended.

Here are a few tips to get you started in the right direction:

Avoid the Spam Folder

First of all, you want to keep your subscriber list clean. This means making sure your customers are opting in to your email list (you didn’t add them to it without their permission) and that you send them email frequently enough that they remember they meant to sign up in the first place.

Email marketing company Mailchimp has a few best practices for lists.

Update it as often as you can. Keep your list clean, if you haven’t sent an email to this list in a few months, there’s a good chance your subscribers might forget they’re on the list or why they’re on the list. That could lead to a few unfortunate “unsubscribe” or “mark as spam” actions.

Treat It Like Any Other Form of Communication

You’ll often hear email marketing referred to as “e-blasts”. Try to avoid that term. If your company refers to communication with your customers as a “blast,” then you’ll likely start treating it like that. Who likes to be blasted in the face with a bunch of salesy info? Not a single person.

Email is one of the most personal forms of digital communication we have, so make it so. Deliver readable, worthwhile content to your subscribers in the form of an email or digital newsletter. Make it quick – nobody likes their time wasted – and make it feel personal.

Treating email marketing like a digital ad space isn’t what successful email marketing is about.

Think About Mobile

At a recent luncheon, AMA Iowa tweeted an interesting fact from a talk given by Gina LaMar-Nykerk:

“80.3% of consumers delete an email on their mobile phone if it doesn't look good.”

That, alone, is a huge eye-opener regarding subscriber behavior on mobile devices. Even back in 2011, studies showed a major increase in mobile email opens. It’s time to get on the mobile bandwagon!

Either optimize your email in a single-column, mobile-friendly fashion or develop a responsive email template which expands/contracts based on screen size. Your subscribers will love you for it.

Consider Handing it off to a Professional

“What kind of open-rate should I expect?”

“What should I do in order to stay out of my subscribers’ spam folders?”

“How do I target certain groups of people based on interests?”

“How do I design a responsive email?”

These are questions you might already have, and a company who regularly does email marketing should be able to answer them. Sometimes it’s worth the money to make sure email marketing happens the right way instead of dealing with the hassle trying to do it yourself.

An email marketing professional will be happy to help you manage your list; write punchy, succinct subject lines; and arrange your content to be the most readable and effective. They’ll help you stay out of the spam folder, and will reach your target audience. They can also assist with setting up a responsive, mobile-friendly email template so your emails look great on any device.

Finally, a professional can help you analyze your open rate, click rate, and other metrics to make your time spent on email marketing the most effective.

Whichever method you choose, make sure your business considers making email marketing a priority in the coming year.

Tweet me your thoughts @interactivekate!


3 ways to screw up your next website

Editor's note: Josh Larson specializes in interactive design and SEO at Happy Medium LLC. He is filling in for Happy Medium Owner Katie Stocking. 

Launching a new website for your business doesn’t have to be complicated. But day in and day out, clients and web design companies alike do things that turn the process of building a website into a nightmare. 

Here are a few things that often happen during the website-building process. Each of these things will either make you or the web design company miserable, and each of them can easily be avoided.

1. Pay a ton of money to a company that doesn't do responsive design

The responsive web design movement has been around for a couple of years now, yet businesses are still paying web design companies their hard-earned money to develop a website that isn’t optimized for mobile devices.

This has to be frustrating for business-owners who think they’re getting a great deal as a web designer slaps a “fresh coat of paint” on their homepage. But the truth is that if your “brand new” site doesn’t look good on a non-desktop-sized screen, your website automatically becomes outdated. 

It doesn’t matter if the design looks great on paper, or if a visitor has a great experience using the website on a 27” iMac – as soon as someone tries to access the website on their phone or tablet, they’ll be pinching, zooming, and squinting their way off your website and to your competitor.

How do you avoid this? Be sure to pick a web design company with experience developing responsive websites or for the mobile platform specifically. Do yourself a favor and don’t waste your money elsewhere.

2. Don't ask the right questions beforehand

You’ve chosen your web design company, and you’re ready to get moving on the project. Now it’s time to sit back and relax – the site will be picture-perfect, right?

Hold the phone – how can you be sure everything will meet your expectations if you don’t voice any concerns before the process begins? Ask anything from the most basic questions (How will I edit content on my website?) to more complicated questions (How will the user be notified of a completed order on my e-commerce website?).

Thoroughly asking questions before the process begins can be a great exercise. These questions help you define what’s important to your business and help you make sure the website will reflect your values.

Not asking questions doesn’t mean you’ll get a terrible website – but without guidance and a good knowledge of your company’s priorities, a web design company could deliver a product that’s not what you’ve been dreaming up.

3. Micromanage your designers

At the other end of the spectrum, it is possible to get too involved and start subtracting from the product’s quality as a whole.

This point applies to more than just web design, but in any client services industry, there are always a handful of clients who insist on micromanaging every detail of the product.

Sure – as a business owner, it’s your money, and you ought to have a say in the end-product. But there are processes for doing exactly this – gathering your input and creative direction and relaying it to the right people in a way that doesn’t negatively affect the productivity of the team.

Jumping in and sticking your hands in every part of the process will do a couple of things (hint: none of them involve getting a “way better product!”). In the world of web design, you’ll undermine the efforts of the designers and developers who are trying to create the best possible product. As soon as you, a business owner, start telling professional designers and developers how to do their jobs, you start lowering the integrity of the product.

Micromanaging your designers will almost certainly lead toward a product that no one is happy with. If you’re trying to handle every detail of the process as a business owner, and the website doesn’t meet your expectations, you can’t blame the designer or the developer anymore – the failure is on your shoulders.

You’ve hired a web design company for a reason: They’re good at what they do. So let them do their jobs, and a better product will become of it.

Hopefully, you’ve been able to identify with some of these mistakes and you feel more prepared when it comes time to work on your company website.

Tweet with me at @itsahappymedium and share any tips you have for a client/company relationship during the website design process.

-- Josh

Lessons learned from the Obamacare website launch

Katie Stocking is the owner of Happy Medium LLC.

In case you missed it, the new Healthcare.gov website was a spectacular failure.

Immediately after launch, the site was swarmed with hundreds of thousands of visitors. The traffic rendered the site useless for most people trying to enroll for health care, delivering a message like the one seen below:

(Sarah Kliff / Washington Post)

Other reports indicating the cost of the website have drawn more scrutiny to the buggy site: CGI Federal Inc., a Canadian-based company, won a $93 million contract to build the federal healthcare exchange.

Services like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have served millions of users before those companies even had that kind of funding. So how could such an expensive website fail so badly at launch time?

While the code to the site isn’t open-source and no one outside the Healthcare.gov IT Team knows for sure, a developer gave a few possible explanations for why the site has had trouble.

If you think about it, most web apps aren't immediately released to millions of users. Facebook and other huge services roll out new features over weeks and even months just so they can fix bugs along the way.

And in the case of Healthcare.gov, there are a ton of moving parts - grabbing data from other data hubs and sites to be able to determine whether the user is eligible in his or her state. If just one of those connections goes down or a server outside the realm of Healthcare.gov gets bogged down, it can seem like Healthcare.gov is at fault.

Does that make it OK for such an expensive and important site to fail from the start? Probably not. But it’s good to be aware of what happened, and you can take action for your own website and development projects to prevent similar failures.

What We Can Do

Obviously we don’t have huge traffic spikes to worry about, but we can prevent other bugs and site issues by doing plenty of testing beforehand. Make sure you spend quality time fine-tuning your website before sending it out to all your users.

This doesn’t mean NEVER launch your website – there will always be bugs – but just be conscious of the experience you’re giving your users. Remember, your website represents your brand and the type of company you are.

Finally, it’s important to remember that websites are living, breathing things. You shouldn’t just “launch it and leave it” – keep iterating, evaluating, and making changes based on what’s working and what’s not. Even with a limited budget, you can make a huge difference to your audience and your website users by continually improving things here and there – whether it be content or code.

Tweet me your thoughts at @interactivekate!


Website redesign vs. new website

Katie Stocking is the owner of Happy Medium LLC.

So you’re thinking your website could use a facelift. How do you figure out exactly what it needs though? Often at Happy Medium, we get asked to do website redesigns, but once we talk to them more we find that what they are really looking for is just a better website solution. Usually people looking for website work either A) don’t have a website or B) have a website and they want something different. Sometimes that means a website redesign, and sometimes it just means starting fresh. So how do you figure out what you need?

It’s important to know your options when considering diving into a website work in general.

If you already have a website, ask yourself these questions:

  • How long has your content been there? Is it still relevant and compelling?

  • How well is your content structured? Websites grow and change, and it’s necessary to re-evaluate your site hierarchy after adding or removing significant types of content.

  • Is your site accessible to modern devices (mobile, tablets, other points of access)? If your site was originally developed more than three to four years ago, your site is probably not mobile-friendly or isn’t taking advantage of the latest technologies (i.e. using images for headings instead of web fonts, which have much more support now).

If your content is mostly outdated, needs to be restructured or your site is not accessible on modern devices, it is a good idea to consider developing a completely new website. This will give you the opportunity to re-evaluate and construct your site’s hierarchy – a very important and functional step in the process of modern, responsive design.

If you just need a facelift (color, font, image and minor copy changes), you are probably OK with a simple refresh/redesign.

We’ve been doing more new websites lately because a lot of companies are coming to the realization of the importance of multi-device friendly websites. Happy Medium produces all websites in responsive design to support that. If you’re asking the questions above it should help you figure out exactly what you’re looking for. If not - check with a web professional and they can help you determine it.

If you want to see a sample of responsive web design - visit www.itsahappymedium.com on multiple devices and you will see what I mean.

Have any questions or thoughts on responsive web design? Tweet me at @interactivekate!


What's all this hype about the Apple Tablet?


Rumors are flying about Apple's mysterious upcoming product launch (supposedly happening on January 26). Tech industry analysts and insiders are predicting that during this event, Apple will announce some sort of tablet device.

This tablet (or iSlate, as some are calling it) represents a whole new category of devices, somewhere between a handheld smartphone and a laptop computer. E-Readers such as Amazon's Kindle have been gaining in popularity lately and I suspect this is Apple's entry into that market.

However, this tablet won't just let you read books and newspaper content - I expect it to be a full-fledged, personal media device capable of handling movies, TV, music, games, Web sites and custom applications.

Many people are dismissing this as just a large iPhone, but I do believe that these tablet devices (if built right) represent a new way to access media that mainstream consumers will learn to love.

Think about it - the content delivery pipelines are already in place: iTunes, Netflix instant streaming, Hulu, et cetera. Every day, more and more people are cancelling their cable TV and accessing media via laptops or set-top boxes like Boxee. This represents an opportunity for a device to emerge - something that feels comfortable in our hands and is portable.

I can guarantee you that portable DVD players are an endangered species and will be quickly killed off by these types of tablet devices. (Similar to what happened to the PDA after smartphones emerged.)

Business owners and marketing people: Take note that your customers will be accessing your website and/or custom applications on these machines (as they will all be wi-fi compatible) so be prepared to make sure your content is scalable, functional and good-looking on a tablet.

What are your thoughts on the rumored device?

Nathan T. Wright is the founder of Lava Row, a social media education, consulting and strategy firm based in Des Moines' East Village.

How to start an audio podcast on the cheap

Image representing iTunes as depicted in Crunc...Image via CrunchBase

Podcasting is a great way to create, syndicate and distribute your own audio/video content on the Web. We're just getting started with our own audio podcast at Lava Row, so I wanted to take a moment to explain how you can create your own show on the cheap.

Step One: Choose a recording device
Chances are your laptop or desktop computer came with a mic (corded and/or built-in). You can get by with this if you'll be the only one in the room talking and understand that it doesn't offer top-notch quality. Our podcast is always going to involve more than one person, so we chose the Snowball USB Mic from Blue Microphones (affordable and available for around $100 on Amazon.com).

Step Two: Figure out your content ahead of time
As with any digital initiative, the first thing you'll want to do is figure out how you're going to use the medium and determine what your content is going to be. Are you going to interview others? What will the topics be? What insight can you provide that other podcast programs can't?

Step Three: Record calls on Skype
Skype is a free VOIP application that you can download and install on your computer. If you're going to be interviewing guests who can't come to your "studio" in person, just call them with Skype and record the conversation with the Pamela Call Recorder add-on. The free version will let you record up to 15 minutes, and for $25 you can upgrade for unlimited recording times.

Step Four: Choose your editing software
At some point you're going to need to trim your audio file, add music, or edit parts together. For PC users we'd recommend Audacity (a free download) for these simple tasks. Mac users will already have the iLife suite installed on their machines, which is an amazing software package that contains sophisticated tools for audio editing/mixing.

Step Five: Distribution
Apple's iTunes is probably the most ubiquitous (and common) way to distribute your podcast. Here's an outline of guidelines and specifications about how to get your podcast feed synced up with iTunes.

Pretty simple, right? That's all you need to get going. If you've set up your own podcast, feel free to chime in below - how did you make yours a success?

Nathan T. Wright is the founder of Lava Row, a social media education, consulting and strategy firm based in Des Moines' East Village.
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More changes on the way for Facebook Fan Pages

Facebook, Inc.Image via Wikipedia

If you administer a Facebook Page for your business or organization, you may want to take note of a few changes coming around the corner.

Content width: Facebook is changing the width of the content area underneath the tabs to 560 pixels wide from 760 pixels. This will have implications for you if you've done any custom HTML or FBML designs. If any of them are wider than 560 pixels, they may appear truncated or cut off.

Say goodbye to Boxes: "Boxes" are little areas and tabs that allowed you to build out and integrate custom content into your Facebook Pages. If you're currently using them, be aware that they will soon be disappearing. In my opinion the Boxes were hard to manage and clunky, so I'm glad to see Facebook streamlining how custom content is created.

E-mail addresses: In early 2010, Facebook will launch the ability for Facebook Pages to collect e-mail addresses from fans on an opt-in basis. This has huge implications for marketers - currently, you can reach fans through the Page itself, but every company would love to have e-mail addresses to go with it. Ideally you'll be able to achieve some crossover between your Facebook communications with your e-mail marketing initiatives.

These changes once again show that Facebook is always on the move in terms of improving and tweaking the social network. What do you think of the upcoming moves?

Nathan T. Wright is the founder of Lava Row, a social media education, consulting and strategy firm based in Des Moines' East Village.
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How Bit.ly is fighting Twitter spam

Bitly-logo The microblogging social network Twitter has become infested with spam over the past year, directly alongside its meteoric rise in popularity. While Twitter is staying busy trying to fight this never-ending war, Bit.ly (a popular URL shortener service) is joining the battle.

Bit.ly is the most frequently used link shortener on Twitter. It makes up more than 75 percent of all shortened links, according to this TechCrunch article, meaning that it is frequently abused by spammers attempting to push Twitter users off to malicious Web sites loaded with malware and spyware.

Yesterday, Bit.ly announced that the service is partnering with VeriSign's iDefense, Websense Threatseeker Cloud and Sophos to beef up their ability to detect spam behind shortened links. This is in addition to some of their existing security features. For instance, you can add a + symbol behind any bit.ly link to preview it or make use of their Firefox preview plug-in.

There's another tool you can use to fight spam and that's called common sense. Just like we learned what the red flags for e-mail spam 10 years ago, we're now being taught the same lesson on social networks. Don't click on strange links from senders that you don't know. And if you receive a message saying "Is this you? [LINK]" - don't click on it.

What do you think about Bit.ly's announcement? Will this make a dent in Twitter spam or will the spammers evolve to leverage new ways to prey upon internet users?

Nathan T. Wright is the founder of Lava Row, a social media education, consulting and strategy firm based in Des Moines' East Village.
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Exploring Google Reader's "Sort by Magic" feature

Sortbymagic Who has logged into their Google Reader account lately to discover 1000 or more items waiting to be read? Raise your hand. (Mine is currently raised.)

To combat this information overload issue, Google recently launched a feature called "Sort by Magic." This is basically an algorithm that prioritizes the information flowing into your RSS reader for you, based on what you've liked in the past (via the "star" and "share" buttons). As we all know, Google is really good at algorithms, so go ahead and give this a spin.

For those that don't know Google Reader, it's a news aggregator that lets you subscribe to various forms of content - sports scores, blog posts, keyword searches, news headlines, et cetera - and read them all in one place.

On day one, the feature won't be very intelligent. Over time, as you star and share more items, it will get smarter and more valuable for you. Google discusses the feature more in-depth on their Reader blog.

Facebook recently made some dramatic changes to their News Feed for the same reason: preventing individual filter failure. If filters fail, users stop logging in, so it's smart that both companies are tweaking their technology to address this.

What are your thoughts? Have you used the new "Sort by Magic" feature, and is it working for you?

Nathan T. Wright is the founder of Lava Row, a social media education, consulting and strategy firm based in Des Moines' East Village.

Can Twitter Lists save the social network?

Twitter-lists1 Twitter recently rolled out a new feature called Twitter Lists. It's a way for individual users to curate lists of people based on, well, whatever they like. For instance, you could make a Twitter List of entrepreneurs in your city, your funniest friends, celebrities, et cetera.

This sounds like a simple feature. But I think it will fundamentally change Twitter for the better. Here's why: the social network has been experiencing serious problems over the last year as it's popularity and growth has exploded, specifically with spammers and marketers trying to "game" the following/follower system. There are tools, applications, tricks and scripts readily available that anyone can leverage to get tens of thousands of new followers overnight.

Twitter Lists, I believe, will return us to the Twitter we first fell in love with, reinforcing quality over quantity. For instance, if another user deems you list-worthy, that instantly carries more weight than a one-click "follow." Now, when you're screening new followers, you can check out how many lists they are on in addition to how many followers they have. As you know, 10,000 followers on Twitter today doesn't necessarily mean what it did in 2008.

Lists will be integrated with their API, meaning that third-party applications like Tweetie, Tweetdeck and Hootsuite will be able to pull the data and push it into their services and products. There's already a Web site devoted to lists of lists, called Listorious.

In my first few days of playing around with the new feature, I've started a list of Des Moines East Village businesses, Des Moines entrepreneurs and people I've hung out with at conferences.

Ryan Lynch told me this weekend that he's advising clients to create lists of followers who are actively engaged with their updates. For instance, you may have 1,000 followers, but wouldn't it be nice to have a separate bucket for the 100 people who are frequently interacting with your business? Maybe this becomes a list of 100 V.I.P. customers over time.

How will you use Twitter Lists to your advantage? Please leave your thoughts below.

Nathan T. Wright is the founder of Lava Row, a social media education, consulting and strategy firm based in Des Moines' East Village.

Augmented reality has arrived, will become mainstream quickly

"Augmented reality" (or AR, for short) is a phrase you're going to be hearing more and more through the rest of 2009 and into 2010. Basically, it's the ability to use a handheld device with internet connectivity to unlock and overlay information on top of your existing reality. Watch the video below for a demonstration.

So, let's get right into the practical business applications. UrbanSpoon.com (a review site for local restaurants) has just added a "Scope" feature to the UrbanSpoon iPhone app. Let's say you're in a dense urban area and craving a slice of pizza. Point your iPhone at the horizon looking through the UrbanSpoon Scope, and the application will overlay the percentage of positive customer reviews on top of the restaurants right in front of you.

GPS functionality makes all of this happen based on where you're standing at that very moment. The Scope feature is only available for 3GS iPhones, so if you have a first- or second-generation device (like me), you won't have access to it.

You can expect mobile devices to get smarter by the day, and you'll see a blend of GPS and AR functionality becoming the norm over time. Imagine all the possibilities here: Relevant information delivered based on current physical location.

How will you be using this technology for your business, and/or your clients?

The implications of Google SideWiki

Screenshot Google recently announced the launched a new product called SideWiki, which is pretty much what it sounds like: a sidebar that can be expanded/collapsed next to any existing website, containing user-generated information and commenting similar to Wikipedia.

This feature comes with the Google Toolbar (a plug-in that you have to install in your web browser). Currently it is only available for the Internet Explorer and Firefox browsers and not Google's own product, Chrome.

What does this all mean? Users can now leave comments on any static website - including yours. The caveat is that all the participants (commenters and readers) would need to have the Google Toolbar installed, something which is far away from mainstream adoption.

Jeremiah Owyang, a strategist at Altimeter Group, wrote an in-depth post about SideWiki and said:

"The impacts are far reaching, now every web page on the internet is social and can have consumer opinion – both positive and negative."

While I think businesses should absolutely pay attention to SideWiki content as part of their listening and online reputation management strategy, I'm doubtful that large numbers of users will embrace this right away. Remember that only 1% of Wikipedia's users actually author content there. Also, we're currently seeing (with our own clients) that social media users are engaging more and more with blog content posted via the Facebook Pages platform, instead of the actual blog itself. Translation: Don't be surprised when Facebook unleashes something similar.

Siva Vaidhyanathan posted this on Twitter on September 24th:

"Can anyone explain to me how Google Sidewiki could be anything but a trough for trolls?"

To address this issue, supposedly Google SideWiki will have an algorithm that can rank the "value" of individual comments, bubbling the most valuable ones up to the top and burying "internet trolls" (vulgar, hateful people who live to cause trouble online). It remains to be seen how well this algorithm works.

So what are your thoughts? Is Google SideWiki going to be a major player, revolutionizing how we think about static web pages, or is this just another Google "beta" project that will fade into obscurity over a few months?

Help! Facebook is ruining my company!

Modern, wheelchair-accessible drinking fountai...Image via Wikipedia

We hear this statement a lot from business executives: "Help! My employees are on social networks all day long, Facebooking and Twittering, and it's killing productivity!"

In response to that, I wanted to build upon my July 2nd post about corporate social network usage policies, where I focused mainly on security.

Social technology is just another scapegoat for diminished workplace productivity - another scapegoat in a long line of scapegoats, since the dawn of the 9-to-5 workday.

Let's review some of the others:
  • Cigarette breaks.
  • The water cooler. 
  • Gossip. 
  • Restroom breaks. 
  • The three-martini lunch.  
  • Magazines. 
  • Personal phone calls. 
  • Solitaire. 
  • eBay. 
  • Instant messaging.
  • E-mail. 
The list goes on and one. Proof that the situation many modern workplaces face right now is a human resources issue, NOT a "social networks are destroying the world" issue.

Here's the deal: As the leader of your company, it's up to you to define expectations for employees. If you're not going to be Big Brother and lock down all the internet ports, that's great, but you need to establish rules as certain employees will inevitably abuse these freedoms.

Internet usage rules aren't a bad thing. In the past, you've been upfront with employees that it's not OK to browse pornographic Web sites, right? Again, all you need to do here is establish expectations that, yes, employees can check Facebook from time to time but they are expected to stay on task and complete the work assigned to them in a timely fashion. You also need to spell out the consequences if they don't follow these simple rules.

What are your thoughts? Has your company or organization developed a social technology usage policy? Do you feel leaving social networks 100 percent open hinders employee productivity? Please leave a comment below, I'm excited to hear your feedback.

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Facebook adds "Get more Fans with SMS" feature

Facebook_logo I was poking around Facebook's Fan Page features the other day and came across something new that they just released. You'll find it on the left-hand navigation of any Facebook Page that you administer, labeled Get more Fans with SMS.

First, definitions: SMS stands for Short Message Service. Basically, it's a fancy term used to describe the standardized system for exchanging text messages between mobile devices.

Second, how does it work? When I clicked on the option, I got this message:

Tell people to text "fan lavarow" to 32665 (FBOOK) from their mobile phones, and they will be added as fans instantly. Standard charges may apply.

When you signed up for Facebook, chances are good that they asked you to enter your mobile phone as an account identifier in addition to your e-mail address. So, Facebook already knows your mobile number, meaning that if you send the text message "fan companyname" to 32665 (Facebook's shortcode), they will associate the phone number with your account and automatically make you a fan of companyname.

One caveat: An organization's Facebook Page must have a username (a.k.a. "vanity URL") activated for this feature to work. For more information on usernames for Pages, click here.

Third, what does this all mean? The obvious, immediate benefit to companies with Facebook Pages is an easy, quick method for gaining more connections with an audience unchained from their desktops or laptops. It won't be long before you see Text "FAN COKE" to 32665 (FBOOK) on the sides of Coca-Cola packaging.

Looking ahead even further, I won't be surprised when Facebook offers out-bound SMS marketing features to companies with Fan Pages, meaning that an organization could "push" some form of messaging, offer or coupon to opted-in Fans via text message. Sending SMS messages isn't free, so Facebook could potentially charge for this feature and monetize the service with some sort of set-up or maintenance fees.

The main takeaway here is that this move will add another powerful component to Facebook's marketing toolbox for businesses.

How to successfully unplug from your devices

Person with PDA handheld device.Image via Wikipedia

The more our day-to-day lives (both professional and personal) become intertwined with laptops, mobile devices and social networks, the more difficult it becomes to unplug from everything.

I actually wrote this post in advance because I'm on vacation right now, and want nothing to do with any sort of electronic communication device. However, that is easier said than done, and I've trained myself how to untether from those devices over the years. Sometimes I'm more successful than others - it's always a work in progress!

I truly believe that our mobile devices create unnecessary stress in our lives, because we've opted in to having information (e-mails, texts, Twitter DMs, et cetera.) blasted to our person rather than retrieving it at our convenience.

If you're looking to disconnect over vacation, or even on a daily basis, here's a tip. If your iPhone or Blackberry device makes a noise every time you receive an e-mail, turn that off. Consume your email messages in chunks. Go to it. Don't let it interrupt you minute-by-minute.

I used to have a habit of checking my e-mail messages on my iPhone before I went in to work every morning. Then, I'd spend the drive to the office contemplating how I'd respond to each message, and this created unnecessary stress. I have a personal rule now where I don't look at my phone before I go in to work. This simple method has made my life much more relaxed.

Last but not least, if you're on Twitter, one of the greatest things you can do is learn how to ignore it. Your network of tweeps will still be there when you get back, and I know this is hard to believe, but you won't miss anything.

Don't get me wrong, I love being connected in real-time with interesting people via these amazing devices, but at some point you have to learn how to "go dark." How do you unplug? Looking forward to seeing your comments below.

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FTC plans to crack down on forms of social media marketing

2404635465_caab54a0e6_m The Federal Trade Commission is considering regulating certain forms of word-of-mouth and social media marketing: specifically, certain claims made on blogs, forums and social networks.

Here is an excerpt from AdAge setting up the situation:

As part of its review of its advertising guidelines, the FTC is proposing that word-of-mouth marketers and bloggers, as well as people on social-media sites such as Facebook, be held liable for any false statements they make about a product they're promoting, along with the product's marketer. This could present a significant issue for marketers, including the likes of Microsoft, Ford and Pepsi, who spend billions on word-of-mouth and social media. PQ Media projects that marketers will spend $3.7 billion on word-of-mouth marketing in 2011.

This will definitely have an impact on marketers that send products to influential bloggers/social media users for review, which is currently a common practice.

As a marketer and consultant in the social media space, I'm not too worried about guidelines or regulations, because I've always imposed my own set of rules and best practices from the start. They've worked well for my business and my clients. The rules go something like this:
  • If you send a product to a blogger for review, encourage them to post their candid thoughts. Don't push for a positive review.
  • Encourage the blogger to disclose within the post that you sent them the product.  
  • If you participate in any sort of pay-per-post activity (i.e. paying the blogger for a review), be 100 percent transparent about this fact. Chris Brogan wrote an excellent post about the issue, and advertising and trust in general.
If you follow these simple guidelines, you'll steer clear of any murky gray areas. I'm not sure what shape the FTC guidelines are going to take, or if they're even necessary. I'd like to think that we can govern ourselves online, but as we all know, sometimes sleazy practices can get through the cracks.

So, what are your thoughts on the FTC's announcement?

Facebook's Fan Box adds social interaction to your website

250px-FanBox Facebook recently unveiled the Fan Box, which is essentially a "social widget" that you can bolt into your own website. This widget pulls in streams of social activity from your company or organization's Facebook Fan Page and plants it where all of your website visitors can see it.

In order to use this feature, you do need to have a Facebook Fan Page set up first. For the sake of discussion, we'll assume that you already have one. (If you don't, you can read more about the benefits and features here.)

In the past, websites and Facebook Fan Pages were completely seperate destinations. You may have been frustrated by lack of visitors to your website, meanwhile, your company's fan page was getting all sorts of activity and engagement and you naturally wondered: Why can't the these two things be integrated?

Well, now they can. And this is such a better solution than the "Find us on Facebook" badge that many websites have, which is simply a bridge that carries you off to the social network.

In addition to the benefit of increased social activity on a typically static website, you also gain more "discovery" of your company's Facebook presence. The Fan Box lets visitors become a fan of your company on Facebook in one click without ever leaving your site.

This is just more proof that the age of "brochure-ware" websites is quickly ending. Go ahead, stamp one of these Fan Boxes onto your website and tell me what you think.

Why corporations block social media sites: Security and productivity

My social Network on Flickr, Facebook, Twitter...Image by luc legay via Flickr

Recently, The Des Moines Register reported that the Iowa DOT (Department of Transportation) blocked the use of Twitter, MySpace, Facebook and other social media applications among its employees, citing security concerns.

So, how unsafe are social networks, anyway? In my opinion, social technology is no more or less safe that any online destination and function (Web sites, e-mail, et cetera).

As an individual user, there are many precautions you can take, including using a safe browser: Firefox and Chrome get high marks for their advanced safety features, while Internet Explorer is frequently full of holes and security exploits.

You should also have some form of security software on your desktop machine or laptop that scans for viruses, malware, spyware and phishing apps once every 24 hours.

Thirdly, and probably most importantly, have some common sense. Don't click on anything that looks suspicious sent from someone you don't know, whether it comes to you in the form of an e-mail message, a tweet or a Facebook post.

Now, to the other issue, is the Iowa DOT really concerned about security issues, or is this a smokescreen to ensure that employees remain productive? I truly believe social networks (when used properly) can enhance a business or organization, and blocking them may simply result in missed opportunities.

Security and productivity should be addressed, in my view, with proper educational training, internal policies and employee culture. It's up to each individual company to talk to their employees about what goes and what doesn't go.

In the Iowa DOT's case, I'd recommend keeping these applications open for marketing and communications staff as a start. These are the people who will need to make use of social media tools and channels right now. Other employees, especially those on machines with access to sensitive data such as social security numbers, can remain closed-off and perhaps activated on an as-needed basis.

For a good analysis of what an internal social media usage policy might look like, here's a Mashable article on the topic including examples from Ford and Zappos.com.

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The Iran elections and citizen journalism via Twitter


Above: Image by sharif via Flickr.

News reporting on the recent presidential election protests in Iran have been neutered by the country's government - in some instances, telephone, text messaging and Internet services were restricted, and journalists have even been banned from attending "unauthorized" demonstrations.

Thus, many Iranians have turned to Twitter to do their own citizen reporting, and also to receive news. A quick search on the micro-sharing network for the hashtag #iranelection or #gr88 brings back a barrage of updates. (While writing these first two paragraphs, the search brought back 2,192 more results since my first query only minutes ago.)

While the United States is steering clear of the election chaos, they are actively working with Twitter and other social networking sites to make sure information is flowing freely to and from Iran. Case in point: The State Department asked Twitter to postpone scheduled maintenance that would have impacted the site's uptime in Iran.

Any time a trending topic gets popular on Twitter, it runs the risk of being diluted (and sometimes polluted) by the masses jumping into the conversation and retweeting rapidly-changing information. That's why I love this blog post by BoingBoing's Cory Doctorow that gives Twitter users a playbook for constructive participation. He even suggests a trick to help protect the Iranian bloggers using Twitter: Changing your Twitter location to Tehran and your timezone to GMT +3.30 might help thwart security officers in their hunt to locate and censor bloggers.

While many criticize Twitter as a platform for mundane updates from the self-obsessed, the Iranian elections prove that it can be a valuable tool for quickly distributing (and retrieving) information in a de-centralized method that surpasses government or organizational control.

Social networking users aren't as young as you might think

Twitter_icons_256 In Twitter's infancy, the micro-sharing social network was largely perceived as a gathering place for hyper-connected, digitally-inclined twentysomethings. Sure, Twitter's early adopters were comprised of the younger "tech elite," but recent months have proven that the network is now more mainstream that you might think.

A couple of facts have recently jumped out at me:
  1. According to Nielsen Online, the largest age population on Twitter is 35-49, making up almost 42 percent of the site's audience. 
  2. A new survey from Pace University and the Participatory Media Network says that 99 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds have profiles on social networks, but only 22 percent are on Twitter.
  3. Switching gears to Facebook: The fastest growing demographic is females 55 and older. 
So what does this tell us? A couple of things: Youth culture has not yet gravitated to Twitter. There could be many reasons for this - one being that the 18-24 age demographic grew up within Facebook's walls, and simply don't have the need or want to migrate to another social network. Also, the Baby Boomers have finally arrived.

Marketers love to put their targets into age and gender buckets, but meanwhile I'm reminded of something Mike Sansone once said: Adoption of social networks is attitudinal, not generational.

We've moved past the age where social networking is a world occupied only by Millenials. Social networks are ubiquitous, utilitarian, mainstream - they are all around us and they are diverse. There will always be a small population that resists social networking, but they'll be less and less defined by age.

Before the end of the year, your parents will be on Facebook (if they aren't already). We're getting closer to the day that the term social media goes away forever, and all this stuff just blends into everyday life.

Tracking hashtags on Twitter

Twitter Hashtags in Google ReaderImage by Search Engine People Blog via Flickr

If you're new to Twitter, you may be wondering what all those strange words are preceded by the # symbol. These are called hashtags - basically, it is a method for adding context to your Twitter updates. Similar, in concept, to tagging videos on YouTube or photos on Flickr.

On the right-hand side of your Twitter screen, you'll notice an area called trending topics. These change every day and can reflect upswings in stories being covered in the media, or even Twitter-specific events, such as the popular #followfriday meme.

Every Friday, certain Twitter users will give shout-outs to some of their favorite "tweeps," making it easier for their followers to discover other interesting people on the social network. They tag these updates with the #followfriday hashtag.

The # symbol makes all the data easier to aggregate and track. There are even Web properties solely devoted to tracking and defining hashtags, such as Des Moines' own WTHashtag.com. This site is built upon wiki technology, making it easy for visitors to create their own definition entries for certain hashtags.

Here's one I created: #CarpeDM - use this hashtag any time you're sharing news about something cool, new or innovative happening here in the Des Moines metro area.

So, why would a business be interested in any of this? Let's say that your organization has an entrenched interest in food production and safety, and you want to listen for what's being said on Twitter about the swine flu outbreak. You can easily review real-time chatter by searching for #swineflu on search.twitter.com, or pull trending graphs from services like WTHashtag or Twist.

Listening leads to business intelligence, competitive advantage and new opportunities, so remember to fine-tune your radar to include Twitter hashtags.

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How far away is wearable social technology?

Every day I think more and more about the emergence of wearable social technology. To most people, this may conjure up such silly images as the Scrolling LED Belt Buckle. (Now imagine if you could hack it with an always-on Wi-Fi connection and access to your Twitter feed!)

But seriously, we're just now seeing practical applications of this in a very early form. Take Tweetup Badges, for instance. These ID cards have QR codes on the back which, when scanned by a mobile device with a QR reader application, launch a Web address or SMS message.

Okay, so let's say you're at a social event. You meet someone, you scan their badge, and suddenly their Twitter profile (and feed) launches in your mobile web browser. Rich Drake, Founder of Tweetup Badges, explains the benefit of this technology below:

Admittedly, we're still a long ways off from the concept of wearable social technology achieving maturity and mainstream acceptance. The above scenario assumes that:

  1. Everyone at the event participates in some form of social network like Twitter.
  2. These people all have QR badges or mobile devices able to read QR codes. Or both.  

Events like this do exist today, in the form of tweetups and tech conferences. The interface between a human with mobile device and a human with scannable badge exchanging some form of digital information isn't so different than the concept behind Poken, which has already launched in Japan and Europe.

Over time, this interface will become more seamless and invisible. Very soon, mobile devices will have face recognition software coupled with a ubiquitous social network (like Facebook). You'll be able to scan someone's face (simply by getting them in the viewfinder of your phone camera) and the device will fetch that person's public social network profile information. In essence, your face becomes the QR code.

Beyond that, the device itself will evolve past mobile phones, and may come embedded in a pair of eyeglasses, or even a contact lens.

Today, we interact with social networks in a very limited fashion - the computer or mobile screen. Imagine the possibilities when we become unshackled from those machines and our lens into layers upon layers of information is our own eyes.

Nathan T. Wright

How Facebook's interface change effects businesses

Recently Facebook made some dramatic changes to it's user interface, and I wanted to take a moment to explore what specifically changed for companies using the application.

Essentially, branded profiles for companies called pages now look, act and function similar to individual user profiles. Here's what's new and exciting:
  1. You may now publish your company's "status" and it will show up in the individual front-page news feeds of all the users who have declared themselves fans of your page. In the past, updates were restricted to the four walls of the page itself.
  2. You'll now notice tabs across the top of your company's page. This allows you to organize and segment your page's content in a way that makes more sense to your visitors. Previous Facebook pages were highly unorganized and chaotic in terms of design and aesthetic. You may also customize these tabs.
  3. "The Wall" (an area for fans to leave comments on your page) is now enhanced with multimedia, meaning that visitors can post videos and photos along with text content. 
However, not everyone is happy with Facebook's UI changes, as Jennifer Leggio explains in this blog post on ZDNet.

If you're looking for more detail about Facebook's re-design and how it impacts businesses with a presence there, watch Hillary Brown's video below:

Nathan T. Wright

Why aren't more real estate agents on social networks?

Today, my co-pilot (Hillary Brown) and I gave a presentation to a group of real estate professionals aboutBlog social networking tools that they can add to their existing marketing toolbox.

We've presented to groups of agents a few times before, and we're always surprised by how few have embraced social media as a lead-generation and networking tool.

Here's my paraphrased, outsider perspective on the business of being a real estate agent: There are two critical components - your network and reputation.

Participating in social networks in an authentic way can greatly enhance both of these things, so it seems like a no-brainer that agents should be harnessing these tools. However, some are still stuck in "broadcast marketing" mode, so I wanted to share a few examples of local agents that are doing interesting things.

Amber Salmon and Justin Volrath are active on the social network Twitter and frequently attend tweetups (meetups for Twitter users) where they build digital and real-life social and business connections. This is smart - they don't just rely on chamber of commerce luncheons and a Rolodex to build their network.

Amber is also a prolific blogger. Notice that the title of her blog is LiveinDesMoines.com, which is great for search engine optimization because these are the terms humans use when researching real estate communities online. Sure, Amber promotes her listings on the blog, but she also provides value to her potential clients with posts like What is Des Moines, Iowa like? and What do I really need to know when I buy a home?

Also, do a quick Google search for either one of them. The top results will bring back their individual presences on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. Every day, more and more real estate buyers are doing their homework and checking out agents on social networks, so it's critical to have some form of presence out there. It's OK to blur the lines between personal and professional a little bit, so don't stress over that.

Your clients will want to know that you're a human being, after all!

These are just a few quick examples of what agents could do, but the possibilities on the social Web are endless. What else could they take advantage of? Please feel free to add your thoughts below.

Why college students need LinkedIn profiles

This post is an open letter to college students of all ages: If you aren't on LinkedIn yet, get out there and set Blog up an account today. Here are a few reasons why:

  1. Previous employers, co-workers and professors can recommend you, and these recommendations are attached to your public profile/resume. How powerful is that? Potential employers can then check your references and follow up efficiently. 
  2. By posting your resume online, you're expanding your own "reach." Why limit yourself to a few pieces of paper buried under dozens of resumes in an HR office?  
  3. Employers will look you up online. It's better to have content waiting for them, instead of nothing at all.  
  4. Having a LinkedIn presence shows you're serious about getting hired. I'm always impressed by the college students who have taken the initiative to build out a LinkedIn profile, over their peers who haven't.  
  5. This also establishes that you know a little bit about social networks - knowledge that many employers are looking for right now. 
Also, don't be afraid to include the URL (web address) of your LinkedIn profile on your resume's contact information. Recent grads are entering a competitive market right now, so don't be afraid to set yourself apart, be exceptional and be awesome. 

Who should manage your social media efforts?

Let's say you're a business. Any size - from a small retail shop to a large corporation. You're intrigued byBlog social media and its possibilities, and you're ready to dedicate a staff member to these efforts. Now the question is: What staff member should have these responsibilities? What qualities should you look for when hiring for the position?

Conventional wisdom would say that this person might need some sort of Web design, information technology or marketing background. While those skill sets certainly don't hurt, they don't need to be requirements.

An effective social media manager should have the following traits:
  • Curiosity - He/she will be curious about new mediums and new technology. You won't need to tell them to check out the newest social network - they'll already be signed up, playing around with it and determining whether or not it has any relevance to your business.
  • Immersed - This person will not only have Facebook, LinkedIn or Twitter accounts, they'll be activate participants. If they aren't familiar with these tools, they're probably not a good fit for you.
  • Personable - By engaging with customers in social mediums, he/she will immediately be thrown into a customer support role. This person must be able to pleasantly and patiently interface with your business audience on a daily basis.
  • Willing to teach others - A social media manager will constantly be educating their co-workers and superiors on the latest technology. 
  • Ability to write - So much of digital communication takes the form of the written word. Despite it's inherent immediacy, any social media effort is an extension of your company's brand and should reflect professionalism. A firm grasp of spelling and proper sentence structure is a must!
Another great resource that I frequently refer back to is Jason Falls' April 2008 blog post about what he was looking for in a social media co-pilot at his employer, Doe-Anderson.

If you've recently hired - or identified - someone to champion social media within your organization, I'd love to hear your thoughts below on what traits you looked for.

Who owns your social graph?

2591366230_6ec445b68f I'm hearing lots of people freaking out today - in blog posts and Twitter - about Facebook's recent changes to their Terms of Service (TOS) and how this impacts your privacy and the content you post there.

Essentially, Facebook removed this phrase from their TOS:

You may remove your User Content from the Site at any time. If you choose to remove your User Content, the license granted above will automatically expire, however you acknowledge that the Company may retain archived copies of your User Content.

Essentially this means that any content you upload there is Facebook's property, forever. Yup, they own it, and they can do whatever they want with it in the future. Even if you cancel your account, according to this snippet from the TOS:

The following sections will survive any termination of your use of the Facebook Service: Prohibited Conduct, User Content, Your Privacy Practices, Gift Credits, Ownership; Proprietary Rights, Licenses, Submissions, User Disputes; Complaints, Indemnity, General Disclaimers, Limitation on Liability, Termination and Changes to the Facebook Service, Arbitration, Governing Law; Venue and Jurisdiction and Other.

I'm not as panicked about this (or even surprised) as some people are, because I believe you should always understand the Terms of Service implications of social networks as you explore them. I understand, it's asking a lot to read all that legal verbiage before you sign up. Inside Facebook, you've never actually owned your Social Graph - the company does.

Blogger Chris Brogan points out in a recent post that both banks and health insurance companies own your records, so it should come as no shock that Facebook owns what you put on their servers. Brogan also reminds us that every Web service owns our data to varying degrees, whether it's Facebook, Google Docs, Twitter, Dopplr, et cetera.

In summary, if you're really concerned about the change of verbiage on Facebook's TOS, go out and research the terms of every social application you interact with. Another general rule: Don't upload anything you wouldn't want them to own.

What are your thoughts? Are you less inclined to share on Facebook after this news, and will it impact your social networking habits?

Photo credit: adactio via Flickr

A few cures for blogging writer's block

2987926396_87eb3c3494_m Your blog requires commitment, maintenance and constant upkeep, or else it will grow stale and (worse yet) unnoticed. Here are a few tips to get you going when you encounter writer's block.

  1. Write a list about anything. This is probably the easiest "go-to" move for a blogger. A numbered list is easy for the writer to get up on the screen (one sentence or two each and move on) - and it's also easy on the readers' eyes. I'm writing a list right now!
  2. Review whatever book you're currently reading.  
  3. Spice up your blog with video content. It's cheap and easy to grab short snippets of video with a Flip Cam and embed the content in your blog. This makes your blog more dynamic, and suddenly you're showing instead of writing.
  4. Scan the headlines and start writing. It never hurts to be relevant and topical on your blog. Write about how the current economy is impacting your business.  
  5. Go out and interview someone. Make your post about other people, not just you.
  6. Meet an immediate need with a quick howto tutorial. For instance, lots of bloggers get writer's block - including myself - hence, this post was created.
That should be enough to get you started in a pinch, but just in case, here are over 100 more ideas to kick-start your blogging habits!

Photo courtesy of tomsaint11 via Flickr.

Is a sponsored tweetup really a tweetup?

This afternoon on Twitter (a micro-blogging social network populated by many people here in Des Moines) a massive discussion erupted surrounding the nature of how our local tweetups are organized. Feel free to follow the conversation by tracking the #dmtweetup hashtag here.

First, let's start with some definitions. Tweetups, simply put, are meetups for Twitter users. These events happen in cities all over the world, and are meant to be decentralized and self-organizing. By that definition, anybody on Twitter can call for a tweetup, and there is no clear "leader." Common themes are: meeting new friends, cocktails, good conversation, and a little bit of networking on the side.

Photo via lindsayrees on Flickr: Tweeps gather at Raccoon River for a Des Moines Tweetup. 

Since February 2008 in Des Moines, tweetups have become quite popular. The last two events (one organized by Impromptu Studio in November, and one by Leslie Berg in December) have pulled 90+ people each. As this group grows in numbers and influence, local companies and venues have shown interest in connecting with the community. Recent sponsors of tweetups and Twitter-related events have been SmartyPig.com, Paragon IT Pros, Panchero's, Olde Main Brewing, Mars Cafe, Impromptu Studio and Technology Association of Iowa. (Am I leaving anyone out?)

The definition of sponsorship is that these companies provided booze, food, a venue, or all three things.

Some facts: Tweetups were born from discussions between myself, Andy Brudtkuhl, and a couple of others in the fall of 2007 as a way to connect Des Moines' talented (but at the time disconnected) creative class. As things evolved, Andy and I were seen as "heads" of this Twitter community. When a local business showed interest in getting involved, they often reached out to us first, and we helped steer them on how to best engage the community.

Today, Andy and I were criticized for serving as a "chokepoint" for businesses trying to connect with the Des Moines Twitter community, and legitimizing companies who might approach it in the wrong way. A monetization discussion also came up: whether or not we profited from organizing any of these events.

Full disclosure: Andy has not made any money from advising companies on how to approach a tweetup sponsorship. My company (Lava Row) has made money in one instance: the strategy and scripting of the September 2008 SmartyPig digital treasure hunt as a paid project.

IowaBiz.com is not a channel for the emotion and personal biases of today's debate. We'll leave that on Twitter. So let's just focus on othe core theme that came up today: Can tweetups - a self-organizing event by nature - still be a tweetup with a sponsor?

The opinions differ wildly, and I wanted to share a few of them below:

@aroger my 2 cents, #dmtweetup should be inspired, organized, and promoted by the community, THEN a sponser can add value

@scottrocketship Businesses should come to us, the community, not someone or someone's in particular. Let us disagree WITH them, publicly.

@amyraelle for what it's worth, i appreciate anyone who plans events for me .... sponsors or no.

@paragonitpros We had a blast at the #dmtweetup we sponsored (as in bought a round) in September. No agenda, other than to meet tweeps.

@clairecelsi I've always been of the mind that Tweetup sponsors are just trying to contribute to the success of the event, not hard sell.

@jensenrf sure you (businesses) got to go to someone but this is dmtweetup.org and not lavarow. Community should feel cheated if not in the loop. Perception.

One of the better suggestions to come out of today's debate was Neil Roberts' idea of disclosing exactly who is calling for the tweetup within the event details on Upcoming.org. Was it a member of the Twitter community, or a business? There's another idea floating around of a video interview with multiple Des Moines tweeps containing their practical advice on what makes a successful sponsored tweetup. This would serve as an educational "howto" for local businesses.

Now it's your turn to chime in below, if you haven't already. Your perspective is always welcome here at IowaBiz.com.

Izea and SocialSpark: Bloggers as advertising inventory?

Recently there has been lots of controversy surrounding a company called Izea, which connects advertisers with bloggers via a marketplace application called SocialSpark.

Here's how it works: An advertiser can post an "opportunity" in the marketplace in the form of aSponsor sponsored blog post about their product or service, plus what they are willing to pay. Bloggers can browse these opportunities and select one to take on. The blogger then gets paid to write a post about that product.

A high-profile example is influential blogger Chris Brogan's post on Dadomatic about a K-Mart shopping spree. Chris was connected with K-Mart via Izea and given a $500 gift card to spend at a local store, and then encouraged to share the wealth with his readers/community via a contest.

The concept of pay-per-post has always been controversial. Blogs are essentially organic conversations, and many readers feel slighted when advertising infringes upon that. Chris Brogan wrote an excellent post explaining his involvement with the K-Mart contest, disclosing his reasons for doing it and detailing a history of successful blogger/marketer partnerships (including Seagate's ongoing sponsorship of Robert Scoble).

Here's my take. Many online influencers have become celebrities in their own right. Just like high-profile actors or athletes, money and sponsorships are going to come flying at them fast and furious. At the end of the day, it's up to them to decide which advertisers and brands connect best with their personality, reputation and fans/readers/community. Bands are considered "sell-outs" the minute they leave the garage, and bloggers will be criticized in the same manner as soon as they start selling ads or writing sponsored posts.

I believe it is the blogger's right to monetize their work and talents, as long as they participate in full disclosure. Izea, in fact, has put together a "Blogger Advisory Board" to craft the company's Blogger Code of Ethics.

So, what are your thoughts on sponsored blog posts? Do bloggers lose their credibility the instant they run ads on their site or participate in marketing partnerships? Or is this an acceptable new way for them to generate revenue from something they're good at? I welcome your thoughts and discussion in the comments below.

Nathan T. Wright

A Twitter playbook for your company

Brands, companies and organizations are invading Twitter at a steady clip. Social media gurus will tell you that Twitter can be a remarkably powerful customer relations, marketing and relationship-building tool. Yes, it can be - but only when used properly.32354436

Here are a couple of tips to keep in mind when building a presence for your company on Twitter:
  • Everyone starts out with zero followers. Don't freak out and follow hundreds of people in a knee-jerk reaction to "force" follow-backs. Chances are someone introduced you to Twitter. Politely ask that user for an introduction to the Twitter community - they will tweet something like "Please welcome @username to Twitter!" That should get you going. 
  • Maintain a balanced follower/following ratio. If you're following 2,473 Twitter users, but only 16 are following back, you're going to look like a Twitter spammer.
  • Upload a photo (avatar) and fill out your profile. Simple stuff, right? Showing your face means to users that there is a human behind the scenes and they'll feel more inclined to connect with your company. Put your location (city, state) in your profile, making you more likely to be found. A link to your company site or blog is almost a *must* - one of many tips outlined by Jeremiah Owyang on how to confirm your corporate Twitter account.
  • Maintain a 50/50 promo/convo ratio. For every time you send a tweet promoting something that your company has done (driving traffic back to your corporate site/blog) go out and proactively join a conversation taking place on Twitter. Remember, this is a conversation utility first and foremost.
  • Participate. You get out of Twitter what you put into it - enough said.
  • Use URL shorteners. Twitter isn't a pipe to shove long, unruly URLs into. Make use of URL shorteners like TinyURL, bit.ly and is.gd. Remember - you've only got 140 characters! 
  • Sponsor a TweetUp. Once you've got a few months under your belt, and you're well immersed in your local Twitter community - have your company sponsor a tweetup (meetup for Twitter users). This will establish goodwill towards you and your brand.
Playing by these simple rules will give you and your organization a head start on all the other entities trying to figure out Twitter right now. If you're still lost, follow the example of some of the best brands on Twitter: Home Depot, jetBlue, Comcast and Zappos.com.

Can social media be applied to b2b marketing tactics?

Social media marketing is often lumped together with consumer marketing, even though there are relevant B2B applications and ideas available. Just because one business is marketing to another business doesn't mean there aren't humans involved - humans who like (and sometimes prefer) to interact with each other via social networks.

Here are a couple of steps you can take if you're a B2B marketer:
  1. Develop a blogging strategy. Is there (are you) a "thought leader" within the company that can create valuable content that other businesses might be interested in? Think white papers, but served up on a blogging platform. Huge bonus: Search engines love blog content! Believe it or not, there are humans at those other businesses, and they're going to research your business on the Web. 
  2. Launch a private forum or social network. Are you stuck in channel marketing, or forced to market only to a dealer network? Create an online forum for them to gather and engage them this way. Use an application like Ning.com, which lets you build your own private social network overnight.  
  3. Listen, listen, listen! Sure, consumers are using social media to talking about brands, but conversations between and about business are also taking place. Subscribe to those RSS feeds and Google News Alerts!
  4. Learn, then sell your knowledge along with your product. The potential insight you might gain from the above efforts is simply added-value to your product or service. If you're dealing with channel marketers, distributors or manufacturers, you suddenly have a lot of information on what the marketplace is saying online and how to position products.
Here's a video of social media strategists Matt Dickman and David Armano talking about social media in the B2B marketing arena:

So get out there, immerse yourself in the social web space, and learn!

How to conduct effective online outreach

In the last column, we discussed how not to engage in online outreach efforts (AKA "astroturfing"). This time, let's talk about effective (and positive) ways that your company can reach out on the Social Web.Blog

Let's say a blogger mentions your company, service or product in his or her blog. You certainly have a right (whether the sentiment was positive, neutral or negative) to join that conversation. First, there are a few ground rules:

1.) Remain human. The last thing a blogger wants is marketing- or PR-speak in their comments section. Keep it light, candid and conversational.

2.) Did they talk about you in a positive light? Thank them, but keep it brief. The blogger will most likely appreciate that you're out there listening to customers. However, this isn't a platform for you to start screaming about your products. A link-back URL through the typical commenting fields is all you need.

3.) Add value to the conversation. If the blogger posed a question, answer it. If misinformation needs to be cleared up, clarify. This adds more depth and value to the conversation.

4.) Remain calm. If your company is being talked about in a negative fashion, take a page from Customer Service 101. Reach out, ask for more information and help to resolve the issue. If needed, tell your side of the story with facts and candor. A great example of this can be found in the comments section of a recent Iowa Web Awards blog post: The comment, which you can read here, was written by Anthony Clifton in regards to his company's reputation, Captain Jack Communications.

5.) Be transparent. When leaving a comment related to your business on a blog, use your full name and the company you represent. Anonymous commenting certainly won't help you build your case.

When in doubt, just remember to behave in these situations as you would at a networking event. Mingle, have conversations, but don't grab the microphone and shout.

Astroturfing: How NOT to approach social media

Profile_img1_astroturf_2"Astroturfing" happens all too often by marketers trying to infiltrate the social Web, and many practice it blindly without understanding how potentially damaging it can be to their company's reputation and brand.

First, let's define Astroturfing: It's the efforts of an individual (or group of individuals) - compensated by a company - posting information to blogs, message boards and social networks, posing as an average consumer with positive things to say about that company. To sum up: the attempt to create a fake grassroots movement to market a service or product. Hence the name Astroturfing.

Efforts like this are disingenuous and can be spotted easily with simple IP address tracking, which can lead to a public relations black eye for all parties - whether it is the company itself or their marketing partners.

Kami Huyse of Communications Overtones talks further about best practices and established an Anti-Astroturfing Code of Ethics here.

It comes down to one simple truth: Positive word-of-mouth can't be manufactured, it must be earned.

How your social networking activity can help your job search

We've all heard horror stories about how someone's social networking "presence" has disrupted their chances at landing a job. I would argue that, if used properly, your online identity can actually aid your cause when looking for a new career.

Let's face a couple of facts, first:Blog

1.) Employers can - and will - look you up online. They'll search for your name on Google, then LinkedIn, then Facebook. If you have a Twitter feed, they'll read it. It's well within their rights as an employer to do so.

2.) When we engage in activity on social networks (and the Web in general) we can leave behind permanent digital footprints. In many cases this will be public record - forever.

Look, our social network profiles are new forms of self-expression, so if all your pictures on MySpace involve you running down the street naked after doing a keg stand, chances are an employer won't look too favorably upon that.

That doesn't mean we have to neuter our personalities online. When I was hiring last spring, I looked at the profiles and activity of applicants within social networks to get a better grasp of them as human beings. What do they do for fun, what are they involved in, what are they passionate about, what sorts of pop culture do they absorb, what are their musical tastes, et cetera. These extra tidbits can really round out a personality beyond just a resume. In fact, I almost immediately passed over the ones who had very little social networking activity - due to lack of personality, but mostly because it was highly relevant to the job opening (social media strategist).

You can hang on to those keg stand photos, but take advantage of the robust privacy features within MySpace and Facebook. Feel free to share these photos with your friends - but not the whole world when you're seeking employment.

To sum up, let your social network profiles be a showcase for your personality and passions, and this can be a tremendous asset during the interview process.

Nathan T. Wright

How to market your company during an economic downtown

It's a well-known fact that the first victims of economic downturns are advertising and marketing budgets. As a company, how you do maintain your brand's presence and top-of-mind status with very few dollars to spend?

One of the things you'd want to look at is reaching out to online communities as aBlog_2 representative of your company and starting/joining conversations there. In most cases this is completely free, and requires only a time commitment and some knowledge of digital community best practices.

Here are the fundamentals you'll need to know:

1.) Choose online communities that are relevant to your services or product. Selling off-road vehicles or ATVs? Why not jump into the Iowa Outdoors forum and see what they're chattering about.

2.) Listen and mingle first. Behave like you would at a cocktail party. Mill around for a bit, find pockets of like-minded people and start conversations, or join those already in progress. Don't run up, grab the mic, and start screaming about what you have to sell. Be human.

As far as time is concerned - get started by dedicating a few hours per week. Like with any marketing effort, you get out of it what you put into it. The more time and passion you throw into this the better your results will be.

Form relationships instead of fleeting "impressions." Recently, two Des Moines-area companies have sponsored TweetUps (meetups for Central Iowa Twitter users). SmartyPig hosted an event, complete with prizes and giveaways, at a location that could only be discovered through a digital treasure hunt. Paragon IT is sponsoring a TweetUp this Thursday evening to better connect themselves with local entrepreneurs and business leaders. These are both fantastic examples of companies that have embraced Twitter as a low-cost marketing tool. (Full disclosure: I was involved in the creation of the SmartyPig event.)

Marketers, don't let the downturn slow down your efforts. With a little savvy and a few best practices there are thousands of affordable (and sometimes free) options social media channels that you can take advantage of.

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