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My Ten Favorite Tweets – Week Ending 112808

From the home office in Lake Tahoe, California…

#1: Better than spam? Chris Baskind reports a spammer on Twitter has a 21.5% return follow rate: http://bit.ly/EzHm

#2: If you don’t ask, you don’t get. And…you never get everything you ask for.

#3: Just added BackType to my FriendFeed. An interesting competitor to Disqus and Intense Debate.

#4: I love this saying about parenting: “The days are long, the years are short.” >> So very, very true.

#5: Why is Papa Bear such the dufus in the Berenstein Bears books? Giving us Dads a bad name…

#6: Doing a keyword search in my GReader, seeing some great posts for blogs to which I don’t subscribe. Power of subscribing to others’ shares.

#7: Editing/adding content on my blog’s About Me page. That page receives a good number of hits, and I thought…”What Would @chrisbrogan Do?”

#8: Reading: “Resumes are Dead. Social Media is Your New Resume.” http://bit.ly/yqUQ

#9: Twitter for $500 million..gut says that’s too low. Twitter is the defining platform for lightweight interactions. $1 billion +…

#10: Thanksgiving morning. We’ve got Christmas music playing on the radio (96.5). Kids are jumping on the bed. Heading to Gramma’s house later.

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Happy Thanksgiving with Alice’s Restaurant

I love this song, and hearing it this time of year conjures up great memories. Here’s Arlo Guthrie singing Alice’s Restaurant. The YouTube video is not embeddable, but click the picture and you’ll be taken to the video.

Happy Thanksgiving.

alices-restaurant-arlo-guthrie

Will We Ever Find Our True Talent? Not Likely Says Malcolm Gladwell

outliers-malcolm-gladwell

This past June, I wrote a post titled How Many of Us Find Our True Talent? It was a look at whether people tend to land in professions that fit their “highest and best” talents:

My own theory is that each of have talents that are uniquely strong in us. For some, these talents would put them on the world stage. For most of us, they’d probably vault us to the top of a particular field. And yet I suspect that most of us never hit on those unique talents.

Malcolm Gladwell currently has a book out titled Outliers: The Story of Success. In it, he examines the underlying factors that propel certain individuals to the very top of their fields. I have not read the book, so I’m picking up its contents from various sites I’m reading and a couple interviews with him that I’ve heard.

From what I’ve seen, Gladwell’s thesis can be boiled down to three factors:

  1. Intrinsic talent for something
  2. Luck of the draw for your circumstances
  3. Heavy practice in a field (min. of 10,000 hours)

Microsoft founder Bill Gates comes up in discussions of this book. We all know that he conquered the PC world with Microsoft, becoming fabulously influential and wealthy. But there’s the Paul Harvey-esque “now you know…the rest of the story”. Here’s how Harvard’s Thomas Sander relates it:

He credits Bill Gates’ success to early and sustained access to high-end computers. Gladwell concedes that Gates is obviously brilliant, but still notes that many other brilliant youth never had the chance to become computer stars of Gates’ magnitude because they didn’t haveaccess to these sophisticated computers.

I heard Gladwell on NPR talking about this. It turns out he attended one of the few schools in the country, high school or college, with access to a mainframe computer where students could program. Now Gates had a passions and aptitude for programming. So there was this great mix of talent and circumstances that allowed it to flourish.

In the post I wrote in June, I ascribed people’s not landing in fields that leverage their true talents to three factors:

  • Too quick to focus on something at a young age, never trying out other areas
  • No opportunities to surface and develop the hidden talent
  • Practical realities – kids, mortgage, caring for someone who is ill – prevent a move into a different field

From what I’ve seen about Gladwell’s book, these factors ring true. As he says himself on the website devoted to his book:

Doesn’t that make it sound like success is something outside of an individual’s control? I don’t mean to go that far. But I do think that we vastly underestimate the extent to which success happens because of things the individual has nothing to do with.

I don’t want to leave this post on a down note. Many, many of us will find vocations that we are good at, and which make us quite happy. We have family and friends which enrich or lives. Personally, having gone from one profession I really enjoyed (banking) to another (enterprise 2.0), I know there are a wide range of fields that each of us can do well at and be happy.

And with a lot of luck, a very few of us find the mother lode.

*****

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BackType’s Co-opetition with Disqus, IntenseDebate

friendfeed-add_edit-svcs-comments

Disqus “makes commenting easier and more interactive, while connecting websites and commenters across a thriving discussion community.”

IntenseDebate lets you track your own comments and those of people you follow.

BackType “is a service that lets you find, follow and share comments from across the web.”

Right now, it’s pretty easy to say that Disqus competes with IntenseDebate. Then you read what BackType is doing, and you think, “and they’re competing with Disqus and IntenseDebate too”. Well, they are, they aren’t.

It’s complicated.

I tweeted this last night:

“Just added BackType to my FriendFeed. An interesting competitor to Disqus and Intense Debate.”

That tweet set off a great discussion on FriendFeed. Two folks jumped in. Louis Gray, who has several posts up about BackType, had a couple insightful replies:

“It is a comments tracker and search, not a comments replacement system.”
“My point is that you would not install BackType on your blog. BackType is a superset comments tracker. It finds my comments on Moveable Type, Disqus, Blogger, WordPress, you name it. Then I can search it or follow people. Show me how you would replace your comments on your blog with BackType code and we have a discussion.”

And Phil Glockner added some great food for thought:

I agree with Louis that I don’t think BackType is competing directly. I do think their service overlaps with something centralized commenting systems already do, which is to.. well, track comments across various blogs and other places. BackType opens the scope by supporting tracking your comments wherever they are, in whatever form. But unlike Disqus and ID, it most definitely isn’t a centralized comment service. In other words, Backtype is not the engine you would use to create new comments.

They both really brought home the differences between BackType, and Disqus and IntenseDebate (ID). Disqus and ID are software applications that do a lot of comment management things for bloggers. Spam protection, threading, comment rating, reblog, etc. But I think there’s more to the story here. FriendFeeder Rahsheen puts his finger on it with this comment in the discussion:

I can’t actually put backtype on my blog and have people leave comments in it, but as far as sharing where I’m commenting…it pretty much owns

That’s where the line between competitor or not gets fuzzy.

Is Comment Tracking Geared for Bloggers or Blog Readers?

When I wrote my tweet, I was thinking about BackType from the perspective of a commenter, not a blogger. What I like about Disqus and ID is the ability to see all my comments across the blogosphere in one place, and the ability to track what and where others are commenting.

If I use Disqus for that purpose, then I’ll only see comments made on Disqus-enabled sites. If I use ID for that purpose, then I’ll only see comments made on ID-enabled sites.

But if I use BackType, I see comments by people everywhere! This is because BackType is a bottom-up approach: “Hey commenter! Just provide your commonly-used comment auth credentials, and we’ll find your comments!” It’s an incredibly simple, elegant approach to tracking comments.

BackType tracks comments made via Disqus, and I assume ID as well. For instance, I can see Robert Scoble’s comments on Fred Wilson’s post My Techmeme Obsession on both Disqus and on BackType. But only on BackType will I see his comments on the TechCrunch post A sheepish apology.

So if I’m interested in tracking Robert’s comments across the blogosphere, which site should I use, Disqus or BackType?

BackType also pulls in comments made on Digg and Reddit, as Louis Gray wrote about recently. Even better! So as a user, where should I spend my time?

Disqus and IntenseDebate Will Compete on Other Bases

The reason I say that BackType is in “co-opetition” is that part of the value prop for Disqus and ID is the ability to have a centralized place for your comments, and to follow those of others. It’s not their only value, but it is part of the story.

If things like ad dollars built on site visitors is something these guys are looking at, then there is definitely competition. It’s a battle for attention.

But I believe there are going to be some interesting revenue models for Disqus and ID beyond site visitors. And that makes it less of a competition. BackType founder Christopher Golda made this comment on the FriendFeed discussion:

Thanks for the comments everyone — we don’t believe we are a competitor with either Disqus or ID; in fact, we recommend both. Anything that improves the quality of comments is complementary to BackType :)

Focus on the last part of that statement. If Disqus and ID improve the experience for commenters and bloggers, it ultimately is for the good of BackType. I’m not convinced there won’t be some competitive overlap, but I can also see the distinct value props of Disqus and ID relative to BackType.

*****

See this post on FriendFeed: http://friendfeed.com/search?q=%22BackType%E2%80%99s+Co-opetition+with+Disqus%2C+IntenseDebate%22&who=everyone

My Ten Favorite Tweets – Week Ending 112108

From the home office in Manila, Philippines…

#1: “If a mind is always open, it never finishes anything. If it’s always closed, it never starts.” – Scott Berkun, The Myths of Innovation

#2: @pico On FriendFeed? Attention on FriendFeed (for non A-Listers) is driven by: being interactive + decent-to-great content.

#3: Observation: E2.0 crowd is much more active on Twitter than FriendFeed: (1) established connections, (2) conversations, (3) broadcast.

#4: @pico It’s kind of a parallel to enterprise 2.0 in general. E2.0 tracks what happens in Web 2.0, with a 2 year delay. Web 2.0 is the filter.

#5: Just showed my colleague how I’ve got my FriendFeed Enterprise 2.0 List up on my monitor via real-time. His reaction? “Gotta show me how!”

#6: Reading: Why doesn’t anyone care about HP? http://bit.ly/16dEB

#7: @jeffmann The Gartner MQ for social software available in full without registration here: http://bit.ly/gs6dH

#8: Preso best practice = mostly pix, few words. Great for in-person presentations. But Slideshare versions lose context w/ single word slides.

#9: Wow, now my LinkedIn profile is pimped out with my blog posts and Slideshare. Really, really cool what LinkedIn is doing.

#10: RT @THE_REAL_SHAQ Sittin next to steve nash, tryna get hi to join twitter >> Twitter’s viral nature is everywhere…

*****

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Three Ways to Double the Value of Your Social Software

I did a Connectbeam webinar yesterday, Double the Value of Your Social Software. One thing about webinars is they really force you to crystallize your thinking, and you get to try out some cool new ideas. This one was a lot of fun for me. I enjoyed bringing some unconventional examples to the discussion.

So how exactly does one “double the value” of social software? The core of the argument is that integrating the various social software apps inside companies produces a new layer of value. In terms of how this happens, I developed three areas of focus:

  1. Expand information’s reach
  2. Create an employee skills database
  3. Diversify and strengthen workers’ sources of information

The Slideshare below is the presentation I used in the webinar. Below the Slideshare, I describe the background and the three areas of focus.

“Enterprise Silos” 2.0

The great thing about companies rolling out the tools of Web 2.0 is that it lets people from everywhere contribute. Multiple people jump on wikis, blogs, microblogging, etc. Social software can tear down the departmental and geographic walls that separate employees.

So it’s ironic that these wall-busting apps end up as new walled gardens of participation. Employees update their Confluence wiki, they blog on Movable Type and Yammer away. But there’s no integration of the apps.

There’s a screaming need to pull these social software apps together. The folks over at venture capital firm Foundry Group laid out a nice investment theme with regard to Glue.  A lot of the logic from that post applies to the proliferation of social software apps inside companies.

By connecting the different social software apps inside companies, companies will realize a new source of value from them, “doubling” their value.

With that, let’s look at the three new sources of value when you integrate these apps.

Expand Information’s Reach

It’s true that information is the key driver of success in the market today. That’s a truism, overplayed theme, I know.

But, it has had its effects inside companies. You see this theme played out in architectural decisions, such Service Oriented Architectures, which makes integrating data and processes much easier. Mashups are another area where we see this.

How about the consumers of data? How to optimize the creation, distribution and consumption of data inside the enterprise?

This is an area where Enterprise 2.0 can learn a lesson from the world of e-commerce. E-commerce companies work hard to optimize the finding and purchasing processes on their sites. Every extra step it takes to find something or to purchase it causes some percentage of consumers to drop out. So they work hard to provide a full, but easy experience.

How about applying that thinking to accessing the employee-generated content inside companies?
How to reduce the steps to accessing this content?

There are three components for what I’ll call an Information Reach Program:

  • Search
  • Serendipity
  • Notifications

Let’s take a look at those three components.

Search: A Forrester Research survey found that only 44% of employees can regularly find information on their corporate intranet. Meanwhile, Pew Research found that 87% of people can regularly find what they want on the Internet.

Where do you think employees will turn first for information? Now there’s nothing wrong with googling something. New information needs to be brought into the enterprise. It’s healthy and vital.

But the pendulum has swung too far toward looking externally, particularly with the rise employee-generated content. Thing likes social bookmarking, blogging and wikis are letting employees find and filter an array of great information. Yet it’s too easy to ignore.

One way to counteract that? Integrate employee-generated content with search engines. When an employees runs searches, they get their usual search results. But why not also show them related content from the company’s social software? Slide #12 in the Slideshare presentation shows Connectbeam’s example of that.

Serendipity: Also known as, finding useful information when you weren’t expecting it. Or as Dennis Howlett put it:

Serendipity: the 21st C word for ‘bloody good luck.

If search is purposeful, serendipity is passive, and in-the-flow of whatever else you’re doing. For serendipity to work, you have to expose people to a range of information during their activities. And let’s be honest – much of that information will score low on the usefulness scale.

But I argue that you need to cionsider serendipity from a portfolio perspective. If you can enable employees to be exposed to random information in high volumes, there will be cases of great matches between something a worker needs and a piece of information she wouldn’t normally see.

Key here is putting this information in-the-flow of daily work. If all employees do is watch a cascade of information, they’re not being very productive.

Notifications: “It’s not information overload. It’s filter failure.” says Clay Shirky. Search is purposeful, serendipity is luck. How about those nuggets of informaiton that you want to know, but aren’t actively searching for and miss during the course of the day? Notifications are the third component of the Information Reach Program.

Key here is to let people personalize their notifications, because people aren’t monolithic in their interests. Top down push processes diminish employees’ interest in tracking the data presented. Filter on groups (e.g. departments, projects, communities of interest), individuals and keywords. These go a long way toward answering Clay Shirky’s point about filter failure.

Create an Employee Skills Database

When you integrate the different social software apps, you can create rich set of data that well-describes what each employee knows and is working on.It’s not just your position and previous titles that matter – it’s your contributions, visible and accessible by all.

We’re seeing steps toward this approach on sites like LinkedIn, with its new apps platform. When you view a person on LinkedIn, you see more than their resume. You get a living, dynamic view of their work. Someday, all that content you’re piping into your LinkedIn  profile should be searchable by others – beyond the current resume entries.

Same idea holds inside enterprises. If you could aggregate employees’ contributions across the social software apps, you have a much richer view of their skills, knowledge and interests than the typical corporate directory.

Connectbeam customer and all-around smart guy Rich Hoeg of Honeywell put it nicely at the recent Defrag conference:

With Connectbeam, I was looking for a social bookmarking application. I ended up with a skills database.

Yes, that’s a Connectbeam plug. But the logic applies more broadly.

Diversify and Strengthen Workers’ Sources of Information

I’ve discussed previously on this blog a fantastic research paper that evaluated the power of employees’ social networks to affect productivity. Basically, the more diverse an employee’s sources of information, and the stronger her connections to a large number of peers, the more productive she is.

Now tie this idea in with Harvard professor Andrew McAfee’s thinking about employees’ Strong, Weak and Potential ties inside companies. Employees already maintain Strong ties inside companies. That’s the status quo out there.

The opportunity for companies is to work those Week and Potential ties. Move them closer to close ties. How?

  • Make employee contributions as findable as possible (i.e. expand information’s reach)
  • Associate activity and tags to individuals
  • Enable easy following of the activities of others
  • Fish where the fish are – put employee generated content where people do their work

Wrapping up

This webinar was a lot of fun, and I think you’ll notice some different thoughts than what is usually seen in these presentations. There are several ideas included in it that really merit exploration separately. I’ll probably do that on this blog, and over on the Connectbeam blog as well.

*****

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Do Not Kill Off Marketing During a Recession

It is a mystery to me why some companies (often the ones who find themselves eventually dying away) will react to a downturn by cutting marketing expenses. Cutting expenses is a super smart thing to do, but you should NOT cut back on your marketing.

David Risley, The Single Biggest Mistake in an Economic Downturn Is…

I like David’s sentiment, and I put together this graphic to complement it:marketing-radar

In the world of business sales, you cannot predict which prospects will become sales.  But, you know that you need touchpoints with companies. Which prospects will turn into customers? Hard to predict that.

One reaction to the reduced sales that accompany a recession is to cut back on marketing. Unfortunately, that’s just doubling down on your problems. There are fewer bona fide prospects out there during a recession as companies cut back. Which increases the value of each remaining prospect.

Thus, if you reduce the span/frequency of your marketing efforts, you’re going to miss some of the remaining prospects in the market. If you reduce the number of prospects with whom you engage, you can predict the effect on your sales.

That being said, there are wonderful opportunities to do more with less in terms of marketing, thanks to the rise of social media. Jeremiah Owyang and Chris Brogan can tell you more about how to do that.

*****

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Follow Everything by a Select Few, Select Content by Everyone

Item #1: Fred Wilson tweet:

@timoreilly i want to follow less people and more keywords in my twitter timeline. can’t wait for summize to get integrated into twitter

Item #2: Adam Lasnik FriendFeed post:

I switched over to reading mostly a ‘subgroup’ (“Favorites”) on FF, and was missing the serendipity of new voices. One way I’ve remedied that is to do searches on some of my favorite things (“a cappella”, “lindy hop”, etc.) and see who and what comes up.

Item #3: Steve Gillmor blog post:

A small number of Follows combined with Track produces a high degree of coverage on a daily basis.

The three items above share a common theme…limit the number of people you follow. At first, this sounds obvious. Isn’t that what people normally would do? Well no, it’s not. In social networks, there’s a dynamic whereby people tend to return the favor when someone follows them. This build up your follows over time.  As Louis Gray noted in a recent post:

While you might be following thousands of people and making new “friends” on Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, FriendFeed and all the other networks, you would likely hesitate before sending them an open invitation to your home.

“Thousands of people” I’m doing it: following 1,000+ people on FriendFeed, 600+ on Twitter. For seeing a broad range of information and opinion sources, it’s great to track so many people.

But there is a big downside. Much of what I see doesn’t interest me. The greater the number of people you follow, the more content you will see that falls outside your areas of interest. Putting this into attention terms, for any given minute you spend on a site, what is the probability you will see something that interests you?

It’s an odd phenomenon. I actually like that I’m following a lot of people, because it increases the number of instances where something that interests me will go by on my screen. But it affects the rate at which something interesting goes by. As you follow people that stretch outside your core interests, their streams do have a higher percentage of stuff that you don’t care about. And the overall probability of seeing content that interests you declines.

I want to differentiate this idea from Dunbar’s number, which describes limits on people’s ability to maintain inter-personal relationships. I’m not talking inter-personal relationships. I’m talking information foraging.

What Are You Trying to Get from Your Social Media

I enjoy following people that stream content outside my normal range of interests, such as Anna Haro on FriendFeed. It’s important to step outside the things that regularly occupy you, if you want to grow.

But the three items above show there is another rationale for people to participate in social media. Rather than seek content outside their interests, they want a concentrated dose. Personally, I’m finding I need this professionally. The Enterprise 2.0 space (my field) is fluid, and undergoing the stress of the global recession. Tracking the news, ideas, perspectives, trends and relationships is critical. For example, the microblogging trend (e.g. Yammer) is new and I’m interested in seeing how that plays out.

If you can see the point of that social media use case, you can understand the value of this idea:

Follow everything by a select few, select content by everyone

As I noted in my last blog post, I’m tracking everything for a select group of Enterprise 2.0 people, and keywords/tags for everyone.

In terms of the three items with which I started this post, Fred Wilson describes this approach. Adam Lasnik isn’t too far away. His manual searches for “a cappella”, “lindy hop”, etc. could be turned into persistent searches to find new content and people. Steve Gillmor is a little more of the social media whale philosophy, where he only wants to follow a specific set of users and then interact with the @replies on Twitter. But even Steve could add keyword tracking via a FriendFeed Room as a way to improve his daily “coverage”.

Will This Trend Grow?

I’m a fan of this use case. It fits my needs professionally. It’s almost like I have my 9-to-5 social media, and then my nighttime social media.

I suspect this use case will make more and more sense as social media expands its mainstream footprint. Information workers are the ones who will be most interested. The hardest part is figuring out which keyword/tags to follow, what sites to track and what mechanism to use for this tracking. I’d argue FriendFeed with its Rooms and Lists is perfect for this, but certainly there are other ways.

One final thought. If this trend takes hold out in the wider market, I can see people practicing a little SEO on their content. Get those hash tags in your tweets to make sure Fred Wilson will see your content (if he ever reveals what he tracks).

For kicks, I’m curious what you think of this idea. Please take a second to answer the poll below. If you’re reading this via RSS, click out to participate in the poll.

*****

See this post on FriendFeed: http://friendfeed.com/search?q=%22Follow+Everything+by+a+Select+Few%2C+Select+Content+by+Everyone%22&who=everyone

Workplace Productivity vs. Tracking the “Flow”

I mentioned in an earlier blog post that at Defrag last week, Stowe Boyd gave a presentation on following a cascade of information, a flow. While I couldn’t attend his presentation, what I heard from others was that Stowe argued that there are no limits on people’s attention. They can get work done and track information in real-time simultaneously. It is all a matter of training.

A common opinion I heard from others was that this was BS. Workers have things to get done, and cannot spend their time watching a ticker of information going by.

I know there are dedicated social media/blogging types who do swim in the cascade of information via apps like Twirl, Tweetdeck and other clients. It makes sense for these folks – they live a life of staying up-to-date on what other social media types are talking about, and engaging others in real-time conversations.

But does that fly inside the workplace? It’s hard to imagine your average worker watching a constant stream of information. (a) They likely don’t care. (b) It seems to imperil their productivity.

Yet should information workers care about what’s happening in their field? And does this flow really affect their productivity?

I’m not one of those with an Adobe Air client feeding me updates from Twitter and FriendFeed. I’m generally resistant to client-based apps, and I don’t feel the need to track the flows so much. But on FriendFeed, I found myself continually going back to the site to check my Enterprise 2.0 List. This list consists of entries from the Enterprise 2.0 Room plus the feeds of a number of people who are active in the space.

Well if I’m going to constantly go back to that List on FriendFeed, why not bring the real-time updates to me? So I’ve been experimenting with running my Enterprise 2.0 List in real-time on my work computer this week.

Getting Work Done and Enjoying the Flow

Here’s a picture of my screen, with a Word document open to the left, and FriendFeed real-time opened in a mini window to the right:

working-while-tracking-the-flow

I have two screens at my desk. A flat screen monitor, and my laptop screen. The graphic above is from the monitor, which is big enough to allow two windows.

Here are a few thoughts about adding flow to my daily work.

I already have an ADD work style: I’m probably not alone in this. Since way back when I was a banker writing client pitches and offering memoranda, I have a hard time writing something straight through over the course of an hour. I just can’t do it. I’ll write something, then a I need a break. I don’t know why that is. If I trudge through the writing without break, the quality suffers.

Thus the real-time updates are a welcome break as I write.

The pace of updates isn’t too fast: Not that FriendFeed real-time couldn’t handle it. There are 33 people in my Enterprise 2.0 List currently (the Enterprise 2.0 Room is one of them). They tweet a lot, rarely interact on FriendFeed, post blogs and share/bookmark articles. The pace of updates seems to average once every couple minutes, with a decent-sized standard deviation.

If I had real-time up for my FriendFeed home page, where I’m tracking over 1,000 people, I imagine the movement in the screen to the right would be constant. That would be too distracting.

I feel more on top of my game: Let’s talk about the reason you’d track the flow. By having this up, I’ve got a really good sense about the ideas, arguments, conferences, information and relationships that are going on out in the Enterprise 2.0 world. Professionally, I’ve never been so aware of the goings-on. A lot of this I feed back internally here at Connectbeam.

I also love seeing the @reply tweets of the people I’m following on real-time. I’m finding more interesting people to follow on Twitter as a result. Some of these folks end up on my Enterprise 2.0 List.

I’m still getting my work done: And this is the crux of the experiment. I’m still getting work done while that real-time window is up.

There Are Limits to Our Attention, But I’m Not Approaching Those

Probably the single biggest factor that’s making this flow thing work for me is that I’m not bombarded with an update every second. I think the Defrag attendees who thought Stowe was talking crazy probably were thinking about one update-per-second type of flows. If that was the case, then yes, it’s a mistake to try this.

But a more limited flow built on a select group of people and a feed of keywords is quite manageable. And actually really beneficial.

*****

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Newsletters Are Still Viable? How I Approached My First Newsletter Email

In some ways, I’m the worst guy to be in charge of emailing a newsletter out on behalf of my company Connectbeam. I’m very dismissive of spam email. I hang up on telemarketers without guilt, after quickly saying “put me on your do not call list”. I ignore newspaper and website ads, I don’t watch commercials.

I like my little cloistered world…

But newsletters are back in vogue it seems. Longtime blogger Jason Calacanis famously dropped his blog for an email newsletter. Chris Brogan maintains a newsletter. I subscribe to a newsletter provided by analyst relations firm SageCircle.

Clearly there continues to be life in newsletters despite the advent of RSS. I guess I should rephrase that. The dominant form of online information distribution is email, with a RSS still a small part of the pie. And email does have some advantages – people spend more time there in a business setting. It also has an outreach aspect that bugs the hell out of A-List bloggers, but can be less intrusive for everyday people.

As a young company looking to expand its brand and message, Connectbeam needs to consider the newsletter a part of its overall engagement strategy.

So I recognize the importance of it, even as I’m probably the last person who would read anything like this. Which, in a way, made me well-suited for tackling this.

Making It More Than a Typical Company Marketing Piece

The email went out to 253 people – we didn’t spam some purchased list of thousands of names. The subject line was: “Social Software During a Recession – Connectbeam Nov 2008″. I wanted the email to be topical, not some spam about a product release.

Here’s the email (also available online):

connectbeam-newsletter-nov-2008One of our HTML guys put together a good-looking layout.The email went out yesterday morning, and here are two stats on it so far:

  • 28% opened
  • 2 unsubscribes

My overall objective is to make the email useful, and to build Connectbeam’s presence out in the market. If I’m successful in the former, I believe I’ll be successful in the latter. A third objective is to advertise upcoming webinars as well. That’s going to be an ongoing battle, as I’ll describe below.

There are four sections highlighted in the email graphic. Here’s what I was doing with each of those.

1. Opening Message

The first challenge is getting people to open the email. Once you’re through that hurdle, next you’ve probably got 5 seconds to catch their attention. My guess is that people will do a quick scan of the different sections, then read the opening sentence at the top of the newsletter.

In writing the opening message, I essentially wrote a mini-blog post. Readers of this blog know I’m a big fan of linking to others’ work, and this was no exception. I linked to a nice post by Jevon MacDonald on the FAST Forward blog. Then I added my two cents. Right off the bat, I wanted to give the reader something useful. A couple people clicked on the link to Jevon’s post.

Something else that seemed important – putting my name on the email. I’ve been immersed in social media enough to know that a soul-less corporate entity as the sender immediately loses some of the engagement. It comes across as a pure marketing exercise. So I wanted my name on there.

The other thing about putting your name on it? It raise your own expectations for the utility of the email. After all, people are going to associate its quality with you.

2. Three Things We’re Reading

There are three objectives with this section:

  1. Give the reader links to information that they may find useful
  2. Provide links that fit a theme for the newsletter
  3. Connectbeam is all about collaborative information sharing – so practice what we preach

Based on the click stats, this seems to been a successful part. That first link for the MIT study of a company’s implicit social network (I blogged about it here) has been clicked 18 times. Clearly people were digging that one. The IBM tagging savings story was clicked 7 times, which was not too bad either.

My intention with this section is to design something that will be useful to recipients. Even if you currently have no interest in Connectbeam, you’ll find enough value in these links to continue receiving the email. That’s why I’m particularly attuned to the unsubscribe stats. Having only two people unsubscribe so far is a good start from my perspective.

There are no silver bullets with this newsletter program. It’s not like I expect people to sign contracts after reading the email. I’m looking at the newsletter as a long term brand-building exercise, and as a basis for increased engagement over time. But the only way that works is if they agree to continue receiving it.

3. Upcoming Webinar

Alas, this part of the email has not gotten a lot of love so far. I understand. Webinars are a time commitment. People have to make their choices.

Enterprise vendor webinars are a tough sell. I’m starting to appreciate the finer points of webinars. When I was at BEA, I led a webinar for social search inside the enterprise, talking about general issues and the Pathways application. We had 80 attendees, including many from the Fortune 500 set. It established a baseline for me on these things. But the driver of that level of attention? BEA was a significant presence in the market. Many, many companies had BEA portal software, and were curious about the new social computing applications available for that.

Connectbeam isn’t BEA. We don’t have nearly the presence. So a webinar by our company doesn’t yet have the fertile ground that a BEA did.

One trick I’ve seen companies employ (which we even did at BEA), is to partner with a well-known analyst or consulting firm, or with a big-name vendor. SocialText has done these with Forrester. NewsGator has worked with Microsoft. There’s an upcoming $100 webinar (yes, attendees pay $100!) by market research firm Radicati with Atlassian, SocialText and Telligent.

This webinar partnering idea is one I’m going to look into more.

4. News and Events

In this section, I describe the recent 3.1 release of Connectbeam’s application. This is an area where I can give an update on what is happening with Connectbeam. It’s the closest thing we have to an annoying email PR blast about what we’re doing.

But integrated into a useful email with other parts, I think it works. This section will rise on the email when I don’t have any upcoming webinars to tout.

Any Suggestions?

You now know my approach and objectives with this email program. I’m the guy who doesn’t like these things, put into a position of sending them out. And Connectbeam isn’t a major name like Google or Oracle, so there isn’t a ready-to-read audience out there. This stuff takes some hustle and experimentation.

If you have any thoughts on what you see, or what’s worked well for you, I’d love to hear it.

*****

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Social Media “Glue” and Gnip’s Co-opetition with FriendFeed

We believe that enabling web technologies are going through a similar development cycle as enterprise application integration technology did 10+ years ago. Companies are creating tools, applications and platforms to enable more productive and automated uses of resources that have become ubiquitous parts of the online ecosystem. We think about these enabling technologies as the glue that will increasingly hold together that ecosystem.

Seth Levine, Foundry Group

Venture capital firm Foundry Group, which includes partner Brad Feld, described an important investment theme for their firm. Titled Theme: Glue, the thesis is that the growing number of web services and content-generating sites are causing increased complexity, and that there is a need for an infrastructure to handle all this.

This can seem a bit dry (“I know this back end plumbing stuff is boring to most of you”, as Michael Arrington says), but its relevance is can be considered in the context of:

Foundry’s thesis extends beyond server-load management. But its initial investment in Gnip starts on that part of the “Glue” story.

The Problem Gnip Solves

The rise of user generated content has made this problem particularly acute. We’re creating so much content, all over the place. Flickr, Del.icio.us, Digg, YouTube, Twitter, WordPress.com, Google Reader, etc. I mean, there’s a lot of stuff!

It turns out a lot of other sites want to consume this stuff – FriendFeed, Plaxo Pulse, Strands, SocialMedian and many, many other sites. And the direction for production and consumption of all this content is only going one way –> up.

The problem that arises is the way consuming services, such as FriendFeed, have had to find out if you’ve got a new tweet, blog post, Digg, etc. The consuming services need to ping every individual user’s account on some site, such as Flickr,  with the query, “got anything new?” For most people, the answer is no. But that query is the cause of a lot of traffic and latency. Imagine all these new web services pinging en masse all the UGC sites. It can be quite a load to handle. In Twitter’s case, it was too much to handle.

Gnip addresses this issue, standing between UGC sites and consuming sites:

gnip-flowThe UGC sites (aka producers) push updates for their various users to Gnip. These updates are either change notifications, or full content for each user. So Gnip becomes the reference layer for anything occurring for a UGC site’s users.

The consuming sites then look to Gnip as a “single throat to choke” in terms of updates. Gnip handles the updates, and gets them out to consuming sites in real-time. Gnip also removes the burden on consuming sites to write and maintain polling scripts for all the various UGC sites of users.

The idea is a good one, as it offloads a lot of the burden for both producers and consumers. Of course, it shines a light on Gnip’s scalability and uptime stats.

Initial consuming sites using Gnip include:

Gnip is off to a nice start. But what about FriendFeed?

FriendFeed’s Ex-Googlers Roll Their Own

FriendFeed is one of those consuming sites. But they’ve not signed on for Gnip so far. Not surprising, considering their Google background. Lots of good knowledge about scalability to be learned from Google.

Rather than sign on to Gnip’s service, Friendfeed has proposed the simple update protocol (SUP). What’s SUP?

SUP (Simple Update Protocol) is a simple and compact “ping feed” that web services can produce in order to alert the consumers of their feeds when a feed has been updated.

The idea is that the UGC sites provide a single point for posting notifications of new user activities. Rather than the consuming sites running the “got anything new?” query for every single user on their platform, they go to a single place to see what’s new. They have a list of the user IDs they want to check, which they run against the SUP location. Much more efficient.

Which does sound a little like Gnip, doesn’t it? Here’s a Q&A between Marshall Kirkpatrick of ReadWriteWeb and FriendFeed co-founder Paul Buchheit:

RWW: [Where is this relative to] Gnip? (See our coverage of Gnip, a startup that appears to be aiming to do what SUP will do and more.)

Buchheit: We’re talking with several companies about supporting SUP, but aren’t ready to announce anything.

On the TechCrunch post about Gnip 2.0, commenter Nikolay Kolev writes:

Even if I like Gnip’s concept a lot at this moment, I think it’s just a temporary solution of the real problem. It solves deficiencies of the vast majority of the data producers nowadays, yes, but if more implement XMPP PubSub, FriendFeed SUP and other similar technologies, there will be less incentives for data consumers to make their business rely on a single provider that supposedly aggregates and replicates all of the Web…

On FriendFeed, user Dani Radu writes this in response to Gnip:

pretty interesting, I mean making all this data handling drop dead simple is great – but this means they want to cache and route the direction of interest. Own the process and sell it. Again, perfectly sane – but I’d rather go for the SUP (simple update protocol) which in a way – if adopted widely – does the same but keeps the handling free (as free as the services are anyway) We shall see what future brings tho…

The Gnip vs. SUP question came up on Hacker News, which included this exchange with FriendFeed’s Paul Buchheit:

ryanwaggoner: Isn’t this what Gnip is doing, except that Gnip’s solution is readily available to anyone who wants it? In fact, I believe Gnip uses XMPP to push notifications to data consumers, which seems even more efficient. Am I missing something?

paul: No, Gnip is a complementary service and will likely consume SUP. SUP is intended to make it easier for feed publishers to expose information about which feeds have been updated. Without this information, Gnip can’t know when feeds have updated except by polling all of them. SUP allows them to poll a single URL instead.

ryanwaggoner: Got it. So this is designed to be the piece that allows publishers to easily integrate with intermediate services like Gnip, or with aggregation services like FF, SocialThing, etc.

paul: Exactly

Paul’s right, but the earlier comments are also right. Gnip may want to get updates for its UGC producing sites using SUP. But there’s truth to the idea that if producers offer SUP, some of the value proposition of Gnip is eroded.

Gnip: More Than Real-Time Updates

But Gnip appears to provide a range of services above and beyond simple update notifications. My guess is that those extra services Gnip provides above and beyond providing a single place to get notifications will be their secret sauce.

On the Gnip blog, product head Shane Pearson writes the four use cases on which Gnip is focused:

  1. Eliminate the need for developers to write dozens of pollers for UGC sites, all of which must be maintained and updated
  2. Target business specific applications that need this data. There may be interesting functional or vertical application that SUP won’t cover.
  3. Offload the overhead on UGC producers’ sites (which sounds like SUP). But beyond that, create an alternative channel for their content, provide analytics on the data consumed through Gnip ,and add filters an d target endpoints.
  4. Use Gnip as a source of market research and brand analysis for what consumers are saying about companies.

So what you see here is that the developer world sees SUP competition in the infrastructure part of Gnip. Gnip is looking beyond the developer world in terms of where it delivers value.

I wouldn’t be surprised if other companies enter the mix. “Glue” is an early, interesting space right now.

*****

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A Promising Future for Newspapers

nyt-front-page-111008

Item #1: FriendFeed Widget Motivates Reporters to Use Social Media:

“This last week, I have been busy reorganizing our major financial blog, Bear&Bull, adding FriendFeed widgets in hopes of encouraging more audience interaction. The results have been surprising — although the audience has been slow to react, the changes have motivated many of my normally technophobic colleagues to start using video, pictures and live-blogging techniques.”

Item #2: Al Gore speaking at Web 2.0 Summit (thanks to Dion Hinchcliffe tweet):

“Gore says regulate the Internet as little as possible and says there is a future for journalists in curating content/new media. #web2summit”

Item #3: Forrester analyst Jeremiah Owyang on a “freemium” business model for analysts:

“Talking to @susanmernit about analysts sharing. I told her I give the appetizers away for free –but still charge for entres. It’s working”

Newspapers continue to suffer declining readership, hitting their bottom lines hard. Robert Scoble started a good FriendFeed/blog post around this. Two ideas I read there were:

  • A la carte funding – you only pay the specific categories of news you like
  • Crowd funded reporting – consumers pay upfront for specific stories to be created by journalists

A la carte is interesting, and is worthy of further exploration. Crowd funding won’t make it. A critical mass of people will not take the time to fund specific stories. Forget that idea – requires too much engagement by an audience that would just turn attention elsewhere.

I’d like to suggest a different possibility that builds on the existing advertising and subscription models, while leveraging journalism’s historic role in the context of modern social media. Journalists have traditionally played a role as information filters. That is, they are dedicated practitioners of finding information, evaluating what’s true, determining what’s relevant and providing it to a wide audience.

Using that definition of journalism, the items at the start of this post point toward a promising future for journalism. Think about it. Journalists are the original information junkies. They have to be. Their livelihood depends on being better informed than most of us.

This positions them well to providing a stream of content to readers outside of the normal daily articles that are the staple of newspapers. Rather than the single daily articles they deliver, here’s what a future set of content looks like for reporters:

  1. Longer, well-developed articles
  2. Quick blog posts
  3. Twitter messages
  4. Sharing content created by others

#1 above is the stuff of today’s newspapers. It doesn’t go away. Look how much power a daily has – New York Times and Wall Street Journal articles drive a lot of linking as seen in the Techmeme Leaderboard. That’s just the online effect. And unlike social media content, newspaper articles still adhere to high standards for sourcing, finding nuggets from people most of us don’t have access to, and bring a wealth of facts and voices to the stories. This type of content continues to have value.

#2 and #3 are the lighter weight stuff. This is flow information. The tidbits that a reporter gets after talking to a source. The legislative maneuver that will affect how new laws will look. The dissatisfaction expressed by a customer. The filling of a key company or government position.

#4 is a nod to the research and content that informs the worldview of the reporter. Reporters find useful information for the beat they cover, and would be great sources for Del.icio.us bookmarks and Google Reader shares.

The Bear & Bull blog is part of the Mediafin publishing company in Belgium. The FriendFeed widget is a great example of #2 – #4 above. Sounds like reporters are intrigued with it.

Combining Flow with Subscription-Based Revenues

Two revenue models are available:

  • Lightweight flow = advertising
  • Articles = advertising, subscriptions

I can see a newspaper’s website filled during the course of a day with content generated by reporters. A lot of that content will be great standalone stuff. It should make readers want to come back to the site to see what’s new. Tweets, blog posts and shared items all displaying on the newspaper’s web page.

The Jeremiah Owyang tweet above points to another element of the future newspaper. He describes providing appetizers to potential customers. Enough to give them some information. But if they want to know the full story, they need to pay Forrester. This idea applies to newspapers as well. Reporters will reveal just enough to give a sense of a story. But not so much to fill really know it. Readers will need to read the newspaper article to know the story. Note that article need not wait until the next morning. It goes live when it’s ready.

One area that benefits from this approach is the important, but less popular beats. These may not get as much attention, but newspapers can retain reporters to continue an important role in recording society’s history. A lot of the less popular beats may “just” get coverage via blog posts and tweets. But that continues to provide visibility to them.

Curated Sources of Information

As Al Gore opined, the future of journalism has a vibrant role in curating the chaotic mass of data out there. This view appears to be shared by watchers of the newspaper space. On the Printed Matters blog, here’s a quote from Journalism is important:

In a world where anyone can post, use and re-use the news, what is the role of the professional?

Professional journalists are more important than ever in a world of oversupply. We need credible people, people we can trust, to sort the wheat from the chaff, to make sense of the barrage, to order things.

That statement appears to rally around traditional newspaper articles, but I think it applies to an expansion of journalism’s mission. Newspapers are a huge attention platform. Entrepreneurs try to get the attention of TechCrunch, ReadWriteWeb, Mashable and Robert Scoble. Why? Because they command a huge audience. Well so do newspapers. People and organizations from all parts of society – business, governement, fashion, etc. – will continue to be interested in getting coverage by newspapers. Of course there’s a need for the continuing role of sorting “the wheat from the chaff”.

And lest we forget, mainstream consumers don’t hang on every utterance of Steve Jobs or what Google is releasing today. I like the way Rob Diana put it on his Regular Geek blog:

People have been calling for the death of newspapers for quite some time. In their current printed form, they may be dying. However, we are already starting to see the evolution from a printed newspaper to the online version. Who is going to be leading the charge of RSS content for the mainstream user? Newspapers. Why? They understand what the mainstream user wants. I think we, the techies, have forgotten that.

His post focused on adoption of RSS, but I think he’s hit on an important piece of the puzzle. Newspapers are way ahead of everyone else in understanding what interests the mainstream. As the public moves to the web for news, sure they’ll go on Facebook and Twitter. But their core interests haven’t changed.

If newspapers can adapt social media tools to their (1) historic information filtering role; and (2) understanding of the interests of the mainstream, I’m betting on a bright future.

*****

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