Quick Takes: 2/28/11

A quick round-up of non-movie marketing stories that are worth reading today.

InboxQ Takes Q&A Off-Site and On to Twitter: InboxQ is an interesting idea. It’s a Google Chrome plugin (other versions are sure to come soon) that allows brand managers to enter keywords that can surface questions that they may be interested in responding to. Those might be customer service queries or more general ones that might bring in new customers. The company is just rolling out but eventually plans to add analytics for companies to tap into to make it more of a serious management tool.

War Is Hell: Welcome to the Twitter Wars of 2011: What’s most interesting to me about the Great Twitter Kerfluffle of 2011 is how for so long people were begging Twitter to act like a real company and now they very much are. So it’s worth noting that protection of intellectual property, making sure developers were abiding by the rules don’t seem to fall within what people were expecting when they were making those requests, they just wanted the system to stop failing. Rex Hammock also has a good take on this situation, which ultimately resolved in the apps being restored.

How Real People Use Twitter: The vast majority – almost 95% – of Twitter users have fewer than 500 followers. And while those with huge amounts of followers may very well be more influential it’s also more likely that those followers are paying close attention to either their friends or the celebrities they follow. So instead of always gauging someone’s worth based on big numbers it’s important to look at how those people are actually interacting with each other and who within those smaller niche groups are running the conversations.

The PR industry must condemn massive, automated sock-puppetry: I’m pretty sure most right-thinking people already do condemn this practice, but Shel is right that this needs to be addressed at the trade organization level. That’s not going to cut it out completely since people can easily ignore those guidelines if they even belong to the organization in the first place but it would be a good start to a more systemic fight against bad actors.

Finding more high-quality sites in search: As I said previously while Google’s algorithmic changes aren’t directly related to corporate publishing programs and are instead targeted at so-called content farms, corporate publishers need to be aware that search engines take quality into consideration when determining rankings. That knowledge should push them to make sure that they’re putting out good stuff frequently and making sure that content is adding value to the audience, however those people are coming to the site.

Sharing shouldn’t invite theft

Whether or not adding some form of “Share” prompt to your content equals the relinquishing of copyright over that content is currently being hashed out in legal venues and is a situation that all publishers should be watching closely.

The thinking apparently goes like this: The key point made by those claiming copyright infringement around their content on the web is that people are viewing it elsewhere and not on the domain it originally appeared on. But adding some form of “Share” button inherently, it’s being argued, waives any copyright claims since the only purpose of having it there is for the off-domain sharing of content.

While I’m certainly not a legal expert in any way, the leap between someone who’s lifting a full story and putting it on their own site without a link to the original for the purposes of generating ad revenue and sharing a link to the original on Twitter seems to be a pretty massive one. That would, in my mind, mean that even providing a URL to a story would be enough to waive copyright since the purpose of a URL is to point someone to something specific and it can be easily put manually into a social network update or email. That’s a pretty broad argument and one that would have far-reaching implications on publishing across the entire web and not just in the media world.

What I learned about the importance of social profile pics by installing Rapporative

If you want a harsh lesson in the importance of making sure that your social network profile picture is professional in nature – even if the network itself is more personal – I suggest you install Rapporative, a plugin for Firefox and Chrome that displays the social network profiles for the people you communicate with through Gmail. Since I did so about a week ago I’m all of a sudden seeing the profile photos of all sorts of movie publicists and others I get emails from. While many of them are fine there are a handful that certainly are not the kind of photos that you would normally want associated with your work activities.

Personally I have the same photo (now a couple years old…I should probably update it) photo that I use for my Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn accounts, all of which are networks that are supported by Rapporative. So if anyone I email regularly has that installed they’re not going to see anything odd or unprofessional.

To some extent Rapporative is a bit of an intrusion. These people aren’t asking to connect with me on Facebook, the information is just there in a manner of my choosing and I can decide whether or not to act on it and send them a friend request, follow them or otherwise connect. But it’s also not like I couldn’t look any of these people up on those networks and see the same photos.

The issue actually touches on another one I’ve been pondering again recently and which was the subject of a post by Jeremy Pepper, that of the barriers between people’s niche social graphs. While much of the press and buzz has been about how there’s one graph to rule them all, the reality is that many people (including myself) choose to manage things a bit differently. X network is where I do this, Y network is something completely different and Z is maybe a mish-mash of both those approaches and some other stuff as well.

The notion of sub-networks is especially relevant as more people use check-in services, whether they’re location-based ones like Foursquare or Gowalla or media-based networks like Miso or GetGlue or if they’re something else like Quora. In each case the service prompts you to build your own network there but then much of their value comes in broadcasting those activities to larger, less-niche networks such as Twitter and Foursquare. It’s because I’m apt to share those things on those larger networks that I rarely put much if any effort into building sub-networks on the individual services. It’s not like I’m sharing things just there. That’s not to say my thinking won’t change – and it’s beginning to – but that’s what I’m doing right now.

Whatever your personal plan might be it’s important to realize that all these profiles that are being created become part of the meta-graph that you’re creating online. You may be one person here and another there but they all become part of the overall persona that’s being built, by you and by those you communicate with, one update or profile picture at a time. For those who operate online it’s important then that regardless of how they’ve divided those lines they try to present a professional face.

How design and functionality factor into publishing programs

When people are talking about how to put together a quality publishing program most all of them hit the same three or four points: Make it regular, make it quality, curate and share links generously and so on. But one thing that rarely gets discussed in depth is how the design and functionality of the platform – for argument’s sake let’s just say we’re talking about a blog here – plays into how those programs are designed and executed.

I’m sure that no one would argue with the general statement that design is important. The user experience on a publishing hub needs to be a positive one or, quite simply, people won’t come back. You can rationalize (as I did for a number of years) that if the design isn’t fantastic that’s alright since those people should be encouraged to subscribe to the RSS feed, where all the design gets stripped out anyway. But that’s a bit naive and overlooks how design and functionality support the publishing in a number of ways.

First there’s the simply the choice of platform that’s being used for that publishing hub. For many of the programs we run at Voce we use WordPress because quite frankly our Platforms development team can do just about anything with the software that they’ve ever been asked to. But beyond familiarity and skill, WordPress allows them to do whatever the client needs the platform to do.

That brings us to the second point, which is how does the platform work to support all – or at least most – of the spokes that come off of that publishing hub. Again looking at many of the programs we help to manage at Voce, a lot of the corporate blogs display the most recent Tweets, links we’ve saved as bookmarks to Delicious, a featured video from YouTube or Vimeo and more as well as buttons linking to Facebook and whatever other outlets there might be. So when someone comes to that blog they see right in front of them samples from many of the components of the publishing program.

There’s also the interaction mechanisms to consider. That can range from how people are able to leave comments – including whether or not they have the option to use their Facebook or Twitter credentials to identify themselves – to how they’re encouraged to share what they’re reading or watching. But this isn’t just as simple as making sure you have comments enabled or have installed Facebook Connect. There’s a fundamental way in which this has to be integrated into the platform and therefore into the overall publishing strategy in order to make it attractive and useful to the reader. It has to flow within the design or it’s going to be an eyesore that trips up the audience’s experience.

Five years ago or so when everyone was being encouraged to just “start a blog” there were a lot of assumptions made that wherever you did this was fine. It was very much part of the “social media is cheap and easy” movement. And, as I’ve said to people again and again, yeah it’s possible to start a WordPress.com blog and get it mapped to a custom domain in about five hours. But content is judged by the wrapping it’s put in and the quality content that will be coming from a corporate publishing program deserves a quality presentation. Ideally it’s one that is designed with the same sort of strategic and tactical considerations as the content creation since, in the end, they’re all serving the same purpose.

Content farm rules to pay attention to

While it’s certain that none of the publishing programs run by our clients or many other companies would in any way be considered “content farms,” the changes being made by Google to account for sites deemed to have “shallow or low quality content” they certainly need to be aware of those changes.

Really, though, it simply provides another opportunity for companies (and those who are helping them manage a publishing program) to ask themselves a simply question: How are we adding unique and original thinking to the conversations we’re taking part in?

Publishing programs shouldn’t just be about marketing a company’s wares, whatever they are. The best programs mix items from these and other categories:

  1. Wholly original, meaning they come pulled straight from the heads of those who are contributing to it or are based on other company-produced content such as white papers
  2. Reactionary, meaning they are based on something someone else wrote and contains that company’s opinion or perspective on an issue being discussed elsewhere
  3. Straight curation, meaning taking interesting stories that are worth reading and sharing them on Twitter, Delicious or elsewhere with little or no additional commentary.

Veer too far in any one of these directions and the program starts to lose value in the eyes of the audience. Again, we’re still pretty far from “content farm” territory, but that doesn’t mean that companies running publishing programs don’t need to be consistently looking at what value their material is providing the audience. If that value dips it may not be search engine rules that the program runs afoul of, it might just fall victim to audience disinterest.

Go live to bring in viewers

There’s a lot to agree with in the notion that real-time social and public chats that happen on Twitter and Facebook are good ways to get people to tune in to live television broadcasts (New York Times, 2/21/11).

So since the movie industry is about two or three years behind their colleagues in television (who are themselves two or three years behind the music business) in terms of adopting new technologies it’s safe to speculate the studios will eventually get in on this game. After all, if TV is seeing benefits from having talent engage on those social networks while their shows are being broadcast then it can be assumed that the movie industry might see this as a way to boost home video purchases in whatever way they’re available in a couple years.

I’ve long felt that studios were missing a huge opportunity by not making more of an effort to create appointment viewing opportunities on home video. Encourage people to attend a streaming event and then play the movie while a chat happens on the side of the screen or something like that. There have been a couple different technical problems with getting this off the ground, but the best thing for this idea might be the premium VOD model that some studios have been planning since that would presumably give them the option to control the infrastructure a bit more.

Again, I’m sure it will just be a matter of time before studios hop on this bandwagon since it’s in their best interest to at least experiment with just about anything that can reignite interest in the home video market and take some control of that market back from the companies they’ve outsourced it to for years now.

Google results get more social

The update by Google to make social signals more prevalent in search results is fairly significant, though the absence of Facebook is of course notable. While these results have been seen in searches for a while this update brings them higher up in the results, mixing them among the other listings as opposed to lumping them all together at the bottom. Most importantly (at least to me) Google also now notes when a link has been shared by someone on Twitter, adding relevance to those links.

What I like about the way this has been implemented is, as John Battelle says, it shows that Google has broader goals for how it brings in social signals and doesn’t just want to count on Facebook as the end-all-be-all. If social search is going to work it needs to not be tied to one, two or even a dozen different social graphs, it needs to account for hundreds and use them all as just one signal each. Only that’s going to allow it to evolve in a manner that’s useful for searchers as networks continue to grow, change or fail.

Mature movies more popular; Adults not going to the movies

Not sure which side of this to put more stock in.

Is there a sea-change underway as more adults go back to the theater or are they abandoning movie-going in droves?

The reality is likely both, depending on the quality of the movie. People showed a clear preference for good movies that received wider distribution based on positive word of mouth early in the winter, with that building and continuing into January and February. But that means they had less tolerance (and money) for the middling material the studios put out.

That’s a broad statement and there are surely other things going on that influence how the box-office races have turned out, but when you look at the macro trends it’s clear that people were more willing to take the recommendations of their friends to go see something good than they were to settle on something just because it’s what happens to be playing that weekend.

Ryan Lawler has a great take on a recent Forbes piece about the over-commercialization of movies, with more choices being made based on how built-in the audience is to the property that’s being developed. What’s interesting to note is that, while certainly not wrong, that Forbes piece is undone by the popularity of largely original movies in 2010, though it’s hard to argue with it looking at the 2011 release calendar.

The Illusion of Influence

It’s going to be very interesting when one of two things happens, and I’m honestly not sure which one it’s going to be first. Either everyone will simultaneously get over their new-found addiction to analyzing everyone’s online influence scores or there will be some sort of big incident wherein someone who’s obviously gamed the system in order to receive some form of perk that completely destroys whatever credibility these tools may have had.

It comes down to this: If everyone is an influencer than no one is. Sure we all have our own networked circles that our opinion might hold a bit of sway in, but that doesn’t mean that they are a good target for some sort of outreach program.

In my experience the best outreach programs are based on tons of research not just of who someone is influencing or being influenced by on Twitter or Facebook but in how they participate in entire conversations. And there are people who clients or superiors have told me must be included or whom it was assumed would be part of the program that I’ve rejected because they just don’t make sense.

This sort of wishy-washing “influence” that we’re seeing being rewarded is so transient there often isn’t even time for its mail to catch up to it. Someone who’s influential today isn’t going to be a week from now because of the way their networks shift over time.

The race to become the next “influencer” rewards the wrong behavior. Instead of truly original thinking that shakes up some assumptions and challenges people, these folks often play to the middle, staying safe and scratching itching ears. It also doesn’t take into account other forms of influence that aren’t captured in these sorts of measures, namely among people who simply *do* good work instead of talking endlessly about the good work that others do.

How much of a company’s value is freely contributed?

Last week the New York Times had an interested editorial by David Carr on the sale of The Huffington Post to AOL that addressed (and he was by no means the only one to do so) the elephant in the room, namely the fact that much of HuffPo’s value was built by unpaid contributors who were unlikely to see a red cent of the purchase price.

While his comparison of the HuffPo situation to other sites like Tumblr that have received valuations that are reflective of their popularity isn’t 100% accurate – those sites allow you to create your own material under your own banner while Tumblr (or WordPress.com or whatever) merely serves as the platform – it brought to mind the fact that these days almost *all* companies see some form of value boost from the unpaid and often unsolicited contributions of their customers.

The illustration of how user-generated material can dominate a company’s search results it usually used in connection with a warning. But if what people are saying about you is positive then the effect on not just that company’s reputation but also their bottom line is likely positive as well.

So then, and this is where we round back to Carr’s column, what does the company that’s receiving that benefit owe to those who are creating the content that’s helping it out?

A simple thank you.

Again, let’s go back to Carr’s points. Tumblr certainly benefits from all those people who use it, whether it’s for Selleck Sandwich Waterfall or something more personal. But these people aren’t doing their creation under the Tumblr brand or with the intent of furthering Tumblr’s growth. Similarly those people who are writing their “Zappos customer service rocks!!” posts are expressing their enthusiasm for a brand they like.

Now for certain their are ways to reward loyal supporters, users and enthusiasts. And those sorts of efforts occasionally need to be engaged in because it’s good for business and because without these sorts of people their businesses wouldn’t be worth as much as their are thanks to their support.