Sunday, March 28, 2010

The Backchannel: Unofficial Commentary on SXSW

Every SXSW panel features not one but two simultaneously occurring discussions. While one occurs out loud, with people in the room who can see one another and hear one another speak, the other occurs silently in that shadowy netherworld known as Twitter. While everyone appears to be listening attentively to panelists and speakers, many people behind the scenes are also Tweeting questions, commentary, and yes, snarky remarks, as the panel progresses.

This ongoing Twitter conversation has come to be known as the “backchannel” and all panelists deal with it in a combination of four ways:

1.) Prepare for it – All of the panels I attended were at least ready for the backchannel. They all had “official” hashtags (i.e. #theyelpeffect, #funemployed, etc.) so that people who Tweeted through the event could organize their thoughts and read the thoughts of others also Tweeting along in the room. But considering how brutal some Twitterers can be, I also suspect that creating a hashtag for your panel has become SXSW policy rather than the choice of the panelists themselves.

2.) Embrace it During the Presentation – To me, the most successful presenters assigned someone to follow the backchannel as the panel progressed. They then rolled with the flow and answered questions that came across, went back to address points that appeared to have been missed, and generally let the audience participate.

3.) Embrace it After the Fact – Other panels, especially the small ones with one or two presenters, might not have had the resources to monitor the backchannel as they talked, but did end up embracing it after the fact. Jennie Chin (@misohungry) of The Yelp Effect, for example, came back and commented on the back channel after the conversation ended.

4.) Ignore it – The least successful SXSW presenters ignored the backchannel forever and ever. I attended one panel that promised to be about viral marketing but mainly consisted of the marketing teams from two website aggregators promoting their own services. The backchannel quickly grew ugly, but the two presenters remained oblivious and continued with their obvious plugs. As a result, many people – me included – walked out and went to find a more agreeable panel.

How is the Backchannel Changing SXSW?

Imagine if you were sitting in school and instead of merely listening to the lecture, you were able to ask silent questions without interrupting the class or make snide remarks about the teacher’s pocket protector. That’s how the backchannel feels to me. It’s a way to turn a presentation given to you to a conversation with you. In other words, the backchannel epitomizes everything we’ve learned in class about social media. People are no longer content to sit back and have information spoon fed to them. For better or for worse, people want to participate.

The backchannel made SXSW panels participatory, democratic and fun for me. I felt, in many cases, like I was being heard instead of preached at. And what’s more Web 2.0 than that? Love it or Hate it?

Jennie Chen of the food blog MisoHungry and Austin American Statesman writer Addie Broyles moderated one of the liveliest panels I attended at SXSW. Whether you are a local restaurant owner or one of the tuned-in social media superstars who uses sites like Yelp and Chowhound to review restaurants, you would probably have had something to say at “The Yelp Effect: When Everyone’s a Restaurant Critic.”

Apparently this is an issue near and dear to many hearts, as the panel’s small room was packed to the gills with interested people. I was lucky to get a seat for the panel, which was structured as an open discussion or “core conversation,” rather than a top down speech. It was already getting social media-y in here!

The People Yelp

The biggest take away from the panel was the fact that restaurants can no longer get away with subpar service. If a Yelper (or someone who writes on CitySearch, Chowhound, UrbanSpoon or one of the many other everyone’s-a-critic-sites) has a bad experience at a restaurant, pretty soon everybody who’s tuned into social media will know. If enough Yelpers have a bad experience, that restaurant’s credibility will take a nosedive.

Restaurants Respond

On the restaurants’ side, people argued about the trustworthiness of reviews posted on sites like Yelp. The argument there seemed to be that maybe the public just doesn’t “get” some restaurants. Maybe it was because we were at a technology convention, but that argument never got off the ground. In my opinion, if the public doesn’t get you, maybe the problem is with… well, you. Responds itself answers a few of these complaints. First, the site uses an algorithm to police reviews that look suspicious. For example, if a spate of people suddenly create accounts and give 5 star reviews to one restaurant only to never log on again, the site recognizes a smoke blowing campaign and suppresses or even deletes the too-glowing reviews. The same goes for a user who is only negative all of the time. The site decides he’s probably just a crank. Further, business owners do have the chance to publicly comment on reviews and to contact reviewers who have had a bad experience.

The main idea of the panel seemed to be that, instead of trying to sue or similarly squelch sites like, that restaurant owners should get with the program and start seeing Yelp as a customer service platform and a mandate on how to improve.

This Blogger Responds

My one gripe about the panel was that we didn’t have time to talk about a couple of sensitive issues when it comes to One is the assertion by many small business owners that Yelp allows people to pick on the small, local businesses than can least afford bad reviews in this economy. (To this, as a Yelper, I say “Offer a good product, and good reviews will follow.”) The other issue I wanted to touch on was the two class action lawsuits filed against Yelp alleging that they try to shake local businesses down for advertising, and if the businesses don’t comply, hides their positive reviews and otherwise damages their credibility on the site. Of course, there was only so much time, and both conversations would have strayed from the original purpose of the panel. So I suppose I should really be congratulating the moderators for keeping us on track!

Audience participation was interesting as well. One man said, “Call me old fashioned, but I don’t even allow comments on my restaurant criticism blog.”

I muttered, “You’re old fashioned,” prompting the people around me to nod or vocally agree. To me, that moment was one of many testaments to the increasing power of social media. As Blossom said in Content Nation, people are no longer content to listen to top down messages. They want a two-way dialogue instead. If you read a restaurant criticism blog that doesn’t allow comments, you might as well be reading a magazine. At least with a magazine you get that inky smell and the satisfaction of holding its weight in your hands.

Let’s face it. The world is changing. Restaurants and other local businesses can choose to roll with the times, shape up, and listen to customer critiques or they can continue to offer those old-fashioned comment cards and get left behind in Web 2.0’s sizeable wake.

No matter what, I’ll continue to Yelp. Care to friend me?

Saturday, March 27, 2010, the King of SXSW

From my seat, it appeared that the social application Foursquare took the crown at this year’s South by Southwest. (Okay, so there isn’t really a King of SXSW, but if there were…) And other location based applications like Gowalla and Loopt weren’t far behind.

What is Foursquare?

Foursquare is a location based social media application. If you’re a Foursquare player, whenever you go to a new venue – a restaurant, a store, the library, or even a church – you “check in” either via text or by a device specific app. (I have it on my iPhone.) The application uses your device’s GPS to “place” you at the venue. Foursquare allows you to see the first name and last initial of other people who are “checked in” at the same venue, and it shows you who is the “Mayor” of that venue. Mayors snag their title by having the most check-ins at that location. As more and more people visit the venue, Foursquare also proves the place’s popularity (at least to other geeks like me people who use Foursquare.)

Foursquare users sometimes even battle for mayorship. (As well they should – many venues have jumped on the Foursquare bandwagon and offer coupons, discounts and other specials to the mayor. I’ve seen everything from a free yogurt for the mayor to a free night at a hotel. Not bad for merely going someplace you would have gone anyway.) Even if you don’t manage to become a mayor, Foursquare also periodically gives you “badges.” You might get a badge like “Crunked” for hitting five joints in one night or “Superstar when you’ve checked in at 50 different venues in your Foursquare history. While badges aren’t redeemable for money or prestige, they are the psychological pellet that keeps many people checking in, and checking in, and checking in…

Foursquare at SXSW

Foursquare debuted at last year’s SXSW, and its popularity showed no signs of waning this year. Just to keep SXSW goers' interest, the application added 15 new badges that could only be earned at SXSW. Badges like Superswarm could only be earned when you checked in at venue where at least 250 other Foursquare players were also checked in. It’s a testament to Foursquare’s popularity that I earned that one on Day One when I was in the SXSW registration line waiting for my badge. (I also earned “Decathlon” for attending 10 sponsored parties, and “Panel Nerd” for hitting five panels. I missed out on the fun ones like the badge that could be earned for taking a ride in Austin’s famous Karaoke RV.)

So What’s the Point?

Many people don’t see the point in playing location based games like Foursquare. Foursquare even spawned the website and application Please Rob Me, which is designed to demonstrate that Foursquare is very public and an invitation to burglars to rob you while your Foursquare stream shows you out of the house.

This is a valid complaint and highlights the fact that you shouldn’t “friend” people you don’t know on Foursquare or add your Foursquare updates to a very public forum like Twitter or Facebook where less-than-good-intentioned acquaintances might hang out.

In my opinion, the point of Foursquare is the same as Twitter, Facebook, and other social media. Which is, duh, being social. You won’t forget the first time you check into Foursquare, see another person checked in, and then share that secret little Foursquare nod. Sure it hasn’t happened to me yet, but I can see striking up a conversation with someone based on our mutual degree of Foursquare checked-in-ness. Plus, it’s a way for me to show my love for my favorite venues.

On the downside, yep, I suppose I could be robbed (though people routinely leave their houses for other things – like work), and I suppose a stalker would have a field day on Foursquare. That’s why it makes sense to only “friend” people you trust and definitely think of your privacy when posting your Foursquare whereabouts on very public forums.

As for Foursquare at SXSW, I’ve been left with a gaggle of new Foursquare friends in other cities and a handful of new badges to display with pride on my Foursquare page. A major accomplishment it ain’t, but fun? It’s at least about as fun than the original four square, and even the non-athletic can do it.

Managing Your Money, Social Media Style

One of the best panels I attended at SXSW was called “Banking 2.0: Financial Services Driven by People and Emerging Technologies.” And no, as dry as that sounds, I’m not getting paid to say that I really, really benefitted from this panel. While the panel probably could have used a more engaging title in order to draw more curious conference goers into the room, the panelists had plenty of useful information to keep those who did wander in informed and entertained.

The Panelists

Moderator: Jennifer Openshaw

Rob Garcia of

Kenneth Lin of

Aaron Forth of

Bob Weinschenk of

The Gist

All the panelists are folks who are trying to make personal finance easier via the internet and Web 2.0 tools. The two that struck me as the most innovative, social media-wise, were and is a peer-to-peer lending service. In other words, it’s all the financial benefit of borrowing and lending without the pesky, old-fashioned bank getting in the way. So how can that be?

According to the site, banks have high administrative, marketing and other infrastructure fees that are naturally passed on to their borrowers. For borrowers, this means higher interest and more time spent repaying a loan. Not to mention the fact that, with the banks running scared after the recent financial crisis, it has become harder and harder to even get a loan from a bank.

Lenders – those kind souls with money in their pockets and the desire to earn a little extra income lending it out – benefit from giving loans only to people who have met LendingClub’s stringent standards. Not to mention, they now have a formalized place to invest their money without having to go through all the trouble of obtaining a bank charter or vetting their borrower and drawing up the paperwork themselves. According to, investors receive an average 9.5% rate of return on their investment. Try comparing that to squirreling money away in a savings account or CD. And it’s all thanks to Web 2.0 technology.

But I’m not a high roller. I don’t especially need a loan (I have enough student loans as it is), and I’m not Daddy Warbucks with lots of extra money floating around to lend to my peers. That’s why I was most impressed with the social media aspects of I would dare to say that almost anybody could benefit from a site like SmartyPig.

So what is it? In essence, SmartyPig is a website that allows anybody to set a goal and save toward it. The site gives you a competitive interest rate (around 2%) and, social media-wise, allows our friends and family to help you out with your goals.

For example, let’s say Jennifer wants a MacBook Pro. She starts her savings account with and has to put in at least $10/month toward her goal. At birthday time, she may share this goal with Aunt Matilda who, upon seeing her favorite little niece working so diligently, might throw in the last bill needed to reach the goal. From there, Jennifer can either transfer the funds from SmartyPig back to her debit card, or convert it to a gift card from one of SmartyPig’s partners. All of this (except making a contribution or buying a SmartyPig gift card using a credit card) is absolutely free. To me, this sure beats getting $10 from grandma in your birthday card.

Honorable Mention –

While less social media oriented than the other companies represented on the panel, is worth a mention for its sheer awesomeness. The site allows you to monitor your FICO credit score absolutely free! (Those of you who take advantage of your yearly free credit report at, will remember those solicitations to “See your FICO Score for only $12.95!”) After a brief sign up similar to the sign up required to view your credit report from the three major bureaus, will show you:

  • Your current credit score
  • The factors affecting your credit score (i.e. high credit limits, length of time you’ve had credit, etc.)
  • Simulations of what would happen to your credit score should certain scenarios occur (i.e. paying off all of your credit cards or defaulting on your cell phone) is definitely worth checking out, especially in these days of increasing financial desperation.

So who knew I would go to a tech conference and learn more about managing my money? Next up, “ Love it or Hate It?” and “ The King of SXSW.”

Friday, March 26, 2010

Running Times: Running in One Direction

Running Times is one of the two most popular magazines covering the sport of running in the United States (Runner’s World being the other).
The sport of running is one of the most popular participant sports in the country. There is a large audience upon which to draw and a need to provide content beyond the two monthly print publications as many runners search the Internet for training advice and race information.

Running Times claims to be the “authoritative voice for the dedicated runner.” The magazine covers the sport of running from the high school level to the professional, from road races to track and field. The magazine provides news about the sport and the top athletes as well as training information, stories, and commentary. Running Times main product is the monthly print magazine of the same name. But as discussed in a previous entry, an effective media strategy can help enhance the visibility of a print magazine and the product that is being covered. This increases subscriber retention and also helps the magazine reach a much wider audience. To this end, Running Times maintains an official website and a presence on Facebook, Twitter, iTunes, and Let’s see if the online content is up-to-date and integrated.

Official Site

The official website is a key part of the social media strategy for any magazine. Running Times maintains a well designed website that is filled with up-to-date content. The site provides daily news about the sport of running, web exclusive articles, and reprints of articles in current and past print issues. The site links to a community forum, podcasts, running shoe database, and training/injury information. There's also an RSS feed. One drawback to the site is that there isn't any link to Facebook, Twitter, or It would nice to see a “Find us on Facebook” button or link somewhere on the site.


The Running Times fan page on Facebook currently has 2,780 fans. The page is kept up-to-date with content and relevant links and articles. The links lead to articles on the main site but, as mentioned, not from the main site back to Facebook. So users can move from Facebook to the Running Times site but not in the other direction. The page also contains past cover photos, fan photos, a discussion board, and an RSS Feed. The discussion board is not very active but users are active in posting comments under articles on the wall and the editors at Running Times often respond. This kind of interaction is a great way to maintain contact with subscribers and builds a more loyal audience.


The Running Times Twitter page is updated with links to articles every few days via tweets. There are currently 1,779 followers. The strange thing about the links is that they link back to Facebook. So, in order to read an article that is linked in a tweet, a user would follow the link back to Facebook and then has to click on another link on Facebook to get to the source article on Running Times. It would be more effective to just link from the tweet to the original source.

Running Times has posted sixteen training vidoes on The videos are excellent resources for runners in training.

Running Times Radio

Running Times offers podcasts on iTunes, Facebook, and the main site. There are currently sixty-seven podcasts on iTunes, including the sixteen videos that are on


Running Times does a great job of providing additional resources and content online that is not found in their print magazine. They also do a good job of matching the online product to the style and content of the print magazine. They come close to reaching their goal to be the “authoritative voice for the dedicated runner.” However, the sites are not fully integrated. It would be a good idea to link from the home page to Twitter and Facebook. This may be a small item but a user visiting the main site may never get to read the comments that other users have posted on Facebook. Thus, the user misses a chance to become involved in the discussion and interact with other users and the staff at Running Times.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Keeping SXSW Real: What You REALLY Need to Know When You Go

So I asked Dr. McGrath if, instead of doing the Exploring Social Media project, I could blog about my experience at the South by Southwest (SXSW) Interactive Festival in Austin, Texas. You may have heard of this event as a Music Festival and/or a Film Festival, and that’s because it’s all that, too. Sadly, I didn’t have $1,000 to drop on a Platinum Badge, or two weeks to attend all the various festivities, so I limited myself to SXSW Interactive, where I could meet and hang out with other web working entrepreneurs and techies (read: geeks, but awesome geeks) like myself.

Before I get into the specifics of South by Southwest, I want to tell you (warn you?) about the conference experience in general should you decide to make the jaunt to Austin next year:

  1. Despite the abundance of free food, you will never find time to eat at SXSW.
  2. 2010 is going to be very awkward now that SXSW is over yet everyone has friended their clients and competitors on FourSquare and Gowalla. It’s going to be hard not to inadvertently stalk the people you met at SXSW. Be warned. (“Why did my star programmer and my competitor both check into Mulligan’s at the exact same time?” And don’t even get me started on your spouse, your best friend and hotel check-ins. Ouch.)
  3. You didn’t think you could get party like a rockstar five nights in a row. Not since college, at least. But you can. You can.
  4. You don’t even have to call the conference by its whole name. Just call it “South by.” Hooray abrevs!
  5. No matter how many thousands of people attend SXSW, you are going to run into the same 20 people over, and over, and over again
  6. Everybody at SXSW is unfailingly polite. There are no entitled douchebags in the Austin Conference Center. If someone bumps into you, they apologize. People hold doors. They make eye contact and smile. And every bartender and cabbie will introduce themselves and shake your hand.
  7. …Which is what makes the fight over the finite number of available power outlets oh-so-hilarious. (“Oh, no, that’s fine. I just dismissed my ‘Below 20%’ message but please, you take the power outlet." *seethe*)
  8. Speaking of the “Below 20% message,” almost everyone has an iPhone. If you don’t have an iPhone, at least learn how to operate the iPhone’s camera. This will make it infinitely easier when a drunken buddy of yours tosses you his phone and asks you to make sure to get pictures of him on the mechanical bull. (Just kidding. Because they are apparently made of moth's wings and filament, nobody tosses an iPhone. And if a revered iPhone should fall to the floor, there's a moment of panic in all eyes that witness such a horrific event.)
  9. Texas Tea is not you’re grandma’s Luzianne. I believe its ingredients are iced tea, gin, rum, vodka, beer, wine, transmission fluid, ouzo, the tears of last night’s Texas Tea drinkers, and roofies. Avoid it unless you want to start a website, ask random strangers for venture capital, or buy a car. (I wish I were joking.)
  10. People at SXSW will have jobs that you have no way of understanding. When someone gives you a long job title that includes the words “visual” “digital” and “interface,” “changemaker” and “android” the circumspect thing to say is, “Oh, I’m not really in that space yet.” Don’t worry. They’ll tell you all about it.

Next up: “Saving Money Social Media Style” and “ Love it or Hate it?”

Thursday, March 18, 2010

"No Text is Worth Dying Over": ATT's New National Campaign

Close your eyes and imagine driving to a friend’s house, as soon as you get into their neighborhood you receive a text message, “Where you at?” It took a split second for you to glance down at your phone, and another split second for you to miss the basketball that bounced in front of your car, followed by a distracted 6 year old. By the time you look back up the kid’s already in front of you. You stomp on your breaks. Tires screeching, you drop your phone and grab onto the wheel with both hands, hoping that by some miracle squeezing it will make the car stop. Now, open your eyes. Is he there? Did you stop in time?

How many of you have done this? Taken your eyes off the road to respond to a text message? Better yet, how many of you, with your iPhones and Blackberrys have read your e-mail while driving? Fine, don’t admit it. Just acknowledge that you’re guilty and promise never to do it again. At least that’s what AT&T is trying to get you to do.

AT&T’s “It can wait” campaign aims to educate wireless users on the dangers of texting while driving. According to nearly 6,000 people died last year in car crashes involving distracted drivers and more than half a million were injured. Though AT&T’s goal is to educate everyone on the dangers of texting while driving, teenagers and drivers under the age of 20 are the biggest targets. Statistics show that young drivers are the worst offenders.

Take The Pledge

AT&T is encouraging all wireless users to take the pledge to not text while driving. This form can be found on AT&T’s website. There, parents can download factsheets on a wireless safety tips, parents guide to texting, posters, brochures and downloadable pledge forms. I stand behind AT&T on their new campaign. I may not text while driving, but I have on occasions texted at red lights. I know, I know, it’s the same thing. I tried making an argument for texting while at a red light, but my friends discouraged me from doing it and since then I have been a responsible driver.

I think that AT&T’s page could be a little more interactive. I’d like to see a video on the site or a blog where people can discuss this topic. AT&T targets youth, but I haven’t seen anything on their site that would attract the youth. I’d like to see something more interactive.


Though AT&T has a page on Facebook, they only have one tab dedicated to the campaign. The wall is full of questions and comments on their services and new gadgets. I wasn’t impressed by that one tab. AT&T could use a more creative way of marketing their campaign on Facebook.


Same thing goes for AT&T’s Twitter page. Where’s the campaign? I see no signs of it. Their website states that they will be promoting the pledge via a “twitition” on twitter, but so far no signs of it. C’mon AT&T, you can do better than this.


At least their Youtube videos are good. Watch this video. I dare you not to think twice before texting while driving. It certainly opened up my eyes to the dangers of being distracted while driving. I haven’t signed AT&T’s pledge yet, but I have stopped texting while driving.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Uncle Sam Wants You – To Tweet

When you think about organizations that embrace social media – you know, that newfangled paradigm that encourages two-way communication between enterprises, employees and consumers – the first one that springs to mind is the U.S. Army, right?

What? No?

Actually, yeah. Reversing their tradition of banning military service members from using social sites like Twitter, MySpace and YouTube the Department of Defense officially released their official social media policy, Directive-Type Memorandum 09-026 last month. Since the title doesn’t exactly say it all (the DOD’s directive writer could use a face to face with a social media consultant, I’m just saying), I’ll recap.

As of now, users of NIRPNET (the DOD’s non-classified network) can use any kind of new media they want. So check Flickr for snaps of the Kandahar sunset, and Facebook for hints on what to stow in those care packages you’re still sending to the soldiers. (Right?) I don’t even want to know what we’ll see on YouTube.

(The DOD’s Social Media Page even has a handy graphic with fancy pop-up information on each of the popular social media sites. See?)

If you’ve noticed soldiers blogging, Tweeting and Facebooking before the oh-so-creatively-named Directive-Type Memorandum 09-026 came out, that’s because those soldiers were lucky enough to serve under commanders who allowed social media. The problem lay in the fact that some commanders arbitrarily shut soldiers out of social media sites, even going so far as making them close accounts or shutter blogs. This new policy specifically prohibits any one commander from making those decisions, essentially opening up access to social media to every member of the armed services.

In my opinion, while there are understandable security concerns (like the recent situation when an Israeli soldier posted details of an operation on Facebook), for the most part this can only be good for our armed services. In my opinion troop morale will soar as our fighting folks are able to have more up to date contact with their loved ones. It’s one thing to arrange for a session to talk to little Johnny and Jenny on the satellite phone, but quite another for the troops to read their spouse’s Facebook pages and keep abreast of the little details as life goes on back home in the country they are fighting for.

But it’s not all family, fun and games for our troops. The policy specifically prohibits some of the baser things in life, namely “pornography, gambling and hate-crime related activities.” So while we here at home can look at jiggly bits, lose our fortunes in a ridiculous manner, or start a Facebook group defaming bacon lovers, our men and women in the armed services still have to put up with a few restrictions on their internet usage.

But wait, there’s more! Uncle Sam also wants you to connect with him. Here are the vital details about how you too can Tweet with the U.S. Department of Defense:





Now I just have one question. What do you want to say to Uncle Sam?

Monday, March 15, 2010

Canine Companions for Independence

"I used to be the kid in the wheelchair, Now, I'm the kid with the amazing dog."
—Cory and Skilled Companion Melly

In “Engaging stakeholders through social networking: How nonprofit organizations are using Facebook” (week five), authors Richard D. Waters et al. studied the Facebook profiles of 275 nonprofits in an effort to determine how successfully they were connecting with their stakeholders. Each profile was assessed for evidence of disclosure, usefulness and interactivity--three characteristics that are crucial for cultivating online relationships. I decided to check out the social media footprint of one of my favorite nonprofits, Canine Companions for Independence® (CCI), an organization that provides highly-trained assistance dogs for the disabled.

CCI on Facebook

I searched CCI’s Facebook profile looking for evidence of disclosure, usefulness and interactivity. I found it had most of the important items, such as a logo, a URL, pictures, discussions, and donations; I also saw some interaction between the organization and its fans, but the organization was represented only by an anonymous logo, not an individual with a name and personality. (On its Causes page, CCI does list administrators, so we can assume one of them is actually posting and replying.) CCI updates promote the organization’s Web site and Twitter page, helping to build the brand. While I am not wowed by the FB profile, I do think CCI is trying to engage with its stakeholders.

CCI on Twitter

CCI has two Twitter accounts, one maintained by the organization, @ccicanine, and one by an individual puppy raiser, @ccijourney. @ccicanine is rocking along at about the same pace as the FB wall, with 415 followers and a limited number of tweets. I think @ccijourney is attempting to share a more personal, engaging story but is not succeeding; I was hoping for a tweeting puppy, but it is in fact the human, and her tweets are not informative, fun or inspiring.

CCI on YouTube

CCI’s YouTube channel offers videos, of course, but also a brief organizational profile with links to the Web site and an opportunity to make a direct donation. With only 177 subscribers and just over 33,000 uploads in two years, this platform doesn’t seem to be wildly successful. I watched several videos and concluded that CCI needs to entertain while they inform. Puppies are cute, and it’s wonderful that they are service dogs, but the videos all look and sound like PSAs.

CCI on LinkedIn

I was surprised to see that CCI has a presence on LinkedIn with a complete corporate profile and a group of 114 members. As of this writing, my membership in the group is pending approval, so I can’t really determine the value of CCI group membership.

CCI on the Web (Home Base)

The main social media platform for CCI is the Web site at It’s not fancy, but it is well organized and does a good job of explaining what the organization does and how someone could get involved. Under the now familiar blue and yellow logo, CCI offers engaging pictures and stories from people who have raised a puppy or received a trained assistance dog. However, the Facebook, Twitter and YouTube links are not easy to spot; visitors have to click the CONNECT tab to discover these links. Also tucked in a bottom-of-the-page navigation menu is a link to the gift shop.

Stuck in Traditional Marketing Mode

Overall, I think CCI’s social media footprint is light. While it maintains multiple platforms, it is not using them effectively. The nonprofit seems to be stuck in a traditional one-way marketing strategy, unwilling or unable to establish a more effective dialogue with stakeholders. A few quick fixes might include:

  • using real names for every post, update and tweet, in place of a faceless corporate persona;
  • stepping up the content and frequency of Facebook and Twitter updates;
  • cross-marketing platforms so visitors know all the available ways to engage;
  • aggregating the many blogs written by CCI volunteers and puppies; and
  • linking blogs and videos to the Web page.

I know, I know... it's not as easy as it sounds. If it were, every organization would be a social media star!

Advising the Future: Social Media and Academic Advising

The University of Oklahoma's use of social media transforms Academic Advising

A Disturbing Trend
in Academic Advising

As an Academic Advisor, I am frequently treated to much brow furrowing and confusion about a wide range of issues surrounding higher education. Students have an intense disconnect between themselves and the university; whether due to the vastness of their chosen school or the juggling of responsibilities, students struggle to find information. My job, among other tasks, is to help them find information and synthesize it into a manageable fact. I like to think that the students check the main college website before they visit my office, but when I mention the main campus webpage or, even more befuddling, campus email, I get a head scratch. By and large, most students do not check these resources for information pertaining to their education. This trend is what makes the University of Oklahoma's social media approach to advising so revolutionary.

Embracing Social Media in Academic Advising

According to the University College at the
University of North Carolina at Wilmington's Advising E-newsletter, advisors are still trying to reach students through traditional email. Jenny Adams, author of the UNCW article asserts that email is not working due to "the expectation of immediate response, the potential for misinterpretation, and poor communication." In contrast to the low quantity of students checking their campus email, 60% of students check their Facebook profile daily, according to NACADA . Though issues with FERPA and the desire to keep student life separate from academics has created some stumbling blocks for many universities seeking a social media presence, some schools have made it work for their students. Adams uses the University of Oklahoma as a model for how to use social media in place of the traditional email communications.

University of Oklahoma Success

The University of Oklahoma has a Facebook and Twitter account that is mainly used to market the university. Though important for recruiting efforts, current students need more from a social media campaign. Upon further exploration of the University of Oklahoma's social media presence, it is apparent that students have responded well to the initiative. The Price College of Business'
Advising Center has 223 Facebook fans. Reminders about registration, withdrawal policies, and study abroad litter the profile. The best part is that students can interact with the advisors, thus taking a stake in their own education. This interaction is unarguably the holy grail of academic advising. The Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication invites its students to Facebook the advisors within the program. They can then ask general questions and save themselves a trip to campus. Web-learners would gain much from this practice. The university as a whole has a Facebook page as well as a Twitter account in addition to the individual advising offices.

Other Effective Uses of Social Media

Though the University of Oklahoma's Facebook and Twitter presence is strong, it seems they would also benefit from exploration of the other social media sites. Bellarmine University has a series of videos available for students on the school's website as well as on YouTube. The First Year Focus videos aim to meet the needs of freshman who do not yet understand the trappings of university life. The videos school them on how to prepare for advising, how to register, and how to find a community within the university. The University of Oklahoma would greatly benefit from videos that not only connect the student to the advisor but also disseminate information in an accessible way.

In short, the University of Oklahoma has an enviable leg-up when it comes to advising first-year and continuing students. Through social media, universities lose the invisible barrier separating it from the student population. It is imperative that higher education embrace social media, much like the University of Oklahoma, in order to find common ground with our students for the ultimate purpose of education.

Meet My Neighbor, Ace Hardware

Employees at Ace Hardware have names even on the internet. The brief introduction of a name brings the point of interaction from company-to-person right down to person-to-person. You can meet quite a few Ace Hardware employees online and the men and women live up to the company motto of “the helpful place” by being friendly, knowledgeable, and approachable.
The attractive company website is both powerful and easy to navigate. The first employee that you can meet is Lou in the helpful hardware man’s corner. Lou offers tips for dozens of projects around the house, special occasions, or seasonal needs. He isn’t the only employee there to help. You’ll find several other helpful Ace employees throughout the website. Not all of them have names, but it’s reassuring to see friendly faces.

The website makes a notable effort to encourage customer and brand loyalty through courtesy features as opposed to viral marketing schemes. Customers can search for products by brand, featured products, top sellers, top rated, and what’s new – as well as traditional searches by category and related projects. The website makes it simple to access monthly rebates, ad sales, and “red hot buys.”

For Ace Hardware customers, it’s easy to find the closest local store and to see just how many stores are nearby to serve you. You can even buy items online have them shipped to the store for free. If you take a moment to find the closest store, you can see a picture of the location as well as a short history on that individual Ace Hardware. You can also see their services, departments, featured brands, promotions and events, and even their community involvement.

Twitter with Ace Hardware
Do you know who replies to your questions? I do. Mark and Ismael update Ace’s Twitter feed from Ace Hardware HQ in Oak Brook, IL. With 2,594 followers, the Ace Hardware twitter is well-loved. It’s also pretty useful too. The Twitter feed writers are very aware of the purpose, customers, products, events, and even employees. A handy tool theme and visible links to the website, Facebook, and Youtube resources worked into the design to keep all of Ace Hardware’s online presences connected.

Mark and Ismael use their limited characters wisely; all of the updates are well-written and genuine. Customer comments and RTs are followed up individually and concerns are responded to with requests for direct messages. One successful method employed by Ace Hardware is to include the comment or question in the reply so that viewers know the context of the conversation. The Twitter feed encourages conversation by asking questions of its followers and offering tips for projects as Spring approaches. It also engages some of the brands sold by Ace Hardware by retweeting a topic from Rubbermaid.

A phenomenal use of Twitter is showcasing local Ace Hardware stores who reach goals, achievements, or do something significant – such as when Woodruff Ace in WI jumped in a frozen lake to benefit St. Joseph Children’s Hospital in Marshfield, WI on February 8th.

Youtube with Ace Hardware
Lou is back on the company Youtube channel. He brought Gina Schaefer with him, owner of a group of Ace Hardware stores in DC and Baltimore, to help review winter products. As for Lou, he’s got plenty of ideas to help you accomplish your goals. Whether it’s recommending a product, reminding you of a seasonal to-do list, or showing you how to use a tool, he’s there to help and he’ll show you how to stay safe while doing the job.

Every video is clear, direct, and simple. By the end of all the videos, I felt confident not only in Lou, but also in the other Ace Hardware employees that he promised could help me with any of my questions. The Youtube channel shares the same decorative theme as the Twitter feed, tying in the Ace Hardware personality across multiple social media platforms.

Facebook with Ace Hardware
The Ace Hardware Facebook page is what every company dreams of when it hopes for a connection to and a commitment from its customers. While it boasts 18,559 fans, the real success is that the Facebook page is thriving! Customers and employees update the comment wall daily and each official Ace Hardware status update is met with supportive replies and thumbs up votes in the double digits. Customer comments vary from needed parts, garden ideas, to goofy projects like seeking out photos of Ace Hardware stores have popcorn machines for special occasions. Some customers even mention specific stores or employees that went out of their way to help. Employees and store owners share photos of store events and outstanding customers.

The Facebook page makes use of its “Favorite Pages” as a community showcase for individual stores, featured brands, supported causes, and customer projects. It makes a statement when customers ask their hardware store to link to their cause in their favorites list.

The Ace Hardware team doesn’t shy away from criticism or negative feedback. When a customer was upset about the slow arrival of a snow shovel, the Ace Hardware team took responsibility to make thing right, mentioning the store manager Tim by name and publicly explaining what went wrong. Even when the customer found a shovel elsewhere, her comment about the more helpful competition was allowed to stay on the boards.

Have I mentioned the helpful content and resources available for customers throughout the Facebook page? What about the photos and pages devoted to the many causes and special projects that Ace Hardware supports? The people at Ace Hardware are involved in their community and it’s clear that their community appreciates all that they do.

At least that’s what their social media helps me to believe, and isn’t that the goal?

Ace Hardware makes an exceptional effort to keep its social media extensions simple, useful, and welcoming. All of its website, Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube resources are available on the go through its mobile feature, a tool which has added features to make getting to the local store even easier. The company has long maintained a neighborhood-friendly image and its loyal customer base has kept Ace Hardware strong and relevant even in the face of competition from bigger hardware stores. It looks like Ace's social media presence is helping to strengthen its bond with its customers.

Social Media Marketing: Sears and Kmart Step It Up

Sears Holdings Step Up Their Game with Social Media

In May 2009, Sears Holdings Corporation officially launched two social networks for their customers, MySears and MyKmart.

A little on MySears and MyKmart…

MySears Image

So what exactly are MySears and MyKmart? At their core, they are social networks for reviews. Customers can review items and join discussion groups on products.

MySears and MyKmart also incorporate several other useful social elements. They have their own message boards and active blogs.

In an economy that is increasingly tight for competition and customers controlling how much they spend-Sears Holdings Corporation is wise to utilize social media.

Here are sites that Sears Holdings utilizes:

Sears and K-Mart utilize Twitter and Facebook
Sears and K-Mart also have fan pages on Facebook. Advertising deals and sales can also be found on Twitter.

Back to School Campaign
Sears has hired celebrity teens to represent their company in the company's Arrive Lounge. Vanessa Hudgens was hired in 2008 and Selena Gomez was their representative in 2009.

I think that by using teen celebrities as Sears spokespeople-that Sears is using the "cool" factor and kids will want to shop at Sears. I work at Sears on the weekends, and when the Vanessa Hudgens campaign came out-it was a pretty big deal. They had Sears featured in Teen Vogue and had a contest for two to go see Vanessa Hudgens in concert. So, I think that Sears is doing a fantastic job keeping in line with their competition and promoting the company's "cool" factor.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

A World Renowned Company Responds to Crisis Via Social Media

What does a company with a spotless reputation -- based on years of safety, reliability and value -- do when it comes under fire for mishandling communications and producing a potentially lethal product? These days it turns to social media. That's exactly what Toyota has done in response to its massive vehicle recall begun in January 2010. The question is, has Toyota utilized social media effectively?

The home page of Toyota's web site provides a large and easily identifiable link to information about the recall. The recall page is filled with information and even breaking news (no pun intended). Owners can enter their VIN to see if their vehicle is included in the recall. Unfortunately, neither the home page nor the recall page directs visitors to Toyota's Facebook page or Twitter account.

Another site, Toyota Conversations, is powered by tweetmeme, and lists links to articles about Toyota, along with latest tweets and videos. Although the site is corporate controlled, the message is not, and many of the links are less than favorable to Toyota. A slight balance occurs with messages around the site detailing what Toyota is doing in terms of the recall and other information for owners' use.

Using Social Media

In its article, "The Cult of Toyota,"Advertising Age reports that though Toyota has been faulted in traditional media for its handling of the crisis, the company quickly jumped on the bandwagon of social media. They have created a social response room, staffed with 6-8 people who do nothing but respond and monitor Toyota's online presence.

It's answering consumers on its four Facebook pages; it created a Twitter chat with Jim Lentz, Toyota Motor Sales USA president-chief operating officer; and it created two new platforms, one with Digg and the other on Tweetmeme called "Toyota Conversations" to aggregate online chatter and allow Toyota to respond directly.

Monitoring the online chatter is probably a good idea. Toyota had no idea how big the social media blitz would be, but found out pretty quickly. Within hours of its January 26 Stop Sale announcement, online posts about the company had gone from about 500 in the morning to more than 3000 in the afternoon.

Doug Frisbie, Toyota Motor Sales USA's national social media and marketing integration manager, said, "Just by virtue of the volume of conversation you see out there online, [social media] is probably the most important [crisis-communication] element in many cases. How you respond and react to those [social-media] conversations really has become perhaps the most important platform for dealing with a crisis like this." (Interesting...Toyota has a national social media and marketing integration manager.)

Frisbie also said that the primary tenet of good social media strategy is to listen to your customers. He claims Toyota is not trying to guide or steer the conversations one way or another, but is using its social media platforms as a way to provide relevant information and as a means for customers to post questions or complaints and allow the company to respond.

Toyota on Facebook

Toyota's Facebook page boasts more than 84,000 fans, many of whom have written on the wall to show loyal support of their favorite car brand. Some have even started new pages to show support:

Frisbie says the beleagured automaker has seen its Facebook fan base increase by more than 10% just since the recall was announced in late January. Perhaps it's because Toyota is using the page as a way to stay interactive with customers, commenting on photos and providing helpful information in response to complaints:

Mark Lin Local Toyota dealership is refusing to perform warranty and recall service because I did not buy my Toyota Tacoma from them.

Toyota USA Hi Mark - All our Toyota dealers are equipped to perform the fixes. If you are encountering any difficulty with this, please feel free to call us at 1-800-331-4331 so we can discuss in more detail. Thanks for reaching out to us, Mark.
4 hours ago ·

The company does not post status updates, but seems to use the Facebook page just as a means for customers to interact with one another and Toyota.

Bringing Customers to YouTube

Toyota is also asking those who post prolifically on its social media sites to join its cause through video interviews posted on YouTube, showing an authentic, loyal customer response to the recall issue. The automaker is using employees as well, to offer feel-good video assurances to customers that Toyota is alive and well, as in this video with Ronny, a Toyota Master Diagnostic Technician:

The feel-good videos are interspersed with informative videos about the recall, as well as a chat with the president of Toyota (more on this later) and several promotional videos. The YouTube channel, with links to Facebook and Twitter, promotes the other social media aspects better than the regular Toyota website.

Digg It?

A half-hour live webcast with Toyota Motor Sales USA President Jim Lentz was held, at the request of Toyota, on in early February -- and drew more than 870,000 viewers in the first 48 hours of its airing. A moderator asked Lentz 10 questions that had been submitted and voted on by the Digg community.

Mediabistro posted an interview with Digg Chief Strategy Officer Mike Maser, in which Maser talked about the Lentz interview. "Toyota is a smart organization. They realized social media is another important platform for them to use, and talking directly to consumers is a key part of building back trust for their brand."

Too Little, Too Late?

Some reports indicate that Toyota's social media response came too slowly and therefore was too late to stem the tide of damage that has occurred. Shiv Singh, the VP & Global Social Media Lead at Razorfish, reports on Mashable that, while Toyota's SIM Score, a basic equation for calculating how a brand is faring on the social web, went up after the January announcements, he expects the February numbers to be lower when all counts are in. He also suggests that Toyota was slow to respond and that the company must start initiating conversations with customers more directly using its social media tools.

It's too early to tell what's going to happen to Toyota, or whether its social media campaign is going to prove effective. The inevitable lawsuits are just beginning, and new reports continue to filter in about alleged faulty vehicles. However, one thing is certain: much like Johnson & Johnson's handling of the Tylenol-Cyanide crisis of 1982, Toyota's social media crisis plan will be talked about and used as an example -- one way or another -- by future PR planners and social media experts.

Georgia Writers Association. What the Heck is That?

The Best-kept Secret in Georgia
The Georgia Writers Association has been in existence since 1994, and for most of those sixteen years, the organization has been one of the best-kept secrets in the state. The group was originally established to be a resource and an asset for Georgia writers of all types and levels of accomplishment and to be a source of mutual support for those engaged in the craft of putting words to paper. These are all worthy objectives, but unfortunately, the organization has not always been successful in meeting their mandates.

Website Remodeling
In an attempt to improve the GWA’s efficacy, brand recognition, and track record, a group of graduate students from Kennesaw State University’s Master’s of Arts in Professional Writing program recently embarked upon an initiative to refurbish the web presence of the GWA, primary through the use of online technology and various social media. The first of several steps to this end was the analysis of the Georgia Writer’s Association website by three separate focus groups. The intent was to evaluate the site for usability, functionality, and content. Three separate reports were generated identifying issues and recommendations for their remediation. These suggestions are currently being evaluated, and several have already been implemented.

GWA on Facebook
One of the largest areas identified for potential improvement was in the GWA’s existing Facebook page. Although the page had been in existence for some years, it was rarely used. The group membership hovered around 175, and there was an average of one post per week from all sources.

Two additional administrators were assigned the task of revitalizing this page. Using the principle that steady posts bring traffic, they made a minimum of five posts per day beginning on February 25th. Since that date, over 100 links to websites of interest to writers have been added. Additionally, over 125 photos of GWA member’s book covers have been placed on the page. Invitations to 800 potential members have been sent out, with more being identified and sent daily. Group messaging has been used on several occasions to solicit input from members and to advise members of upcoming events.

Although it is early in the Facebook campaign, the initial results have been encouraging. The group’s membership has climbed to 475 members as of this post’s date. Membership interaction with administrator posts is also on the rise, including an astounding nine interactions from non-administrators on 3/14.

The Tweet Smell of Success
Another opportunity area was Twitter. The GWA had no presence on this platform, but this oversight was rectified on 3/10. Since that time, the GWA has signed up to follow 39 members, has gained 31 followers, and has Tweeted 5 times. This may seem to be a modest beginning, but it is a start, nonetheless. And picking up 31 followers—mostly from the Facebook announcement—is very encouraging.

What About the Blog?
One of the areas that was identified as being crucial to the success of the GWA social media campaign was the revitalization of the organization’s blog. The capacity for hosting an interactive blog is built into the GWA website, and a few posts have been made, but the effort cannot be termed a success at this point. The number and frequency of posts are both issues that will need to be addressed if this blog is to realize its potential as the sounding board for one of the largest and oldest writer’s organizations in the South.

Where Do We Go from Here?
A good start has been made towards the revitalization of the web presence for the Georgia Writers Association. The problem areas have been identified, and the assignments have been made. The ultimate success of the initiative will require the 3 C’s: commitment, consistency, and content. Time will be the judge.