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Assignment Zero August 17, 2007

Posted by Steve Field in Assignment Zero.
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I had never heard of Assignment Zero until it was mentioned in class on Monday.

So I shouldn’t have had any expectations. Still, I was surprised to see what I found.

Assignment Zero describes itself as the following:

Inspired by the open-source movement, this is an attempt to bring journalists together with people in the public who can help cover a story. It’s a collaboration among NewAssignment.Net, Wired, and those who choose to participate.

The investigation takes place in the open, not behind newsroom walls. Participation is voluntary; contributors are welcome from across the Web. The people getting, telling and vetting the story are a mix of professional journalists and members of the public — also known as citizen journalists. This is a model I describe as “pro-am.”

The “ams” are simply people getting together on their own time to contribute to a project in journalism that for their own reasons they support. The “pros” are journalists guiding and editing the story, setting standards, overseeing fact-checking, and publishing a final version.

In this project, we’re trying to crowdsource a single story, and debut a site that makes other such reports possible down the road. But we don’t know yet how well our site and our methods work. Our ideas are crude because they are untested. By participating, you can help us figure this puzzle out.

Interesting concept. If citizen journalism truly is alive in an age of digital media, then there should be a forum where citizen journalists can organize and collectively create news.

However, when looking through the tracker (where you go to look through recently filed reports), it seemed that much of Assignment Zero was focused on — surprise — citizen journalism. In a word, meta-journalism.

Two of the articles I looked at were “The Audience has the Power” (from the assignment “contextualize Bankler’s work”) and “A Contributor’s Perspective on Crowdsourced Journalism.” Both articles look that the study of community journalism. The first comes in terms of a summary of The Cult of the Amateur by Andrew Keen, while the second takes an empirical look at community journalism, citing political journalism crowdsourcing on the Daily Kos and TPM Muckraker; group endeavors with individual appeal, such as Assignment Zero; and geographically distributed local watchdogs.

All of this is interesting. However, I don’t think it lives up to the full promise and potential of the site. It may be that the premise is flawed. Maybe journalism works best when there is a single content creator synthesizing facts from multiple sources.

I’m not sure. We’ll have to see how this experiment plays out.

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The challenges of Wikinomics August 11, 2007

Posted by Steve Field in Wikinomics.
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The idea of the “prosumer” — the actively involved consumer — that Don Tapscott presents in Wikinomics is clever and insightful. However, the trend of the democratization of media that he outlines in chapter five is a bumpy road for business, government and associations. The part toward mass collaboration is difficult one for institutions entrenched in traditional business models.

Tapscott outlines five imperatives of harnessing the prosumer for corporate benefit. They are:

  1. Employ more than just customization
  2. Cede control
  3. Make products modular and reconfigurable
  4. Become a peer
  5. Share the fruits

While essential to leveraging the power of the crowd, taking these steps marks a big leap of faith for institutions that are used to control — i.e. most institutions. Historically businesses have believed that they controlled their brand. They were able to shape it through advertising and one-way communication from company to consumer. Today, that is not the case.

This isn’t just the reality that business is facing. Government also faces the challenge. Consider my former place of work — the Pentagon. The U.S. military is one of the most hierarchical organizations in the world. They are also facing the realities of communicating with prosumers. The attitude of the prosumer flies in the face of traditional military organization.

Figuring out how to convince organizational leaders to embrace the principles of Wikinomics will not be easy, but it should be done.

In the mean time, enjoy a video about the world of prosumers:

The power of one (million) August 4, 2007

Posted by Steve Field in Wikinomics.
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One person can make a difference. –Overused cliche
The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. –Another overused cliche

Collaboration. Co-creation. Crowdsourcing. These terms have become the buzzwords of a new way of thinking about production, articulated in Wikinomics: How Mass Collaboration Changes Everything.

The digital economy, says author Don Tapscott, has enabled businesses to work with the public to develop new products, come up with new ideas, and change the way that society works. There is wisdom in crowds; there is possibility in groups.

Before the mass adoption of the internet, geography was an inhibiting factor that truly prevented mass collaboration. Experts with great ideas lived in different towns, different states, different countries. The odds of stumbling upon someone who could take your thinking and advance it to a new level was unlikely. It is not surprising then, that the great inventions and discoveries before the 21st century are attributed to one man or one woman. Consider:

  • The printing press — Gutenberg
  • Gravity — Sir Isaac Newton
  • Penicillin — Fleming
  • Cotton Gin — Eli Whitney

Even groups responsible for invention did so through close associates, such as the Wright brothers, for example.

Today, that has all changed.

People from vast distances — and at their own time — can come together to solve problems and contribute to new inventions. One of the coolest examples that Tapscott offers in his book is the computer program, which is available for anyone to download, that runs calculations to help discover a cure for AIDS while your computer is idle. Or that within hours, people from all over London were able to compile a detailed account of the London subway bombings.

When working together, more things are possible. And the digital economy allows it.

How does this relate to public relations? Well, PR practitioners should realize that their companies customers may have valuable insight. Let them help communicate — because an Army of citizen marketers (as Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba point out) is stronger than a 15-person corporate communications shop.

While it may be true that one person can make a difference, it is also true that she will have a greater impact if she works with a million others to achieve her goals.

Pitching bloggers and ethics July 28, 2007

Posted by Steve Field in Ethics, Pitching Bloggers.
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Pitching has been a staple of public relations as long as the industry has existed. The dance between the journalist and the publicist is truly analogous to baseball — the professional communicator working to place a story in the right location, with the desired spin at the appropriate time.

With the rise of citizen journalism, however, pitching is not something that is just restricted to journalists anymore. With a slew of blogs and other consumer generated media outlets carrying on conversations about products and ideas, public relations professionals have a whole new set of outlets they can pitch.

Consequently, people are also discussing the best way to reach out to these online influencers.

The Emergence Media Wiki has a breakdown of basic principles of pitching bloggers tips include:

  • Build relationships now, not just when you need them
  • Look beyond A-listers
  • Be personal and casual, but professional
  • Keep the pitch soft
  • Avoid attachments and use links

These recommendations parallel Rohit Bhargava’s seven key tips on pitching bloggers. Perhaps the most interesting — and most controversial — is his statement that giving bloggers free stuff is ok. He notes that “while many journalists are honor and ethics bound to turn down any free offers from PR professionals and companies, bloggers are not.”

While some bloggers have embraced the idea of giving products with citizen journalists so they can write about them (such as Jospeh Jaffee, a PR blogger who received a free Nikon D80 camera from Nikon and their agency, MWW), others have been critical of bloggers accepting gifts and then writing about them (such as Robert Scoble, author of Naked Conversations).

From an ethical standpoint, I think Scoble has the right idea — if you are going to accept a gift from a company, a blogger should disclose. Period. By being open, honest, and transparent, the blogger gives all the information to his or her readers, and allows the informed reader to take their endorsement of a product with a grain of salt.

As a PR professional pitching bloggers, I recommend doing the following three things if offering a free product sample to a blogger:

  1. Consider how it will be perceived before you send it. Some free product trials are are more innocuous than others. Sending samples of a new compact fluorescent light bulbs to environmental bloggers is relatively modest because the value of the bulb isn’t that great. Sending a free iPhone carries a bigger perception problem because the phone has more inherent value as well as perceived social value. That’s not to say that providing a blogger with an expensive item is always a no-no; just consider the perception
  2. Ask before you send. Not all bloggers will accept gifts. Make sure that the blogger is interested up front.
  3. Require that the blogger disclose. When pitching a blogger by sending him or her a product, you can make no demands; coverage cannot be a condition of receipt. However, if the blogger does accept the gift and does choose to write about it, it is the role of the person sending the item to guarantee that the blogger disclose the relationship.

Ultimate question, basic principles July 21, 2007

Posted by Steve Field in The Ultimate Question.
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Although last week I said I liked the premise of The Ultimate Question, I found the more I read the book, the less I enjoyed it. The second half of the book was fluffy, so even though the concept of judging good profits by the happiness of customers and their willingness to be brand ambassadors, the way that Reichheld suggests that companies become customer-focused is a bit shallow.

The recommendations Reichheld gives for for building a company that is devoted to good profits are common sense business 101. He offers tips such as:

  • Hire and fire to inspire
  • Pay well
  • Invest in training your employees
  • And others

Nothing here is revolutionary. Each of these principles is about respecting your employees, and there is a wide body of literature existing that suggests that happy employees are effective employees and effective employees create happy customers. This is more common sense that innovative thinking. All that Reichheld is doing in his discussion about internal business structures is packaging an old concept in a new way.

Second, I found his methodology for how one calculates the NPS left me wanting. I agree that sticking to the Ultimate Question and that alone is a good way to garner accurate information from customers, but the actual metrics he prescribes are old hat — a scale of 0 to 10? A 3-point scale or a 5-point scale? Again, nothing here is new. Furthermore, if the 0-10 scale is used, as he seems to endorse, he doesn’t provide any concrete standards to apply to each number. This means that the results are inherently tied to the subjective interpretations of the respondents, which makes the data less reliable.

I’m not a complete detractor for Reichheld’s thinking. I just wish that his points were a little more original and a little more thorough.

Why one question matters July 14, 2007

Posted by Steve Field in The Ultimate Question.
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I can’t think of a premise more simple, yet more revolutionary.

In The Ultimate Question, Fred Reichheld revolutionizes the meaning of the word profit by arguing that the bottom line is best served by focusing on customer needs and converting them into brand ambassadors.

In other words the ultimate question is: would you recommend our company to a friend?

The concept is so simple. But so right on. Business success depends on sales. Continued sales depend on customer satisfaction. And the highest form of customer satisfaction is the willingness and desire to recommend a company or brand to a friend or colleague.

This premise is grounded in the fundamental principle of the book The Cluetrain Manifesto. In this book (now available for free online), the authors argue that markets are conversations. The traditional approach to business communications was about talking at people — advertising, messaging, and brand development. The reality of today is that business communication does not only exist in a top-down manner. It also exists in a circular manner, with customers talking back to the company and to one another.

I like the approach that Reichheld takes. The idea of a Net Promoter Score is interesting, and seems to get to the heart of the matter — that the more likely that a company has customers willing to recommend them to a friend.

However, I am still confused on the methodology of the NPS. Perhaps that will come to light later in the book. There is a very real challenge in applying numerical metrics to a qualitative survey such as the NPS survey. Reichhart hasn’t yet disclosed his process, and I have a feeling he won’t in the book (as doing so would be like sharing the “secret sauce”). However, in order to understand how NPS works, it would be helpful if Reichart shared his methodology.

I’ll be looking for this in the rest of the book. In the mean time, has anyone else seen his methodology? Leave a comment — I would love to hear your thoughts on how NPS works.

Five things to do before launching a business blog July 7, 2007

Posted by Steve Field in Naked Conversations.
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In the first part of Naked Conversations, Shel Isreal and Robert Scoble are the ultimate blogging cheerleaders. They strongly advocate the power of online technologies for business to have real, honest and transparent conversations with their stakeholders.

I agree with them for the most part. The rules of business communication have changed.

However, the great thing in the second half of the book, in my opinion, is that Scoble and Isreal first begin to explore the potential dangers of blogging.

In recent years, blogging has become “en vogue.” Often times, a CEO or other C-suite executive will hear about blogging while listening to NPR or reading Business Week and instruct her professional communicators to create a blog for her. These decisions are often made devoid of strategy. They are executive dicta, much like what was referred to while I was working for the U.S. Army as “GOBIs,” or “General Officer Bright Ideas.”

Scoble and Isreal make a good point that corporate blogging is not for everyone. As an addendum to their thoughts, here are five things to do before starting a CEO blog:

  1. Stop. Take a breath and ask yourself “why?” Why am I creating this blog? What am I trying to achieve? Who am I trying to reach? Can I do this better in some other way. Keep asking yourself questions until you run out of them to make sure you have fully explored the purpose of creating a corporate blog.
  2. Research. After thinking about what the topic of the blog will be, look for others who write about your issue and become familiar with the existing community.
  3. Decide who will be authoring the blog and talk to the communications staff about the time commitment. Do not have the blog ghost written by a professional communicator; it should be written by the principal.
  4. Commit to openness.  Allow comments on the blog and be willing to accept criticism. If you can’t do this, don’t blog.
  5. Jump on in. The best way to learn about the space is to jump in. Mistakes will be made as you work through social media. Do not let these setbacks discourage you or prompt you to shut down your blogging efforts.

Why search is the new advertising June 30, 2007

Posted by Steve Field in Search.
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“If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?”
— Philosophical question

In class, we have spent a good amount of time talking about the way that media is changing. The public is spending more time consuming media, but less time focusing on it. We live in an age of continuous partial attention. Because people are inundated with media, they are quickly shifting from being passive consumers of media to active seekers of information.

This means that in order to get your message out, you can’t just buy an advertisement anymore. You need to make sure that people can discover you through search. It shouldn’t be surprising that the top three visited Web sites in the world — Yahoo!, Google and MSN.com — all are major search engines, according to data from Quantcast. If they can’t you might as well be that tree falling in the woods with no one to hear you.

Communicators in an age of digital influence need to know how search engines work and why they are important. For beginners, the book The Search does a great job of explaining how one of the most popular search engines, Google, works. Googleguide.com also explains the three parts of search pretty effectively (and in fewer words):

  1. The Crawler. These are also known as “spiders.” They are essentially the robots that traverse the Web and gather information about every page in existence.
  2. The Index. The index is where the crawlers send information about specific sites. It is a massive warehouse of information that catalogues sites by search terms
  3. The Interface. This is the front end — or the user experience — of a search engine. This is where the user enters his search term and how the results are displayed after the search is conducted.

Armed with knowledge of how search works is the critical foundation. The next step is to know how to leverage the way search works to get the information you want to appear in top results. Even though searches can often turn up tens of thousands if not hundreds of thousands of results, most users don’t go beyond the first twenty or thirty results to find what they are looking for. The process of creating your site to be discovered in search is called Search Engine Optimization, or SEO.

Rohit Bhargava takes the concept of SEO one step further. He notes that blogs and other social media generally score well in Google ranks because the number of links to a site is one of the criteria used in ranking algorithm, and blogs tend to trade links with one another. By making a site social media friendly, he argues, you not only help yourself in the social media sphere, but in the search realm as well.

He is spot on.

To crib his recommendations, try some of the following steps to make your blog or Web site not only sharable, but more discoverable:

  1. Increase your linkability – This is the first and most important priority for websites. Many sites are “static” – meaning they are rarely updated and used simply for a storefront. To optimize a site for social media, we need to increase the linkability of the content. Adding a blog is a great step, however there are many other ways such as creating white papers and thought pieces, or even simply aggregating content that exists elsewhere into a useful format.
  2. Make tagging and bookmarking easy – Adding content features like quick buttons to “add to del.icio.us” are one way to make the process of tagging pages easier, but we go beyond this, making sure pages include a list of relevant tags, suggested notes for a link (which come up automatically when you go to tag a site), and making sure to tag our pages first on popular social bookmarking sites (including more than just the homepage).
  3. Reward inbound links – Often used as a barometer for success of a blog (as well as a website), inbound links are paramount to rising in search results and overall rankings. To encourage more of them, we need to make it easy and provide clear rewards. From using Permalinks to recreating Similarly, listing recent linking blogs on your site provides the reward of visibility for those who link to you
  4. Help your content travel – Unlike much of SEO, SMO is not just about making changes to a site. When you have content that can be portable (such as PDFs, video files and audio files), submitting them to relevant sites will help your content travel further, and ultimately drive links back to your site.
  5. Encourage the mashup – In a world of co-creation, it pays to be more open about letting others use your content (within reason). YouTube’s idea of providing code to cut and paste so you can imbed videos from their site has fueled their growth. Syndicating your content through RSS also makes it easy for others to create mashups that can drive traffic or augment your content.

Building online communities June 23, 2007

Posted by Steve Field in Communities.
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Having already read and written about Naked Conversations (which, for anyone interested in how digital technologies are changing the way that businesses need to talk with their customers, is a must read), I thought I would delve into the topic of community, which is the subject of the supplemental readings this week.

The interesting thing about communities in an Internet age is the collections of people are no longer restricted by geography. Traditional communities were based around location — one could not reasonably build relationships with other people who lived a significant distance because it was difficult to interact on a regular basis.

This is not true today.

Online, geography is not the only factor that shapes community. Just as important (and often more important) in shaping community online is shared interest. Wikipedia notes that the fact that geography is not the sole determining factor in the definition of community has made the idea of a virtual community a contentious one.

The fact that geography does not limit online community means that niche communities that can’t exist in the real world (because the people interested in such a community live too far apart from each other) can evolve. It also means that professional communicators who want to have “naked conversations” with their customers can build communities online for them.

O’Reilly offers great foundational principles for PR practitioners who are interested in building a community for a client:

  • Exist for a reason. This is foundation to any business decision. You should never make a community just because it is “cool” or because it is “what people are doing now.” There should be a practical purpose for existence, and the community should fill a need of the members.
  • Users draw in other users. Communities are organic. They form on their own through word of mouth of members. PR practitioners can help increase awareness of the existence of a community, but members must make conscious decisions to join themselves. Current community members are the best recruitment tools for community.
  • Mischief is inevitable. There are bullies and mean people in real-world communities. These people exist online as well. Also, be wary that those who might not have the courage to be bullies in real-world communities might feel emboldened to be pushy by the anonymity and distance that the online community offers. Robin Miller makes a good suggestion for dealing with these people: let the community police itself.

Overall, community is a good thing and can be a powerful way for professional communicators to create meaningful engagements with their audiences.

People aren’t messages June 16, 2007

Posted by Steve Field in Citizen Marketers.
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Last week, I took exception to Jackie Huba and Mitch McConnell’s assertion that in an age of citizen marketers, “the people are the message,” as they articulate in their latest book Citizen Marketers.

After reading the rest of the book, I renew my criticism.

They keep revisiting the statement that people are the message (which, while rhetorically pleasant, is never actually proven by Huba and McConnell). In chapter five, they cite a man name Winter (yes, he has apparently changed his name legally to Winter. I even checked out his Web site to see for myself.) Winter is so passionate about Starbucks that he has made it his personal mission to visit every Starbucks on the planet and write about it.

After telling his story, Huba and McConnell say that (surprise!) Winter is the message.

Except he isn’t. He is a person who is sharing his experience of a brand with others. What he is saying about Starbucks, and perhaps the fact that he is so passionate about the coffee that he has embarked on this quest to visit every Starbucks in existence, are messages. Words and actions can be messages. The man himself is not.

Perhaps a better way to articulate what I think McConnell and Huba are saying is that in an age of citizen marketers, the people control your message. I don’t think the important point is that people are messages. I think it is quite important that citizen marketers are out there and that these influential consumer/evangelists have an increasing impact on brand perception when compared to traditional forms of brand marketing, such as advertising.

This point about the citizen marketer having increased influence is echoed by this year’s Edelman Trust Barometer. Each year, Edelman (my employer) publishes a survey indicating different levels of trust among social institutions. For a second year, the most trusted spokesperson, as indicated by the survey, is “a person like me.” Businesses with powerful brands can no longer ignore that people are talking to one another about those brands and influencing how those brands are perceived.

People are not messages — but they sure are shaping brand messages in a way never before seen.