Your Brain is Not Normal

May 27, 2009

No, you don’t have anything to be afraid of, so no need to go running to your local brain surgeon. Your brain is just fine. But it is not normal, contrary to the belief that we all hold. What I mean by that, is that we have come to normalize what we see from our vantage point: “I feel this way, I think think this way, my experience is XYZ; therefore it’s normal and everyone feels and thinks this way.” That couldn’t be further from the truth. Based on our experiences and education (formal and informal), we develop a certain prism that we apply to all subsequent events to help us understand them and place them within context of what we know. It is how we process and organize information. To add a level of complexity, our prism is constantly evolving, as we add more and more experience and education to our arsenal. Because my prism is different from yours, the same exact event can make us feel quite differently about it.

Ability to understand this nugget is the key to being an effective human being, whether it’s in personal or professional interpersonal communications, or in marketing to consumers or businesses. It’s really at the foundation of all communication. Before having a discussion with your significant other, writing that intraoffice e-mail, putting together that powerpoint deck for a presentation, writing that blogpost or sending that customer e-mail update, do a quick reality check. Try to step outside of yourself and say “Ok, I consider this normal, but does the person receiving my communication feel the same way? What prism will he / she apply to what I am communicating to him / her?” I know this sounds beyond elementary, but this is one of the biggest failures in communication. We all do it. I, for example, get so wrapped up in the social media world, that I assume that everyone blogs, tweets, podcasts, creates video content, mobile / web widgets and apps. Not so! Most people have no idea what any of those things are. However, I have come to normalize it, because those things are my reality. We are creatures of our respective environments, so please take a minute to try to extrapolate how other people’s environments and experiences have shaped their views, habits and responses to stimuli.

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Attending the 140 Characters Conference

May 26, 2009

I have attended several of Jeff Pulver‘s events in the past (Social Media 1 and Social Media Jungle 2), and have always been impressed with the content, as well as the amazing connections I had made. I am even more excited for the 140 Characters Conference (#140conf as it’s known on Twitter). This is a not-to-miss event for anyone who is passionate about Twitter as the hottest emerging communication platform.

Those who read my blog know how completely and utterly enthralled I am with Twitter, above and beyond any other social network. Most of my blogposts have at least something to do with this extremely disruptive, efficient, insightful, ubiquitous and open communication platform. Hence, my interest in a Twitter conference is tremendous. Monitoring the Twittersphere and the event site, some of the top voices in social media and Twitter luminaries will be attending the event. Networking is also a top reason of why I am extremely interested in this event.

Unfortunately, due to financial constraints I am unable to pay the fee to attend. So I am applying for and hoping to win the #140conf Scholarship. If I was selected to be a scholarship finalist, I would diligently cover the event via Twitter and blogging, adding my own insights. I will also help promote the event via all social media tools available to me.

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Tracking Conversations

May 26, 2009

computerA huge benefit of Twitter, especially for brands, is the ability to track and monitor what the Twittersphere is saying about you, your competitors and just about any related topic. Because of how important search is, Twitter actually bought Summize and incorporated it as search.twitter.com. Desktop and mobile applications have search functions that vary in sophistication and ease of use. I think we will see quite a bit of innovation coming from Twitter insights and tracking conversation: after we have created all this content, we need to know how to extract valuable nuggets from it. Innovation will vary from simple search tools to more complex and intelligent semantic search, to enterprise-wide solutions. I am excited to see what develops.

One tool that caught my eye last week was ConvoTrack. It’s a fantastic little bookmarklet that lets you track and package conversations around a URL. It’s based off the Backtype API which allows to get the full context of URLs, regardless of whether it’s shortened or full, or what type of shortener was used (bit.ly, tinyurl, is.gd, etc). Moreover, the URL is tracked all over social sites, including Twitter, FriendFeed, Digg, Reddit, or any blog mentioning that URL. To illustrate, here are the comments around the gay marriage ban in California today – http://convotrack.com/19R. While bit.ly analytics can be useful to track the reach of each URL that you shorten, tools like ConvoTrack take it a step above, by allowing to track any URL, regardless of who originated it. Twitt(url)y is also a great tool of discovering the top trending URLs and the conversations about them; however it’s limited to Twitter only and isn’t as useful if you want to track a less popular URL. All in all, a ton of tools come out each day, it seems like. They are designed to make our lives better, but the process of discovery and trying out different tools makes my head spin sometimes. Which is not a bad problem to have. For the most complete tool list, I recommend reading the following post by Brian Solis.

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And… There Goes the Neighborhood…

May 25, 2009

neighborhoodI, like many others, have been concerned about the rise of spam on Twitter. First, spammers would book a user name, follow a bunch of users, In hopes of auto-follows, then auto-DM those users with spam links (this is why I never auto-follow). Then, there has been talk of spammers latching on to a trending hashtag with an irrelevant spam message containing a link to an unrelated site. I have no issue with self-promotion, as long as it’s done tactfully, and is designed to add value to the conversation. By latching on to a trending hashtag, a spammer will appear in the search timeline for anyone tracking that topic, and thus gain great visibility.

spamNow, last night, as I was following my twitter stream before going to bed, I came across this link to a “guru” site promising to amass tons of twitter followers fast. It made me vomit a little. Real estate scams, now Twitter scams? This is fueled by the rise of a blind race for users, fueled by users like Ashton Kutcher and others who amass followers like it’s some kind of a competitive sport. Amassing followers may be fun, if that’s your type of thing: a popularity contest of sorts. But if you are looking to build value for yourself and your followers via Twitter, you will be wrong to follow this path. The Twitter community is all about building long-term relationships, listening and engaging before you speak, being authentic and being human. The 30 second spot is fading in efficacy, and brands looking to really engage their hard-to-reach customers must not use Twitter as a 1-way broadcast system. Which is why I am disappointed by these developments, but also think that spammers will soon realize that Twitter is not the right medium for amassing tons of followers non-organically and blasting them with a 1-way message. As Brian Solis said in response to this development (via Twitter, of course), “Those driven by the # of followers will find themselves alone as social Darwinism ensures the survival of the loyal+helpful.” And remember that there are no shortcuts to success, only hard work and producing quality content. There is no such thing as an “automated Twitter traffic machine”.

These developments, while not surprising, disappoint me. I am not surprised, because Twitter has definitley jumped the shark, and all popular digital communication methods get invaded with spammers after they become popular. But it does make me a little sad to see this behavior going on in a medium that we have come to love for its community feel. I guess this is what happens when web products start to cross the chasm.

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How portable is your data?

May 19, 2009

Quite an interesting development yesterday that Facebook is now implementing OpenID, allowing its user to sign-up and sign-in with non-Facebook credentials. I definitely did not expect this from the “walled garden” known as Facebook. Initiatives like OpenID are a fantastic move in the direction of being consumer-centric in the face of extreme web fragmentation. As the Web 2.0 bubble grew, more and more websites were created, forgetting that the user can only visit a finite number of websites. Expecting users to go to your niche social network is not a strategy any longer, especially since just about anything can be done inside of Facebook and a handful of others. It’s hard enough to get users to go to your site, it’s foolish to expect them to create a new set of credentials. Even if they do create the new login, coming back and remembering how to login is a whole other bridge that needs to be crossed. Which is why OpenID is super important now.

Another area that’s just as important and heavily debated is: what happens to your data when you do engage with a site / social network? What about the information that you have diligently provided to Facebook about yourself? What about all of your pithy wisdom that you have shared with your followers on Twitter?  What about all the photographs that you posted to Flickr and Facebook? What about all the diligent tagging, note writing, photo album creation, wall posts, comments on your friends status updates on Facebook? And oh my, what about the e-mails? Who owns that? We would like to think that we do, as it’s our content. But reading many sites’ TOS’s, that couldn’t be further from the truth – the site owns all of the content. Putting aside the possibility of a social network misusing our content (that’s a whole other discussion), what happens when the “new Facebook” (whoever that is) dethrones Facebook, and you want to take all of your content with you that you spent so many months, even years, creating? Do you have to start from scratch? It is my theory that this is why Facebook is so successful: we have so much skin in the game, we aren’t going anywhere, and they know it. And what about the not-so-remote possibility of a site like Facebook failing? Does all of your content die with it?

I first started thinking about it when I saw exactly how formidable the amount of user-generated content is when I witnessed the below exchange, generated by my Facebook status update. My friends wrote many, and quite lengthy, comments (which could’ve been blogposts in their own right). They were so engaged and free to share, and we all got so enthralled by the discussion that we forgot that we may never see this content again after sharing it.

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One way to ensure that all of your comments at least get funneled into one depository that you can point to, and make part of your digital footprint, is to use commenting systems like Disqus. But that still doesn’t solve the problem of a site going out of business and taking you down with it.

How do you preserve and backup your content? I have tried tweetake.com to back up my tweets. It does a great job of throwing your tweets / direct messages / favorites / all of the above into a spreadsheet. However, it only goes back a couple of months; at least it did for me.

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Importance of transparency

May 19, 2009

transparentCompanies can no longer afford to not communicate the reasons why they are doing / not doing something to their users, or to not communicate fast enough. Not to beat a dead horse, but this was very apparent in the Twitter @ replies episode from last week. Biz Stone of Twitter took the time to explain why the changes were put in place, but unfortunately it was too late. People had started talking about it, and before too long, tweittersphere had heated up to epic temperatures. Users were angry, and since they didn’t have information to help them understand what was happening and why, they took it upon themselves to fill in the blanks. Turns out that technical scalability issues, as well as reduction in noise were the primary reasons (you can read Biz’s view here).

Where Twitter went wrong, in my opinion, was the lack of communication to its end users on the reasons why this was happening. Twitter has successfully created this amazing communication platform, but in its first iteration it’s very much like drinking from a fire hose. Fine-tuning to reduce the noise and increase relevance is the natural next step, and I welcome it with open arms. Twitter is fine-tuning now by giving us options in which we can produce @ replies (to be seen by some or by all of our followers), as well as reducing the noise from the people we follow (by fine-tuning how much of each person’s @ reply stream we see – this feature I wanted since day 1!). But even though all of this is done for our (users’) benefit and with the long-term vision in mind, things can go very askew if you don’t take the time to educate and communicate upfront. Because of how virally sentiments spread on Twitter (especially when they are about Twitter), preemption and anticipation, in a very transparent way, are key to managing sentiment and expectations.

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How much should you listen to your customers

May 14, 2009

The recent upheaval in the Twittersphere regarding the new Twitter update dealing with @ replies has got me thinking over the past couple of days (in case you are not familiar with what the new Twitter update does, please read @whitneyhess’s blogpost which does a great job explaining it). Even though I am not going to rehash the details of the new update here, I will briefly mention that as a result, Twitter no longer shows you @ replies directed to people you don’t follow, even though you follow the writer of the tweet (this only happens when the handle of the person you don’t follow is the first word of the tweet).  I am not sure why Twitter did this; perhaps they were helping us reduce the noise that is produced by following everyone’s @ replies. However, this makes little sense, as you can adjust your settings from inside the Twitter.com site. What Twitter should’ve realized that a lot of users find @ replies beneficial to discovery of new users to follow. If someone I respect and engage with replies to someone else, I will take notice and at least click through to that person, and if I like him / her, make a decision to follow. Yes, there are ways to still explore these tweets via setting up a search in TweetDeck and other tools. However, by having everything come to my main feed, it was just that much easier. By taking the option away, Twitter has taken the ability to decide from its users.  If you give me an option to adjust what @ replies I see via settings tab, why take the decision away from me?

The above example shows that Twitter wasn’t particularly listening to its users and how they use the site.  Some companies pursue their strategy without paying much attention to what its users want. And sometimes it’s for good reason. This @ replies episode reminded me of a talk by 37Signals Jason Fried at last fall’s Web2.0 conference in NYC. Jason talked about how each product person / company needs to be a curator, carefully reviewing user suggestions for improvements, while implementing only those that make sense given the company’s strategy. This makes complete sense, especially as a company grows and acquires more users and thus more user feedback. And secondly, users don’t even know what they want most of the time. When they say they want something, sometimes it’s just a symptom of a larger problem they have to solve. As a business, you must figure out this larger problem and solve it, instead of solving by implementing piecemeal modules.

So the question still remains… When do you listen to your customers and when does not listening translate to anger (as in the Twitter example) and possible attrition?

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small is the new black

April 20, 2009

Seeing the STREB show a couple of weekends ago, and discussing it several times with my friend Josephine, has got me thinking about the changing business models, and the reason they are changing. Let me explain.. What I forgot to mention in my previous post is that STREB is using an innovative platform of “10 second dance”. In exchange for a $10 donation, you get to co-produce a 10-minute dance, which will be presented at the next show. This does 4 things well, in my opinion:

  1. Creates a stronger community around STREB, giving all co-producers more “skin in the game”, and allowing them to be your ambassadors and telling all of their friends about it
  2. Allows everyone to participate by making the threshold so low ($10), illustrating the power of the “power in numbers” concept.
  3. Appeals to human vanity (oh c’mon, we all have it 🙂 – in my opinion, you need to be somewhat vain to want to put your life out there with social media like we all do, and imagine that others may and will care about it.
  4. Duh! raises money!

Seems that more and more things are getting processed in bite-sized pieces. There is microlending (Kiva.org, Prosper.com, Donorschoose.com) and of course, microblogging (Twitter and other platforms). Seems that small is the new black. Even the Web2.0 conference this year was themed “The Power of Less.”

I think this reach for “less” is happening due to a confluence of several events, caused by the evolution of our society.

Firstly, and more gradually, our society (online and offline) has gotten inundated. Offline store shelves are packed with brands and brand extensions, with each brand extension in several flavors, colors, smells, textures, etc. Most innovations that corporate America parades around, are actually not that innovative, but rather are updates to the same-ole-same-ole.

There is a lot of noise. Consumers are lost and overwhelmed, and manufacturers feel like they are drowning among noise.

Online, a similar thing is happening: with the “Web2.0” bubble, there are more websites than eyeballs (seems like, but please don’t quote me, I don’t have the actual statistics), and more and more are created each day. Unfortunately, most fail to differentiate themselves. A successful solution that can cut through this noise will have to successfully build around the user, wherever the user is (mobile + twitter + web), and not make the user go to its website (this is an entirely different topic that merits another post, so I will stop here).

Secondly, in addition to this overwhelming quality of online and offline “stuff”, the global economy crash is causing us all to rethink how we spend, how we save, what we value and how to course-correct the mistakes we have made so far. I think this process is a vital one, as it will separate the companies, processes and people who add value (education, where addition of skills downright changes lives) from those that don’t (repackaged toxic assets, where no value is created). Again, this is fodder for its own blogpost.

So because of this economy of “more”, followed by a downright economy crash, we seem to be embracing the concept of “less” and basking in simplicity and authenticity. Who knows, perhaps it’s this yearning for simplicity is what is propelling Susan Boyle to such astronomical heights of popularity.

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Do You STREB? You Should!

April 15, 2009

Last Friday, I had the pleasure of experiencing the most amazing show I have experienced in a while! I was lucky enough to win free tickets on my friend Mike Davis‘s blog. To enter the contest, all you had to do was sign up for Mike’s YouTube show – he will have more contests, so you should definitely join. Not to mention, Mike rocks!

I had never heard of STREB before, but I had read the description on the web, and was immediately fascinated. I didn’t know what to expect, but all I knew was that it looked like urban Cirque du Soleil. My friend Josephine had seen STREB shows before (Elizabeth Streb, by the way, is the choreographer who has given life to the PopAction genre), and had mentioned to me that it reminds her of a more powerful, and slightly more violent, version of Cirque du Soleil. Josephine had mentioned to me before the show that the dancers would be slamming into each other and into walls, which left me utterly confused. Elizabeth’s bio on the site states that PopAction  ” intertwines the disciplines of dance, athletics, boxing, rodeo, the circus, and Hollywood stunt-work. The result is a bristling, muscle-and-motion vocabulary that combines daring with strict precision in pursuit of the public display of “pure movement”, and I find this the most eloquent and terse description that fits perfectly, so that I couldn’t add anything further.

I find myself reaching for words to describe STREB accurately, because it’s something so extremely original and unprecedented. A group of extremely toned dancers with beautifully muscular bodies, present various dance numbers, in which they use their bodies to tell stories with top-level precision and power. The show starts with dancers slamming into a large plexi glass in the middle of the stage. It sounds bizarre, but looks amazing when two dancers slam into each other from two different sides and look like a mirror image of each other. Josephine and I discussed this number afterwards, and found it very symbolic of our time. We are wanting to make a difference, connect, but are frustrated with external (economic or otherwise) factors. Another favorite number of mine was the trapeze dance against the wall (pictured below), where dancers danced with their feet on the wall, strapped into harnesses.

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It was so beautifully synchronized, and required such precision (and freakishly strong ab muscles!) to pull off in a completely horizontal position.

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Another definite highlight was the “hamster wheel” (pictured below). It starts out with one dancer spinning inside the wheel, making it rotate by walking inside of it at a constant and controlled speed

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To my amazement, more dancers started hooking onto the wheel and doing various pirouettes inside, under, over and every which way.

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What a mind-blowing exhibit of synchronicity, extreme precision and control! One wrong move, and not only do you hurt yourself, but you also hurt your teammates! (none of the dancers were harnessed).

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The entire show was a true tour de force of a human body. In everyday life, perched behind our MacBooks, we forget of what a tremendous instrument we were given (for free!) and what our bodies are really capable of. Everytime that I see something so incredibly powerful and precise, I bow my head in respect and admiration. See below some more examples of the nimble amazingness that is STREB:

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When the show was over, Kim Cullen, the Producing Director of the show, reached out to Josephine and myself to chat about the show and social media. I was extremely happy to hear that STREB was considering integrating social media into their current marketing mix. I just love meeting people who “get it” and are open to these new channels of engaging new consumers, because they realize that this is really the future of communication. This type of performance really lends itself well to the virality of social media, because as each social-media-engaged viewer sees the performance, he / she is going to share it with Twitter, Facebook and other social media sites, write and comment on blogposts, post pictures to Flickr, videos to YouTube. Through the power of narrative and experience sharing, the word spreads; and this really was an experience worth spreading. I will definitely be going back to take pictures with my good DSLR camera (Nikon D60), and hopefully a video device (anyone care to lend an HD Flip?) – these iPhone pics, although a good start, do not do it justice

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You can see the rest of my photographs (apologies about the quality; iPhone is not the best at capturing motion) – http://bit.ly/streb

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Do Onto Others – My Take On Tara Hunt’s Whuffie Speech at Web 2.0 Expo

April 9, 2009

(This post was first conceived on a SFO-NYC flight, and edited and posted several days later).

I am writing this from my SFO – JFK flight (Virgin America has in-flight wi-fi for $12.95 – that’s a good deal considering you are in flight for 6 hours). As I am coming home to New York from the O’Reilly’s Web2.0 Expo in San Francisco,  I am taking a couple of minutes to reflect on the experiences of this week. A definite highlight was undoubtedly meeting all the wonderful people that I had a privilege of meeting for the first time, and reconnecting with folks I had met previously. Although I would be lying if I said that I enjoyed every session and every speech I listened to, there were definitely some bright spots. Tara Hunt‘s session, promoting her new book “The Whuffie Factor: the 5 keys for maxing social capital and winning with online communities” was the best presentation I heard at this conference. In addition to excellent content, it was beautifully delivered and engaging. It was the only session that filled every seat in the house, and people were even sitting on the floor.

What whuffie means, in short, is one’s social capital online. Social capital is used to describe how far your online reach goes, how much influence you exert with your followers, and how likely your online relationships are to do a favor for you. Twitter especially tends to bring out this karmic notion that emphasizes helping others and becoming genuinely interested in others. Tara’s presentation encapsulates nicely the common-sense to-do’s that one can follow as a mental checklist to ensure that your social media strategy (whether for your own personal brand or your company’s brand) remains relevant, human, alive, authentic, and the type of brand that your target customers want to interact with.

Since social networking is such a buzz in corporate America, there is a tendency to rush in and just start doing. This is absolutely not the right approach. You must understand how these communities work, and how relationships are built. One of the biggest mistakes you can make is joining Twitter (or another network) as a salesperson and just blasting out your message 1-way (I wrote about this in my previous post), expecting to have people flock to you / your product. This is not the 30-second spot, and this kind of behavior tends to piss people off in the online spaces. You can not join as a salesperson or as an idle observer / market researchers. To really harness the power of the social web, you must join conversations in an authentic way. Relate to others, feel their pain, engage and give. As a result, you can understand consumers better, vet your ideas, turn upset customers into believers and believers into evangelists. Even though most online ties are looser than IRL (in real life), these are not throwaway relationships. In Tara’s words, “people don’t want to be a number, they want to be treated as a snowflake – each beautiful and unique.” Isn’t this a reincarnation of the Golden Rule anyway? Aren’t we supposed to be “doing onto others” already?

And finally you must create amazing customer experiences in order to make connections. This may be common-sense, but you would be surprised how many companies do not do it well. For example, keeping your customers on your site is not consumer-friendly; however, being available where the consumer is, is consumer-centric. For example, if you are a web application, you need to ensure that your consumer can interact with you via mobile device, web, desktop, Twitter, Facebook / MySpace, Flickr, and wherever your consumers hang out. The key here is knowing where your consumers hang out on the web, and what their usage patterns and goals are. Here are some great ways to ensure that you remain consumer-centric.

  1. Dazzle in details – Moleskin notebook does a spectacular job of this by thinking through all the details and accents
  2. Go above & beyond – the TED conference does this by creating a scholarship fund to ensure that all deserving folks without means can go.
  3. Appeal to emotion
  4. Inject fun – Flickr is great at doing this
  5. Turn mundane into exceptional like Method has done to simple house products
  6. Allow to personalize – Moo cards allow you to make personalized cards using your Flickr pictures
  7. Be experimental like Threadless
  8. Simplify like 37singnals did with Basecamp
  9. Make happiness your business model through increasing autonomy, competence & relatedness. Zappos and WordPress are good at doing this by giving their users ways to express themselves and gain autonomy.

It is absolutely crucial to understand that Whuffie part of a gift economy, where you gain only by giving away and not by taking. This can appear at conflict with the money economy, where making money is the focus. However, the two don’t have to be at conflict. The focus on short term gain, as illustrated by the collapse of the subprime market and consequently Wall Street, will only take you so far. Focusing on doing the right thing, focusing on the long term, no matter how unpopular it may be in the short term, is the only surefire way to succeed. This concept really underscores wocial* web relationships, because relationship building, when done right, happens over time, with an investment of goodwill, and results in good karma and Whuffie.

* “wocial” was originally a typo, but as Tara Hunt herself noted in the comment below, it’s a fun mashup of Social + Whuffie. So let’s make a new word. After all, it’s all about mashups!

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