From the category archives:

Ideas and Trends

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I’ve been a content marketing and social media professional for roughly the last six years. I was, and continue to be, excited about the potential of social media and content marketing to change the business world for the better. But these days, I cringe when I go on Facebook or Twitter. I find myself pondering a strange and uncomfortable question:

As human beings, are we ultimately unsuited to social media?

Self righteous indignation has become America’s national pastime. (Schadenfreude is a close second.) I’m not just talking about people complaining on Facebook about bad service. People really enjoy piling on when someone else makes a mistake. And a lot of websites and Facebook pages seem completely devoted to amplifying and broadcasting those mistakes.

Here’s an example: a few weeks ago I saw a status update from a young woman who said something disparaging about people who join the military. It was unfair, unwarranted, disrespectful and showed no gratitude for the sacrifice that the volunteer military makes to help keep us safe.

But ultimately, so what? I doubt more than a handful of people would’ve seen it if it hadn’t been picked up and spread. Of all the people I’ve met in my life who give less of a damn what idiots think of them, serving military personnel and veterans are at or near the top of that list. Regardless, one young woman said something stupid and thousands of people piled on, to the point where I was genuinely worried she might be getting death threats.

Is this really how we want to use a worldwide network of information and connection?

As for content marketing, we may as well replace the word “content” with “linkbait.” Yesterday, I saw a video showing people they were using little paper ketchup cups the wrong way. As I said when I shared it on Facebook, “If you’re creating content for people too stupid to use ketchup, how long are you going to stay in business?”

Marketers are seeing the value of content, but predictably have galloped right past the point of diminishing returns to the point of absurdity and eventually, destruction. How tired are you of headlines like, “This one guy did this one thing and what happened next is the most amazing thing that’s ever happened, and maybe somebody exploded, but actually they didn’t”?

Does anyone really think this is sustainable? Does anyone care?

We do know what is sustainable. We’ve known it in our hearts and in our guts, and we can finally prove it: giving your audience useful, interesting, well-written content that amuses and engages them while at the same time helps solve their business problems.

Why don’t more people do that all the time? Again, there’s a simple answer: because doing it is hard. But it’s the only thing that works if you want to build trust, build a reputation and build relationships.

I hope we can survive the coming backlash. Social media went through a backlash because it never lived up to the hype piled upon it by people who really didn’t know what it was. The same thing is happening with content marketing, and I’m afraid it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

If you want to do one thing to help, share good examples of useful, interesting content. The more we do that, the more we can all help prove that quality will win in the end.

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A decade ago, I knew the names of some Internet millionaires, just like we all did. Today, I personally know probably a dozen or more; people who were part of a great idea at the right time and did the hard work and had the
luck necessary to capitalize on it.

I’m listening to my favorite Internet jazz station, Noctamblues. I don’t know anything about them, and I’m too lazy right now to do any research. But when I first started listening to them, they didn’t have any advertising. Now they have occasional ads from major US retailers. I doubt anybody at the station is getting rich from this. But I wonder if they are on their way to making a living from it.

I’m sure some smart person has coined a term for this kind of mid-level entrepreneurship. One where, instead of one big idea that sets you up for life, you have one that gives you a nice bit of supplemental income, or maybe a half dozen that provide a comfortable living. I imagine there are lots of app producers who fall into the latter category.

It’s an interesting paradigm, one that makes me think of artists and artisans and writers and musicians who piece together a living from their skills and their passions.

I think it’s a way of living and working that technology will continue to make easier, to the point where the Internet craftsperson will be infinitely more common than the Internet mogul.

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Social media usage statistics for the month of July show that early adopters and influencers are leaving Facebook in favor of a new crop of social networks. These location-based food photo sharing apps place funny quotes on top of the picture, designed to attack people who don’t share the user’s political believes. The hottest one is called SaidNoOneEver. There is no Android app as of yet.

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I don’t consider myself a particularly trendy person, but I do live in a funky little town on the edge of a college town. I walk all over the place for exercise, walk through campus a lot, and I keep my eyes open. I’m also spending a lot of time on Pinterest these days, planning a future wardrobe for when I hit my goal weight. All of these things are causing me to see a trend. Simple is in.

(Forgive me if I’m the 9 millionth person to say that, but I’m trying to look at the larger implications here.)

I live less than a mile away from one of the best farmers markets in the country. All of the food is organic and grown within 50 miles. We’ve been written up in The New York Times, in fact. The man I buy my green beans from was quoted in the article.

The trend in bicycles among the urban hip is for simple, single-speed bikes called “fixies” that don’t even have brakes. Major manufacturers, inevitably, are copying the style, but the coolest looking people in my town are riding bikes that look like they were pulled from a dumpster.

One of the most sought-after sneakers among the cognoscenti is called the GAT (German army trainer). A plain white style issued by the German army, they have obviously influenced trendy sneaker design for the last few years. You can hunt them down online cheap, or you can buy a designer’s version for $500.

I’m wondering what it is in the Zeitgeist that is causing people to return to the simple, unadorned and honest. It may just be a natural pendulum swing, and I’m sure the economic decline of the last decade played a huge part. When no one has a lot of spare cash to throw around, price and value obviously become a much bigger consideration. But I think it goes deeper than that.

Social media also embodies a more personal and honest style of communication that goes hand-in-hand with this attitude. Whether social media helped cause it or evolved at the right time to benefit from it is something we probably can’t figure out, nor do we really need to.

How does this affect your marketing and communications efforts? It’s no secret how I feel about transparency and openness, and the role social media plays. But are you too complicated for your customers? Does your corporate brand feel simple, honest, personal and valuable? Or complicated, insincere, distant and self-centered?

Are you offering the $50 product that offers real value, or the $500 product that is mostly show? And of course I mean that metaphorically. (Unless you’re in the sneaker business.)

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There’s been a great deal of controversy about Facebook’s purchase of photo sharing site Instagram for $1 billion. As always, people are heralding it as a harbinger of a new social media bubble.

How can a site like Instagram possibly be worth that much, and how can it add to Facebook’s share value? But that’s the wrong question. The real question is, “How much is the future worth?”

Facebook is in the same league with Google and Apple as a company that transcends commerce and is defining how we live digitally. Steve Jobs didn’t make decisions based solely on immediate gain, as anyone who has read his biography knows. And I don’t think Mark Zuckerberg is making decisions based on share price. (I don’t claim to know anything more about him than anyone else who saw that movie, but I bet they have some interesting board meetings.)

Instagram has changed the way people share and engage around photos, and has brought together photography and mobile in a way that nothing else has. I’ve waited patiently for a good Flickr app for the iPhone. I finally got it with Instagram. I would go so far as to say Instagram is helping define a new visual paradigm for communication.

Facebook has so much money, that, like Google and Apple, they can afford to spend it on buying things that make sense, that are cool, that work, that define the future. Whatever Facebook does with Instagram, they own it now, and no one else will. In Zuckerberg’s mind, I’m sure that sounds like a bargain.

Now, when will Amazon buy Pinterest, and for how much? 2 billion?

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I’m halfway through the new Steve Jobs biography and it’s really making me think. I never paid much attention to Jobs when he was alive, other than having a general sense of his brilliance and his mercurial, intense personality. The book is bringing me a new appreciation and I think it’s essential for anyone whose job involves understanding a marketplace and delivering a great product, or enjoys pondering what makes a great leader.

By no means am I endorsing Jobs’ methods and style without reservation. There are multiple tales of his managerial caprice, and his cruelty and childishness aimed at employees, industry leaders and, most distressing, his family. I truly believe that great leaders can be–must be–empathetic and respectful. But there is no doubt that Jobs had qualities that only come only once in a blue moon.

His singular focus on quality, for instance. He insisted that even the insides of Apples should be well designed and put together, even though no one would see the result. That kind of dedication to quality sets a standard that permeates the organization.

In an age where nearly every corporate decision is made by committees backed up by market research, Jobs pushed through decisions in record time, because he was absolutely certain he knew what consumers wanted, even if they didn’t know it themselves. While that attitude went hand in hand with his arrogance, there is no doubt he was right far more often than he was wrong.

My favorite example so far is the decision to produce the iMac in multiple colors, which added considerably to its production cost. But when I read that section, I knew without a moment’s hesitation that it was the right decision. (I have the benefit of hindsight, of course, but I like to think I would have known it at the time.) Too often in corporate America, we’re afraid to make decisions that we know in our hearts are the right thing to do, because we can’t prove the decision empirically, and thereby avoid the potential of risk. That fear stifles innovation and kills passion, both inside a company and with customers.

Apple’s marketing and messaging, which Jobs drove with daily attention uncharacteristic of the average CEO, lifted Apple products above the usual purchase decision process. When I bought my first MacBook, I didn’t compare specs with other non-Mac laptops, the first time I’d made a major tech purchase without exhaustive research. For a variety of reasons, some practical and some emotional, I just knew I wanted a Mac. The “Apple-ness” of Apple products, both tangible and intangible, is the company’s most valuable differentiator, and exists because of Jobs’ vision and stewardship.

Perhaps Jobs’ most significant quality was his unwavering certainty that he and the people he worked with were doing more than building products; they were changing the world. This philosophy influenced his decisions on product design, marketing strategy, advertising and, really, everything. And the fact is, he did change history. (I’m reading the book and wrote this post on my iPad.)

If you have a hard time remembering what it was that attracted you to your job or your field, if you’re stuck for ideas of how to excite your customers, or if you’re feeling uninspired as a leader, this book could help you find a new spark.

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Last week, Jamie Sandford began the day with what I’ll call a “metatweet.” I responded. It took off. Here’s how our conversation evolved throughout the course of the day:

@jsandford: <something about coffee>

@davidbthomas: <something about Mondays>

@jsandford: <inspirational way-too-much vim and vigor tackling-the-week tweet>

@davidbthomas: <excessive use of motivational hashtags>

@jsandford: <ending of day tweet>

@davidbthomas: <expressing an interest in a particular foodstuff and/or alcoholic beverage>

@jsandford: <general agreement and/or countering with alternative item which is more complex or uses rarer ingredients>

@davidbthomas: <enthusiastic agreement, onomatopoeia representing consumption of said foodstuff>

@jsandford: <comment related to upcoming TV show, hashtagged>

@davidbthomas: <parenting anecdote>

@jsandford: <emphatic sport event comment!>

@davidbthomas: <support for the opposing team expressed as ridicule of your character>

@jsandford: <denigration of your team based on menial historical statistic relating to prior triumph in the series>

@davidbthomas: <rejection of the importance of your quoted statistic, followed by equally trivial statistic from earlier contest>

@jsandford: <commentary on the difficult nature of putting small descendants to bed and/or humorous pre-slumber saying>

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The Boy eating ice cream with two spoonsDisclosure: Post title is fatuous linkbait.

I was on vacation last week when Google+ happened. I kept my email inbox in pretty good shape when I was away, but when I returned I felt like I was a week behind on creating circles and +1′ing and learning all the new stuff. Some folks dove in head first. Chris Brogan, for instance, is all over Google+ and has even replaced his Facebook icon with a Google+ logo with the phrase, “I have moved,” and unless I’m missing something, he’s shut down his personal Facebook wall. He really has moved.

I’ve seen lots of useful how-to articles, and lots of posts from people pondering the significance of Google+ for social media in general, business in particular and, inevitably, whether or not Google+ will replace Facebook. That’s a big, thorny question. So I’m going to ignore it.

I’ve joined quite a few new social networks over the last decade and a half, starting with a (pre-WWW) forum on the old Delphi network (a competitor of AOL, Prodigy and CompuServe) called “The UK American Connection.” It consisted mostly of Yanks asking Brits questions like, “I watched Cracker last night. What the hell does ‘naff’ mean?”

I joined Friendster just in time for my girlfriend (now The Mrs) to tell me it was dead. I joined Twitter in May of 2008. I still remember the first person who followed me (former colleague Jeff Batte), and pondering my next follower, an American journalist living in Germany. I spent hours trying to work out how I knew him and why he would follow me.

My point, if there is one, is that I have yet to see a new social network take off as quickly as Google+. I’m sure there are statistics that either support or refute that, but for me it seems that my nerd friends (and I have created a circle for you called “Nerds”) are taking to Google+ extremely quickly. (Cynical Girl and Pixie of the Apocalypse Laurie Ruettimann linked on Facebook earlier today to a Mashable post that said Google+ was about to hit 10 million users, so as you can see, I’ve done my research.)

It takes me a while to work out how I feel about a new network or online tool, and I’m the kind of person the slow, dull-witted “how to” videos were created for. Unlike Brogan, who within minutes had written a post outlining 50 ways Google+ could be used, I have to be shown it, and shown it again. And again. Then I will become a violent convert.

So far I think Google+ has tremendous potential to unite messaging, photo sharing, video calling, chat, document sharing and other features. This may be the locus that brings the value of Google’s various services and applications into one place. But here’s why I think it’s gotten so popular so fast:

This morning I was flipping back and forth between Facebook and Google+. I have lots of good friends on Facebook, but also a lot of people I’ve accepted as friends who I don’t actually know, or know very well. I accepted some of those out of politeness, and I haven’t taken the time to hide or unfriend the people or companies who clutter up my stream. I scroll for a while before I come to an update from someone I really want to keep in touch with, or something I really want to read.

My Google+ stream, on the other hand, has been filled with interesting posts and long, enjoyable comment-thread discussions with clever people. It feels the way I’ve heard other people describe the early days of Twitter. Everyone I’ve added to my circles so far is someone who I know personally or have built an online relationship with.

So maybe we like Google+ so far because we haven’t cluttered it up yet, and because it’s easier to keep tidy? Time will tell. Just like Twitter, it will be months (years?) before we know the real value.

Should you join now? You don’t have to (and Doug Haslam has posted a cogent argument in favor of Google+ patience), but so far it’s fun. And if you’re a marketer or communicator, I suspect it will become mandatory before too long. Google’s previous attempts at social networking (Orkut, Buzz, Wave) didn’t take off, but Google+ is so much more than even the sum of all three.

image by me

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a very nice photo of a roseI’ve been tired of the arguments over “social media experts” for a long time. There’s also the recurring meme about people with unusual titles (ninja, guru) and that one bores me as well. If all you have to write about is semantics, dig a little deeper.

But here’s a nomenclature discussion that makes sense to me. The PR firm GolinHarris has tossed out their old title scheme and adopted a new one:

Strategists, who analyze a client’s business;

Creators, who develop new ideas and engage in brand storytelling;

Connectors, who reach target audiences through media and other channels;

Catalysts, who manage client relationships.

(Thanks, and a tip of the blog hat to Publicity Club of New England, where I found out about it.)

I’ve always been a big fan of clarity and saying what you mean. Those titles seem to me to say pretty clearly what those people do (with the possible exception of Catalyst—that one seems a little less descriptive and more like marketing speak).

With the speed at which things are changing in the communications and marketing world, and the different ways we are pursuing those activities, it makes sense to rethink the way we talk about what we do. Two of my three most recent titles didn’t exist five years ago.

The big question, of course, is will this provide clarity and value to clients, or will it confuse people? Regardless, it’s a bold step and one that seems to me to involve more than just semantics.

What do you think of those titles? And do you think we need new ones, or should we let the old ones evolve?

image by suchitra

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Color screenshotThere’s an article in The New York Times (via TechCrunch) about the demise of Color, the something something photo sharing something location-or-other app that got a lot of attention months ago for raising $41 million and was therefore, far more annoyingly, responsible for another rash of “bubble” rumblings.

The TechCrunch article says Color “was supposed to be the app that changed proximity-based sharing.” The Times describes it as a “photo-sharing cellphone application.” Color’s website says:

Simultaneously use multiple iPhones and Androids to capture photos, videos, and conversations into a group album. There’s no attaching, uploading, or friending to do.

I downloaded Color to my iPhone when it launched, played with it for about two minutes and gave up on it. When you open the app, what passes for instructions is a drawing of a bunch of people apparently taking pictures either of nothing or of one another with their smart phones. The legend says, “Take photos together.”

Why? Of what?

Now I’m not just being curmudgeonly. I use a lot of apps, social media and otherwise, that many people would consider pointless. Plus, I wanted to like Color; I like taking photos and I like social networking. But, in the time I was willing to spend, I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to do with Color or why it would be fun and interesting. I can almost get it, but not quite.

I’m not necessarily an early adopter and over the last few years I’ve been concentrating on enterprise social media, so most of the questions I’ve fielded and explored have been about Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn and blogs. They all have their skeptics, but it’s not that hard to explain the value of each to someone willing to keep an open mind.

To people not on Facebook who ask me why they should care, I tell them that Facebook is creating, essentially, a “shadow Internet” that makes it easier to share news, messages, photos, videos and other information with people you choose to connect with. Most people, unless they’re just being bloody minded, can see the value in that. (To the people who ask, “Why should I care what my friends are doing?”, I have no answer nor do I wish to help you work that one out. Maybe you need more interesting friends.)

When people ask me about Twitter, I tell them it’s a messaging service that allows you to get short news updates on a variety of topics from people and organizations you find interesting and valuable. I show them how I get the majority of my news, both about my profession and the world in general, from Twitter. Again, even the skeptics who conclude it’s not for them can see that it’s not just a waste of time.

I tried to understand Color and couldn’t, and still don’t. Hence my suggested rule for investing, as described in the title. Can you explain the value of the social network you want to invest in (or build) in 50 words or less in a way that your parents will understand? Without a digression? Without PowerPoint?

(Of course, I’m old and so are my parents, so you might want to substitute “grandparents.”)

I’m not worried about a bubble fueled by social media because I’m convinced that a great deal of what is being created is worthwhile and valuable. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of hype and money going in the wrong directions.

If the elevator pitch only makes sense to other folks inside the social media fishbowl, maybe that should tell you something.

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