Updating Canada’s Election Act so you can tweet the results

Today the Canadian government announced its intention to table legislation that will bring Canada’s Elections Act into the 21st century. Tim Uppal, the junior minister for democratic reform, tweeted today to share the news. That’s right: next election night, Canadians will be able to discuss election results with all the immediacy, humour and clarity that we bring to tweeting about a hockey game or facebooking the latest episode of Project Runway.

Screenshot from tweettheresults.caThis news was particularly welcome after seeing the extraordinary conversation that was captured last election night on tweettheresults.ca, a website I created with Darren Barefoot last April. Darren and I whipped up the site to track the outpouring of debate and resistance over the prospect of censoring election night tweets, Facebook updates and blog posts. (And a big shout-out to Rad Geek Charles Johnson, who upgraded his awesome FeedWordPress plugin to make TTR look pretty!)

As I wrote at the time,

To think that social media users will refrain from sharing election night tweets is at best naive. Even if we could get them to stop tweeting, would we want them to? At a time when online political discussion is held up as the exception to a general decaying of political engagement, it would seem a shame to squelch the kind of lively, engaged and even meaningful conversation that could emerge on election night.

Today’s news may do more than ensure that Canadians feel welcome to engage with an electoral process in whatever medium feels meaningful and appropriate to them. With any luck, it also shows that we are finally ready to embrace the Internet as a legitimate space for political dialogue, and to recognize these online conversations as very real indeed.

The meaning of engagement

A great description of meaningful engagement from Chris Jones:

True engagement requires more time and energy and active listening skills, but the resulting flow of information brings rich rewards. Insights begin to accumulate and multiply. Ideas get validated and enhanced in several directions at once. And as the value of the idea exchange increases, personal relationships begin to form around them.

Read the rest of his post on  Web 2.0?s “Broadcast” problem: The case for Meaningful Engagement « Driving innovation in a digital world.

How great editing motivates great user-generated content

EditingWhen a business or organization takes on its first social media project, the communications team typically worries about how to handle a deluge of negative comments or inappropriate content. Rob and I always tell people that what they should worry about is the exact opposite: namely, getting no participation at all.

If you are running a project that relies on user-generated content, you have already discovered how hard it is to get people to contribute that content. Whether you’re asking people for blog posts, videos or even photos (the easiest contribution to make, typically) you’re asking them to go to some significant effort in order to add their distinctiveness to your own. So most online community projects, particularly in their early days, rely on some combination of incentives to get fingers on keyboards, cameras into hands, and content onto the site.

When we do an engagement and promotions plan for a new social media project, we spend a lot of time thinking about different kinds of incentives — contests, recognition, events — as well as other hooks for encouraging contribution. But there is nothing like switching roles to make you see a challenge in a new way. Through experience as a contributor to someone else‘s site — the Harvard Business Review — I’ve discovered a whole new way to create value for your contributors: editing.

We typically think of editing as a service to the readers of a site, by making content as readable (or watchable) as possible. But quality editing is a tremendous service to contributors, too. Particularly in the fast-turnaround world of blogging, which requires people to write frequently and quickly, an editor can help turn the daunting prospect of writing a good, widely-read blog post into an achievable goal.

Why is quality editing such a compelling incentive for contributors? Let me use my own experience as an example. When I started blogging for HBR, it was purely for the exposure. But the editorial guidance I got from my editor, Scott Berinato, quickly became an even greater source of value.

Scott is an extremely experienced editor and writer who takes my decent posts and makes them much, much better: compare my first draft of a post about iPhones and impatience with the final version on HBR as edited by Scott. Some of the lines that got specifically tweeted — like Patience is a virtue. There’s not an app for that. — were Scott’s, not mine.  And while Scott often makes significant changes to my work, his edits consistently capture what I think of as my voice and message. In fact, when my husband read the iPhone piece, the line he specifically complimented me on — the “what, you don’t?” — was, once again, Scott’s.

Scott’s skilled editing motivates me to contribute by providing benefits like:

  • Efficiency: I can write my blog posts more quickly because I don’t have to obsess over every turn of phrase or feel like I’ve completely nailed the post. Even if I feel like it’s only about 80% of the way there, I ship my post off to Scott because I know he’ll be able to fix what I couldn’t.
  • Reputation: My audience and impact has grown because my posts for Harvard are much stronger.
  • Trust: Because I trust Scott’s work I don’t need to get into a long back-and-forth over every edit; and when I make changes to his changes, he usually accepts them.
  • Learning: Getting Scott’s feedback on my pieces for HBR has improved my writing across the board, since I now hold the rest of my blogging to a higher standard.
  • Inspiration: Scott has suggested post topics and occasionally asked me to cover emerging stories, which encourages me to tackle new areas I wouldn’t have considered.

Editors like Scott can help you elicit exactly the kind of content you want: high-quality content from thoughtful, informed contributors. Contributors who care about the quality of their posts, videos and photos will deeply appreciate your help in getting from good to great.  For editing to be a real incentive for contributors, it has to be:

  • Accurate: Your contributors need to know that you’ll correct any spelling or grammatical errors or flag any issues that need fact-checking. They know that you’re protecting their reputation by keeping them from looking silly.
  • Deep: You have to offer more than copy editing. Your editors have to immerse themselves in the text or video that’s been contributed, and think about how to get the message across in the most engaging and effective way. That may involve some rewriting, recutting or requests for additional/different content.
  • Skilled: Your editing has to make the content better. Sounds simple, but I can’t tell you how often I have worked with editors or collaborators who make my work worse.
  • Timely: The faster you can get contributions posted online, the better. If it takes you more than a week to get material posted — and that’s with solid editorial attention, not a quick scan and approval — then you’re going to lose contributors.
  • Tailored: A good editor connects with the voice of the content creator, and revises the content in a way that’s consistent with that voice. But not every editor connects with every writer or videographer, so you are more likely to make a great editorial connection with your contributors if you can do a bit of matchmaking or experimentation to ensure a good fit.
  • Sensitive: Your editors’ work is to support and strengthen your contributors’ work, not redo it. Your editors need to be tactful and constructive in the way they provide feedback, and contributors have to feel like they have the final word over their content (or at least the option to pull it if it no longer meets their own standards).

If this sounds like a major investment of time, money or effort on your part, you’re right. But content contributors are a lot like customers: it’s easier to keep the contributors you have than it is to recruit one. And when you offer great editing, you build your best contributors’ commitment, loyalty and output.

How to monitor your blog’s comments using Twitter

Twitter has helped move my attention from the soapbox side of social media (“Here I am blogging about the Important Idea I want to convey”) towards its conversational side (“What do you think about my Important Idea?”) The short message length and rapid-fire pace of Twitter, combined with the panoramic view of my friends that I get from my Tweetdeck setup , fosters a more conversational online relationship with my friends and colleagues.

The downside is that my Twittermania has distracted me from my other online conversations: in particular, the conversations I want to have with the bloggers I follow, and the people who comment on my own blog posts. Unlike my Twitter conversations, blog comments often take a day or two to hit my radar, especially since my Inbox Zero methodology relegated “you’ve got comments!” notifications to a rarely-checked Gmail folder.

I already track blog activity using iGoogle. But iGoogle acts as my information and news hub: the place where I passively absorb information, not actively engage with it. Since Tweetdeck (my Twitter client) is my de facto engagement hub — the place where I engage in online conversation — it makes sense for me to track other conversations in that context. I suspect that seeing blog comments in the same place as tweets, in a context where I’m now primed for engagement, I’ll be able to respond more quickly and engage in conversation wherever it crops up.

To that end, I’ve figured out a setup that pulls comments on my blog posts, plus blog posts about my writing or speaking, into Tweetdeck. Before you get started, you’ll need:

  1. A Drupal blog, a WordPress blog, or another blog that outputs a single RSS feed for comments on all your blog posts.
  2. A Twitterfeed account. Twitterfeed is a service that can take any RSS feed and post it to Twitter, so each new item in the feed generates a tweet.
  3. One or more e-mail addresses that aren’t yet linked to a Twitter account (you can always use Gmail to create extras). You’ll need a separate e-mail address for each Twitter account you create.
  4. Optional but recommended: A Twitter client that lets you set up groups and organize tweets into columns. (e.g. Nambu, Tweetdeck)

Step 1: Set up a comment feed for each blog you want to track

You’ll need an outbound RSS feed for your blog that includes all the comments on your blog posts. Some blogs give you a comment feed for each individual post, but it’s easier to see all recent comments on all blog posts.

If you’re using WordPress, that’s as easy as adding “/comments/feed” to the end of your blog’s URL.  For example, the comment feed on my personal blog is accessible at http://www.alexandrasamuel.com/comments/feed

If you’re using Drupal, you’ll actually have to create an outbound RSS feed for all comments on your blog. There’s a module that does this, but I also found a terrific pre-fab view that you can import into your existing (Views-enabled) Drupal site.

  1. Just go to Blue Screen of Duds code for the Latest Comments Feed in Drupal using Views. Copy and paste the code.
  2. Then go to http://yoursite.com/admin/views
  3. Choose “import”
  4. Choose a title for your view (like CommentsRSS) and enter it in title
  5. Paste the code into the body field
  6. Save — you’re done! The resulting feed is at http://yoursite.com/
  7. Optional but recommended: tweet a shout-out to Shyam Somanadh of Blue Screen of Duds, a.k.a. @codelust on Twitter, and tell him that his kick-ass comment feed code rocked your world.

And here’s how to get your comments feed on Movable Type or Blogger.

Step 2: Set up a Twitter account for each feed you want to follow from within Twitter.

Let’s say you want to track comments on your personal blog, like my blog at alexandrasamuel.com.

  1. Using your web browser, make sure you’re logged out of Twitter.
  2. Go to the Twitter home page and choose “Sign up now”.
  3. Create a new Twitter account. Under both “Full name” and “Username”, choose a name that will remind you of the purpose of this account/feed. (For comments on alexandrasamuel.com my full name is CommentsOn Alex, and my username is AlexComments.)
  4. Choose a password. You may want to use the same password for all your Twitter feed accounts, and possibly make it the same as your usual Twitter password, just to keep things simple.
  5. Enter your e-mail address. It will need to be different from your usual e-mail address, because Twitter will only let you register one account per e-mail address. If necessary, create extra e-mail addresses in Gmail.
  6. Click “create my account” and you’re ready to go.
  7. Optional: Give your new account a profile picture (from Settings – Picture in the top-right corner of Twitter) that will quickly remind you of the purpose of this feed when you see it in your Twitter client.

Step 3: Use Twitterfeed to automatically post your blog comment feed

In this step, you will set up your new Twitter account (in my case, AlexComments) to automatically tweet each time a new comment is posted to your blog.

  1. Log into the Twitter account you want your blog comments or search to post to. (For example, AlexComments)
  2. Log into Twitterfeed (I’m assuming you already have an account. If not, it’s free and easy to do so.)
  3. Choose “create new feed”.
  4. Choose “create new feed in Twitter” and click “connect your feed to your Twitter account”. When Twitter loads the “allow/deny” message, be sure you’re linking to the account you intended.
  5. Name your feed (use something that will be easy for you to make sense of so you remember what it is)
  6. Under “RSS Feed URL”, paste in the URL of your blog’s comment feed.
  7. Under “Advanced settings”, choose “update every 30 minutes” and “post up to 5 new updates at a time”.

Step 4: Create a “Comments” column in your Twitter clientCreating a new group column

Yes, you could simply follow your new account(s) from within Twitter. But you’ll lose your blog comment notifications in the noise of all the other tweets that appear in the course of a day. Using a Twitter client that supports columns and groups is a great way of organizing the chaos of Twitter into a structure that lets you put your attention where you want, when you want. (Read my how-to here.)

Here’s how I set up Tweetdeck to help me keep an eye on my new blog monitoring accounts:

  1. Create a new group. If you’re using the latest version of Tweetdeck, you need to click the Twitter icon that appears in the top left-hand area of your Tweetdeck window (when you rollover it says “new Twitter column”). Choose the icon that looks like a little dude to create a new group.
  2. Enter the name of your group. (I called mine “Comments”.)
  3. Enter the username of the first Twitter account you want to track (e.g. AlexComments). If you aren’t following it yet, you’ll get the option to follow this user at the bottom of your window. Clicking “follow” will automatically add this user to your new group.
  4. Add each username/Twitter account that you are using to pull in blog comments (i.e. each Twitter account you have created and/or added feeds to in step 2 above).
  5. Click save.

Voila! You now have a column in Tweetdeck that will show a new tweet whenever you get a blog comment.

Q&A

  • Why use a separate Twitter account for each blog’s comment feed?
    If you’re the only person who needs to monitor the comment feeds for your blogs, you can use a single Twitter account to monitor all of them: just use Twitterfeed to parse the feed for each blog and auto-post it to the same Twitter account. But if there are other people who need to monitor one or two of the same blogs you monitor, but not all of them, it’s easier to create separate accounts for each one. In my case, Rob (and others at Social Signal) will want to monitor the comments received at Social Signal, but they don’t need to see the comments on AlexandraSamuel.com.
    If you’re tracking comments from multiple blogs or sources (for example, your blog’s comments and a search of blog posts that refer to you) it can be handy to use different Twitter accounts. That way a quick glance at the account will tell you what kind of item you’re looking at. This works especially well if you take a minute to add a profile picture to each of your specific Twitter accounts, and choose images that in some way cue you about which feed you’re seeing.
  • Do I have to create a separate Twitterfeed account for each source, too?
    Happily, Twitterfeed makes it easy to use one Twitterfeed account with multiple Twitter accounts. Just login to whichever Twitter account you want to add a feed to. When you add a feed in Twitterfeed, and link it to a Twitter account, it will automatically link it to whichever Twitter account you’re logged into at the time. The authorization process will let you see that you’re linking to the account you’re intending to link to.
  • Can I use this to monitor blog posts other people write about me?
    Absolutely. Just use Google Blogsearch to search for blog posts about you (use all variants of your name — for example I track “Alex Samuels” as well as “Alexandra Samuel”, since people often abbreviate my first name or misspell my last name). Then follow the steps above, except using the RSS feed for your Google blogsearch results.
  • Can I use the same column to monitor tweets about me?
    I gave it a shot, using the same methodology as what I used for blog comments and posts. But to view the tweet’s author, or respond to the tweet, I had to click on a bit.ly link that showed me the tweet from within my browser. That is a lot less useful than what I get from setting up a search within Tweetdeck, so I went back to using a separate search column to track tweets. (I do this in addition to tracking mentions, because people often tweet about my blog posts by referring to my actual name rather than my Twitter username).
  • Can I see comments before I approve them?
    Only if your blog’s comment moderation queue throws an RSS feed — which seems unlikely, since it would involve publishing as-yet-unapproved content (even if you’re only publishing it to RSS) or providing an authenticated RSS feed (which Twitterfeed doesn’t seem to handle). Alternately, you could use some kind of email-to-RSS tool, and set up your “you’ve got comments to approve!” email messages to forward to that RSS feed, which you could then hook up to Twitterfeed.
  • Can other people use the Twitter accounts I set up to read the comments on my blog?
    Yes, but they can already read the comments by visiting your blog. And is anyone so obsessed with you that they really want to? If the answer is yes — and not in a good way — you can always set up these special-purpose Twitter accounts so that only approved people can follow them, and then refuse to approve anyone who wants to follow.
  • Why aren’t my new comments showing up in my Twitter client?
    Both Twitterfeed and Tweetdeck were a bit glitchy in my tests. Unfortunately, Twitterfeed doesn’t have an “update now” button, so you’ll have to wait at least half an hour (if you set your feed to update every 30 minutes) before you get your first comments into Twitter. Even then, Twitterfeed seems to be less than perfectly reliable, so if tweets/comments aren’t showing up in Tweetdeck, head on over to Twitterfeed to see if your feeds are updating. (If not, check the feed URL itself before you blame Tweetdeck; maybe your feed is empty!) Finally, if Twitterfeed is busy posting comments for you, and you see them show up in your Twitter account, but they don’t come through in your client, it’s a problem on your client, which may well resolve spontaneously/mysteriously if you wait a few hours or even a day.


Engagement planning worksheets to engage your users and move them to action

How can you use the web to engage your members, supporters or the public, and move them towards a specific action?

That’s a common question from nonprofits who are diving into social media. Whether you’re looking for your online visitors to contribute photos, forward your issue alerts, make a donation, or contact policy-makers, social media can be a powerful way of engaging your audience and driving them towards action.

But it’s often hard for nonprofits to figure out how they can engage people effectively online. It’s hard enough to get visitors to your site or social media presence, let alone drive them effectively towards action. In our session at NetSquared today, we used Social Actions as a case study in engaging online community participation, and shared two strategy tools that can help you make your nonprofit site more engaging. Today, we’re releasing those tools to the nonprofit community under a Creative Commons attribution/noncommercial license.

  1. User profiles

    “Nonprofits”, “seniors” or “businesses” don’t visit your web site, log into your online community or post photos; individual people do. Sarah, the communications director of that nonprofit across town, logs into your web site. Kim, a grandmother living in Oregon, posts photos of the pothole in front of her house. Luisa, who owns a small deli, leaves a comment on your blog post. When you’re trying to reach or engage an audience, you need to think in terms of the individual users who will be using your site, and look at your online presence from their perspective.

    Our user profile worksheet helps you get to know your target users. Download the worksheet, and complete at least one worksheet for each type of user you want to engage in your site. We find that getting inside the head of a typical user can help you identify the best ways of bringing them to your social media presence, and the content, tools or relationships you can offer to get them engaged.

  2. Engagement planning worksheet

    Engagement is a process, not a destination. It’s helpful to think of a ladder of engagement that begins with your target audience finding your organization or site, and then moves them to a higher level of interest until they are ready to act.

    Our engagement planning worksheet helps you identify the steps that move your target audience from casual site visit to active participation. Complete a worksheet for each of the users you’ve profiled in the user profile worksheets. Each “rung” on the ladder should specify 1-3 content features, tools or activities that will appeal to the user you’re targeting.

Together, the user profile exercise and engagement planning worksheet help you see your social media presence from your users’ perspective. By offering the content, tools or relationships that your audience members care about, you can move them towards the actions and results you need.

Three steps for companies getting started with social media

Asked on LinkedIn: What are the first 3 steps every company needs to take to get involved in social media?

1. Listen.

No matter what industry you’re in or how sensitive your organization, you need to be doing social media monitoring. At a minimum, set up an iGoogle page and add feeds from Technorati (to search for blog posts about your organization), Twitter search (for tweets) and delicious (to see what people think is worth bookmarking on your site or news coverage). Track the reputation of your company, brands/products, key leadership and industry, and discover where your strengths and weaknesses lie online. (Hint: no news isn’t necessarily good news!)

2. Think.

As a number of other respondents suggest, you need to think before acting. What are your key goals for social media, and how do they align with your other marketing, communications or business goals? What audiences are you trying to reach, what message do you want them to get, and where are they likely to receive it? What strengths do you have as an organization, and how could these strengths be leveraged or developed in new ways online?

Develop a coherent (if not complete and exhaustive) strategy, if only to establish the parameters under which you will or won’t comment on blog posts and other online discussions of your company or brand. Better yet, identify the key opportunities — the one or two social networks to focus on, the blog or online community you want to launch yourself — and develop a creative approach that delivers real value to your customers in those specific contexts.

This is also the moment to ask yourself: do you even want or need to engage with social media? Yes, everyone should be monitoring — but there are organizations that are not ready to speak for themselves in the rough-and-tumble of blogs and social networks. If you work in a sensitive field (e.g. law enforcement) or a highly risk averse organization, less may in fact be more (at least for now.)

3. Engage!

Once you’re clear about your fundamental strategy and key opportunities, it’s time to get your feet wet…without getting up to your neck in criticism and conflict. Whether engagement looks like commenting on the occasional blog post, or launching your own full-scale social media presence, be sure to plan for a variety of eventualities: from public criticism to (far more common!!) apathetic uptake.

Start your social media engagement in a form that will be robust in the face of limited success: launch a blog that works great even with few comments; leave encouraging comments for those customers who take the time to say nice things about you online. Build your level of engagement over time as your confidence and experience grows, and make sure you leave yourself the resources (dollars, staff, attention) to not just hope for success, but ensure it!

Last night I went on one of my periodic LinkedIn answering binges. Since LinkedIn doesn’t provide me with a way of directly aggregating my own answers back onto our site (!!) I’m manually posting my answers back to this site.

Online collaboration for your right brain, part 2: MindMeister…

Click here to read part 1, an introduction to digital mind mapping.

MindMeister works a lot like MindManager, with the features I’ve come to see as essential for a good mind-mapping experience:

  • rapid creation of new nodes and node “children”. (Hitting return creates a node; tab creates children of the node you’re on.)
  • automatic linking of nodes. When you create a node, it’s automatically linked to what’s already on the map (as opposed to a tool like OmniGraffle, in which you manually link nodes.)
  • support for visual elements to illustrate/highlight
  • Text formatting in MindMeister

  • control over color and font of elements
  • attach files or hyperlinks to any node
  • intuitive and visually pleasing interface
  • drag-and-drop editing so you can quickly reorganize your thoughts

In addition, MindMeister has a bunch of great web-specific features:

  • share maps with colleagues
  • track edits to your mind map via e-mail or Twitter
  • publish maps to your blog or elsewhere online
  • use offline (via Google Gears)
  • Skype integration to chat with your collaborators
  • change tracking to see who added what
See who added what in MindMeister

See who added what when viewing a shared map.

  • optional automatic link maker (links the selected node to the most relevant web page for that term)
  • enterprise version to brand MindMeister for use with clients
  • browser extensions and widgets that make it easy to add to your default mind map
  • and of  course, an a.p.i. (developers, start your engines.)
  • export to FreeMind, Mindjet and other formats (premium only)
  • prompt, non-bureaucratic customer service (i.e. when i asked them for my free upgrade after Rob paid for his premium service, they didn’t hassle me about the process whereby I’d referred him)

But what makes MindMeister rock my world is the fact that it lets two or more people work on a mind map at the same time. No locking and unlocking the document; no waiting a minute while your collaborator’s changes show up. If you and a colleague are editing the same map concurrently, you’ll see each other’s changes in about five or ten seconds.  This makes the experience of collaboration a lot less like Google Docs (which we use regularly, in exchanging drafts of a document) and a lot more like SubEthaEdit (which we use constantly, to collaboratively write or note-take in real time).

MindMeister goes to work for Social Signal

As an almost real-time collaboration tool, MindMeister unlocks a whole new way of working together. You’re not limited to linear structures (like task lists, documents and even wikis). You can take notes, jot down ideas or capture information — then dynamically and collaboratively reorganize it. Where document sharing (at its best, i.e. real time in SubEthaEdit) can feel like writing together, with MindMeister you can actually do your thinking together.

We’ve been using MindMeister for a little over a month, and already we’ve used it to:

  • plan and outline writing projects
  • wireframe the navigation structure for a website
  • outline a community engagement plan
  • diagram an organization chart and decision tree
  • map out deliverables for a complex project
  • figure out the relationship among multiple overlapping technical terms
  • map out responsibilities on a complex project

But if you really want to understand what MindMeister can do for you, you’ve got to see it in action. So here is the very latest mind map we’ve created — a map of where mind mapping fits into the big picture of collaboration tools that we use here at Social Signal.

(Click and drag on the map to move it around so that you can see the whole thing. The tools with the hearts are the ones I personally use every week, if not every day. Click here to see the map in all its glory on the MindMeister site.)

Share your thoughts for a chance to win a free year of MindMeister premium

Are you using MindMeister yourself? Curious about — or experienced with — some of the other tools on the Social Signal map of online collaboration tools? Have another approach to collaboration that you prefer? Tell us your ideas about mind mapping and online collaboration, and you could win a free year of premium MindMeister service, which lets you maintain more than 6 maps, download your maps to your local machine, attach files to your topics, and is 100% ad-free.

Share your thoughts by:

  • leaving a comment on this blog post
  • responding on your own blog or site, linking back to this post
  • creating your own MindMeister map  (please link to it by leaving a comment below)
  • any other nifty collaborative online way that you want (just let us know what it is!)

Post your thoughts by August 5, 2008. Social Signal will treat the author of the most intriguing or helpful idea to a free year of premium MindMeister service.

Bringing your online community to life

You've spent tens of thousands of dollars creating an online community site. Your organization has a big vision for how this new community can engage your customers, members or the public. Your developers, communications team and fundraisers are all bleary-eyed from the effort and dollars it's taken to get you to launch day. Now what?

That's the question we tried to answer during last week's session at NetSquared. The conference itself was a great reminder of the number one law of community-building: you can set the stage, but the community will define itself. And when we helped CompuMentor launch the NetSquared online community three years ago, we could never have envisioned the depth and breadth of expertise and enthusiasm that the community now encompasses.

This year's NetSquared showcased the very best of what's possible when development know-how meets community vision: the twenty-one projects that were showcased in the Mashup Challenge demonstrated a wide range of ways that content or tools can help drawn people to a site.

But drawing people to your site is just the first step. How do you motivate them to actually participate, to contribute their own time, ideas and content? In other words, how do you bring your site to life?

My presentation at NetSquared drew on four kinds of resources to help answer that question:

1. Questions to ask before launching your online community.

Rob has written a great introduction to the questions you need to ask yourself before launching an online community (PDF). Some highlights:

  • What's in it for your users…and how do they know?
  • How do you want people to behave toward each other?
  • How will users know their contributions are valued?

2. The ingredients for a community engagement plan.

We often help organizations answer this question by creating engagement plans. If you want to roll your own, we'd suggest including

  • key messages
  • audiences (with relevance, messages and channels for each)
  • incentives for participation (contests, recognition, points, etc.)
  • outreach best practices
  • blogger outreach plans and sample outreach e-mails
  • media outreach plans
  • sample e-mails for outreach to e-mail lists
  • sample e-mails for outreach to friends and colleagues
  • recommended outreach collateral (e.g. stickers, brochures) with creative
  • plan and texts for internal channel outreach (e.g. main web site)
  • timeline for first 3-6 months of post-launch activity
  • animation guidelines
  • do's and don'ts for site management
  • FAQ responses to questions about the project
  • pre-prepared texts for responding to emergent challenges (e.g. criticisms)

3. Slides summarizing top tips for bringing your community to life.

The session covered key topics like:

  • an effective invitation
  • the role of rules
  • incentives
  • community ownership
  • effective animation
  • gateway participation
  • balancing quantity and quality

By popular request, the content slides are now posted on SlideShare. What you won't find there are the slides that structured the various activities we undertook as a group; I have to keep a few tricks up my sleeve for future presentations!

4.
The contributions of the (session) community.

If there's one lesson we continually learn and re-learn from each of our online community projects, it's that the community always knows more than we do. That's just as true for a live community, like a workshop or presentation audience. So my NetSquared workshop focused on surfacing the knowledge and insights of the talented folks in the room — and they had a lot to contribute! You can find some of the highlights in the Twitter feed for N2Y3, and from session live bloggers Laura Whitehead and Ivan Boothe.

Hungry for more? Come to the Social Tech Training in Toronto later this month. There's a special discount for members of the NetSquared community.

A mathemetician, a librarian, and a web strategist walk into a bar…

I know, it sounds like the beginning of a bad joke. (Or a great cartoon! Rob, care to give it a try?)

But believe me, if you asked them to write a document, the mathematician and the librarian would come out ahead. Why?

Brackets.

You know, like

(2+2) X (18/3)

Or like

("climate change" OR sustainability) AND (water OR H20)

But here I am, the lonely web strategist, struggling to write a document that repeatedly uses the phrase, "external engagement and social media strategy advice and support". I know what I mean, but will the client?

What I really need is Boolean syntax. Why shouldn't I be able to write in the form,

(((external engagement AND social media) strategy)) advice AND support

See, isn't that MUCH clearer now?

 

Wrap your brand in reflected glory

Someone needs to tell the folks at Glad: Unless your customers pay for the privilege of wearing your logo, don't build an online community around your brand. That's rule #1 in marketing with social media — and reason #1 for instead taking an approach we call reflected glory marketing. In reflected glory marketing you create a web site that resonates with your brand, but focuses on something your customer cares passionately about. Think of Dove's Campaign for Real Beauty, or Amex's Members Project. Or think of some of the projects we've launched in-house: BC Hydro's Green Gifts application for Facebook, or Vancity's Change Everything.

In my keynotes and presentations about marketing with social media, I often make this point by referring to an over-the-top scenario: a company that tries to build an online community about plastic wrap. It seems obvious that people just aren't that passionate about plastic wrap…..but it wasn't obvious to the folks at Glad, who launched the 1000 Uses site in 2006 to promote their Press 'N Seal product.

The site solicits tips on all the different ways you can use plastic wrap, organized by room. It's got a very swishy interface that lets you click on different rooms in a house to see the fantastic things you can do there with plastic wrap. And it aims to incentivize user contributions with a chance to win $1000 each month by submitting a tip.

1000 Uses site snapshotThat's a pretty generous prize, and it succeeded in eliciting well over 1000 tips between the site's launch in October 2006, and the beginning of August 2007. At that point the site appeared to go into….hibernation. That's right, not a single tip posted between August 2, and December 10.

Well, not a single tip published.

In an obsessive quest to plumb the psychological and managerial depths of the 1000 Uses team, I spent a rather enjoyable evening in early November coming up with tips that I hoped would give me a sense of the Glad team's tolerance for creativity:
Pet stain tip

Tobacco

Heirloom tip

The first two were attempts to test the level of moderation (are they moderating for tastefulness? public safety?) I added the third just to have something I'd feel confident about them posting, but none of my entries made it onto the site. I'd chalk it up to clever sleuthing on their part — perhaps someone thought to google my name, and figured out I'm a social media blogger? — except for the conspicuous four-month dead zone between August and December. There was a batch of twenty tips posted between December 10th and 13th (evidently I'm not the only one who thinks of mid-December as plastic wrap season) but nothing since.

I'm going to go out on a big, tightly-wrapped limb here and suggest a few general lessons that can be inferred from the Glad example:

  • User-contributed content isn't enough to create a community: even if you can incentivize people to contribute, unless they actually care about the topic (and each other) they have no reason to come back.
  • You may spend your way to traffic, but you can't spend your way to success. Glad's traffic strategy seems to involve pointing a kabillion high-value URLs at the 1000 Uses site (http://www.tapwater.com, www.eating.com, and www.whiten.com were just a few of the URLs that I found pointed towards 1000uses.com when I searched on google). I guess if you have a whack of unused URLs sitting around, why not, but a site full of interesting content would be a far more efficient way of generating traffic.
  • Contests can't motivate people to write about something intrinsically boring. And of course, before people can be motivated to contribute to a contest, they have to know about it….which is tough when you give other sites and bloggers absolutely no reason to point people your way. (Until now!)
  • Don't spend big bucks to build a pretty site — spend big bucks building a living community. Glad should be grinding its teeth at the four-month gap between contributions, and at the three months since the last batch went live. (Which leads me to wonder…where did the January and February winners announced on the site come from, given that the most recent tips are dated in December?) I'm guessing that the flurry of tips between December 10-13 didn't represent a spike in tips; it's just that someone finally took a few days to go through and post. More regular infusions of attention wouldn't make the site a humming concern, but it would at least convey some sense of sustained interest on the part of Glad consumers.

Could we have brought 1000 Uses to life? I doubt it. Some sites are dead on arrival: even the best-managed, best-incentivized site can't overcome an intrinsically flawed concept that offers little reason for return visits or serious customer engagement.

But this is exactly where reflected glory marketing can offer a better way. Instead of creating a site around its immediate product, Glad could have launched a useful, engaging community that resonates with the market for its product. For example, it could have built on themes like

  • Home organizing: Broaden the request for user-submitted tips to any tips about home organizing, and you'd tap into a massive community of interest in topics like home storage and family organizing. Plastic wrap might be one tool to highlight….along with baskets, boxes, label-makers, etc. Even the room-by-room structure could work, but by inviting users to talk about a wider range of topics, you can create a real community rather than a vaguely interactive ad. Turning user-contributors into "curators" of special topics like closets or craft organizing, and you'd deepen the legitimacy and commitment of the site.
  • Leftovers: Unleash a passionate community of family cooks with the features of a web 2.0 foodie community like Group Recipes, crossed with the leftovers focus of a LeftOverchef. Invite people to exchange recipes for using leftovers along with food storage and safety tips.
  • Preservation: With more and more attention on sustainability, preserving things — whether it's food, sofa cushions, or kids' art — has a new urgency. If we can be careful with what we have, and use it as long as possible, we reduce our need for new products or chemical cleanings. Much of the Glad site focuses on preservation uses of its wrapping; why not open a larger conversation about the value of preservation? From preserving art or historic buildings to storing wedding dresses and mementos, many people are passionately committed to some aspect of preservation. Bring them together to talk about what they are keeping, why they are keeping it, and how they are keeping it safe, and you engage them at a far deeper level.

Each of these themes offers a different opportunity for reflected glory marketing. Creating a site like this offers real value to customers — value they build on as they become more and more passionate, active members of the community. That passion, associated with your brand, is worth far more than a pair of eyeballs en route to the next contest. It builds brand visibility, customer loyalty, and even customer evangelists.

And unlike a brand-centric approach, reflected glory marketing doesn't have to be wrapped in contests to stay alive. It's sustained by the energy and passion of the community itself. And there's no better way than true community passion to ensure your site has a nice, long shelf life.