End those digital fasts with these 5 April Fool’s Day pranks

Well, folks, it’s almost that time again: Easter. Also known as the end of Lent. Or what should be known as national coming out day for all the people who’ve just spent the past 40 days doing some kind of digital fasteaster egg on computer key. They inevitably come back with a desire to enlighten us with their Enormous Insight Into The Nature of Digital Existence And Everything, before they return to tweeting their latest random thoughts just like they always have.

This year, however, the calendar has afforded us a delightful opportunity: since Lent ends just before April 1, we can and should play some collective pranks on the newly re-digitized. After all, they’re not online to read what we are planning. Here are some options:

  1. Invent a new YouTube meme that, like the Harlem Shake, requires you to dance like a crazy person: but this time, solo, unmasked and in your underwear. Pay for targeted online ads that tell people about the latest must-join meme as soon as they blog, tweet or Facebook the words “digital fast”.
  2. Pretend that Facebook changed its privacy settings at the beginning of Lent, and all their ultra-private content has been publicly displayed on their wall for forty days without them knowing it.
  3. Send them a link to the new app that everybody is using and which is going to leave them friendless and alone unless they immediately sign up, too. The sign-up form should be a web page with a sign-up form that goes exactly nowhere; clicking “submit” should tell them that they have been added to the beta wait list and will be informed when it’s their turn to join.
  4. Tell them that Twitter has now extended its post length to 200 characters. Let them write their verbose tweets, and we can all mock them when their tweets get awkwardly truncated. What could be more humiliating?
  5. Convince them that while they were offline, Google Reader shut down, and they will have to find some other way to access online news. This one is particularly hilarious if your digital faster accesses the Internet from within an authoritarian regime, and relies on Reader to get news from beyond the firewall. Tell them they’re now going to be limited to the same censored content as all their neighbors, and ROTFL!

How to sustain a social media presence in 3 hours a week

When it rains on a weekend, I don’t bemoan my decision to live in the Pacific Northwest: I just know it’s time to queue up my blog posts and tweets for the week. That’s what I try to do in about two hours every weekend, and since folks often ask me how they can keep their social media presence alive in an efficient and sustainable way, I figure I’m long overdue to blog my system.

First, let me come clean. I don’t maintain my social media presence in just 3 hours a week; for me, it’s more like 40. But that is because social media is what I do, and I do a lot of it: I write for five different sites, contribute to seven different Twitter feeds, and aim to write at least 3 (typically 4 or 5) in-depth posts per week. All that social mediafying is the heart of my work, and more importantly, I love it. I would write that much even if it weren’t my work, so I’m just incredibly lucky that it is.

For most people, however, 40 hours a week would be overkill. And the same approach I use to maintain all my different social media activities can support a much more streamlined — but still very effective — presence. Three hours a week is enough to:

  1. Tweet original content 2-3x day, 5 days/week
  2. Publish 3 blog posts per week
  3. Reply to comments on your blog posts
  4. Reply, retweet and engage in conversation on Twitter

Let’s start with items #1 and #2 — which is what I spend about two hours tackling each weekend. If you’ve got your setup in place, that two hours is all you need to keep your social media presence alive and useful. By “useful”, I mean useful to the people you are trying to reach…which in turn makes it useful to you. The point isn’t to queue up a bunch of junk that keeps your blog and Twitter presence notionally alive: the point is to spend two hours teeing up some content that will provide real value to your target audience by speaking to the topic on which you are (or wish to be) an expert.

Here’s how:

    1. Open up Google Reader and look at the latest blog posts and news stories that are coming in through the custom searches you’ve set up and subscribed to. I’ve put my searches into a separate folder so it’s easy for me to see all latest results in one place:
IRL searches viewed in Feedly

Does my Google Reader look prettier than your Google reader? That's because I view my Google Reader feeds in Feedly.

Quickly scan through the teasers for all the stories that look interesting, Command-clicking (that’s ctrl-clicking for you Windows users) on anything that looks interesting so it opens in a new tab. I do that until I have ten or fifteen tabs open:

Many tabs open in Chrome

    1. Flip through the tabs and skim (or where warranted, read) each post or story in turn. It’s a sudden death system: as soon as I read something that makes me think that what I’m reading is too stale, too weird, too off-topic or too poorly written to share or respond to, I stop reading and close the tab.
    2. If you find something useful, queue it up as a tweet in HootSuite. If you’ve got the “hoot this” bookmarklet installed, it will likely pre-populate your tweet with the title of what you’re sharing:

Hootsuite bookmarklet prepopulated with story title

At this point your fastest option is to just hit the calendar icon and pick a date and time when you want your tweet to go out, but I like to customize at least half of my scheduled tweets so that they reflect my voice and are more intriguing:

Hootsuite bookmarklet with tweet rewritten as "Disable chat (please!!!) plus 4 more tips on how to use Facebook without letting it take over your life!"

  1. Continue flipping through your tabs, skimming and tweeting, but watch out for scrapers. A lot of content you find online will be scraped (i.e.republished or stolen) from other sites. I can’t give you a hard-and-fast rule for spotting scraped content, but you’ll get a feel for it. For example, this page on Youth Service America just didn’t look like it matched the voice of a blog post about online dating. I selected a string of text, dropped it into Google search, and sure enough, it turned up as a blog post that originally appeared on the Social Citizens blog. (It looks like YSA republishes the Social Citizens blog in a totally legit way, but I’d like to share the original post, not the reprint.)
  2. Look for the most thought-provoking stories and posts. When you hit something that’s especially interesting, insightful or simply annoying — something that makes you want to share your own perspective — then don’t tweet it. Instead, use it as the jumping-off point for a short blog post. Your post can share an excerpt or two from the source of your inspiration, but should do more than link to the post. You need to add your own perspective on it, or simply share the questions it raises for you. A blog post like this, which might be 2-4 paragraphs long, can take 5-15 minutes to write. That means you can queue up 3 blog posts in under an hour. (Don’t believe me? My next post in this series will offer proof.)
  3. Schedule your blog posts to go out on 3 different days of the week by setting the publication date and time in WordPress:
    Publish immediately with "edit" link you can click to schedule Date and time fields to edit publication time in WordPress
    Click “edit” next to “Publish immediately”…. …and you can choose when to post.

    That might be Monday, Wednesday and Friday, or perhaps Monday, Tuesday, Thursday; I often front-load my prewritten blog posts because I usually get inspired to write something here or there over the course of the week. I drop those longer, original posts into my schedule on the days I don’t have a post lined up, or I adjust my schedule to make room for them. I usually schedule my posts to go live between 9-10 am, when people in my time zone (Pacific) are at work and people on the east coast are ready for something to read over lunch.

  4. Queue up tweets about each of your blog posts on the day it’s scheduled to be published. Make sure you don’t link to the “preview post” URL you get while editing (where it says “post draft updated” when you save a draft) — that’s not the URL that will let people access your blog post once it’s published. Once you’ve got your post written and scheduled, WordPress will give you a new “preview post” link with the real URL for your post. You’ll know you’ve go the real URL if it doesn’t include the word “preview” in the address.

    Link to "preview post" next to "Post Scheduled"

    This links to the actual URL of your soon-to-be-published post.

  5. Review your “pending tweets” column in HootSuite (you may have to add it if it’s not already part of one of your HootSuite tabs) to see if your tweets are scheduled out evenly. You can click on any pending tweet to edit its text or scheduled time. Ideally you’ll have two or three tweets about other people’s content scheduled each day, and you will have the tweets about your own blog posts spaced out with tweets about other people’s content so that you’re never tweeting your own stuff twice in a row.

And that’s it! Well, almost. Remember items #3 and #4 at the top of this page — where I point out that you need to reply to your blog comments, Twitter mentions, and just generally participate in the Twitter conversation? That’s what your third social media hour is for.

I’m confident that you can queue up 3 blog posts and 10-15 tweets in just two hours each weekend. But that investment won’t do much for you unless you spend that additional hour — ideally as 10 or 15 minutes, 4-5 days a week — engaging with your community.

And yes, you will have a community. Because once you commit two hours a week to delivering real value to the audience you care about, you’re going to have people reading, tweeting and talking to you. So please, don’t forget to talk back.

5 steps to create your social media toolkit

Building a social media presence around a specific area of expertise is your best way to connect with a network and audience that cares about your work, and gets real value from your online contributions. To do that, you need to begin by defining your turf: the area of expertise in which you will offer content and expertise. Ideally, that’s a space that isn’t currently well-served by dozens of other bloggers and tweeters.

If you’re passionate about a topic that already generates a huge amount of online content, try finding a distinctive angle on that topic. Maybe you’re not going to write the definitive sewing blog, but you can write the definitive blog about sewing with vintage patterns and equipment. Maybe you’re not going to be the top Ruby on Rails tweeter, but you can be the top tweeter on Ruby on Rails for beginners. Your site might not be the web’s foremost destination for South American travel, but it could be the web’s foremost destination for choosing mobile apps for South American destinations.

Once you’ve got a hunch about how to define your turf, do some searches on Google News and Google Blogsearch to see how much is written in your space. Ideally you’ll find a topic for which there are lots of news stories, blog posts and tweets, but no one-stop shop. Your job will be to round up all the news in your turf from all these different sources, add your own distinctive spin, and present it in a single spot.

I recently walked a bunch of Emily Carr’s MAA students through the tools and steps I recommend for creating a simple social media presence that showcases your expertise, and for feeding that presence with a lightweight social media monitoring system that makes it easy to find content to blog or tweet about.

I won’t write about each step in great detail because every tool I recommend is widely documented. Use Google to find specific resources to help you get up and running with any tool that is unfamiliar (for example, by searching on wordpress.com “custom domain” “how to”).

Here’s an overview of the 5 steps:

  1. Get a blog. Set up a blog with a custom URL (i.e. http://yourfirstnameyourlastname.com or http://yourtopic.com). I recommend setting this up on WordPress.com because you can get up and running for almost free (you’ll pay $20/yr to register your custom URL through WordPress.com, which is a little more than you might pay to register your URL elsewhere but saves you the trouble of configuring your domain settings to point to your WordPress blog.) If your blog takes off or you want to customize and extend it in ways you can’t do on WordPress.com, it’s very easy to export your entire blog and move it to another hosting service where you can run your own WordPress blog.
  2. Start monitoring. Set up Google Reader as your social media monitoring dashboard. You’ll use this Google Reader account to subscribe to a wide range of sources in your field or area of (current or planned) expertise so that you always have something to write about. You can begin by subscribing to the RSS feeds of any blogs you read regularly; if you haven’t been reading a lot of blogs, find a handful to follow (seeing which blogs people tweet a lot is a good way to find some) and read the regularly for a few weeks so you can think about what kind of content to put on your own blog.
  3. Search for news. Set up searches to bring you blog posts and news in your field. I recommend creating advanced searches that really pinpoint the kind of content you want to read; it really helps to learn the ins and outs of Google’s advanced search operators. Err on the side of pulling in too much rather than too little. My post on RSS for nonprofits may help you think about what kinds of searches you should monitor. In general I recommend setting up searches on Google News, Google blog search, Twitter search and delicious. For example my Google reader account includes multiple searches on strings like “information overload” OR “inbox overload” or (“social media” AND overwhelmed)”.
  4. Follow smart tweeters. Follow people who tweet in your field and follow them. Listorious is a good way to find entire lists of people you want to follow, whether your field is B2B marketing or psychology or classical music. Follow even one list in your field and you’ll get the latest from a range of people instantly (but still have the ability to get rid of all of them just as quick). NB that if you really like the Twitter feeds of people you follow through a list, you may want to follow them individually so that you can exchange DMs. (My Twitter glossary is here if you need help decoding this step.)
  5. Track Twitter news. Sign up for CoTweet, HootSuite or another tool that lets you track and schedule tweets. (Disclosure: I’m working on a project with Invoke, HootSuite’s sister company). Use this client app to keep an eye on the news from the people and lists youa re following. If you’re new to Twitter, check the news on Twitter for 5-10 minutes at least twice a day for at least a couple of weeks, to get a feel for the conversation and for the kinds of tweets you might like to write yourself.

This set up will take a little bit of time to set up — figure on spending 1-2 hours on the set up for each of your three main tools (WordPress, Google Reader and HootSuite). But once you have this set up in place you’ll be able to maintain a very respectable social media presence in just 3 hours per week.

Really. My next post will tell you how.

Using RockMelt with HootSuite and Feed.ly

For an overview of the RockMelt web browser, see part 1 of this series.

The big advantage of RockMelt is the tight integration between browsing and sharing. To keep my Twitter account up-to-date with interesting resources on the meaningful use of technology, I currently use a combination of Google Reader (for subscribing to searches and feeds), feed.ly (for a better reading experience when I review what Google Reader has brought in), and HootSuite (so that I can schedule a bunch of tweets to go out over the next 24-72 hours). I also use Packrati.us and Tweecious to ensure that all of those tweeted links get saved to my delicious account, too.

I was curious to see if RockMelt could improve on that set-up. Like virtually every HootSuite alternative I’ve tried, RockMelt’s “share” function does not offer the option of scheduling a tweet for later; that meant I’d still need to use HootSuite. And while RockSuite’s built-in aggregation is good for following one or two feeds, I follow dozens (many of them aggregating from multiple sources). So I knew I’d need to use something like my current combination of feed.ly and HootSuite, within RockMelt itself.

Since RockMelt is essentially a version of Chrome, it can (in theory) run Chrome Extensions. When I installed the feed.ly and chrome extensions in RockMelt, however, they got added to my right-hand edge, but clicking either icon did nothing. However when I navigated to www.feedly.com/home my feed.ly setup was unusable; it just wasn’t accessible from the icon in the right-hand edge. The HootSuite extension didn’t work at all, so instead I used this workaround to install the “Hoot This!” bookmarklet, but the bookmarklet is less useful than the extension because while it shortens my tweets and gives me a window to type my update and schedule my tweet, it doesn’t pre-populate the update with the title of the link I’m sharing (as the HootSuite extension does).

In one respect, RockMelt was an immediate improvement, because of the all-in-one-place workflow:

Arrows show how user can complete all 5 steps of viewing & sharing a post on HootSuite from within RockMelt's main window.

  1. I clicked the icon in my right-hand edge to bring up the latest news in my search feed.
  2. I spotted an item in pop-up window that looked interesting and potentially bloggable/tweetable.
  3. I clicked that item and the full story on its home site immediately filled the main window; however, the pop-up list of items remained visible, making it easy to skip ahead and look at another item if the one I first clicked proved irrelevant.
  4. I clicked “Hoot” to bring up my HootSuite bookmarklet, which auto-populated my tweet with a shortened link to the story URL.
  5. I entered my tweet text and scheduled it to be delivered later.

All great, right? Yes, except that the pop-up window on the right-hand edge obscures the scroll bar for the main story, so there is no way to scroll down and actually read the story; ideally the scroll bar would jump to the left-hand edge. But that turns out to be a moot point, since as soon as you click on the main story, the pop-up list of stories closes. OK, it’s not a monumental effort to click the icon and bring the list back up, but it defeats the benefit of being able to scroll through many stories quickly while viewing selected stories more carefully in the main window. I also found that it was very easy to lose my HootSuite window if I did anything between bringing it up and scheduling my tweet; this isn’t RockMelt’s fault or problem, but it means that the workflow isn’t that useful. So when I’m going online specifically to catch up on news and queue up tweets, I’ll still use Chrome.

But RockMelt will be a great option for day-to-day reading and sharing; i.e. if I’m not trying to queue up a few days’ worth of tweets. That’s why I already feel a vested interest in seeing this browser grow, and why I’ve compiled my wishlist of 8 ways RockMelt can get even better.