A new path to social media insight at Vision Critical

People who post frequently on Facebook and Twitter are more than 3 times as likely to care about being the most fashionable person in the room, compared to more passive social media users.

That was one of the surprising findings that came out of a major social media study Emily Carr University undertook with Vision Critical, the Vancouver-based research and technology solutions company.  That study shed new light on the differences between active and passive social media users, and as a result, posed a challenge to the way social media professionals typically gather intelligence online.

And it led to a major change for one particular social media professional: me.

The survey itself engaged more than 80,000 people in the US, Canada and the UK, looking for answers to questions that social media professionals ask all the time:  Are Facebook users different from Twitter users? Do young people use social media differently from crusty over-40s like me? And most crucially, are there any fundamental differences between active and passive social media users?

This last question goes to the heart of how marketing, communications and web professionals work with the social web.  As social media usage has taken off, and social media monitoring tools have appeared to help us track all that online activity, we’ve come to rely on tweets, blog posts and Facebook updates as important sources of customer intelligence. We start our day by looking at the latest snippets of praise, criticism and insight, and we treat our social media audiences as key barometers of public sentiment about our businesses and organizations.

What we learn from those audiences is crucial to understanding how our customers, members or the general public think about our products, services and brands. But what if what we’re learning – what if what we’re gleaning from all those updates – is only a partial view? What if the voices that dominate our social media dashboards don’t represent the public at large – or even the vast majority of social media users?

The results of our survey, which was the biggest survey of social media users ever undertaken, suggest that social media monitoring provides only a very partial view.  The most active social media users – those who are tweeting or updating Facebook more than 10 times a week – have preferences that look very different from people who post only a little, even though those “lurkers” include many people who log into Facebook or Twitter multiple times each day.

What allowed us to identify that gap wasn’t an analysis of social media updates: it was the long-term survey data Vision Critical gathered from hundreds of thousands of people who have agreed to take multiple online surveys over a period of months or even years.  That survey data provided a depth of insight into shopping habits, demographic patterns and media consumption which cast a new light not only on social media usage itself, but also on the extent to which social media updates can and can’t act as a proxy measure of overall consumer sentiment.

Digging into the results of our study demonstrated both the opportunities and challenges for using social media to generate customer insight. As someone who has spent the past 7 years exploring the power of social media as a catalyst for tightening the relationship between companies and customers, and between organizations and members, that research left me newly inspired with the possibilities for harnessing online conversation. Social media can not only help us hear what customers, members and citizens have to say; it can help us understand why they are saying it.

But we can only achieve that understanding if we take a rigorous approach to analyzing what we see on Facebook, Twitter and the blogosphere; if we have the context that connects all those tweets and updates to who these social media users actually are, what they think, and how they spend their money. That’s the context we got from hearing directly from the tens of thousands of social media users who responded to our survey.

And that’s the context I hope to provide to even more of the companies and professionals who rely on social media intelligence, in my new role as VP, Social Media at Vision Critical. After a fascinating research collaboration with the company this year – which grew out of a longstanding working relationship – I’m delighted to be rejoining the Vision Critical team.

Vision Critical has grown tremendously since I worked with them in 2005: it’s now the world’s number one provider of market research solutions, with operations on six continents and clients like Banana Republic, NASCAR and Yahoo! Their growth mirrors the explosion of the social web, as online conversation – which at Vision Critical includes not only panels and surveys but also customer communities – has emerged as a key source of customer insight.

We now have the opportunity to unite these threads of business intelligence: to combine the authenticity of social media feedback with the rigor of customer panels. As our research this spring uncovered, combining social media with panel research gives us new ways of incorporating the social web into the marketing toolbox; it also gives us fresh insight into social media itself.

In my new role at Vision Critical, I’ll lead the company’s efforts at integrating social media into the development of customer intelligence.  I will work with the company’s product development and marketing teams, led by the delightful Andrew Reid and Tyler Douglas.

Sadly, this means saying goodbye to another wonderful team: the brilliant and generous colleagues I have worked with for three years at Emily Carr University of Art + Design. Led by Ron Burnett, a president who is as delightfully geeky as he is inspiring and visionary, it’s a community made up of remarkably innovative, dedicated and kind-hearted people. There is much more to say about what I’ve learned from my time at Emily Carr, and about the extraordinary artists and designers who work there, so that will come in a separate post.

As someone who has spent the past sixteen years delving into the implications of our online migration for the way business, organizations and government engage with the public, I’m excited to have a new vantage point on that transition.  What I’ve learned in the past year of working with Vision Critical has already changed my perspective on how to use social media as a source of feedback and insight. I look forward to learning – and sharing! – even more in the years ahead.

Blackout ribbon: Avoiding grim news and spoilers

There have been some horrific stories in the Canadian news recently, involving a combination of homicide, dismemberment, and some kind of atrocity towards children.

Or so I gather. That’s about all I know of the latest grim news cycle, because I have very deliberately avoided hearing any of the details or even learning how many nightmarish misdeeds have made it into the papers. I’ve stopped listening to the radio or watching TV news, and I’ve put off renewing our subscription to the Globe & Mail because I don’t want to be greeted with tales of atrocity.

I’m a big girl: I know that the world is full of human beings doing absolutely terrible things to other human beings, and when those stories have geopolitical implications — like the question of whether and how the international community should intervene in Syria — I try to absorb enough information to be a decently informed citizen.

But I don’t know how active citizenship depends on my knowing the gruesome details of individual crime stories. And I do know that hearing those details leaves me with haunting images that make it harder for me to function, to be out there in the world as a confident human being, or to just walk to my car at night without feeling terrified.

The Internet-enabled personal news stream has taken a lot of criticism for the way it disrupts the public sphere of discourse. As Cass Sunstein memorably wrote in Republic.com, “in a democracy deserving of the name, people often come across views and topics that they have not specifically selected.” But one big advantage of the personal news stream is that it allows you to avoid the stories that exist more to horrify than to inform.

Go offline, however, and it’s harder to find those filtering mechanisms. With discipline, you can skip over the creepiest bits of the newspaper, though photos and headlines will often tell you more than you want to know. And you can keep your finger on the off switch when you’re watching TV or listening to the radio.

But unwanted information has a way of creeping into conversation, too. I’ve had to cut off a few conversations in the past week, as people have begun to talk about the recent horrors — horrors that they often regret having been exposed to, and now need to discuss and purge. So how can I avoid being the person they purge onto?

One potential solution: a blackout ribbon. I’d like to designate a coloured ribbon that would be as universally recognized as the yellow or pink ribbon campaigns. See someone wearing this ribbon — let’s make it an obvious and esoteric colour, like neon orange — and you know that they don’t want to discuss the latest grim news stories.

If that seems like a burdensome act of self-censorhip, imagine running into a friend whose child or spouse was a murder victim. Would you think it appropriate to discuss the latest gruesome news story with that particular friend? Probably not.

Well, the world is full of people who have experiences or challenges that make them averse to hearing gruesome crime tales. They may have lost friends or family to violent crime. They may have personal experiences of violence or sexual abuse that make crime stories particularly resonant and emotionally difficult. Or they may just be sensitive, open-hearted people who feel deeply disturbed by the kinds of details others may filter out. Who are any of us to judge what others should or shouldn’t be able to handle?

And there’s a lighter case for the blackout ribbon: TV, movie and book spoilers. Now that on-demand media means that your cubicle-mate can be watching season 1 of Mad Men while you’re onto season 5, your water cooler chitchat can rob her of the joys of that unfolding narrative. I still hold a grudge against the colleague who thought it would be funny to tell me how Jane Eyre ends while I was reading it for the first time.

Preventing spoilers would require more than just a single blackout ribbon: it would require something like a Boy Scout sash that could be adorned with buttons and badges representing the various shows and movies you don’t want spoilered. OK, so it’s a bit of a commitment to go around wearing a giant sash full of different TV logos, but if you really want to keep your viewing experience intact, you’ll find a way to make the look work with your wardrobe.

Personally, I’m prepared to live with the risk of finding out what happens in season 4 of Damages before I get to watch it for myself. I’m more concerned about psychological damage: the kind of lasting damage I’ve experienced from hearing horrific crime details that haunt me to this day. Until a blackout ribbon gets widespread cultural recognition and acceptance, I (and many others) would appreciate you keeping your gruesome crime story details to yourself.

Online pickup, or online stalking? (From CBC Vancouver)

Finally, an online dating site that makes Plenty of Fish and Craigslist’s Missed Connections look positively classy. My comments are included in the story that ran on CBC news tonight.

How to use your RSS reader to enhance community

Does the Internet make our conversations richer or poorer? This is the question that has driven my research and consulting for the past fourteen years — for most of that time, focusing on how to make the Internet’s impact as constructive as possible, whatever its underlying tendencies.

Cass Sunstein’s Republic.com has has a major impact on that work. The book was published in 2002, before the widespread use of RSS, but it anticipated RSS in its concern that online media consumption was pushing us towards a world in which people knew more and more about less and less (to steal that longstanding description of academia!) and eliminating the common areas of knowledge that drive water cooler conversation. Instead of people talking about the headlines we all see in the morning’s paper, we’ll each get such customized news that we’ll have little to discuss in common.

For a long time I felt sympathetic to that argument, particularly as the dawn of RSS saw me fill up a newsreader with the feeds of niche blogs — displacing my interest in mainstream news, albeit briefly.  It didn’t take long before the volume of unread news items in my reader became daunting, and I re-embraced the morning paper simply because it seemed like a manageable volume of information. And I felt the return to paper was justifiable on Sunstein’s terms: wasn’t it better for me to know the news that other people were going to talk about?

But I’ve recently returned to the RSS fold, and this time I’m not so sure that Sunstein got it right. Much depends on what you think matters: people, or information.

If you think that a wide range of information is key to civic discourse, than the RSS-fed world is troubling. We choose which topics to aggregate and consume, and we may end up knowing a lot more about iPad hacking or knitting or credit card fraud than we know about the major stories of the day — the stories that we can talk about at the water cooler.

But what if the variety of information isn’t what matters to civic life? What if that common conversational pool matters more for who it connects us to, than what we are talking about?

There’s good reason to think the connections among diverse people are what’s crucial to civic life.  Social capital researchers like Robert Putnam distinguish between two kinds of social capital — the personal ties that build trust and hold communities together: it’s “the distinction between ‘bonding’ social capital (ties to people who are like you in some important way) and ‘bridging’ social capital (ties to people who are unlike you in some important way).”  Both kinds of social capital play a role in community and personal health, economic performance, and other outcomes, but bridging social capital can be harder to come by.

So what does that mean for your RSS reader? The bottom line is that it can be a conduit for building either kind of social capital.

  • If you use your RSS to subscribe to individual blogs and sites…..you risk falling into the trap described by Sunstein. Unless you’ve conscious to select from a diverse range of sources and perspectives, you’re likely to end up listening to people who have the same interests and perspectives as you do. If these are the people you engage in your own comments and blog posts, you’re “bonding” with people a lot like you.
  • If you use your RSS to subscribe to searches….you are likely to hear from a much more diverse range of voices, particularly if you choose search terms that aren’t ideologically loaded. A Google blog search on a term like health policy is going to yield posts from people all over the spectrum. So yes, your news consumption may be narrow in terms of its topical focus, but eclectic in terms of the people you engage with. That could turn out to be great news for bridging capital.

This is ultimately an empirical question that might be addressed by large-scale studies that correlate social trust with what’s in a person’s newsreader. But that’s a bit wonky, even for me.

Good news for Internet users who need a boost

Happy News is a site that accentuates the positive: it promises to deliver only good news stories. You wouldn’t want to make it your only source of information, but when the endless stories of crime and conflict get you down, here’s a nice way to balance it out. It’s a great example of a creative online solution to a real-world problem: how to cope with the endless tide of bad news stories.

I discovered Happy News in this useful list of places to go online when you want to talk about your feelings. Check out the full list.

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10 tips on how to make a great iPad app (live blog)

I’m live blogging the news app demonstrations at Hacks/Hackers Unite, where we are seeing a variety of interesting applications for news gathering and delivery. Just as interesting, we’re hearing the panel of judges reflect on what makes a compelling app, so I’m going to capture the issues and suggestions here, which will be particularly useful to people who are thinking about building apps for content delivery:

  1. Go easy on text. One of the virtues of the iPad is its highly visual interface. You lose that advantage if you present a page jammed full of text.
  2. Get linking. If you follow the advice in point #1, use links to take the user to more detailed information within a browser.
  3. Build on existing content management systems. If you build your app on top of an existing CMS full of data, you are drawing on a much richer source of content than if you try to build your data/content from scratch.
  4. Make it social. Designing your app so that the content is informed by the user’s social graph is a way to make it more viral and appealing.
  5. Go multi-player. If you’re building a game, setting it up for table gaming among multiplayers (with a split screen or play areas for different users) is a great way to take advantage of the iPad’s shareability.
  6. Choose your channels. Think about the audience you are trying to reach when you choose the social channel(s) that your app will leverage. For example, sending messages from your app via Twitter only makes sense if you’re sending it to an audience that is Twitter-savvy.
  7. Use humor. The WhosReppin.Me app prepopulated its tweets with cheeky messages. This is a great way to stand out in a demo competition, but it’s equally effective if you’re trying to stand out in the App Store.
  8. Make it scaleable/replicable. If you are creating an iPad app as a container for a specific piece of content (like a book or video) or a collection of content (like a collection of related articles), create it in a form that makes it easy to pipe a new collection/instance of content into the app, so you can readily create new instances of the app rather than coding an app from scratch for each new piece of content.
  9. Know your constraints. Some of the features that seem like they should be a natural and effective part of the user experience (like using your finger to select a block of text) are still poorly implemented on iPad. Don’t build your app around features that aren’t available or don’t yet work well.
  10. One size doesn’t fit all. Different kinds of audiences have very different use cases for a given kind of content; for example, local residents will want to see one kind of local content, where visitors/tourists will be interested in a different kind of experience/access to local content. Don’t try and please everyone, or your content app may not help anyone.
  11. Bonus tip: Give yourself a deadline. As Hacks/Hackers founder Burt Herman just pointed out, all of these very imaginative applications in just 36 hours. While 36 hours isn’t actually the optimal amount of time for building a fully functional app, it was enough to create some very cool projects. So if the idea of taking on an iPad dev project feels daunting, remember: you can do something really interesting in a very short amount of time. And you’ll learn a lot more from doing something now than you will from waiting for a month worth of dev time to magically free up in your schedule.

Demo apps for iPad news (live blog)

I’m at Hacks Hackers Unite, where a group of eighty journalists (“hacks”) and software developers (“hackers”) have spent the weekend building demo apps that show the possibilities for news gathering and delivery on the iPad. You won’t be able to download these apps from the app store (yet) but they give a hint at what’s in store for news in the tablet era.

Since all of these apps were built in a (less than!) 48 hour sprint, they are mostly a bit rough, but provide a terrific and imaginative peek in the iPad’s potential as a news and content delivery platform.

UPDATE: I’m also live blogging the judges’ advice on how to make great iPad applications.

Here’s what we’re seeing:

  1. Lensio
    Using the Moment project from the New York Times Lens site, this slideshow app  embeds images in stories.
  2. iMacaroni and iMacaron
    A pair of related food journalism apps. The “getting started” part of iMacaron introduces users to whatever kind of food — in this case, macarons (aka macaroons). Then the recipes section contains a collection of recipes for how to make variants of that type of food.  I fear the secret evil purpose of this app is to make a room full of journalists and developers really, really hungry for gorgeous-looking cookies. You could use this framework to create a magazine based on any blog’s feed. A cheese lover could create a cheese app; a pizza lover could create a pizza app.
  3. indiemobi
    This app was built for a project that aspires to be the Hulu of independent filmmaking. You can see a live demo online at indiemobi.com. It lets you create an iPhone app for any movie. Filmmakers, get apping! In addition to embedding your video you can add more information about your film, like news, events, your Facebook fan page, etc.
  4. Big Picture
    This app offers an image-driven view of today’s news. It’s inspired by EyeWitness, but available for photographers who want to share their own work. You get photos presented with just a very modest amount of text. It looks gorgeous. If you like to absorb your news through photos, or don’t feel like doing a lot of reading at the end of the day, this is the app for you.
  5. Kid News
    Parents are spending money on iPad books for kids, so there is a great opportunity for news organizations to deliver news to kids. This app delivers news in different categories (nature, science, world, art & music, sports). All the content is curated for kids. You can go in and learn more about a particular topic. It offers a mix of serious and fun content, and kids earn points for interacting with the news — for example by voting for a story, leaving a comment, or completing a level of training as a reporter.
  6. QuizShot
    This app lets users create quizzes for the iPad. It works as a four-player game; each player gets a buzzer in their corner. The player sees a question pop up, and once she buzzes in, gets a multiple choice series of answers and selects an answer. The idea is to base questions and answers on the latest news. See a demo at QuizShot.com. The idea is for the quiz builder to become something that anyone can use so that you can make your own quizzes; you could then use this as a study aid.
  7. Who’s Reppin’ Me?
    This app tells you what your legislative representatives are up to. It geo-locates you, then pulls on Sunlight Foundation data to identify who your elected representatives are, and delivers the latest headlines about what your representatives are up to.  You can then send a positive or negative message to your rep via pre-populated Twitter messages. See the demo at WhosReppin.me.
  8. Scrap Bandits
    This video-centric app tells the story of a scrap metal recovery guys. It’s an example of how to create an app for a single story.
  9. The Greatest Love Story
    This is another example of a single storytelling experience. The goal was to create an app where the user might begin by reading a story, but can then continue by listening if they are (for example) walking to work or in another circumstance where it’s more practical to listen than read. See the demo here.
  10. NewsApper
    Disclosure: this is the team I was on. NewsApper gives news organizations an easy and attractive way of delivering enhanced content to tablet computers like the Apple iPad. You can use NewsApper to present your latest stories and features, providing additional depth, context and interactivity ghrough maps, video, social network content and related content aggregated from across the web. We used Harvey Milk Day as our demonstration story, integrating a bunch of original content in text and video to create a multi-media feature.
  11. Open Margins
    This presentation was for a spec rather than a built app. This app aims to do for books what delicious does for the web, by making it possible for people to socially share how they are relating to a piece of text. For example, you can see which parts of a text have been highlighted most often by other readers; or see other people’s comments on a selected part of text. Pinch to zoom in on just the critical bits of text (i.e. most highlighted) so that you  can skim effectively. View the demo slides online.
  12. Ephemera
    This app aims to tell the news through ephemera — objects that weren’t meant to last, like matchbooks or old photos. They populated the app with items in online archives but they anticipate that users could contribute their own bits of ephemera. A map interface lets you see the bits of ephemera that come from that location; currently it’s implemented as a list of the ephemeral items but the goal is to create something that pops up images of the items. The vision is for a form of collaborative storytelling; for example, inviting a community to tell the story of the Golden Gate Bridge through ephemera found in thrift shops. Users can collectively build a history of the city.
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DoodleBuzz offers a new way of visualizing the news

Tired of Google Reader‘s straight-ahead interface for catching up on the latest news? DoodleBuzz describes itself as a “typographic news explorer”. Type in any keywords, and then use your mouse to scribble on the screen; DoodleBuzz will present news stories from your search, arranged along the outline of your doodle.

Quite apart from the fun factor, there’s a practical value to DoodleBuzz. One of the drawbacks of news aggregation is the way it removes the element of serendipty from news reading: we go looking for what we want to read, and then we read it. No incidental discovery, no exploration, no lateral thought.

In Republic.com, Cass Sunstein was one of the first people to point out the social and political cost of that kind of focused reading. With each of us reading our own personal news stream, we lose the common ground on which public discourse is based: the knowledge shared by all the readers of a newspaper, or all the viewers of a given nightly newscast. The recent disappearance of some established local newspapers is a reminder that there’s more than fiction in Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, which envisions a future in which only the most elite class reads a common newspaper; everybody else reads a customized newsfeed.

DoodleBuzz reinjects serendipity into the news aggregation experience. You just can’t stay linear when you’re reading a doodle! I found myself exploring a much wider range of stories, and discovering new areas for investigation, as I traveled along the lines of my doodle. That may not bring us back to the era of a common news source, but at least it gets us out of myopic, search-driven news reading, and back into a way of reading in which we may also discover the unknown unknowns.

No, it won’t replace Google Reader. I suspect DoodleBuzz will live on primarily as proof of concept, party trick, and occasional jumpstart for a day when your brain is feeling lazy and you need a jolt of inspiration and creativity. And let’s hope that some of the creativity happens on the desktops of other web developers as they follow designer Brendan Dawes’ lead in creating an information tool that goes far beyond the ordinary and expected.

 

To appreciate the golly-gee-whiz awesomeness of DoodleBuzz, you have to try it for yourself. Here’s a snapshot of my exploration:

I entered my search on “social media ROI”…

Keyword entry

…then drew a vaguely W-shaped doodle, onto which DoodleBuzz mapped my results.

To display the results, DoodleBuzz zooms in; you navigate your doodle using arrow keys.

Draw another doodle around or out from any news headline, and DoodleBuzz displays an excerpt. Click on the excerpt to go to the web site with the full story.

 

Thanks to Lee Lefever for twittering DoodleBuzz this morning!