Are Social Media Consultants Harming Social Media? | January 31, 2009

The logic goes like this. The traditional marketing funnel is broken. You can’t just throw a bunch of money at an advertising campaign and have that turn into customers. At least not to the levels you could when there were just three channels or four channels of communication. The web and social media has changed all that. So rather than waiting for customers to come to you, you have to go to them and engage with them in the same way they engage with each other. So that means blogs, that means Twitter streams and than means Facebook applications. Basically that means moving your marketing messages into the social media space . Most companies have little idea how the web works, let alone how people use it, so in order to reach this new generation of consumer, they hire the services of a Social Media Consultant.

Social Media Consultants are an interesting breed. They are usually individuals who have earned a modicum of success through their blogs or other social media activities and started wondering if they could make a living trying to replicate this successes for their clients. In fact there was a time when I briefly flirted with this idea myself. As such, social media consultants tend to be guns-for-hire, although there are a few agencies getting in on the act.

In the beginning these consultants would advise you to set up a company blog as that was a great way to engage with your customers. Sadly most company blogs are as dull as dish water and rarely generate enough traffic or good will to last for long. So consultants have started exploiting other fields, suggesting their clients create Facebook widgets, Youtube videos or presences in Secondlife. The problem with this is the same with all viral campaigns. For every one that takes off, there will be hundreds or thousands that don’t. I mean, how many corporate widgets have you installed on your Facebook account? Not many I guess?

I don’t mean to sound cynical, but I do wonder what value a lot of social media consultants bring to their clients, and how long that value will last. Is social media marketing the next big thing or merely a blip in the growth of the Internet? While there may be a need for specialist consultants now, I wonder if that will be the case in five years time when clients have got a bit more savvy?

The problem I have with social media consultants however is less about the value they bring to their clients and more to do with the affect it’s having on the web. Call me old fashioned, but I used to like it when the top 20 blogs were primarily from individuals with little or no agenda. Now the majority of highly trafficked blogs are commercial operations in their own right. Blogs have become just another marketing tool and it’s getting increasingly difficult to differentiate between genuine posts and cynical marketing ploys. Is this blogger recommending this product because they really like it or because they’ve been sent one for free?

Other social media platforms are also being affected. There was a time when Facebook or Twitter was simply a place to go and socialise with your friends. However now every company (including my own) has a Twitter account or Facebook group. We’ve even seen companies start spamming people on Twitter which really sucks. It seems there is literally nowhere you can hide from these marketing tricks.

Now I’m fairly pragmatic and realise that this descent into marketing is probably inevitable and if consultants weren’t doing it for them, companies would end up doing it themselves. However I think there is something a little seedy about people who purportedly love social media, yet end up helping companies pollute it with marketing drivel.

It reminds me of a guy I met while travelling many years ago. He was an ethnographic researcher employed by a big oil company to asses the impact oil pipelines would have on the indigenous population. He loved tribal culture so much he desperately wanted to work in the field, even if that meant being partly responsible for the destruction of the very thing he loved.

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Usability as a Marketing Tool | January 27, 2009

Despite being 2009, one of the biggest complaints I hear from people when describing their online activities is how difficult websites are to use. People get amazingly frustrated when they’re trying to do something seemingly simple and the website continuously gets in the way. It’s almost as though the people designing or commissioning the website haven’t used it themselves. For most consumers this idea seems incredible, but sadly it’s largely still the case.

Very few design agencies think about how a website is going to be used, obsessing instead on what it looks like or how it’s put together. This obsession also filters through to the people commissioning the website as it’s much easier to criticise something based on looks or features than usability.

You can understand this attitude from sites that don’t play a big role in the fortunes of the company. However it rarely seems to matter if the site is a brochureware site or the main way people do business with the company.

Over the last few years we’ve seen a proliferation of online comparison services that aim to help you get the best deal on anything from the flat panel TV you’ve been lusting over to your home insurance. The whole goal of these sites it make it easy for people to compare different options and then switch providers, so it’s amazing how badly put together they all are. While they may be technically impressive, they provide the same level of experience you would have expected 5-10 years ago.

So during the self imposed tellyfest that is Christmas, I was impressed to see a series of adverts from focussing on the usability of the site. The ad was gloriously simple. Just a collection of presumably real customers extolling the virtues of the new website and how easy it was to use. Now I may be wrong (i often am) but I don’t remember seeing any TV ads that actually sell the usability of the site as a feature. Instead they normally focus on features like the number of sites they check. Either that or they get some burke dressed up in a nautical outfit shouting at you like some deranged loon outside a sailors mission. Like that’s where I go for financial advice!

It’s only a small thing but I’d love more pure-play companies to stop selling their services through traditional means and start seeing usability as a differentiator and a marketing tool. Although the fact that they can means there are a hell of a lot of unusable websites out there, which is a worry.

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Spring Intern | January 5, 2009

Clearleft is looking for a keen intern to join our team for 10 weeks this spring. We’re looking for somebody with a real interest in front end development. Somebody who is passionate about the quality of their code and willing to go that extra mile to see it implemented correctly. You’ll be the type of person who reads all the blogs, subscribes to all the Twitter feeds and owns at least a couple of our books :-)

This is a hands on position so you’ll need to be willing to roll up your sleeves and get stuck in. We’ll be buddying you up with our superstar programmers, so you’ll get chance to pair program with Natalie Downe and argue semantics with Jeremy Keith. It won’t be a cakewalk either, so expect to have everything you know about web standards challenged.

After 10 weeks of working on real world projects with some of the best front end developers in the industry, you’ll have developed a level of HTML, CSS and Javascript knowledge that would normally take years to accrue. So this is an excellent opportunity for all those web standards enthusiasts and budding front end developers out there.

If you’re interested in the internship yourself, or know somebody who would be, here’s the official job spec.

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UX London Registration Launches | January 2, 2009

Ticket sales for UX London launched today so I thought I’d take this opportunity to outline what we’re trying to achieve with this event.

A lot of industry conferences are what I’d describe as “talking heads” events, where well known speakers stand up for an hour and give the audience a big does of inspiration. I love these type of events and this is essentially what we do at dConstruct. I always come away with a head full of ideas and an a renewed interest in my profession.

The one criticism I hear is that, while these events are inspiring, you don’t usually end up learning new skills. I think a lot of people blame the speakers or conference organisers for this, but I actually think it’s down to the format. With just 45 minutes of productive speaking time and an audience of wildly differing needs and abilities, It’s just not possible to teach anything substantive.

So with UX London we’re trying to change that. Rather than a straight up conference, UX London is much more about professional development. Sure we’re going to have a conference track with inspiring speakers like Don Norman and Jeff Veen. However we’re then going to break off into two days of intense, half day workshops, where you can really start to focus on those hard skills.

There will be three workshop tracks at the event: “Core Skills” for people transitioning into a UX role, “Advanced Skills” for those people wanting to hone their knowledge, and a “Strategy and Management” track for people running UX teams and needing to sell the benefits of UX to their clients and managers. So you’ll get to learn practical tips and techniques from the likes of Peter Merholz, Luke Wroblewski, Dan Saffer and Jared Spool.

We’re putting the finishing touches to the program right now, but workshops so far include:
* Influencing Strategy Through Design
* Brainstorming and Concept Generation
* Design Research
* Quick Sketching for Interaction Design
* Information Architecture Essentials
* Copywriting and the Scent of Information
* Interactive Wireframing
* Getting Real with Agile Design
* Managing a Team of UX Professionals

As you can see from the program, this event is aimed more towards the corporate end of the spectrum. So people working for organisations like the BBC and design agencies like LBi as well as individual consultants. Of course we hope to have all kinds of people attending, but we realise not everybody will be able to afford the ticket price. That’s why we’re still committed to bringing you great speakers at events like dConstruct.

On the subject of price, I just wanted to assure people that this isn’t an attempt to “cash in” (those of you who know us know that we’re not particularly profit motivated, much to the disappointment of our families). In fact, this event is costing so much money I doubt we’ll make a profit this year. London hotels, top name speakers and three days of catering don’t come cheap. Instead our goal is to bring over some of the best known speakers in the industry and have them share their knowledge. By doing so we hope to build the European UX community and help raise the level of education in our industry as a whole. That way we all win.

At a cost of 895 this event may still seem expensive to some. However it’s actually no more than going to the dConstruct conference and both workshop days. We’ve simply decided to do it as one fixed price rather than break it down into it’s constituent parts. That way we can keep that sense of shared experience.

I know I’m really excited about the event and I hope you are too. We’ve gone to great pains to bring together what we think is the perfect line-up. Sort of a fantasy league UX conference. I’ve already got my eye on the workshop sessions I want to attend, assuming I’m not running round like a mad person organising things. I’m also very excited by the conference sessions we’ve got planned, so look forward to making more announcements in the coming weeks.

So if you want to stay up-to-date with all the latest UX London happenings, why don’t you subscribe to our events feed or our Twitter account.

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Opening Up My Twitter Stream | January 1, 2009

I first started using Twitter when our friend Dunstan used it to announce his new Job at Flickr back in 2006. Back then I had a small number of friends on my buddy list and used it as a more immediate way of chatting to people than our mailing list.

Over the next few months more people I knew discovered the app and my buddy list slowly started to grow. However it was still mostly friends; people who’s email addresses, IM details and mobile numbers I knew and who I’d talk to on a fairly regular basis. So I used it as a way of chatting to friends, sharing links, organising meet-ups and generally staying in touch with people.

The killer app at that time was the ability to both send and receive update notifications on your phone. This meant that Twitter became location based substitute to SMS. You could send out a notification of where you were and if friends were in the area they’d simply turn up. This led to lots of spontaneous meet-ups in cafes, bars and the like. Because of this I decided to keep my Tweets restricted to friends as didn’t necessarily want random acquaintances turning up at bars. This also meant that I was fairly careful who I added to my buddy list.

My Friends list swelled when I hit SXSW the following year. In 06 all the cool San Franciscans were using a service called Dodgeball to arrange meet-ups and let people know where the cool parties were. However this was really restricted to a small minority of people. By the time 07 had come round Twitter was really kicking in and this overtook Dodgeball and the way to stay up to date with what was happening at the event. So by the end of the week my list of Twitter buddies had swelled as people started swapping their Twitter names rather than their email addresses or phone numbers.

My buddy list no longer included just local friends. It now included a whole bunch of cool bloggers I’d met in the states. So as well as just substituting SMS for my local friends, I also started using it as a way to keep in touch with people further afield. It started to become a form of social grooming, or as Leisa Reichelt put it, Ambient Intimacy. A way of keeping those loose ties open and maintaining a larger social network than would otherwise have been possible. Essentially the same sociological process that Facebook was used for, but with less sheep tossing or pirate attacks.

My buddy list has now grown to 300 people and has started to include looser and looser connections; cool people I may have met once or twice at a conference or been out for a few beers with. It’s also started to include a few people I’ve never actually met, but whose work I admire. It also contains a few bots and other interesting sources of news.

So over the last year the character of my Twitter usage has changed. I still blog my location, but due to an increase in noise to signal ratio and the lack of text updates in the UK anymore, Twitter has become much less useful as an social organisation tool. I can’t think of the last time I accidentally met up with somebody who just happened to be in town at the same time as me. So while I still do Twitter what I’m doing, I do it with much less frequency as the potential benefits have been reduced.

I use the DM feature a lot, but without phone notifications it’s now a poor cousin of IM and SMS. Only used when I’m near a free wifi network and don’t want an immediate response. So it’s most useful for sending links and the occasional nudge.

Instead of using Twitter as a way of chatting with friends, staying in touch with people and manufacturing social opportunities, it’s become much more of a short form publishing tool. Blogging my thoughts, feelings, overheard conversations, movie reviews, interesting links etc. It still has a social element, but is much less directed than before. As such I’m seeing less and less reason to keep my Tweets private, so have decided to open them up and see how things go. So if you want to follow my random thoughts on Twitter, here are my details.

Of course I’m still a little concerned about the privacy implications of letting random people know where I am every second of the day, and I do wonder when the first Twitter aided break-in will occur. I’m also interested to see how this is going to affect my Twitter usage. Rather than posting up random thoughts to my friends, not worrying too much if I make a fool of myself, I’ll probably be a little more thoughtful about what I post and the affect it’ll have on my public persona. Or maybe I won’t. Who knows?

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Top 10 Movies I've seen in 2008 | January 1, 2009

This isn’t necessarily a list of movies that came out in 2008. Just ones I’ve enjoyed watching.

Any must see movies I’ve missed off that you’d recommend?

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