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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I'll Have Jam With That | September 20, 2007

Checking my email this morning I was faced with yet another invite to a new social software application. If I don’t know the people involved with the project I normally just junk these invites out of habit. However I noticed one of the examples sites came from Innocent Smoothies who I like, so decided to check them out.

The example sites were quite nice, so after taking the tour I thought I’d have a go at creating my own site. The first thing I noticed was the nice use of lightbox for feedback. While not exactly revolutionary, I much prefer using lightbox for state changes and process feedback than galleries. Primarily because I find lighbox pop-ups break the typical browser window paradigm and I regularly find myself hitting Command-W and closing the whole browser window, which annoys the hell out of me. But I digress.

webjam lightbox

The thing that really impressed me was the fact that you could start using the app and customising your site without being forced to register. With so many people getting web app registration fatigue, this is a very smart user experience strategy. Get people using the site straight away and once they have spent 10 minutes customising their page, they’ll only be too delighted to register. The nice thing about WebJam is, if you leave and come back, the site remembers that you were half way through editing a page, and gives you the option to pick up where you left off.

webjam welcome

I decided to create a test site about scuba diving, and was impressed to see that my default site came back with a photo section already pre-filled with diving images from flickr. A really nice way of getting round the zero-content cold start problem and giving new users a sense of how the site could be used.

webjam flickr module

The site starts with a number of pre-filled modules, all of which can be customised. As well as editing the content, you can set preferences on each module and even allow people to replicate them on their sites. This all feels very much in the original spirit of Ning. In fact, while setting up my pages, I felt that a lot of the interactions had taken a queue from Ning. For instance, WebJam uses a very similar persistent bar at the top of the page which rolls down to reveal your customisation options.

webjam edit screen

webjam customization screen

One of the really nice things with WebJam is the amount of layout control you have. You can add and delete columns, resize elements and even drag and drop them. There are quite a few pre-defined styles you can choose from, although they are all a bit amateur at the moment. However the best thing is you can create your own themes by uploading your own background images and even editing the CSS. Sweet. This has allowed companies like Innocent to create some pretty nice designs.

webjam-layout.jpg

When you’re happy with how everything looks you can save your site by registering. The registration form is pretty simple and uses fairly innocuous Ajax to check things like the availability of your username. The only thing I didn’t understand was why interests were a required field. Once the sign-up is complete, you’re given a nice URL you can send to all your friends.

webjam register screen

While I probably wouldn’t use the site myself, it seems like a great way for somebody to set up their own social network and integrate elements like flickr images, google maps, blogs, bulletin boards etc. Perfect for a Sunday league football team, a special interest group or a community focused business. From an interaction design standpoint, I think the site has a lot of nice touches, and I love the fact that you don’t need to register to start using the site. Hopefully we’ll see more people adopting this pattern from now on.

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MapSurface | February 22, 2006

Mapsurface is the personal project of friend and local developer, Glenn Jones. Inspired in part by Jeremy’s DOM Scripting book, Glenn decided to rediscover DOM scripting and created his excellent Ajax link tracker. If you’ve not seen the link tracker before, it’s a cool little script that records and displays which links your users are clicking on. This is a fantastically useful tool as it allows you to see which parts of your page are getting more attention and which parts are not working. As such it could be used in both a marketing and a usability context.

Screen shot of Glenn Jones Ajax Link Tracker

Many people would have stopped there, but working evenings and weekends Glenn advanced the technique to produce Mapsurface. Mapsurface is essentially a stats widget which displays the traffic, referrers and user link behaviour on your site. Most stats packages show this information, so what’s so special? Well, while most stats packages show you this information on a separate admin page in aggregate, Mapsurface makes this data readily available on the actual page. I’ve been beta testing Mapsurface on my site now for a few weeks, so hit alt x and see for yourself.

Screen shot of the mapsurface dashboard

You should now be greeted with the Mapsurface dashboard, a floating widget that contains basic data for the page such as the number of visits, and highest referrals. The widget is composed of JavaScript, XHTML and CSS, has PNG transparency and is fully dragable. Glenn explains the workings a little more over at his blog.

Rather than weigh each page down with code that will only be used by a few people, the files that make up the widget are downloaded on demand, when the user presses the required key combination. This is a truly fantastic feature and one I’m sure we’ll see a lot more of. If you’d like to know how this all works, Glenn also explains the map surface architecture at his site.

Clicking the map link at the top of the dashboard brings up the now familiar link tracking map. As you can see from the following image, 133 people clicked on the link to my book in a recent post, while 229 checked out the book flickr set. You don’t have to be Jakob Nielsen to see how useful this type of data could be for your site usability.

Screen shot showing the link map superimposed over my CSS Mastery book article

Clicking on the more link brings up a second window showing a 7 day and 30 day activity graph, a full referrers list and the exit points for the page.

Screenshot of a bar chart showing the weekly visitor stats for the homepage

Now I don’t know about you, but I find it much more useful viewing page statistics on the actual page in question, rather than trying to decipher the divorced and aggregated data most stats packages supply. For instance, prior to installing MapSurface I’d probably look at my stats 3-4 times a year. Because it’s now so easy I check them at least a couple of times a week, more if I’m posting a lot of stuff.

Mapsurface is still in beta, but you can sign up for a test drive over at www.mapsurface.com. I’m not sure what Glenns plans are for this widget, so don’t know if it’s going to become a commercial project or not. However I know that I’d happily pay $2 per month for such a cool and useful tool. What do you think?

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Favorite Web 2.0 Applications | November 4, 2005

With d.Construct only a week away, I’m wondering what your favourite web 2.0 applications are and why? What makes for a good web 2.0 app and what makes for a mediocre one?

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