Digg, Reddit, and activists

Anyone who seeks to build an online following should pay close attention to the hot steaming mess that Digg stepped in this week.

The social news site announced changes which sounded like a good idea (at least I thought so) a few weeks ago, changes which promised to expand Digg’s following by making it more accessible to outsiders.  The one problem was Digg’s existing audience, which liked the way the site worked just fine.

Over the past 12 hours, Digg’s main news page has been riddled with submissions from competitor site Reddit – and it looks like Diggers offended by the site renovation are more than happy to help the enemy game the system, given the amount of complaints that have been flying about the redesign.

Digg’s mistake lies in not understanding what their community was passionate about.  Diggers liked a community that worked on certain rules and had certain values, and changing those rules and values to let others in diluted what they held dear.  Put another way, you can get more people at the Star Wars club meeting if you let the Star Trek people in; but the people who started coming to the meetings in the first place may not want more people if it means half the room will be wearing Spock ears.

Any membership organization runs a similar risk.  People join groups – whether it’s a social news site, a political party, a club, or a gang – because of some common ground.  When you peck away at that boundary, you risk alienating your members.

Location based social networks and the 2010 campaign

As discussed previously, no one is quite sure what to make of location-based networks yet – to the point where Christopher Walling of Project Virginia makes a compelling case that such technology won’t be impactful until at least 2012:

Not only are campaigns unable to reach a significant amount of voters, but I also don’t see using an LBSN [location-based social network] to disclose your candidate’s location as an overly effective tactic.  Most of the venues that candidates will “check-in” at are campaign events or fundraisers, which most would expect them to attend anyway.  If candidates choose to “check-in” at more “off-the-radar” locations, then they are essentially giving political trackers and their opponents an upper-hand, (don’t forget this is the year of the tracker) which could lead to more unsavory “gotcha” moments.

Not only is Walling right on about the time frame, he’s also right on about the concept of candidates checking in being kind of dumb – thought not because of the army of interns on both sides with flip video cameras and attitude problems.

Social networks involve two-way communication rather than one-way broadcast communication.  That’s why good online strategists look for opportunities to engage with supporters, rather than simply building giant email lists.  The bottom line is that few voters give a crap where a candidate is.

On the other hand, an activist may want everyone to know that he or she just checked into Campaign HQ to stuff envelopes for three hours; or they may want to know where polling places are.  If they have three hours to kill on a weekend, they may want to know if there’s a neighborhood nearby where no one has gotten around to knocking on doors.

In other words,it isn’t important for the candidate to be active for a campaign to get a lot out of a location-based social network; but as Walling mentions early on in his post, the supporters sure have to be.

Grading the new new GOP.com

The RNC re-relaunched GOP.com this week.  The last reboot, back in October, was a better site than they had before, but was met with scorn and derision from the tech world. So how is the new version any different?

Design: B-

The site is clean, simple, and open, and the red-white-and-blue motif isn’t terribly over the top.  It’s definitely pleasing to the eye, even if it is a bit boxy.  It moves much quicker than the old site, which was bogged down with technical problems from day one.

But use the site some more and there are a few things that are just out of place.  For instance, GOP.com incorporates video into several blogs and other elements, but these videos are sometimes tough to find.  For instance, in the screen shot on the left, the video player is buried at the bottom.  That may be due to the fact that President Obama’s image is on the player, but that’s still too valuable to bury.  Further, other sections of the site miss out on drawing the eye with video – opting instead to post a link to the YouTube channel rather than a recent video.

Content: C-

The good news is that a section highlights Republican women running for office this year, which is something the party should be playing up.  Unfortunately, some of the cringe-inducing aspects of the old site remain – such as a Republican Hall of Fame featuring Jackie Robinson (who wasn’t a Republican) and Frederick Douglass in a bend-over-backward attempt to reclaim the black vote.

The Issues section has a nifty carousel of the big issues of the time, plus a brief blurb on each.  This is a missed opportunity; in 2008 Barack Obama used the issues section of his campaign website to dive deep into various policy proposals.  Obviously, a party is different from a candidate in that there are many different opinions and angles on any given issue.  The solution might be to have candidates and party VIPs weigh in with policy briefs.  The RNC could set overarching policy positions, but the site could act as a repository of opinions from Republican politicians. It’s the same principle both parties use in tapping a specific elected leader – rather than the party chairman – to deliver rebuttals to the State of the Union address or the party’s weekly address.

I also found it hard to find out who the Republican candidate is in my Congressional district and what I could do to help.  I ended up going through the state party’s website to do so.  Also missing on the main Action center was any obvious link to voter registration information, which is pretty basic.

The chairman still has a blog – mercifully not called “What up?” anymore – and the RNC seems intent to create most of the official content in-house.  This is a waste of effort down on South Capitol street – it seems like an aggregation of Tweets, blogs, and conservative media outlets would be a better way to go, and underscore that the party’s ideals permeate outside the beltway.

Now, the good news: the Blogs section, while having maybe one or two blogs more than they need, has a developers blog to discuss technological aspects of the party infrastructure.  That could be fun to watch.

Utility: A

This isn’t the most obvious part of the site – I had to click around a bit to stumble on it – but the our.GOP.com community aspect has some promise.  Aside from the basics of allowing users to set up profiles and blogs, there’s this:

And this:

These two features allow Republican activists to define for themselves what it means to be a Republican activists.  That invites involvement, which makes it easier later on to ask those activists to participate in more defined campaign activities when the time comes.  It could also make activists better, not just by promoting great ideas but also by tapping into the wisdom of crowds to help fine-tune messages and materials.

The site also integrates user IDs from other online sources, so you can easily sign up with a Facebook, Aol, Google, etc. account.  Besides streamlining the process, that will help the GOP identify where and who the activists are, and target future communications accordingly.  It also translates actions taken on GOP.com to social networks, and increases the likelihood of virality.

Overall: A-

I logged on to the new RNC.com wanting to hate it, but even with plenty of room for improvement, is has the elements of a very good tool for activists.

I spent 16 years of school trying to convince teachers and professors that grading on potential rather than actual product.  They didn’t buy it, but I did, and that gets GOP.com over the hump and into the A-range.  What it lacks in content can be made up for by the social elements of our.GOP.  For the rank and file voter, the lack of local information and voter registration details makes this site less helpful; hard core activists, however, should find it useful.

5 reasons Facebook advertising is up 1000%

Businesses are advertising on Facebook more – ten times more, to be exact.  This is more than simply another channel for businesses and brands to reach internet users and peddle wares – although the fact that Facebook is the web’s top-ranked site doesn’t hurt.  (Political races have already felt a limited impact of Facebook ads – recall that in 2008, a $51 ad buy helped a Dartmouth college student win a county treasurer race, and 2010 Congressional candidates are building their follower lists now.)

So leaving aside the obvious reason of the network’s large – and growing – audience, what has been driving the rapid growth of Facebook’s ad platform?

1.  Budget justification through analytics, flexibility, and (most important) measurable results

The internet has been to advertising what the Moneyball approach has been to baseball – it allowed stat-crunchers and analysts to break down real-world activity into numbers, and optimize their activities according to what yielded the best results.  (This had, of course, been going on as long as advertising had been around, but the internet allowed for more variables and more precise measurements.)

Like any successful online ad platform, Facebook allows advertisers to examine what trends work and what don’t, and change things like creative and targeting accordingly. This is what has made Google the world’s biggest advertising company.

It’s especially important for Facebook because, as ubiquitous as the site is, many businesses are concerned about dipping a toe in Lake Facebook.  Put another way, the question for the budget-masters to ask themselves is: What if we built a Facebook page, and no one likes us?  Having a dead Facebook page is worse than having no Facebook page at all.

Facebook ads can give advertisers and brand managers ammunition to go to these budget managers and identify key, reachable metrics to justify not only the ad flight, but an entire Facebook strategy.

2.  Ease of use for advertisers

Another page from the Google playbook for online advertising is the ease with which anyone can build a Facebook ad.  It requires creativity, strategy, and writing skill, but you don’t have to be a technological genius.

This is important for two reasons.  First, if you’re in the business of selling ads (either directly or as part of an overall brand or issue management strategy), the advertising model is easy to understand and sell to a potential client.

Second, it expands the universe of potential advertisers.  Local businesses could target users in their neighborhood with limited buys that are put together the same way as the ads of a national brand like Old Spice.  Like Google, Facebook makes very powerful advertising tools accessible to small businesses and individuals as well as large companies.

3.  Peer pressure

The first two drivers of Facebook’s ad success involve its adoption of features that Google and other networks perfected; the next two involve advantages Facebook enjoys over Google search advertising.  The first and most obvious is the “like” feature on ads, which allows users to see whom among their friends has clicked on it.  This is a small feature, but it taps into what has always been the driving force of activity on Facebook: the idea that people get most of their information from their friends.  That’s a big reason why Facebook drives more web traffic to news and other sites than Google.  By leveraging peer pressure where it can, Facebook gives its ads that much more impact.

The platform also allows advertisers to target friends of existing members of fan pages or group members.  For instance, if my friend likes Organizing for America, then OFA can direct an ad at me, figuring that I might be a potential supporter as well.

4.  Attractive ads

Back in the early days of online advertising, display ads checkered websites the way print ads checker newspapers and magazines.  Google’s search ads were less attractive but more effective, since they were based on a user’s searches and interests.  There were no pictures, because that would have only cluttered the space.

Facebook’s text ads with a small thumbnail both draw the eye and allow for some illustration of the brief message.  Facebook ads require the same pithy writing as Google ads, but the small picture makes a big difference.

5. Cost

Facebook’s ad prices haven’t grown with its user base, so it has remained a cheap cost-per-click option for advertisers.  That, combined with an extremely flexible pricing structure, results in a platform that lends itself to very limited and easy ad flights.  This allows for a $10 or $20 test campaign – low enough that curious individuals can run one on their own, or front the costs on a project for a client and work on a contingency basis.  That low barrier of entry that promotes experimentation helps win over new advertisers – and, once they figure the platform out, gives them a reason to stay.

The Bengals’ wired receivers

Here’s some NFL history in the making: the Cincinnati Bengals will have two wideouts lining up this year with their own iPhone applications, which may be a first.  Terrell Owens put the finishing touches on his on the eve of training camp. Chad Ochocinco already had his own app, plus has been a fixture in social media spaces like UStream and Twitter.

This could be interesting.  The concept of NFL teams dealing with larger than life personalities trying to exist in the same locker room is nothing new, but having those personalities connected to all the channels of communication available could make for some fireworks. Getcha popcorn ready.

It’s the most popular website in the world, and everyone hates it.

Last week, as Facebook celebrated the half-billion user milestone, a consumer satisfaction study placed Facebook’s “Like” rating down in the bottom 5% of surveyed companies.  ReadWriteWeb points out that this puts them on par with cable companies, airline companies, and the IRS.

Those are interesting company for the social network.  There’s a parallel between Facebook lessening their privacy policies to better monetize their users and airlines adding additional fees for checked bags, carry-on bags, and eventually suitcases that you keep at your house and don’t bring to the airport.  Facebook’s reaction has been similar to a cable company that asks a customer to be available from eight to four for a service call and doesn’t show.

The dissatisfaction is likely chronic for as long as Facebook tries to make money, and there’s two ways that type of customer dissatisfaction might play out.  The first is that users leave the service.  Facebook runs its course and becomes the next Yahoo! or AOL, a shell of its former self as internetters flock to the next big thing.  It doesn’t go away, but former Facebook employees talk about the glory days the way Frankie Five Angels Pentangeli wistfully compares the Corleone family to the Roman Empire at the end of The Godfather Part II.

The alternative is that Facebook becomes an acceptable evil – that users can always find something to complain about, but nothing that drives them away.  In the same way that spam doesn’t lead to an exodus from email, people stay on Facebook because it’s the easiest way to connect with friends.

In that way, the best comparison to Facebook from among the entities with similarly low satisfaction rates may be the IRS.  No one likes it, but everyone still uses it – and it’s probably not going anywhere.

I dreamed a dream of Foursquare

This may be a sign I’m working too hard, but that isn’t a funny title – I actually had a dream about a client using Foursquare last week.

The client, a national non-profit, had partnered with several Foursquare-friendly businesses throughout the holiday shopping season.  If you checked in at a location nearby, the business would alert you that a certain purchase would result in a donation to the non-profit.  For instance, if you checked into a restaurant, and there was a Starbucks nearby, you might receive a message that buying a grande gingerbread latte would net a $1 donation.

When I told them, they liked the idea – but were a little disturbed that I was dreaming about work.  But as other non-profits are finding out, Foursquare can be a useful tool for connecting with supporters.

The viral campaign your viral campaign could smell like

So much has been written about the success of  Old Spice’s social media campaign this week, that to say too much about it would be redundant.  But there are a few facets of this campaign which translate well to other attempts to create viral interest online, whether it be for a brand like Old Spice, a cause, or a candidate.

1.  Engagement. The central theme of the campaign was keeping random folks involved, and making an effort to actually answer questions from random internet surfers.  The behind-the-scenes strategy was a little bit more sophisticated than that; the team behind the campaign made sure certain bloggers and social media savvy celebrities – key influencers of the online conversation – were targeted to ensure their exposure spread.

2.  Speed. Creating the videos required rapid-fire recordings and uploads, which was no doubt made for a few intense days for “Old Spice Man” actor Isaiah Mustafa.  This short burst of productivity allowed Old Spice to strike while the iron was hot.  That level of immediate responsiveness is the difference between a campaign getting some attention for launching a website before quickly getting stale and enjoying an extended media cycle where they drive the conversation by constantly giving people something to talk about.  Much like in baseball, speed can slow the game down.

3.  Context. None of this would have been possible without a resonant base concept.  Old Spice had spent months cultivating the image of the unthreateningly arrogant and unfailingly confident Old Spice Man, and even more time building its brand as a tongue-in-cheek advertiser.  This week’s campaign did not happen in a vacuum; the online success was supported by months of support from traditional television advertising.

4.  Content. The fact that Mustafa’s Old Spice Man and the commercials were ridiculous and off beat – in other words, entertaining – helped immensely.  The traditional model of advertising for big brands is sponsoring entertainment such as television shows.  Old Spice essentially created entertainment.  It’s nothing new – Budweiser has been making ads that told stories for decades.  It’s just more important in a media environment where it’s tough to catch eyeballs.

One thing to note is that Old Spice is not a nicle and dime start up.  Before the last year or so of quirky ads, it had a long-standing reputation as a stalwart in the field of optimal men’s odors.  In such a position, many brands would have forged a “Coca Cola campaign” – highlighting their history and strength.  It would have been safe but probably not as successful as their current strategy, which allows them to compete with the more sophomoric positioning of competitors like Axe without sacrificing the their old school street cred.

Coming to a theater near you: Facebook

The first full-length trailer for The Social Network is up, appropriately enough, on YouTube:

There’s no doubt that the inception of Facebook has been a significant development in internet consumption; and it’s one of the most interesting business stories out there.  But after a decade of startups promising to redefine how we use the internet, the “this is going to change everything” rhetoric is a little tired.

So from this trailer, this movie could be any – or all – of the following:

  • Deeply fascinating
  • A trite waste of time
  • Mildly entertaining
  • Creepy (as underscored by the cover of Radiohead’s Creep that the trailer is set to)
  • A way to spend two hours ostensibly with people while paradoxically not interacting with anyone or anything except a glowing screen

Sounds like the perfect movie about Facebook.

Foursquare of July

Like Mindy Finn of Engage and others, I’ve been trying to figure out Foursquare – not necessarily because I like it, but because it’s my job to know how it works, and how it can be applied.

Vincent Harris of TechRepublican has some good ideas about it, and businesses like Whole Foods have gotten on the bandwagon by asking users to check in.  Some offer discounts for check ins or mayorships.

Yesterday, I was chatting with a small business owner and soon-to-be restaurateur  about ways he could use it for his business.  He wasn’t sold on its utility.  When I checked in at Nationals Park to watch the Washington One-Man Show, a Facebook friend made fun of me for playing “that stalker game.”

It seems like many just aren’t quite sure what to make of Foursquare yet, which is reminiscent of another social media/network craze from a few years ago: Twitter.  When Twitter first hit, it instructed users to tell everyone what they were doing – making it sound like a glorified Facebook status update.  When people started understanding the ability to communicate in public conversations with 140 characters – and the concept of microblogging – Twitter became more than its founders probably imagined it would.

As Foursquare becomes more prevalent, more businesses, organizations, and campaigns will start to take advantage of the ability for people to check in electronically from their phone, and the utility will become more obvious.  Until then, here’s a very telling metric that indicates this isn’t a passing fad: Foursquare’s current value is $95 million, and they’re planning to expand.