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Toronto Web 2.0 Summit – step in the right direction, epic fail, or a bit of both?

This week the City of Toronto held a Summit to discuss how Web 2.0 (or the social web) can “increase civic engagement, reach all communities, and improve City services”. As the event itself was invite only a lot of participation occurred via the live webcast and in back-channels such as Twitter. I have a lot of thoughts about both the way the event worked, and how it didn’t, and will try and balance the two, while being honest & open in my feedback as I think it’s an important first step in a process that concerns all Torontonians. There have been opinions expressed that should be voiced if the City is serious about community engagement & interaction online.

First, it was a great idea – connect the decision makers, industry, internal government employees, and the public together to figure out how the social web can facilitate a better civic experience. Great idea, yes, but it unfortunately it didn’t live up to its promise, and actually the promise of Web 2.0/ social participation, the very topic of discussion.

There were some excellent speakers and panels that sought to provide some anecdotal as well as concrete examples of how government can use the tools to reach out to citizens, including the luncheon keynote by Mark Surman and the interaction with Mayor Miller, but there were also logistical & planning issues that stifled the potential and made many comment that the day was a “FAIL” (in 2.0 parlance). While 300 people tuning in via webcast is a small proof of concept, and there were passionate discussions online, with only 10 people physically in attendance during at least one session and with images of rows of empty city councillor seats seen via the webcast, the importance to the decision makers within the City seemed absent, or at the very least, under-represented (h/t Adam Froman); another misstep was starting the day with a panel on how the public wants to be engaged online without any representatives from the public on it. Great idea; poorly strategized.

What the City could have done:

  • Make the day into a blend of panels and workshops with concrete examples of issues from constituents and push for mandatory councillor participation and involvement. Bring together facilitators (our city has a ton!) to moderate and brainstorm actionable solutions to real-life problems – both internal and external; tech, procedural, etc.
  • Not make the day invite only. This seems a no-brainer to me, web 2.0 is about collaboration and openness and it feels counter-intuitive to close the gates to true participation at the outset, and it ends up cutting off some of the voices and ideas that are so vital to moving the premise forward.
  • Solicit and prioritize issues/ ideas in advance – for the public at large and for the city – transportation? health care? waste management? events? Focus on more than just the abstract. While Google maps mashups with the TTC are great (and I totally dig them and think they’ll be a great step forward), is that the number one priority for the City or best use of resources? Is web-casting every council meeting? Maybe, but maybe not.
  • Lay off the heavy moderation of the webcast and citizen participation – I asked two questions, once in the morning and once at the end of the day and neither one was released from moderation by whomever was monitoring the channel. Web 2.0 is as open and transparent as possible, not guarded, except for language and threats.
  • Bring in outside voices and expertise from the grassroots level in the city who are already using the social web and to bring together a diverse group of the population to work on local issues and spur action – Toronto has a vibrant community of passionate people to draw on, why not tap into it to shorten some of the learning curve?
  • Some kind of “next steps” to keep moving the discussion and planning forward and encourage participation – there are, as we saw at the event, a lot of talented individuals inside the government who could easily be the point persons to manage something like a wiki (which if the two days had included workshops or similar direct participation could have been frameworked) to solicit ideas and keep the citizens who wanted to engage and share informed of what was on the agenda (and recruit organically from their local circles – build momentum). It’s a challenge of course to coordinate in government, but “idea labs” are something that should be on the radar.
  • Included members of the public who represent different community organizations and looked to other government agencies and groups using the social channels so far & invite them to participate as part of a “lessons learned so far” discussion – Foodland Ontario, City of Markham, Prince Edward County, Ottawa Public Library, etc. etc.

I don’t believe the event qualifies as a FAIL, and I think a lot of good ideas and interest was spurred during a few sessions and hopefully a lot of food for thought and take-aways for the municipal officials who participated. I truly hope the City is committed to this and will take this first event as a baby step, incorporate and learn from the feedback available to them (blog posts, twitter updates, webcast questions, etc.) and keep moving forward. It can be a big or a small challenge depending on how we all deploy our resources – as a community!

[photo credit: Olivia via Flickr]

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SEO is not about the engines, it’s about the people using the engines

Tonight on Twitter while I was following the Third Tuesday Toronto (yes, held on a Monday) tweets, I was also watching a debate between SugarRae & SEOmom2 about what search engine optimization entailed/ means. Steve Rubel at the Third Tuesday event made a comment that SEO was in trouble because tags & linking structure aren’t relevant to the engines anymore, it’s now about content and links. Well, it’s been about content and links in the Google algorithms for a long time now and good SEO has always had that at its forefront.  The architecture used supports the actual content displayed vs. driving what the engines find relevant.

SEO is not about optimizing your site for the search engines, it’s about optimizing your website for the people looking for you – your content, your products, your information. If you “do” SEO well it’s part of your overall design strategy, content strategy, information architecture planning and usability – in other words it’s about making your site USER friendly and optimized which then translates into something the search engines will crawl and say “hey, that’s relevant, let’s index and promote it”. Which then translates into the engines displaying your website in the top results when a user comes along and says “I’m looking for X”.

I’ve always defined SEO to clients as part and parcel of user-experience. If a user gets lost or confused, so will the search engine. If a user doesn’t find the content or information you’re displaying relevant, chances are the sophisticated algorithms the search engines use won’t either. If your back-end is a mess, chances are great your front-end is a mess as well. Of course there are ways to game this, as there are ways to game social media, PPC, etc. But done well, SEO not only helps the engine find your content, but helps you determine what type of information your users/ customers find relevant and useful so you can provide it to them. Your content and products (text, video, audio, graphical, etc.) are why people are on your site after all.

  • Your site architecture and layout should be intuitive and easy to navigate (i.e. based on how people use the web vs. your internal company structure).
  • Your site content should be robust, value-based, and based on your target audiences needs (expressed or implied).
  • Your site meta information should enable the engines & users to quickly figure out the relevance of a particular page.
  • You should be using your analytics to inform content decisions and additions.
  • With the addition of Social Media, your content should be sharable/ chunk-able into micro-sharing & participation with whomever is so inclined.

It’s really that simple at the end of the day. There are of course complex and advanced functions to consider, but if you do the above well the engines will reward you. And as we move into the realm of universal search, content & value become more important than ever to integrate into your website.

Would love to hear your thoughts – is this what you thought SEO was about?

[photo credit: Lawrence Whittemore via Flickr]

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Twitter: insight, engagement, affinity and stepping outside the echo chamber

I’ve been using Twitter for what feels like forever, but is probably closer to 18 months (internet years are the new dog years), and as time has passed and more people have joined the value of the service to me, projects I’m involved in & my clients has increased exponentially. It’s an odd little tool that can easily overwhelm at first, or seem like a waste of time – really who needs to know “what you are doing” at any given moment? But when used and integrated into your digital social participation has tremendous value, personally and professionally.

Tons of ink (pixels) have been written about how to use twitter, brands who are on twitter, word of mouth potential, etc. etc. and I’m of course now adding to that with this post. What I want to explore is how Twitter provides a breadth of insight into the online mix, adds another layer of engagement and can actually help build affinity – but truly only if you step outside of your comfort zone, or echo chamber, for the marketing & PR focused amongst us.

One of the beautiful things about Twitter is the connections you can make outside of your standard social circle. It’s easy to get wrapped up in talking to the same people all the time, in real life, and online – we naturally gravitate towards those we know, or people with similar interests. But for any online interaction to be truly meaningful, sometimes we have to step outside of our norms and expand our field of vision. I’m as guilty of this as the next person, but I have tried to broaden my horizons and engage (and listen) to people outside of my ‘norm’ in the last 6 months as the community has grown.

This is important regardless of whether you are using Twitter as a brand, using it to build your network/ connections, or using it to gain awareness/ affinity for personal reasons. The one thing that remains constant throughout it all is that Twitter is not a broadcast channel. If you just use it to push out your own interests it will be immediately obvious and you won’t get any true value out of it.

Participating on a network like twitter enables you to find out a ton of information about how people view the world, what interests them, what excites them, what ticks them off, what they’re reading, who they like to talk to, how they use social tools, etc. – all “in the moment“, but all relevant and available when and how you need it. If you only “follow” people who think like you, who are in the same field, or who share your tastes in whatever, you are missing valuable insight into the bigger picture. This doesn’t mean you have to follow everyone who follows you, it doesn’t mean you have to spend hours upon hours watching the “tweet stream” update, it doesn’t mean you have to stick your tweet into every conversation, but what it does mean is that to truly get the benefits for your brand you have to do more than just monitor your keyword usage for mentions of your company or product name. Who are these people who are talking about you? Why are they talking about you? Do they care that you are listening? Do they want you to jump in and start promoting or defending your brand? Or are they just unique individuals who are sharing their experiences “in the moment” who you should listen to and take insights away from? It all depends on the context, but if you aren’t willing to find out more about them than just what they said about you *at that moment* you are missing the broader insights.

Recently I organized SustainabilityCamp in Toronto. Truth be told I had no idea who would be interested in attending an unconference that wasn’t focused on start-ups, social media tools, or technology, but had a broader (and at the same time narrower) focus on social and environmental change & collaboration. To my delight, pretty much using Twitter alone to spread the word about what I was doing, and reaching out to people involved in the eco-movement I was pointed to via Twitter and other social networks, the conference not only sold out, but had 12 complimentary and relevant speakers sign up! And most of the attendees weren’t actually ON Twitter – they had just heard about it from people who were. And they came from all walks of life and areas of interest – marketing, PR, NGO’s, academia, small business, etc. I’ll put together a summary/ case study of the day over the next month, but what truly amazed me was how diverse my social network on Twitter IS. I was talking to all these fantastic people who weren’t in marketing or PR and hadn’t even realized it because it just seemed so natural that we all would connect for one reason or another over time. That is powerful.

It’s easy to get involved with Twitter, but it does take effort to get and give value. Sometimes I tweet nonsense about hockey or movies, or what have you (I also am known to rant every once in a while about things I’m passionate about), but I also participate, listen, and learn as much as I can. I don’t follow everyone back (mainly because with over 1,000 “followers” I had to turn email notifications off and it gets hard to carve out time to update my list), but I do regularly add people to my “circle” as I go. You never know what you can learn from someone – if you are there for the right reasons.

If you want to engage with me on Twitter — blah, blah, follow me here :) But if you really want to engage with me, send me an @ message and let’s start talking.

[photo credit: nomi & malcolm via Flickr]

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