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Why does Google get social content but not social networks?

It’s a running joke in the digital media space that Google+ is a ghost town. Not entirely accurate as companies such as Ford believe in the space and prominent bloggers still actively participate there, but it certainly didn’t meet the promise that many hoped for – to finally bring a direct competitor (with deep pockets) to Facebook. 50mm active users and 90mm registered users is nothing to sneeze at, but it’s certainly not where the Internet giant was hoping to be. This isn’t the first time Google’s tried to venture into social networks, there were the other Internet services, Buzz and Wave, which became fodder for Internet jokes before being shut down.

On the flip side, Google’s content creation engine consistently churns out compelling content that is shared far and wide and highly praised: think Google Doodles; April Fools jokes; and random Easter Eggs in products (e.g. Map Directions). They excel at it and appear to have a lot of fun doing it. So it should be only natural that if they are that good at creating content that people want to share they should understand how to build products that facilitate that sharing. Right?

Well, understanding the psychology of human sharing and interaction is different from creating cool things that people like to geek out to. Google, at its core, is full of incredibly smart engineers who look at problems logically and have a deep understanding of how the Internet works, how to create workflows, and how their own products can all be tied in together. These are the folks who brought us Gmail that revolutionized email, search which is the backbone of how people find information online, etc. etc.

But these products are all fundamentally purpose built, not discovery and interaction built.

I go to Gmail to read and respond to email. I use the search engine to find things I’m looking for, not to browse the web. I use Maps to get directions and find things. You get the picture. YouTube is different, but it wasn’t built in house, it was acquired after it was already successful and hasn’t really expanded much past it’s original purpose – to watch videos online.

The sticky social networks like Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr et al. are all about frictionless creation and sharing which is where the content that Google creates naturally spreads. Google+ is amazingly built. It has so many features that the other networks lack it should be a natural place to migrate our social interactions to. Except, all those features that make sense logically probably confuse the average user. Geeks get it, but geeks already have channels where their buddies are to share on. Circles are actually a really great idea, but the average person looks at that and says, whoa, way too much work! I’d hazard a guess that 9 out of 10 people on Facebook and Twitter haven’t set up lists either (the simplest versions of Circles). Ripples? What are those? Hangouts, which should have been the killer feature weren’t promoted properly (think about how Apple promoted Facetime for how it should have been done), and YouTube integration was an after-thought instead of a must have from day one. I could go on and on but you get the picture. When Google builds social networks they build them through their own incredibly logical lens instead of an average consumer lens.

So, what can they do? I’d suggest taking a look at why their content is so successful and how it spreads (psst, they have Google Analytics that recently added social networks tracking they could take a peek at for some insights). I’d also do a deep analysis of what their competitors are doing from a marketing lens, not a development one. Make it easy to import friends from other networks, make setting up a profile a snap, make it cool (and easy) to be there. Then, in the immortal words of start-ups: pivot…. Hell, even Zuckerberg pivoted by opening The Facebook to non-college kids.

In the meantime, keep the content coming, it’s really good!

Image credit: [Jennifer Horn @ Google]

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CluetrainPlus10: Theses 23 “Positioning”

Forward looking position

It feels like yesterday at times when the Cluetrain Manifesto was published, but in reality it’s been 10 years since the seminal, and controversial, book was published. To mark the anniversary, Keith McArthur began the “Cluetrain Plus 10” project which has 95 bloggers covering one of the 95 Theses that make up the book.

Cluetrain, for me, helped articulate the changing landscape of customer/ company interactions as the Internet began to come of age, along with other more brand/ e-comm focused books of the time. Although I see some parts as a tad one-sided and biased in terms of forcing a point, versus the natural evolution (and constraints) of business, the manifesto I’ve chosen to write about – Companies attempting to “position” themselves need to take a position. Optimally, it should relate to something their market actually cares about – rings truer than ever at this stage of the game in my view.

When companies decide to exist and build a product, one of the most natural and necessary things, for company wide alignment, is to develop a market position. All too often the way they go about it is internally, or shareholder, focused vs. allowing the focus to rest on their customer and their needs, insight, and focus.

Unfortunately it’s not surprising to sometimes find a force-fit approach lacking the fundamental questions all sustainable, successful companies in today’s market answer:

Why would anyone care?

What do they care about on a personal/ group level vs. as a “market”

Who are you really – are you part of the solution, or part of a problem?

What you do and who you are matter, especially as the world becomes increasingly wired and we become billions of loose threads interconnected 24/7. The absence of the connection – to something tangible we can relate to, be interested in, give a second thought to, and know there isn’t a hidden agenda, outside of making fair profits – means the potential loss of: trust; perceived value; a sale; a future sale; a referral; knowledge; social capital.

People still buy from companies they don’t really “connect” with (be it at a product, customer service, or emotional-brand level), but they do so grudgingly, and, on the whole, are open to other, more fulfilling, options. A company who is committed to a goal that makes sense to them as people, whatever that goal may be, in context, wins.

If you wanted to reach the people who may be interested in your product, would you want to be a company people understand & respect, or a company that’s a last resort?

Wouldn’t it be great to have your customers, and potential customers, on your side & providing you with actionable feedback, or would you prefer to be under siege & on the defensive?

The Internet offers one platform to become aware, and active, with the people who may benefit from what you have to offer them. But a strong position, in whatever regard, transcends the medium, and becomes part of the overall experience. The feedback loop in action. For this to truly work, the position has to be a real thing, not a product of a myopic “communications” view driven by expediency, lack of imagination, interest or insight, into the very “demographic” you are attempting to position for. Sometimes, when you dig deep enough, what you find will surprise, delight, and perhaps scare you. Maybe even open up a whole new opportunity you wouldn’t have considered if the “market” didn’t provide it to those who interacted with and listened to them.

How is that not the way to go in the long-term?

[photo credit: RichardLowkes via Flickr]

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Ada Lovelace Day – recognizing women in technology

March 24, 2009 is Ada Lovelace day and people from around the world are marking the occassion with blog posts recognizing important women in the tech field. While I initially thought I would write a post about a famous woman I admired, a trail blazer in the space, I ultimately decided to write about someone closer to home, someone I’ve known and worked with personally. Think global, act local if you will.

If you don’t know her already, her name is Vanessa Williams (aka @fridgebuzz) and she’s a leader in the tech and interactive space in Toronto. What makes Vanessa someone I admire is not only her incredible intellect and ability to code like a maniac in complex languages like Juxta, but the trail she blazed by being a leader when women programmers/ techies were a rarity. She’s commanded respect from her teams as well as from clients… all while believing in her inherent right to be treated as an equal in a male dominated field. She also took a chance with an idea she had for a startup and toiled away at her computer to make her vision a reality.

I don’t claim to know the intricacies of the work she does (I’m a strategist, not a programmer), but I do know that she always delivers results and I’ve had the pleasure of sharing many a pint on a patio and discussing the industry, technology, and the world with her. 

Vanessa is someone you should get to know.

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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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I’ve just about had it with iTunes

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Yes, I am speaking "blasphemy". I am sick of iTunes and am seriously considering going back to using Windows Media Player as my default player, regardless that I regularly purchase music from Apple and have an iPod. The usability sucks. For a company that’s supposedly all about elegance, usability and ‘thinking different’, iTunes is, umm, not there.

First of all, do I really need to update my software every week? Can they not bundle the updates and release when there really is something that needs upgrading, vs. a cool little feature that helps their sales? Inevitably this "upgrade" also means re-installing the entire platform, finding it on my system again, and losing access to it from my toolbar. Nice.

Of course, since I’m on a PC, they aren’t "integrated" (supposedly) with my desktop environment and "lose" songs from the player whenever they feel like it. No rhyme or reason to it, I haven’t moved the albums from the same folder they’ve been in since I started using iTunes, but for some reason iTunes "can’t locate that file". As of right now, after having done absolutely nothing to any of my music files (except for purchase a new song via iTunes), I have 86 missing songs that were perfectly fine yesterday.

Is iTunes sophisticated (designed well) enough to recognize that if an entire album is missing and I click that little "find on your hard drive" button and go through the motions to find the first song, they could actually scan that same folder for the remaining songs from that album? Of course not, why do with software that I could do manually and take an hour of my time to do so?

It’s interesting that they never "lose" the songs I purchased from them vs. burned onto my system from a purchased CD.

I used to love the Apple TV spots and think they were genius. The wonderful pokes at how slow and cumbersome, and corporate MSFT is. How they make you jump through hoops to get your system working. Now? Guess what? I may be one of those folks "downgrading" from Vista to XP… whoops, I mean "downgrading" from iTunes to WMP.

</rant>

[photo credit: tantek via Flickr]

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