Monday, March 30, 2009

School for Scandal

There has been a lot of digital ink spilled over Birmingham City University's new degree program in Social Media, some of it positive, some of it negative.

Why is such a program necessary? some complain. In the course of an entire year, you won't learn as much as a teenager who just jumps in with both feet.

Bandwagoning, others say. The university is merely capitalizing on the latest trend to charge people a full year's tuition for sitting around talking about the new pet rock.

Worthless, yet still others have decided. A junk class like programs that look for semiotic messages in music videos or trashy novels.

Finally, some say, the web changes so fast that by the time you've learned the ins and outs of Twitter, social media will have moved on to something else, some other shiny bauble.

Let's unpack some of the thinking about this program to see if any of these criticisms have any merit.

Firstly, BCU describes the program thusly:

This MA programme will explore the techniques of social media, consider the development and direction of social media as a creative industry, and will contribute new research and knowledge to the field.

So the idea behind the degree isn't that you're going to sit a bunch of forty-to-fifty-somethings in front of a computer and sign them up for Twitter and Facebook accounts, but rather that you're going to dissect the various ways that social media is being used, look at the history and trajectory of social media platforms from a creative perspective, and you're going to be possibly adding new knowledge to the field.

This last aspect is potentially the most interesting, as designers could sign up for these classes to tap expertise and to find the appropriate tools to improve app developments. Adobe AIR works within a Flash environment to create the tools that are used for social media. Would anyone denigrate software development, no matter what its use, as unnecessary and worthless?

Likewise, as businesses shift to an increasing digital presence as a result (and partial cause?) of the cratering of dead-tree print venues, the intersection of social media and other interactive communication formats will begin to heat up. In other words, you haven't seen anything yet.

While Reuters closed their Second Life bureau after about a year, that online social space experiment failed in part because SL required an enormous amount of time to master even the basics and most users weren't equipped with hardware that could effectively operate at the levels necessary.

Twitter, on the other hand, only requires mastery of typing. You needn't even link to anything, though the service allows far more value once you add link shortening, picture hosting services, etc.

Whether or not you find the classes worthwhile depends mostly on your attitude toward social media to begin with. If you don't Twitter, if you're not on Facebook or MySpace or any of the myriad other online locales, then such an offering will seem as pointless as social media itself.

If you're a power user of any of the above, you may find the idea that some people need training in its use ridiculous. You may even believe that the rapidity of online advancements mean that the moment they hand you your diploma, everything you've learned is obsolete.

To those who find it pointless, time will tell. To those power users, I would merely suggest you reread the course description again. It's not about learning all the great features available through TweetDeck today, March 30th, 2009. While that may be something you learn, that almost assuredly will be part of the general learning process. What's far more interesting will be how students learn the general principles. They'll learn how to put together an eye-pleasing social media offering, they'll learn underlying strategies, they'll learn the philosophical underpinnings of social media.

The old methods of top-down business communication don't work nearly so well in the online social sphere as the give-and-take model, the conversation as opposed to the lecture model. People often create and participate for the fun of it, not for immediate and tangible rewards. People engage because the content is engaging them: talking with them instead of to them. The basics of your standard communication degrees will be part and parcel of this curriculum, except retooled for the internet world.

The bandwagoning charge I've saved for last because I don't really have any good argument against it. Yes, social media and social networking are hot topics right now. Yes, the timing of BCU's master's program does seem ideally suited to take a bite of that media dollar. But why should the university be held to some higher standard in this regard than any other entity? Apple gets into Facebook, there's nary a peep. Sears is even getting involved with is the outrage?

When looked at in this way, the question then becomes not why is this necessary or will this succeed. The question then becomes, is this the future?

And for a follow up question, will this degree give social media practitioners a leg up on selling themselves to prospective employers?

Think about it before you dismiss it so quickly.

And if you wish, listen to one of the university's spokespersons discuss the program.

Jon Hickman: MA in Social Media from Kasper Sorensen on Vimeo.

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Friday, March 20, 2009

Yes, You Totally Should

No, not sink.

Yes, you should totally be getting into social media.

It's hard for me to believe this sometimes, but there are still businesses and organizations that don't want to get involved in social media and social networking. There are still people who think, oh, that's just fooling around and it's not real work.

Yesterday, a number of us here at David went to a presentation luncheon. There we met a guy who did some work for Company X. He said the owner/head honcho didn't see the value in Twitter. I didn't press him on the specifics of the dismissal nor whether said big boss also disparaged Facebook Pages or other social media engagement, but I would assume so since their only Facebook presence was a Fan Page.

The worst thing about this to me was that Company X is completely the kind of business that predominantly appeals to younger markets and is a totally social experience. It wasn't about buying a product or a widget or a B2B offering. It's 100% consumer driven, a fun place to go and have a good time. (No more hints.)

So I have to wonder about this mindset. When Microsoft, Yahoo!, Dell Computers, and so many other big name corporations can see the value in such services, why don't small and mid-size businesses? The initial costs are low and, while the work flow demands a near constant monitoring and presence, the returns can be far greater than traditional advertising outlays.

A perfect example is Dell. During a recession economy, when even retail stalwarts like Wal-Mart put up disappointing holiday sales numbers, Dell managed to turn a tidy $1 million profit. And they did it through "exclusive" deals announced only on Twitter.

Here's the set up. Dell hooks themselves up with a Twitter page. They post special deals there, sometimes limited time only coupon codes, once in a while print coupons on short-lived pages. You sign up for Twitter and begin following Dell (or just go to their profile page when you're in the market for a computer), and you can order online with 15% or 30% discounts. That simple. This doesn't really involve Dell creating a new business model. It's the same exact same message they have all the time anyway; they've just swapped megaphones.

This is something any organization could do, and for a smaller business with a lower price purchase item, like tickets, it could drive sales through the roof.

Or you set yourself up a Facebook page, and every so often you put up a coupon link on your wall, or you send out a message exclusively to those who've become fans of your business page. The feeling of getting special treatment -- even if anyone else can sign up and get it too -- is a big motivator for people and that motivator can drive conversions and conversions drive sales.

This is Business 101 and the fact that those in the corner offices don't get it says a lot about the digital disconnect.

Yes, tons of time wasting and inane chatter take place on Facebook and on Twitter, but the way word of mouth can be harnessed there, can be driven there, can be tracked there, is going to be an increasingly potent weapon in many an organization's online toolkit. That some executives still believe they don't need to engage or that it isn't for their organization is the mark of someone resistant to change.

Here's the short message these execs need to hear: Change is coming. If you don't get out in front or at least try to catch the wave as it's cresting, you won't be surfing for very long.

You'll be sinking.

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Thursday, March 12, 2009

My Dad's Newspaper

Everyone’s been buzzing here in C-town about the Yahoo News article last week predicting the impending death of our local paper. According to the article, the Plain Dealer will be shut or go digital by the end of next year. When I think about the newspaper, my mind automatically wanders to thoughts about my father-in-law. I think about what the newspaper, the printing press and the printed word have meant to him throughout his lifetime.

My father-in-law, Dad to me, worked for many years as a stripper. My husband tells me that he used to get a kick out of telling the other kids at school that his Dad was a stripper. For those of you not familiar with the non-explicit meaning of that word, a stripper was part of the prepress process. In the most simple terms, a stripper’s job was to piece together and position negative or positive film on layout sheets to fit in designated areas of film flat. Stripping – at least by this definition – is nearly extinct. The world has gone digital and today, an entire newspaper page, complete with artwork and graphics, can be created using a computer – exactly as it will appear in print – no stripping required.

Dad’s still in the printing business, but in a completely different role. However, he and the paper have always been connected. Every morning, he gets up, goes to get the paper, has a cup of tea and reads it cover to cover. He spends his morning pulling out the sports section to share with his sons, rifling through the sale fliers, just in case there is something to share with his wife, cutting out interesting tidbits about current events or anything culinary-related for me. Every day, 365 days a year, this is an integral part of his morning routine.

He recently saved the front page of his beloved newspaper for my 10-year old daughter. It was the day President Obama was inaugurated. Dad made her promise to keep it in a safe place and told her he still had the front page from when President Kennedy was assassinated. He told her to treasure it because it would be a little piece of history someday. I don’t think he realized that statement would have a double meaning quite so soon.

I wonder what will happen to his morning routine without that paper. The paper and Dad have a history – a connection of sorts. It has been a part of his livelihood and a part of his every-day life for over 40 years. He’s recently taken to text messaging. I wonder if he’ll read his newspaper online. . .

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Thursday, March 5, 2009

Twitter Versus Facebook

Everyone's abuzz about the new changes to Facebook profiles and pages. What does it mean? How will it change things? Can it stop Twitter?

The questions are everywhere, on every blog and in the media.

But why should Facebook want to stop Twitter? Why should Twitter want to kill Facebook? Why are the two even remotely considered similar?

Too often, social media platforms and services are looked upon as if they were engaged in a zero sum game in which there can only be one winner. What gets lost in this brouhaha is the basic notion that often these sites serve very different functions and attract a very different clientele. Or that users like and want both services to coexist. Often I find myself twittering about something on Facebook, and our company page (The David Group) includes an RSS feed of our twittering and this very blog.

In something like a tongue-in-cheek manner, I've suggested that the difference between Facebook and Twitter is that the former is the longest-running high school/college/coworker reunion and the latter is like the world's largest, most sprawling cocktail party (in fact I said so on Twitter). In that regard, they have their similarities, but that only extends as far as the conversation.

You and your twitter followers and those you follow are like one corner or one room of this party. Maybe you follow celebrities like Shaq or Rick Sanchez and they pass through your gathering with their comments, but as a whole your conversation remains dominated by you and your Twitter friends. Jokes are made, pictures are passed around, links are exchanged, and everyone gabs away to their heart's content.

Facebook shares much of these qualities only in so much as it is a social organization where people can make jokes and pass around pictures and links and so forth. But Facebook has had the capacity for blogging (Facebook Notes) for some time and no one has suggested that Facebook would kill Blogger or WordPress or Xanga or any of the other various blogging portals. Likewise, Facebook shares a lot in common with its unrulier older sibling MySpace, yet no one suggests that the two are locked in a dance of death. Facebook has places to upload and save your photos and your videos, while Twitter is the barest of apps.

Twitter is considerably more limited than Facebook, partly because of its 140 character max, partly because you can only change your home page so much, partly because there is as yet no advertising on Twitter, and partly because there are so many associated apps and ways you can Twitter when you're not on the computer. People happen to like those aspects of Twitter, even people who also happen to be on Facebook. I myself have three different Twitter accounts and they each serve their own specific function. I have my cellphone updated so I can post different things to different Twitter feeds. (Note to Twitter, by the way, it'd be great if there were any easy way to set up multiple accounts to one mobile number even if you didn't have a smart phone.)

But Twitter is limited and people like its simplicity. Yes, you can share photos on twitter, but what you're sharing is a link to a photo hosted somewhere else. Twitter, by its very nature, is about being linked to the web itself. Twitter is a way through the internet; Facebook is its own destination.

So whither all this noise about Facebook's new real-time updates being a Twitter killer? Wasn't Facebook's attempt to buy Twitter proof positive that they see the service as a long-term player? They do, and you should too. You can have both; there's room enough online for even more than two dominant social media, social networking platforms. If you've only got one, you're only seeing half of the picture.

So get on Facebook, get on Twitter, get on some kind of blog. There's no reason to only try one approach to engaging with people online. Plus, sometimes one service may be down and you may have a message you simply have to get out to the world. Multiple bullhorns give you the ultimate message flexibility.

Then, like me and others, you can blog about your Twittering, Twitter about your blogging, and have it all show up on Facebook too.

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