Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Charities Online

If you have some time and you fancy yourself quite a trivia buff, go and visit Freerice.com, the well-established charity challenge. Originally just a vocab exercise paired with donations of rice to third world nations, Freerice.com has branched out into other subjects to test, such as math and history, has lured more users and has become a model of online giving.

Founded in 2007 by John Breen and donated to the UN World Food Program in March 2009, Free Rice peaked in its viral visitors in the first year, getting some 500,000 visitors daily. While those numbers have dropped with time, the site still does a brisk business in unique daily visitors and in food donations.

Using sponsor banners that appear on the site with each correct answer, players build up a store of rice, 10 grains at a time, which is then purchased by the banner ad sponsors and donated to the UN for distribution to countries with famine epidemics. Over the last 18 months, Free Rice users and sponsors have donated over 60 Billion grains of rice.

And that's part of the appeal of online charities. I myself was a regular at FreeRice.com for several days when I first discovered the site. It didn't take long to build up a significant amount of rice, and with a minimal effort you could do some good. Online charities are growing into the social media and internet sphere just like every other organization. Part of what makes these charties so effective is the rapididty with which you can join in as well as their viral nature.

Simply put, the Web is just too big for any one person to know of or even be aware of everything that is out there. Viral campaigns are aptly named because they flare up, sweeping through the internet, only to die down for a while before being fanned alive once more. Every so often, a new batch of people will discover the site and email invites will begin to appear in my inbox, and I return to FreeRice.com to play some more. And invite others to play who might not have heard of FreeRice.com or who, like me, have forgotten about it.

With the expansion and participation of social media, this can be a match made in heaven. Fans of various game applications spend more than enough time playing Scrabble or Mafia Wars that harnessing something they like to do with something that benefits others is a shrewd move. Into the fray we have movers and shakers like these 26 Twitter Charities, or you could consider this list of 50 Social Media charities from sites around the 'net or if Facebook is your primary place there are these great apps. You could even consider looking into experiments such as Twestivals and Twollars.

Part of what makes social media and social networking an interesting, fun and helpful place to be is that people engage there just as they would in their away from the keyboard lives. Being involved in making the world a better place is something intrinsic in most people and most of us have some kind of shortlist of charities or causes we believe in and want to help. Social media is a great place to harness that power and to connect with others who have the same interests and concerns. What social media can do for the business side of things can find its altruistic side as well.

If your organization is involved in traditional giving, but you've been considering a social network push for some time, why not combine these efforts? Consider becoming a sponsor to one or more online efforts or even starting your own socially charitable hub. Give your users a small game or application that lets them interact with you and your charity and you may have a recipe for success. Plus, it's a great way to boost your name recognition while reallocating your charitable donation dollars, giving you a double bang for the buck.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Social Media Security

Have you ever signed up for a service like online banking or bill paying or created an account and there was a selection of "security" questions in case you lost or forgot your password?

Have you ever filled out a questionnaire on Facebook like 44 Things About Me?

Is your family tree online somewhere like Geni.com or Genealogy.com?

The ongoing and increasing trend of sharing information online whether through quizzes or just the generalized oversharing that can happen on Twitter is leading toward a security perfect storm. Data mining from various public personae and profiles and too common questions online means you don't even need a password cracker to hack into someone's account. Just patience and savvy.

A perfect example of this came during the 2008 Presidential election when Veep candidate Sarah Palin's Yahoo! email account was hacked after a resourceful search online:

The individual, known on the blog post as Rubico, said that he was able to determine that Palin met her husband Todd in high school, along with her date of birth and zip code from Internet searches on Wikipedia and Google. Altogether, the hacker said that the process took no more than 45 minutes by experimenting with different word combinations until deriving at the correct word order.

Now think carefully over the various places you've set up accounts. Do any of them have a password reset feature that allows you to select from a list of four or five security questions? Have you ever filled out an online family tree that includes your mother's maiden name? If you've answered any number of fun online questionnaires from your friends, have you compromised your security? Plus, the average password is so average that lists circulate online. Add that to social media sharing, and if you haven't been hacked, maybe it's only a matter of time.

Phishing scams, too, are starting to become more and more prevalent on social networking sites because of their growing popularity. Phishing involves sending what appear to be legitimate emails from trusted organizations such as banks or eBay or Amazon.com requesting passwords or stating that passwords or other sensitive information needs to be "verified" or "confirmed."

Compromising your security can be as easy as finding a profile on Facebook, scrolling through the list of friends, then creating a fake profile with the same name as one of the friends. A "friend request" from this fake profile that includes a message like "Hey, Facebook suspended my other account, so now I have to make a new one," will be accepted at face value by most users. Once you've friended these scammers, everything you do and say can be parsed for information.

Still feel like announcing to the world your upcoming vacation plans?

And individuals aren't the only ones susceptible to getting hacked in easy ways like this. Go to a person's info page on Facebook, write down their email and you have one half of the info needed to log in as that person. Enough good guesses at their password and any pages they administer for businesses are compromised as well.

So not only users, but businesses need to consider what kind of social media security they want to have in place. Admins and superusers need to take more stringent security measures than average ones, but every member of a businesses social media team (and all employees of a business on/in social media) need to be careful not to compromise security.

A few ground rules are helpful:

  • Differing sites need differing passwords. And update passwords regularly, avoiding obvious choices.
  • Never follow an email link to a service you normally use and provide passwords (go to the main site and navigate to what's needed from there).
  • Never tweet, post or otherwise write about sensitive company information online.
  • And consider carefully when you're posting information that might overlap somewhere else.

The important thing to always remember online is that pretty much once it's out there, it's out there forever. Think before you type, think after you type and think again before you hit enter.

Now go have fun.

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Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Social Web Futures

The internet and social media have been abuzz for some time now after Jeremiah Owyang, a senior analyst at Forrester Research and all around social media darling, released his analysis of where he believes social media will be going in the next five years. While predictions of the future are generally hard to pin down (something Owyang makes crystal clear), the good folks at Destination CRM encapsulate his five overlapping stages as such:

  1. The era of social relationships: [M]id-1990s, people signed up for online profiles and connected with their friends to share information.
  2. The era of social functionality: As it exists today, social networking ... can support a broader array of what Owyang calls "social interactive applications." However, identities are essentially disconnected silos within individual sites.
  3. The era of social colonization: By late 2009 ... OpenID and Facebook Connect will ... allow individuals to integrate their social connections ... blurring the lines between networks and traditional sites.
  4. The era of social context: In 2010, sites will begin to recognize personal identities and social relationships to deliver customized online experiences. Social networks will become the "base of operation for everyone's online experiences."
  5. The era of social commerce: Brands will serve community interests and grow based on community advocacy as users continue to drive innovation in this direction.

A handy chart has also been making the rounds:

Let us consider some of this for a while.

And while we do, let me share with you an anecdote. At my house, we don't watch a lot of television. Busy lives, a very entertaining child, a preference for reading books and magazines and a healthy dose of online media consumption all equal a thin diet of TV programming. For this reason, we don't have cable. Instead, for years we got by with rabbit ear antennas. The switch to digital meant we needed an analog to digital converter box (yes, our TV is that old), but it also meant we needed an upgrade on our antenna.

To Best Buy I went. First, I purchased the smallest antenna I could find, reasoning that digital signals would be stronger than analog. Not so very much. Our eight strong analog signals covering the networks, PBS, some locals and Univision (best fĂștbol coverage, bar none) were reduced to four stations. Back to the store, a return, a stronger, pricier antenna. Home again, we're up to six stations, but still not NBC or the local PBS.

At this point, I changed tactics. Hopping online, I went to Best Buy's website and began searching antennas. Finding them, I began reading customer reviews. Gleaning tips from these, I Googled the antenna most users seemed to rate highly and I read more reviews.

Armed with information, I returned to the store, bought a roof mounted antenna plus everything I needed to secure it and run a coax line down to the house. In a little over an hour, I installed the much pricier, best antenna the store sold.

Twenty five channels.

What's important, though, is the process. See how many steps I could have cut from this process, how many trips to the store and experiments with the merchandise?

The solution was found through a very rudimentary kind of social web activity. Burned by claims on the antenna's boxes, I trusted perfect strangers' advice over the manufacturer and marketer promises. Now imagine that instead of going online and Googling or going to Best Buy's website, imagine a fully integrated social media experience.

Let's pretend Facebook is still the dominant player five years down the road. You want to buy a new antenna, a lawnmower, a car -- anything. You log in to your account that is a hybridized browser (think Flock at this early stage) and social media portal. Instead of typing what you're doing now, you type, I plan on buying a new television. Anyone have any advice?

The social media platform you're on scours not only the standard destinations like Best Buy for specs and purchasing options, it also scrolls through your online friends' internet accounts searching for what they've ever said about televisions. Have they rated a TV at bestbuy.com? This futurized Facebook will pull that up. Expand that search out a little. LinkedIn can show you the friends of friends through a web of connections. In the future, your frame of reference can expand outward through friends of friends for anything. Have any of your friends' friends ever rated televisions?

With users opting for one consistent online ID or user persona, all of this data can be collated and delivered. Now instead of relying on dubious advertising claims or the words of strangers, how about the advice of friends, acquaintances and relatives? Who are you more likely to listen to?

Things like this are already taking shape. The iPhone app SnapTell lets you take a picture of the cover of books, CDs, DVDs and tons of other products from anywhere, then searches the web and brings back reviews from Amazon, Goodreads, Wikipedia, Google shopping and so on. Find a book in the store, but thirty bucks seems too steep a price? Pull out your phone, and what do you know? Barnes & Noble has it for $19.95 with five dollar shipping and handling.

In the future, you'll take a picture of something and your contacts will chime in as well. Anyone you know a fan of the author of that thick historical novel? Facebook friends who belong to the fan group will let you know. Does this Xbox game live up to the hype? Your brother-in-law on Twitter doesn't think so. Should I apply for this position? A friend of a friend works there and loves it. Where should you go to dinner? Your niece in chef school has been tearing up the reviews on Yelp.com and she knows the real best sushi place in town.

Again, of course, you have to remember that social media is nothing more than a cataloged, accessible document of word of mouth. You could ask around to find out which game you should buy, which diner you should patronize, which author seems to have lost the knack for solid story telling. But in the future, social media will do the asking around for you. When you want to learn about something, it'll be your friends and followers who will advise you first.

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