Exploring Social Networking Sites

As appeared in the Presence Pointers column of the February 2009 issue of “Business Watch” magazine.

Last month we started down the path to social media and setting into motion some tactics that could make 2009 an unbelievable year for you by going over some of the Social Media Networking Fundamentals. Now, it really gets interesting as we roll up our sleeves and take a gander at some of the venues to explore.

Ala Carte

First, it’s important to remember that social media takes commitment and time. Secondly, it’s important to understand that social media isn’t one-size fits all. You need to look at the social media offerings as an ala carte menu, not a buffet. Carefully select what interests you and makes the most sense for you, rather than trying to follow the pack or filling up your plate with everything in sight.

With that said, one way to size up social media venues is based on how active or passive they may be. I’ll point out some examples here to give you an idea, but even the most passive venues still aren’t “set and forget.” Also keep in mind that I’m just providing a few appetizers of highly popular venues that span across a number of different types, but the list of venues and types is nearly endless.

Going Old School

Online forums often get overlooked or not counted by some as being social media or Web 2.0, but I still think they served as the birth for social media. Forums may exist as a site or as part of a site. You’ll quickly recognize their familiar “message board” format where people post a message within a specific category, and then other members and the original poster begin a back-and-forth conversation.

In this case, there aren’t specific examples because it really comes down to niche. The niche may be topical (e.g., business, hobby, etc.), geographical (e.g., city, state, region, etc.), or just about anything else or combination (e.g., condo home buyers in Madison). Forum participation can become time consuming, but it is something that you can also control fairly easily.

Share and Share Alike

Other popular social media venues revolve around things like images and video. Flickr.com and YouTube.com are top examples. Here you create an account and upload photos or videos to share with others. These can be fairly passive venues that provide additional online exposure. And if you have limited storage space or bandwidth for your Web site, you get these other sites to take the hit for you when you embed them into your site.

Videos can be especially useful, such as creating demonstrations or how-to guides. People interested in your topic might come across your video, watch it, and then click over to your Web site for more information. These venues can be more active if you decide to participate on the sites by responding to comments and questions or in communicating with others, but this isn’t a requirement.

Personal and Professional Networking

Facebook.com, MySpace.com, and LinkedIn.com are big venues for networking. While the first two tend more toward the personal and the latter toward professional, the lines are pretty gray. Effectiveness of these venues requires a bit more active participation. They each have their own style, flavor, demographics — though that’s blurring more and more as well — and rules. As a first step, I’d still recommend getting started on LinkedIn if you haven’t already (refer back to the June ’08 issue if you have it or pop over to the Instillery and read “Are You Linked In?”).

As I mentioned, this is just barely scratching the surface. Unfortunately, there is no way to go into an in-depth discussion here about specific strategies as they really must be tailored to your needs.

Tips for Social Success

  • Visit social venues and get a lay of the land, how they feel for you and how they might work for your needs.
  • Determine how much time you think they may take (then double that) and how much time you think you can put into them.
  • Consider different options, such as joining and actively participating, or online advertising through these venues.
  • Read and understand the rules for the venue, especially as it may pertain to commercial activity or business, but also get a feel for the unwritten rules of etiquette.
  • Turn back to January’s article for a reminder of some of the general basics.

Social Media Networking Fundamentals

As appeared in the Presence Pointers column of the January 2009 issue of “Business Watch” magazine.

As we kick off a new year, I thought this would be a good time to open our horizons to new frontiers. What hopefully makes this particularly exciting is that it isn’t dependent on how elaborate or simple your Web site is, or in fact, whether you even have a site yet. For those who have been feeling behind the times because they haven’t made the leap onto the Web yet, this is a way to get out on the leading edge.

What I’m talking about is social networking. You may have also heard related phrases like “Web 2.0” or “social media.” In fact, if you created your LinkedIn profile after the “Are You Linked In?” article — way to go — then you’ve already been dipping your toe in the social waters.

LinkedIn is a great place to get started, but it’s really just one example. For 2009, lets broaden our horizons and get out and socialize a little bit more. Remember, this is something that can be explored even if you don’t have a site.

Socializing Requires Participation

Wallflowers, just like those old junior-high dances, just showing up probably isn’t going to get you very far. Fortunately, unlike those dances, the Web provides a little extra buffer that might make it a bit easier to put ourselves out there. This analogy isn’t meant to limit this discussion to online dating. The social Web carries huge ramifications for business as well.

This idea of participation is absolutely critical, which is why it is the first thing on our list. It is so critical, that without it, don’t bother. The social Web (even for business) is all about connecting, communicating and interacting with others.

Interact, Don’t Advertise

While we are on this topic, let’s make one distinction very clear. There are social media and networking sites that you may want to explore. Some of these may provide opportunity to advertise to their members or visitors, but that is simply online marketing that happens to target social networking sites. Interaction isn’t about advertising, but participating in conversations, sharing thoughts, ideas, concerns, advice, photos, video, etc.

Even when you are a community member, it’s critical to understand the type of interaction and communication involved. Don’t view social networking as an advertising channel where your message is “Look at us, aren’t we great! Hey, I’ve got something to sell.” Rather than viewing the other members as customers, see them as peers, around which you both share a mutual interest. And no, that mutual interest probably isn’t you, and if it is, I’d still recommend focusing on the broader interest around which your company is involved — the type of products or services you offer, or their purpose.

Along these same lines, focus on being genuine. Don’t pretend to be someone else, especially one of your customers who just can’t stop raving about you. If you head down this path, understand that you won’t be alone, and like those before you, will probably be discovered and may well undue much more than just your social networking efforts.

Next time, I’ll introduce you to some of the popular and important social networking and media sites that you might want to consider getting involved with.

Quick Tips to Social Success

  • Set aside time to participate within the community regularly.
  • Be genuine and transparent about who you are or the company you represent.
  • Don’t use this as a sales channel — it’s about rapport and relationships.
  • Some community members will be skeptical and some may launch attacks at you or question your motives. Be open and graceful to their concerns, but don’t launch counter attacks or become defensive, rather, let your actions and time prove otherwise.
  • Social networking online is just like offline … the more you give, the more you’ll get out of it.

Are You Linked In?

As appeared in the Presence Pointers column of the June 2008 issue of “Business Watch” magazine.

The Web has opened up a whole new world for individuals and businesses alike. Today, anyone can have a Web presence, can access information, can make purchases, and can interact with others online. This last bit is particularly exciting though.

Who would have ever guessed that the Web, a tool that allows us to do all these things without ever having to leave our homes or offices or come face to face with another individual, would become a major social arena? Yet the “social media” sector is growing in leaps and bounds, connecting people of all ages and interests.

Social media stretches across many different areas and is nearly endless, with new venues appearing every day. For now, let’s focus on one that could be very important for strengthening and furthering your career or business. There isn’t enough space here to do much more than scratch the surface, so let’s just touch on three key aspects anyone can use to take advantage of LinkedIn.com, a free online networking site for professionals.

Connect & Reconnect

LinkedIn is all about relationships. The foundation that LinkedIn is built upon is in connecting with people you know and meet, and reconnecting with others from your past work and educational experiences. Once signed up, you can search for names of people you know, search by employer, college or university, groups and associations, or even upload your contacts to cross-reference against LinkedIn’s member database.

If you are the type that has a hard time networking, even though you know you should, this could be just what you are looking for. What’s powerful is that once you are connected with someone, you can see who else they are connected with. LinkedIn provides an unprecedented view into the direct and indirect connections we have with others. Whether you are looking for someone to connect with for a new job or a company to partner with, LinkedIn can help illuminate a path that might be more powerful and easier than trying to get through the front door.

Be Seen

LinkedIn gives members’ a lot of control over their information. Members can elect what information to provide, and determine whether that information is public or just visible to those they have connected with. While everyone needs to determine this for themselves, the more information provided and made public, the more valuable LinkedIn will be as a tool. The more public information there is, the greater the chances that your profile may show up in searches, increasing the chances of making a valuable connection with someone else.

Reach Out

Like all social media venues, participating and interacting with others is an important element to LinkedIn. The easiest way is through the Answers section, which allows members to ask and answer questions. This interaction may lead to new connections and also serve as a way to demonstrate your knowledge and expertise.

If you are just getting your feet wet in the social media arena, then LinkedIn is an excellent place to begin. Its professional focus makes it beneficial to individuals and companies alike. There is so much more to LinkedIn that just couldn’t even be touched on here, so I encourage everyone to visit the site to learn more. Once you start using LinkedIn, you may find it so useful and important that you’ll want to add the URL to your page to your business card! See you on LinkedIn, www.linkedin.com/in/brianrbrown.

Maximize your LinkedIn experience

  • Add as much of your work history and education as you feel comfortable.
  • Make as much of your information publicly available as you feel comfortable.
  • Participate in the different areas of LinkedIn and be sure to revisit the site at least once a week to see what is happening within your network.
  • Be sure to add links back to your own website and blog if you have them. And select “Other” when adding them which will allow you to change the default “My website/company/blog” text to the name of your company or whatever you would like.
  • Be sure to customize your “public page” URL with your name or other text that others may search for you with. Not only does it make it easier to tell to others, it may further help your page to show up in search results.
  • Checkout the “Profile Views” to get an idea on who may have been checking out your profile.

Web Analytics: Measuring Success By the Click

As appeared in the Presence Pointers column of the December 2008 issue of “Business Watch” magazine.

Is your Web site successful? Was this year more successful than last year; this month more or less successful than last month? These are important questions to try to answer. If you sell online, success might be based on selling more. This may be a start, but it may not be the entire picture. If you don’t sell online, this may seem even more daunting.

The beauty of the Web is that you can gather and measure more information to answer these and many other questions much easier than you can in the offline world. For those who feature both a brick-and-mortar location and an online presence, there are even powerful ways to connect the dots between the two.

Why Measure?

Measuring site performance is important because it helps understand what works and what doesn’t. It helps determine where to focus efforts and resources. What days of the week or month does the site get the most visitors, and perhaps more importantly, sales? And are the two correlated in any way? What other sites send traffic? Are people finding what they are looking for on the site?

The right tools, approach, and a little planning can even turn your Web site into a tool for measuring the effectiveness of your offline marketing. For instance, which papers or magazines send the most traffic? Is the Sunday paper more effective than any other day?

How to Measure?

There is a myriad of performance tools you can tap into. At the most basic level is log file analyzers and basic Web stats programs. These provide a basic glimpse into various metrics, but for more useful information, you need to step up to a Web analytics package.

Web analytics packages run the gamut from highly complex to rather simple tools, and from several thousand dollars to free. In fact, one of the most popular and fairly powerful tools on the market is offered for free from Google.

The complexities of implementing Google Analytics on a Web site may vary. Most sites though can probably get by with simply copying and pasting in a bit of code into each page (for static sites) or into the page templates (for dynamic sites).

What to Measure?

As you’ve gathered, there is an endless supply of metrics and data points that can be examined. What these are and which ones should be monitored vary from site to site and may depend on whether it is a large site or a small one, ecommerce or otherwise, and so on.

There are some metrics that are universally important though. If you are just getting started with analytics, then these are the best ones to start looking at first. Start by looking at the visitor patterns — what days are high days for traffic versus low days? Then look to see the makeup of how visitors get to your site — what percentage of traffic is direct versus search engines versus other sites (referral traffic)? Then look at which pages get viewed the most? Then look at the keywords that send search engine users to your site.

That should keep you plenty busy for awhile. As you become more comfortable with your analytics package, you can start to drill down into each of these areas (and others) in more detail. You can even find out what keywords drove traffic from the Yahoo search engine on the second Tuesday to a specific page if you’d like.

Web analytics can be extremely powerful and is a tool that every site owner should tap into. Like any tool though, wielded improperly, it can do more harm than good. It’s easy to draw correlations in data that aren’t there. Web analytics tools are less about providing answers, and more about providing information to help answer questions, and often, identify new questions to ask.

Maximizing Measurements

  • Double check any assumptions made from the data collected.
  • Don’t make correlations or connections between data that isn’t there.
  • Use the analytics package and your site to test theories.
  • Pick a metric to track over time, identify the direction you want it to move, then work to make it happen.
  • Always look at the data from different angles and perspectives, looking for patterns and trends.

Are You Accessible? – Accessible Web Design

As appeared in the Presence Pointers column of the October 2008 issue of “Business Watch” magazine.

What has always fascinated me about the Web isn’t all the graphics, images, sounds, and videos; it’s the ability to access all kinds of information. Just about anything you could ever want to know is often just a few clicks away. That’s pretty incredible. All that other stuff is just icing on the cake.Yet for some people, the access that many of us now take for granted, still seems like a distant dream. Believe it or not, I’m not talking about people in far away countries who don’t have the technology to access the Web or who may be prohibited from or limited in their access. I’m talking about people right here who may even be your neighbors.

What Is Accessibility?

In regard to the Web, accessibility refers to uninhibited access to information and in interacting with and navigating a Web site. Confused? Under a narrow definition, this typically refers to users who have some form of disability. This might be blindness or vision impairment, but also deafness or hearing impairment, or motor skills impairments.

But a broader definition that some of us in the community like to adhere to include everyone and anyone. While this might still be based on a person’s physical abilities or limitations, it might also include someone without any of these challenges, but who may be challenged in other ways – perhaps by a small laptop screen or Web-enabled mobile phone.

In either case, accessibility is something that every Web site owner needs to become aware of. Target just settled a class action lawsuit regarding the accessibility of Target.com in relation to visually impaired users – to the tune of $6 million. It’s time accessibility became a priority.

Why Is Accessibility Important?

Let’s set aside the notion of, “because it’s the right thing to do.” The real question is, “why would you turn away any customer?” When you think about it, the Web could serve as a great asset to those who experience any of these challenges. I know how challenging it is just trying to pick out cold medicine even when I can see all the boxes and read all the labels.

Now imagine if you were blind. How challenging must it be to go shopping even for everyday items? Imagine being able to go online to shop and have your purchases delivered to you. Just having that as a viable option must be rather empowering.

There are assistive technologies, such as screen readers that vocalize the content of a Web page, that help those with various impairments to use computers and the Web. Unfortunately, the vast majority of Web sites present far too many barriers even for these tools. So while the technology is there, many sites are way behind.

Understand that many of these challenges are also prohibitive to mobile browsers, which is a large and quickly growing market. Or realize there is a very large, aging population that will be facing increasing vision and dexterity issues simply due to age. And last time I introduced you to search engine optimization, or SEO. You might like to know that search engine spiders often face the same accessibility challenges, so the more accessible your site, the more SEO friendly your site.

If I was Target, I’d go out of my way to develop the best, most accessible Web site around. I’d become the go-to site when it comes to ease of use, tapping into this under-served market while every other site tries to catch up.

Everything that is done to improve accessibility is beneficial to all users. It’s a no-brainer.

Tips Toward Developing Accessible Web Sites

  • Use alt attributes on significant, non-purely-decorative images.
  • Use HTML elements properly (headings, lists, etc.).
  • Use CSS and table-less design to structure Web pages.
  • Use textual links instead of images and be sure the anchor text is descriptive, rather than “click here.”
  • Provide no-script alternatives to script-based functioning, Flash and AJAX.
  • Provide alternative navigation to jump to key content areas on Web pages.