Quit building websites

I had the opportunity to speak at the 15th annual NARMS Spring Conference last month. It was a workshop on using social media to leverage a membership with the association. Check out the agenda; my slides and workshop recording are linked up there. (Sunday, April 18 1:00pm)

Over a month has passed and I still have one question a participant asked, playing over and over in my head. It went something like;

I don’t have the time to wax philosophically about the retail marketing industry. Why do I need a blog?

I answered his question as I do anytime someone tells me they don’t need a blog or have time to write a blog. The short answer goes something like this: Your blog is your web site and your web site is your blog. Quit making the distinction.

Your primary audience is now a machine
It used to be you marketed your web site to customers and other human beings. Now, you market to search engines (SEM — Search Engine Marketing) as most searches now start on Google or Bing. Your primary audience in the search engine and your end audience is a C-Suite executive. In order to be a visible business, you have to show up first on the search engines and then punch your way out of that to a human being. If your website can’t do that, you just don’t make the short list of vendors.

It turns out that blogging software like WordPressor MovableType is set up to easily work with search engines by being SEO and SEM-friendly. It is also easy to quickly and prolifically add optimized content to your website. In fact, if you go out to the Internet right now, it is hard to tell a “blog” from a “web site” any more as many “blogs” function primarily as CMS (Content Management Systems) ICC/Decision Services (iccds.com) is one such site. My employer’s web site Rivershark Inc (rivershark.com) is another example.

It’s all about the keywords
How do potential clients describe what you do? In plain language, please. For example, a plumber does not “provide a comprehensive whole-house fluid distribution and waste removal solution.” He unclogs drains and toilets, installs faucets and fixes leaks. When determining keywords, think like a potential clients trying to find a solution to their problem in ways they identify the problem.

Everything you write for your website — from press releases to about pages to articles — focuses on those keywords.

Adding content rapidly and frequently is critical
A search engine indexes pages, not web sites. Once your services, about us and contact us page is indexed, that pretty much it. With nothing left to do with your site, the search engine indexing robot moves on to your competitors’ web sites. And the sites that keep adding content and keeping the search engine indexing robots busy by adding new stuff wins. The easiest way to jolt a search engine robot out of dormancy is to add new stuff.

And you don’t have to wax philosophically about your industry. You can share your opinion on a recent news story that affects you. Your can write a news release. You can welcome a new client. Whatever you do, focus on keywords and keep the content flowing. Building your web site on top of blogging software allows you to do that easily, all the while creating content that search engines know how to process quickly. 100-300 words is all you need for most articles.

But stepping away from the defining what is a web site and what is a blog is the first major step.

Originally published at GerardMcLean.com

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How social media should be used at a conference. It’s not how you think

really comfy chairs at the NSCAA

Really comfy chairs at the 2010 NSCAA

I have been to several conferences already this year and plan on going to several more. With the exception of one where it was part of my contractual arrangement to tweet and populate the social media spaces, I did not tweet or take photos and send up to twitpic, live-blog any particular workshop or do a video about my experience. Instead, I just attended, met lots of people face-to-face, had conversations, attended the workshops and really engaged myself in the experience around me. And after a few hours, I did not miss myself tweeting and taking photos.

And I have only two observations about conferences.

1. Every conference should have a meeting/networking area with really, really comfortable leather chairs. Really. It is amazing how rich a conversation becomes when each person is able to sit on a throne.

2. Social media should be all over conferences, but not primarily generated by the attendees. The days of hoping the attendees will tweet out about your conference and pithy quotes the speaker just said is about at its end. When attendees are tweeting the last thing they heard, they are missing the next thing that is probably more important.

That does not mean conferences should quit using social media. Far from it. It means the conference should take more ownership in representing themselves in the social media spaces. Send up tweets about the workshops in advance, link up videos of speakers doing interviews before and after their presentations, link their agenda to twitter hashtags to give the attendees “hooks” for feedback, encourage attendees/speakers to write feedback blog posts that you can point back to and send out tweets by the conference staff on main points during the keynote and general sessions (kinda like what E!’s Red Carpet does during the Oscars, Golden Globe, etc.)

But encourage attendees to be present first.

And being present means networking in real life with people around them and listening to and thinking about the material being presented to them in workshops and keynotes. It means freeing up your attendees to participate in the live event, while planning also to satisfy the curiosity of those outside looking in. It should not mean a robotic parroting of quotes during speeches.

And ultimately, it means creating enough excitement that those who are following along on your blog, through twitter, LinkedIn or Facebook are wishing they had gone and will plan to next year.

Social media for conferences is all about increasing participation at your live event.

Originally published at GerardMcLean.com

Why you lost me as a customer. Do you even really care?

Name and product was removed to protect the guilty.

I think too many companies just walk away from a provider without giving them any real feedback as to why. It is really, really hard to lose me as a customer. Once a system is in place and working — unless there is a major feature shift somewhere else — it is always a hassle to change. Whether they want it or not, I tend to write a quick email, letting them know exactly why they lost me as a customer.

Here is my email. Is it too direct? I don’t think so, but weigh in if you disagree.

I tried to renew everything on Friday, but nobody was answering my live chat emails, your system was spitting back every other login as not being correct, you said my records did not match — even the previous one — and then I got to thinking:

We don’t really sell the type of product your service supports anymore. And, if we ever did in the future, there is so much more competition that is would not be that hard for some over-eager salesman to walk my paperwork through the system. Consumers aren’t as knowledgeable about privacy and security as they once were, so the bar is a whole lot lower than when we first starting using your company.

My corporation has not moved in the sixteen years we’ve been in business. If I was to define a corporation that is easy to find, easy to verify and easy to trust, it would be us. Yet, you have made the renewal process so egregiously cumbersome by asking us to verify everything again to a minute detail that it is just easier to do nothing.

You guys used to be great, but what the heck happened? You are just kinda average like everybody else.

So, not seeing any real competitive advantage, I just decided — after trying for about three hours to get this renewed — that I would just not.

Thank you for being there for our last six renewals over a span of twelve years. Good luck with everything you are doing in the future.

G.

PS Please don’t try to win me back. It is too late for that as I have already decided to move forward without you. Please take me off all your mailing lists and do not send me sales material.

Originally published at GerardMcLean.com

Why boomers are hesitant to adopt social media tools for serious business

Originally published at GerardMcLean.com

I ran out of coffee filters the other day. Not a big deal, I’ll just hike to Kroger and get some more. When I got there, I saw the empty peghook that once held my filters. Moreover, there was a red tag on the hook informing me that this product would be discontinued.

Here’s why this is a big deal. A few years ago, the 53rd automatic drip coffee maker I have ever purchased in my life, died. Just quit. Arrgghh, there has to be a better way. And there was. Melitta makes this carafe and cone set that only requires hot water and gravity to make coffee. The only wrinkle is that it also requires a size 6 cone filter. But, since Kroger carried it, not a big deal. I adopted my new system. And it was great because it was so simple. It only really required gravity to work. And gravity was free.

Then someone at Kroger decided they were not selling enough #6 filters. And, without asking me, they just quit carrying them.

Amazon.com still sells the #6 and I just bought approximately 2.6 years worth of filters. Until my filters arrive, I am using paper towels to line the cone. In the event Melitta decides to quit selling the #6 cone filter altogether, I know I have 2.6 years to come up with an alternate solution to a perfectly good system. But, what I foolishly adopted outside of the normal 10-cup basket filter automatic drip coffee maker is now showing signs of that death-march to obsolescence. An inferior technology persists because it is ubiquitous.

We get change and new stuff. Really, we do. It excites us. It gets us out of bed every day. But we also have a library of 8mm reels our childhood is on that we can’t watch, a library of 8 track and cassettes our music is on that we can’t hear, a library of VHS tapes our children’s lives are on that we can’t relive and a mountain of Zip Drive cartridges our careers are on that we can’t share or pass on. We’ve seen the result of a system being brought to its knees when a tiny bit of the supply chain becomes obsolete right after we dedicate a large chunk of our lives to it.

We grew up in large families (which is why there are so many of us now clogging the ladder rungs to the top) where everything from dinner to clothes to mom’s attention was a competition with the people you lived with. Most of our families had one car and one income and choices were made based on the supply of resources. We got jobs that promised us work, retirement accounts and free benefits that seemed too good to be true. We took them and squirreled them away, believing that one day they would be gone (turns out we were right.) We’ve lived through and survived at least three recessions and a very large oil embargo. We’ve seen an explosive increase in the divorce rate. In short, we’ve been conditioned to know that free is never unlimited free. Free will run out. Free has a catch. The good times do not last. Commitments are broken every day without apology, remorse or obligation.

And now Twitter and Foursquare want to be the operations in our supply chains, somewhere between service delivery and invoicing. I can see the possibilities for several industries we do work for and it is very, very exciting. But Twitter is free, it has really no reason to be there tomorrow, no obligations, no contract with me.

As I reach for the coffee filters that are no longer there, between boiling the water and lining the cone with carefully folded paper towels, I pause and think, “What if Evan Williams decided to just quit doing Twitter?”

Embrace silly time-wasting activity as a part of being productive

It’s been a couple of months now since the life coaches and go-getters pushed out their brand of RAH RAH RAH and GO! GO! GO! for 2010. We’ve seen folks choose keywords for their life, new resolution for the year, non-resolution for the year, themes instead of resolutions and all sorts of various predictions and start-up dreams, etc.

And very little living. Only doing.

When I worked at a newspaper a long time ago* I spent about 70% of my time wandering around with my cup of coffee, talking with other people in the building; Gary in accounting, Ted, John and MB in editorial art, Jeff in photo and all the print shop and pre-print guys. Before that, when I worked at SPAR Marketing, most of my day was spent wandering around talking to people with my coffee cup. And before that, I did the same thing at Huffy.

And I got a lot done as a result.

But every year during my performance appraisal, my boss of the moment would take the opportunity to chastise and berate me on how much time I wasted walking around, talking to people instead of spending that time at my desk “producing.” And yet, each boss was amazed at my ability to produce a ton of work. No doubt they reasoned that if I could produce this much work walking around socializing, think about how much they could get out of me if I didn’t walk around.**

Here was the secret. What they saw as me wasting time, I saw as gathering stories about what mattered to people. I saw impromptu conversations over a cup of coffee as inspiration for change. I took away their frustrations and ranting as opportunities to solve organizational problems, to remove barriers. I saw my wanderings as keeping in touch with what mattered to people most, what worried them, what gave them fear. When I did “work at my desk” I worked on proposals that solved real problems and helped the organization become more efficient. I presented budget proposals that produced much more than busy work or boondoggles for management. I produced writing that talked to real issues that real people were feeling. The work seemed more real because it connected with real people, not just caricatures or stereotypes.

And that I think is the real value of all this time-wasting social media. To many, it looks like foolin’-around-time. But to those of us who know better, it is the inspiration and fuel of innovation and productivity..

*A long time ago = When the year started with 19
**About half as much, maybe less.

Originally published at GerardMcLean.com

Technology Is Not About Technology

I was researching on some history and came across an article that I had written for a paper version of NARMS Today back in 2005. I thought I would share. I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed re-visiting it.

The week before the NARMS 2005 Conference, I visited my son at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. I am a bit of a newspaper buff, so I grabbed a copy of the Oxford Times at the local gas station and stuffed it in my briefcase, intending to read it on the plane ride to Tucson.

On the plane ride home, after several days of intense NARMSing, I remembered my copy of the Times and pulled it out to read. It was a typical neighborhood newspaper, full of local stories on garage sales, lost cats, high school sports and blurry photos contributed by local residents. It was printed with heavy black ink that smeared on my palms and probably eventually made its way to parts of my face.

But I didn’t care. I immersed myself in the banal stories and took in the heavy smell of ink and paper.
Something about holding a newspaper connects the reader with the stories and photos on a personal level. Then it occurred to me that NARMS.com is a lot like a local newspaper.

Both – local newspapers and NARMS.com – thrive because they are organic and specific. The web site is successful because it is organic. The parts of the website that are most useful are those that connect people to people. NARMS developed it because of core needs of those who were involved in the retail service industry.

NARMS did not set out to create a new product or service but simply to fulfill an existing need in a more efficient way. Many of you remember the dot-com frenzy of nearly a decade ago. Not many of those websites are in business because they sought to create a need instead of filling one that already existed.

NARMS.com is also successful because it is specific. The JobBank and the Recruiter, for example, don’t aspire to be the most searched or hold the greatest number of jobs andprofiles. It is there for one reason — to match retail service reps with retail services companies who need them. Like a local newspaper, NARMS.com has a specific focus and delivers only the tools and information that are most critical for its audience.

To some, it must feel strange for an article about technology to be looking back at what has been called a dead and dying industry; newspapers. But technology does not exist in a vacuum. It exits to serve human beings with organic and specific needs. Absorbing and applying lessons taught by feeling, watching and experiencing an industry that thrives in spite of the onslaught and seduction of “new media” and 24 hour news, helps provide a clear vision for our web-based services to the NARMS membership.

Gerard McLean, President, Rivershark, Inc.

Originally published at GerardMcLean.com

Something serious is rumbling in Social Media

Talk is one thing. Money is quite another.

A couple years ago, this thing called Twitter popped up on the landscape. Sure, it was a lot of fun and pretty much a waste of time. The kids in the company took to it right away and started following each other, tapping out little notes on what they were doing at the time. And they had their Facebook, blogs, Flickr accounts and all sorts of other social media venues they were wasting their time with.

“Let them play,” was the mostly unofficial, official stance many companies took. “At least it keeps them happy and out of my hair.” And every now and again, the bosses would throw these kids a bone, allowing them to speak at a conference or work on a project that involved some social media listening dashboard and other harmless, tech stuff that would amount to nothing. And it would shut the kids up for a while so the bosses could get some real work done.

But then the bosses started noticing that lots of people were on Twitter and Facebook. Lots of folks were interacting with the kids at the keyboards and the kids were becoming the voices of their brands. And the game began changing from one of cheap talk to revenue opportunities being let out the door.

Now there is money to be made collecting, packaging and selling information. Suddenly, social media was no longer a toy. And the walls started to go up around the kids who were the face and voice of the brands. Average Joe could no longer interact with the familiar, casual voice on the other end of a twitter stream. Contracts needed to be signed, releases vetted, HR needed to authorize who could and could not speak at a particular venue.

“The voice of our brand must be aligned with the organization.” “Materials must be pre-approved to ensure no company secrets are revealed during your presentation.” “Legal must approve your tweets to ensure there is not implied contract being made.” And it goes on.

And suddenly — without much fanfare save the deafening sound of large walls falling into place — social media is now a business. And make no mistake about it, a damn serious one. Because social media is no longer just marketing, engagement or customer experience; it is operations. And operations people are deadly, stealthy serious players.

Originally published at GerardMcLean.com

The audience you are not getting because you are focused on your own niche

Here is the ugly truth about American soccer. It is something kids DO, not who they are. Yet many soccer clubs and tournaments focus their marketing and message around the assumption that soccer is central to the players lives and that everything else is ancillary or inconsequential.

The ASAE (American Society of Association Executives) produced the video below for their annual meeting just this past weekend. (It runs a little long, the movie beats you up a little with the message, but pay attention to the subtitles. They are really small, but perhaps the most important part of the whole piece.)

I get it; trade associations connect people together and that was the obvious point. But, the not so obvious point is that all these people who are working at trade associations during the day are spending their nights and weekends with their true passion; music.

We have seen this kind of thing before, but usually the talent is mediocre. But, these folks are darn good! The ASAE not only had the criterion of involving their members, but that the member had to have a high level of skill, proficiency and passion. Brilliant!

What does a harmonica have to do with biodiesel? Nothing except for Joe Jobe. Or a guitar with concrete or paint? For Joe Vickers and Phil Bour, the combination make perfect sense. Railroads and drum kits? Michael Fore makes it work. He probably taps out routines on his desk, driving his co-workers crazy. And there is no hiding the rapture Mike Skiados (ASAE) feels when he plays his guitar.

The Disney movie High School Musical (HSM) was a similar deafening intervention cry from kids, yet few adults paid attention to the underlying message, mostly dismissing it as bubble-gum entertainment. But the kids got it and that is what made the movie “stick.”

Social Media like Facebook gets this concept by allowing members to establish a core identity and then add interests and groups to them. More specialized sites like Meet the Boss, various Ning sites and sites like WePlay.com don’t. Neither do “gardens of brands” like Skittles or Ford. In their world, there is no room for “other interests” and no way to connect the person with them. (As an aside, the WSJ had an interesting article on fans. Worth a read… after you are done with this post and have commented/tweeted, of course.)

Anyone who doesn’t know me is surprised that among my passionate interests are newspapers, old typewriters, literature, photography, coffee, typography, dogs and harmonicas. Computers and soccer come in almost last on the list. Internet is the way I make a living and it is imperative I am knowledgeable and skilled in it, but it is not my passion. In their world, I develop Web-based properties therefore I must be a geek and only care about the latest technology. Sorry. Technology is a tool; no more, no less.

For sports organizations, the random connections that social media reveals is like gold. How many times have you approached a large brand for a sponsorship and gotten, “What does our brand/product have to do with soccer?” If you dig deeper into the social media networks like Facebook, you may well have a stronger answer. Your model is HSM and the ASAE video.

Our advice: Find the connections. The more random and strange, the better. Watch the touchlines and the space between games more intently than the games themselves at your next tournament. What are the kids doing? What are their parents doing? How many questions do your get about a particular topic? Why? Ask questions, observe behaviors. Your next sponsor may be in the non-soccer parts of the game that your sponsor’s target audience is most passionate about.

Note: This post was originally intended for just TourneyCentral, but because the medium here is also the message, we posted this on almost every brand we own. Dogs and soccer? Coffee and soccer? Marketing and soccer? Yeah, it all fits when you start looking hard enough. And, thank you Cindy Butts for the inspiration.

Two things you need to join the social media conversation, no excuses

This post originally appeared on GerardMcLean.com

Whether you see you or your company joining social media with just a blog or a blog, Twitter, Facebook account and fan page or whether you are going to jump in and sign up for everything and be everywhere with Digg, LinkedIn, Ustream, Stickam, Tumblr, FriendFeed, podcasting, an Apple iPhone app to connect all these together, you need two basic tool before you even think about doing any of this.

1. A square avatar
2. A 160 character statement about you or your company.

The Avatar
gm_avatar

An avatar for your personal blog, accounts, etc is fairly straightforward. It is generally your face. Get photographed professionally, don’t mess around with it by putting cause ribbons on it or turning it green in support of this or that. Pose and dress like others would normally see you at a conference or meeting. More often than not, your social media relationships will start online and your avatar — for better or worse — is how people expect to see you in real life. (Or if you want to go different, check out the avatars Sianz draws with a Sharpie®. Ask her to draw you.)

If you are using your company logo as an avatar, that may present some challenges. The avatar on most social media sites is square. A perfect square. Your logo may be long and horizontal. Get it designed to fit a square box.

This doesn’t mean you need to change the logo, but it does mean that your logo that is 500px wide and 110px tall you tell your designer to “just shrink to fit” will be 200px wide and 44px tall. If the logo is primarily words, it will be unreadable in a Twitter stream. Involve a professional designer as he/she will know how to craft the logo elements in a square without losing your identity. Be flexible. Working in small sizes and an aspect ratio is a whole art in itself. Don’t expect your designer to be able to fit the Sistine Chapel on the head of a pin. It’s an avatar, not a graphic mission statement.

The Statement (mini profile)
160 characters. That is it, no longer. 140 if you can do it and your statement will be Twitter ready when someone there asks “What do you do?”

Be sure to say things in plain language. Think about language you would use when you first meet somebody who knows nothing about you or your company. If you have to explain what your “opportunities for customer satisfaction” are in a separate sentence, you’re not there yet. Hone it down, get to the kernel of what you do and who you are.

Use the keywords that people use to find you within the 160 characters.

Consistency
Regardless of how many social networks you choose to join, use your statement and avatar consistently. If you decide to make a change, change it everywhere. This means you need to track what you signed up for and where to make those profile changes. Don’t forget about blog comments. Many blogs are using Disqus to manage comments. Get an account and update it with an avatar. You may also want to get a Gravatar that is used across blogs hosted on the WordPress software.

Often, these two simple staples are the last things that are tended to, but they really should be the first. Don’t even think about getting into any social media unless you have them in place.

Listen to the groundhog

Originally published at: DogWalkBlog.com

Punxsutawney Phil being yanked from his comfy home by people who can't wait to know the future.

Punxsutawney Phil being yanked from his comfy home by people who can't wait to know the future.

I love Groundhog’s Day. It is a silly holiday that you can just hype up and people giggle at.

When reading a post from Chris Brogan today, along with my Wall Street Journal, The Waterboy and a healthy dose of Morning Joe, I’ve come to a conclusion about this economic mess. The economy prognosticators have it all right. And all wrong.

Here is why Punxsutawney Phil — that famous groundhog — is relevant to what is going on with this economy prognosticators right now and what we can take away from him. If Phil sees his shadow, gets scared and scurries back to his burrow, there are six, long weeks of Winter left. If he doesn’t see his shadow, there are only six weeks left of Winter. Yeah!

We can learn a lot from this annual holiday in Punxsutawney, PA, but accurately predicting the future is not one of them. The “Inner Circle” of Punxsutawney have figured out how to get thousands of people to visit their little town in a very cold part of the country in the dead of Winter and all the news media talking about them for a whole daily news cycle. They created a legend of a groundhog, dress up in top hats, hold this grand ceremony and declare the future of Old Man Winter!

That is all these economy pundits are doing. Nobody knows the future. The quality of the remaining six weeks of winter is not a function of a skittish groundhog or a proclamation made by a fraud in a top hat, but by the decisions you make with that time. Will you hibernate and wait out winter or go out and play with the snowflakes? The choice is yours. Choose wisely.

As I mentioned in my comment to Chris Brogan’s post:

My take on all this future stuff, however, is to look at future films of the past — even as recent as the 1980s. Nobody got the 16:9 television. Even when screens were larger, wall-sized, the 4:3 format still reigned.

For the astute reader, you may have seen the mention for the movie The Waterboy in my opening paragraph. At one point in the movie, (toward the end, you have to watch the whole thing) Coach Klein envisions his nemesis Coach Beaulieu with the head of a cute puppy, is no longer scared of him and adopts a new-found self-esteem.

The next time you watch Joe, Pat and all these other prognosticators on television predicting gloom and doom, envision them with the head of a groundhog.

Then, go make your own future. It will happen whether you wait it out or not.