Thursday, December 31, 2009

Connect with communities to build your brand

I learned today that I've been listed as one of Roost’s 50 RE people you should follow on Twitter. No, I'm not a real estate agent. Yet I'm on the list, and it's not on accident, I've been assured.

My involvement with the real estate industry is two fold. First, I've been fortunate enough to have been asked to speak twice now at the National Association of Realtors® national convention. The topics I speak about to their members are the same topics I cover here -- doing business in the digital world. My first talk from 2008 -- New Media Business Strategies for Real Estate Professionals -- is up at SlideShare. It's my goal to create a slide case out of this year's talk -- Digitally Expose Yourself: Building Your Web Presence -- but I haven't made it that far. It's on the list!

My second connection comes from the friends I've made here in the Phoenix area who are involved in real estate. Phoenix has been blessed - or plagued -- with some of the most prolific social media-aware RE folks in the country, and I'm proud to count many of them as my friends. They've even been so kind as to keep inviting me to talk at RE BarCamp Phoenix, which I'm happy and excited to do.

There's a lesson here. There are communities everywhere you look. If you can add value to that community with your knowledge, presence and involvement, do it. The RE community is rather tight-nit. I've received so many referrals -- and not just from my friends -- to do work that I've had to turn many away. That's a good problem to have.

So if you're lightly involved with a community, consider shoring up that relationship. No, don't show up at meetings passing around business cards and stories of what a great expert you are and how much they need you. Show up at meetings, make friends, join conversations, add value and get involved. Then you'll be showing them what a great expert you are, and they'll quickly realize how much they need you.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Fail Fast

The future is here. You no longer have time to adopt a "wait and see" attitude. Trying new things should still be high on your list, but only if you are ready to examine the results and react quickly. And by quickly, I mean within days; not months.

This goes against the "let it soak" approach business has taken toward the online space. Well... we were wrong. Or rather, there exists better approaches today. Adopting the Fail Fast methodology requires more effort up front. More planning. More analysis. More understanding of what you're doing. And what you expect to get in return.

It doesn't mean start small. But it also doesn't mean you have to go all-in. Size is only important if your upfront analysis indicates it might be. Yes, you can learn as you go, but you have to adapt as you go. Data puke gets in your way. Get rid of it. Focus on the goals and objectives you set forth at the start. Ignore everything else. You don't have time to spend chasing down interesting blips. Not yet, at least. First, you have to fail fast -- or hopefully succeed.

The era of learning and not doing is at and end. Welcome to 2010.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Using word clouds as reader and author

I'm a rather verbose person by nature. As a kid, I never worried much about having a 500 word report prepared by the end of the week. I usually had it done by the end of the period.

When I wrote Podcasting For Dummies, I had to learn to curtail much of that. That's a very different writing style. But I've adopted it. And I think it makes my writing more effective. I also give props to Patrick McLean for being an inspiration. Seriously, if you want to know how to write clearly, concisely and effectively, you couldn't ask for a better writing coach than Patrick.

Which brings me to the discussion of the 4322 four thousand, three hundred twenty-two (4,322) word blog post by Jonathan Rosenberg, Senior Vice President of Product Management for Google. The title was The meaning of open, a topic of some import with me. So I read it. All of it. Whew. Now I'm tired. I'm glad I read it. But chances are, you won't take the time. It's simply too long. He's approaching the halfway mark of a novella.

Luckily, the advent of the web -- speaking of open -- has provided a visualization tool that helps. Wordle is a free service that lets you paste in text and create an on-the-fly word cloud. The more a word is used, the larger it appears in the loud. There are other factors involved as well. Here's the word cloud of Mr. Rosenberg's blog post:

[caption id="attachment_51" width="500" caption="Word cloud for really long Google blog post"]Word cloud for really long Google blog post[/caption]

While it's a poor substitute for actually reading the work, it can provide valuable insight. Insight that helps you decide if you should read the whole thing or not. Conversely, this could be a helpful self-check measure. Create your own word cloud out of something you are writing. Does the cloud match your intent? It should. If it doesn't, you didn't use the right words.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The battle between the biggest and the best

Tug of War
Image by daftgirly via Flickr
It's hard to become the biggest at something. For companies, it often means understanding market opportunities, what the masses want and beating the hell out of the competition in price. It's not a field in which individuals can play without being a part of -- or leading -- an organization.

It's hard to become the best at something. Becoming the best often means relentless dedication to excellence, innovation and detail. Here companies and individuals are on more of an even field.

But becoming the biggest and the best at something? It seems those two things are at odds with one another. And if you take stock of the companies that purport to be one or the other -- or both -- you'll see how rare it is.

The brand of beer that outsells all the rest by orders of magnitude? That doesn't make it the best. I'd argue all the ones in my refrigerators (Yes, I have more than one. I like beer.) could vie for the best, but they are a proverbial drop in the bucket when sales volume is examined.

The author making the rounds on the talk-circuit with a book that's burning up the charts? Neither are the best. But any that hard-core book fans would agree is the best is likely unapproachable by the masses.

Though it's argued often, biggest is a quantitative measurement that leaves little to interpretation. I understand that best is subjective, but it's a demonstrable qualitative characteristic. So while companies often say "we're the biggest and the best", they aren't. They may be one or the other, but it's difficult to be both.

Or is it? Here are a few examples of where I think the biggest is also the best. I'd love to get your opinion on these as well as some other examples.
  • MP3 players - The iPod reigns king in sales and in usability.
  • Ketchup - Not that I use it, but I have it on good authority that Heinz is pretty tasty.
  • Blizzard Entertainment - I'm no gamer and I understand there is a wide-range of opinion on this, but WoW seems to be one of those waves that didn't quit. And when Diablo 3 hits the stands, it'll do it again.
  • Search engines -- Google. No further discussion required, though I'm sure some of you are Quixotic enough to try.

There have to be others. Please discuss in the comments.

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A Simpler Way?

Sometimes you have a good idea. Then the your goals change. And that first good idea isn't important.

Or is it?

Maybe the kernel of the idea was good. Like... the name?

And here we are. More in a moment.

Monday, December 21, 2009

The missing revolution

Image representing Contenture as depicted in C...
Image via CrunchBase
What if you threw a revolution and no one came?

Contenture is shutting down. No, you probably never heard of them and probably won't miss them. And since I didn't even know of the company until I saw notice of their demise, I won't presume to offer cogent reasons why their business model never got off the ground. But here's the key reason they gave on their blog:

[W]e were unable to get any big publishers to use the service, which was going to be the key to our success. Without any large publishers, the economics just don’t work.

I bring this news up here as a cautionary tale in two parts:

Labels are important.
Contenture billed their service as "The Micropayment Revolution". That phrase was part of their logo on their blog. That revolution lasted exactly 192 days from launch-date to shut-down announcement. And as they say above, the revolution wasn't adopted by key entities. Revolution is a pretty serious word. It brings up serious connotations.

Lesson: Be sure the words you use match the reality of your intent.

Don't ignore the Convenience Arrow
After reading the links above that describe the business model, it seems to go backwards. Sure, blocking ads would be nice, but it does little to enhance convenience. And it's certainly not worth paying for. At least not to me. And obviously, not a lot of other people either.

Lesson: There exists a difference between annoying and intruding. One I'll pay you to get rid of. The other I'm really good at ignoring.

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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Little changes, little rewards

Pink Princess Birthday Cupcakes
Image by abakedcreation via Flickr
This post inspired by a nice soak in the steam room, my little reward for breaking my 1+ year sabbatical from working out.

None of us have it figured out. No one has achieved perfection. Supreme enlightenment is at best unattainable and at worst a scam.

There always remains a stone unturned. A nook unprodded. A path unexplored. For all of us. Even for those who always seem to be first, there was a time when they didn't know about it either.

We all fall short of our goals. We take missteps and often time make mistakes. Occasionally we screw up royally and get embarrassed by our own ineptitude.

So when you figure something out, celebrate. When you discover something new, have fun with it. And when you crawl back on the wagon horse, ride on.

Go ahead and reward yourself. But keep the scale of your accomplishment in mind. Somethings are worth shouting about. Most that I've mentioned above are not. Yes, they are important. Yes, they can lead to bigger things. Yes, you should feel good about what you've done. But little changes deserve little rewards.

When you're done, go work toward something truly big. You can scream about that.

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Do you need a website to do business online?

11 Cloned Men Went To Mow, Went To Mow A Meadow !
Image by Bobasonic via Flickr
The future is almost here. No, really. In a few days it will be 2010. That's the future.

As of late, I've been writing a lot about business. Specifically, how the digital world changes what it means to be "in business". A catch phrase I've been using over the last year is this: Doing business online means more than just having a first-class website. And while I believe that is true, I wonder if the statement goes far enough? I wonder if, instead, I believe this:

It is possible to do business online without having your own website.

Heretical? Not really. And not all that ground-breaking. I first heard about eBay from a neighbor almost a decade ago. A significant portion of his income came from trading baseball cards on the site. He didn't have his own website until the last few years. I've ran a digital media consulting practice for the last two years without a site for said practice, though I'll concede that this site helps and that I used prior connections to secure clients.

The web of today provides smart businesses many chances to make connections without having a dedicated website. So yes, it's possible to do business without one. I'm not advocating you abandon your website. But I do challenge you to consider the role your site plays today. Think of where your customers or prospects are and be there. Spend at least as much time building and maintaining your presence out there as you do on your own site.

Maybe more?

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Monday, December 14, 2009

Exceeding by reducing choices

Beer wall from an #evfn at Whole Foods
Image by evo_terra via Flickr
Given the choice, I think every business would choose to be remarkable. Certainly no one in business wants to provide a bad business experience. But I'm more troubled by those in business satisfied to deliver a staple experience.

Staples are things you have to have, or need on a regular basis. The "general store" of old comes to mind. Competition really didn't come into play, as they tended to be the only game in town. It may not have been pretty to shop in, but they had what you needed. And if they didn't, you probably didn't know you needed it.

Today, businesses in the staple-market compete on one thing and one thing only -- price. Margins are razor-thin. Service and selection are commoditized. Success is measured by volume. Customers are lured in by items offered below cost in the hope that an impulse decision may result in a slightly higher profit item being sold. Some companies have made loads of money this way. Some entire industries operate under this principle. There is a success path here, if that is your true intent.

There exists a direct relationship between choice and staple-ness.

It's hard to offer a multitude of choices and succeed at all of them. It's difficult to try and meet every conceivable need and almost impossible to exceed them all. If you're lucky, you do one or two things really well. The rest? Filler. And those things you don't knock out of the park may be doing harm to your business or your brand.

Consider the restaurant that offers dozens of entrées. Do you go there because the all the food is fantastic? What about any of the food? Chances are, you eat there because it's fast (relatively speaking), decent (relatively speaking), cheap (relatively speaking) and predictable.

Alternately, consider the establishment that is really known for one or two things. Chances are, they offer a more limited -- more exclusive, if you will -- list of items that they kick-ass on. Every. Time. Because of the limited selection, they can also be fast enough and (relatively) affordable. But these places offer a product that is far above decent. Predictable? Only to those who are regulars, and they often drag their friends along just to see the look on their faces when they taste something truly remarkable.

Those same rules apply to almost any small business or entrepreneur. Focus on that which you do better than anyone else. While it's hard -- if not stupid -- to turn away business, understand the possible risk if you fail to not just meet, but exceed your customers' expectations.

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Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Cultivating impatience in business

1881 Programme for Patience
Image via Wikipedia
I'm not a very patient man. My sense of time has always been a few clicks faster than those around me. This helped me in academics as a kid -- but to a point. Impatience breeds boredom. And that leads to a host of issues with less-than-desirable outcomes.

But impatience can be -- over time -- channeled into a power for good. While everyone else will happily continue to drive over the speed bumps, we impatient find a way around them. Eventually, those around us notice and start following. And without any planning or process meetings, a new and generally accepted path is formed.

Businesses can be impatient, too. I see that as a Good Thing. Impatient companies recognize a need and fill it -- now. While there's nothing wrong with analyzing conditions to see if the timing is right, sometimes that just takes too long. Or sometimes the signs are so obvious that further study simply isn't needed.

How do you adopt impatience? I don't think you can. I think you are, or you aren't. But your business can learn to be. You may have to bring in talent from the outside. You may have to look through your list of "troublemakers" and see if they truly are worthless (then fire them) or if they just want things to move faster. Don't give them the reigns, but do give them some rope. You may be surprised what they can create, and what you might learn.

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Monday, December 7, 2009

Strengthen your connections

Melting Ice
Image by vitroid via Flickr
Don't underestimate the value of connections. While we (and by we I mean I) sometimes get caught up looking for ROI and hard, measurable facts, some things are more esoteric. Yet just as valuable.

When Google bought YouTube, they thought the asset was the impressions the videos would deliver. What they found more valuable was the connections and conversations people were having around and because of those videos.

Today, you can't have a network without the connections. Some connections between you and others are incredibly strong. When you start noticing the same people at events and see the same names on email, comments or other outreach, that's an indication of a strong connection.

But strong connections aren't conducive to growth, either personal or the growth of the network itself. And while it can happen, strong connections make it difficult for others to join in the connection. So instead, we tend to keep increasing the strength of our own connections, since that's easier than breaking in. I think that approach misses the mark.

Spend less time strengthening strong connections.

If your connection with another person is truly strong, it will survive a bit of neglect on your part. I know that people will tell you that relationships take work. I've found that not to be the case. At least, not a significant amount of work. And if it does, then it's probably a relationship I'm probably not going to miss.

Rather, spend your time shoring up tenuous connections. Reach out to those you're loosely connected to, and make those connections stronger. You'll quickly find yourself exposed to new ideas, new people and new opportunities. And those other strong connections? Still rock solid. Now you have even more.

Which tenuous connection will you work on strengthening first?

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New FTC guidelines for bloggers are a bigger challenge for marketers

Image via Wikipedia
Changes to FTC (Federal Trade Commission) guidelines on endorsements and testimonials were made active on December 1. And seven days later, I'm happy to report that I, a blogger, have not been sued. Neither, chance are, have you.

There was a huge stink about these proposed changes a few months back. Mob mentality won over common sense, and the assumption was that bloggers were going to be fined $11,000 if they failed to mention the book they just reviewed was purchased from Barnes & Nobel with a 15% coupon.


What do the new guidelines mean for bloggers?

Probably nothing. The overview by the FTC on this page is pretty good, but I think this short PDF of the revised guidelines is even better. And if you want the whole story, check this 81 page PDF. It's overkill, but for the complete-ists out there; have at it. But back to "probably nothing".

The new guidelines -- the first change to the endorsements & testimonials section since 1980 -- require marketers to be honest, forthright and clear when using endorsements and testimonials. What a crazy concept. If you're the endorser or provider of the testimonal -- bloggers, for the purpose of this discussion -- then you have an obligation to do the same and disclose if you were compensated for your endorsement.

Chances are, you already do that. And if you don't; start. It requires you do nothing more than say "Ford let me drive this new car for a week, and here's what I think". Again, you probably do this already.

Marketers are responsible for what compensated endorsers say.

That's the biggest change. If Snapple sends out free samples of a new beverage to specific bloggers as part of an outreach campaign, they have an obligation to make sure the endorsements are real and true. That's an oversimplification, but it's close enough. If one of those bloggers posts about how the drink cured them of lung cancer, the marketer is on the hook. The blogger is on the hook as well, and probably by more than just the FTC.

My advice to bloggers is simple:
  1. Don't lie. If your really didn't think it was the best ever, don't say it was. Don't shill.
  2. Disclose received compensation. Getting it for free for the purpose of blogging or tweeting about it is compensation. Getting a free sandwich because you bought nine others is not.

My advice to marketer is even more simple:
  1. Don't try and deceive. "Results not typical" will be a thing of the past. Finally.

And yes, the fine for infractions can be up to $11,000 per occurrence. Will you get caught if you break the new laws? I sincerely hope so.

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Sunday, December 6, 2009

Don't scare off the new people

Image by Getty Images via Daylife
There are only two types of "visitors" to your website, blog, profile, or account page1: Those who've never seen any of your stuff before, and everyone else. Converting the new visitor to a repeat visitor is a key goal for anyone in business. The definition of conversion varies, and we'll get deeper into that in the coming posts. But a high-level goal should be moving that new person into the "everyone else" column.

First impressions mean everything to this group. They will be making snap decisions about you based on your most recent post on your blog, update to Facebook, image on Flickr, tweet via Twitter, video on YouTube, episode of your podcast, or whatever action you do on whatever platform you're doing it from.

Your most recent update should always be your best.

It should also be indicative of the kinds of things you want to be known for on that platform. That makes it hard to post anything other than that which you want to be known for. And that makes for a boring, monolithic platform.

The fix is easy. Though it's easier on some platforms than others. In fact, I've done it with this blog post. It's not the most recent post I've made, though new folks would never known it.2 I back-dated the post I wanted to make so that it showed up below this post and deeper in the RSS feed. The "everyone else" I mentioned before are probably getting this via RSS or email, so they won't miss it. Those that are more casual checkers may miss it, but so what? It's not like the post was all that critical. This one is the important one.

Not all platforms will let you do that. So that last tweet is what people who hit your Twitter page will see. You can't back-date on Facebook or Flickr either. So it's a good idea to hold some gems in reserve. Then you can post that whimsical update followed quickly by something of more value to the new person.

Or... you could recognize that personal branding is pretty fractured, and you don't have to be the same thing in all places. You never want to stop being a human, and if cutting up in public is part of who you are -- it's sure as heck who I am -- then do it and don't worry about it. I do it just about everywhere else but here (as of late).

But even still, I think I could do a better job of putting my best foot forward on platforms other than this. Now to determine if I care or not. Do you?

1 - This assumes they come in through your front door, as if someone told them to check you out online. Searchers are a totally different breed, as Google cares little for taking people to your home page and instead wants to take them straight to the content they want. More on this in the future.

2 - Well, they wouldn't have known if I didn't spill the beans with this post!

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Friday, December 4, 2009

Passing on the wagons

Sheep Herdin'
Image by devehf via Flickr
Perhaps it is my lineage of Oklahoma settlers, but I'm not a big fan of wagons. My mom had a station wagon when I was a wee lad, and I don't remember liking that, either.

But the wagons I am speaking of are of a different sort. The first is the wagon. What used to be a metaphor for sobriety has been hijacked to mean any sort of routine. Workouts, a commitment to daily blog posts, vegetarianism, eliminating "nazi" from your lexicon... you name it. But my ire isn't with the bastardization of the term. Culture does that, and I'm OK with it.

Falling off is akin to falling down.

Don't just lie there -- do something about it! Don't flounder around for support and sympathy -- do something about it! You created the wagon. You decided to crawl upon it. No one pushed you up there. If it's a place you want to be, then be there. If you find yourself constantly slipping off, maybe it's the wrong wagon for you.

And then there are bandwagons. Snaked from the tarnished world of politics, bandwagons have become legion. In fact, they've come to represent any specific wagon referenced above that is shared by multiple individuals. But people don't fall from bandwagons.

If you don't like the direction it's going, get off.

Unless you've got the reigns, you can't steer a bandwagon. The moment it heads someplace you're uncomfortable with, get off. Find another. Or make your own. Or just start walking. All too often, those wagons are filled with sheep. Or maybe that's just how they look to us wolves.

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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Being an Expert Is Time-Sensitive

Example of Old\New on a studebaker
Remember when you hung out your very own "expert" shingle? Oh, there's no doubt that you deserved it. You knew as much -- if not more -- on the subject than anyone around you. And when the topic of your expertise came up, people immediately thought of you.

You received payment for the work you did for clients. And you did amazing things for clients. They referred other clients to you, and your expertise was further recognized and validated. You made ends meet and created a successful -- if not profitable -- business venture. Well done.

Or maybe you took a job with a company. They hired you as The Expert or An Expert, and you worked diligently on projects and ideas for your clients. Those clients loved the work you did for them, and your company received great referral business, solidifying you and them as true experts in the field. The company made money, you drew a steady paycheck, and life was good.

But that was last year, when you were the expert.

While you were busy being an expert, your expertise expired.

Unless your expertise is in something like Great Opera Singers of the 12th Century -- and maybe not even then -- the game is changing constantly. The milieu isn't today what it was 12 months ago. And if you're in an emerging or highly volatile field, that could be 12 weeks.

While you were busying being an expert, your skills lapsed. While you were busy being an expert, the platform moved. While you were busy being an expert, outside changes impacted your field. You didn't notice. And now you're an expert at outdated concepts.

Stay fresh.

If you're spending 100% of your time on billable work, you have no time to keep abreast of the changes in your field. If the company you work for has you cranking out paying work 40+ hours a week, then they are letting your expertise lapse, and you're becoming a limited time offer.

Cut back on the work and make time for what many professional organizations call continuing education. Attend and speak at conferences. Read publications. Try new things. Connect with other experts in your field. Connect with experts in related fields. Become part of the community.

If that means you have to raise your billable hourly rate to make up for the lost income -- do it. If that means you have to demand your employer reduce your doing-work to give you room for learning-work -- do it.

The consequences of not doing it? You cease to become the expert, and your value effectively drops to zero. And who wants to put "I used to be an expert" on a resume?

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Beware the tyranny of the ways

The Way by Alexander Liberman
Image by fotobydave via Flickr
Right Way
Two dangers here. First is the assumption that your way is a right way. Just because it works for you doesn't mean it will work for someone else. The second danger is worse: the assumption that your way is The Right Way. In reality, there is no one right way. There are many right ways.

Wrong Way
I hear the words "you're doing it wrong" all too often. Truth be told, I've uttered that phrase all too often. Not that there aren't clear-cut mistakes that are easily cured with education. If you're still forwarding funny emails to dozens of your friends using BCC, that's wrong. It may feel right and appropriate from your vantage point, and none of your friends have complained because they're too nice, but it's still wrong.

But wrong ways are often implementation issues and/or have good intentions at heart. Correcting the means can usually lead to a better expression of the idea. If you find yourself ready to correct something you see as a wrong way, be sure and offer up a solution to help make it better.

Old Way
Humans may be nostalgic creatures, but in flights of fancy alone. The fact of the matter is that progress flows one way. Old ways always always lose out as the arrow of convenience (my term) moves forward. If you're pining for a "return to..." then you are misguided and wrong. If an old way is truly that, then it remains something to reflect upon fondly. You have little hope of resurrecting it. And if a return to the old way actually does work, it simply proves that the new way didn't work out and wasn't really a new way after all. That happens rather frequently.

New Way
New doesn't mean better. New doesn't mean the old will die. New doesn't mean faster. New doesn't mean bigger. New really means something that replaces the old in a way that increases the amount of convenience for those serving or served by the process that has undergone the change. New ways tend to crop up seemingly daily; but most are false new ways. Some new ways are adopted quickly. Some take time. Some are exposed to be more trouble than they are worth, which means they weren't really new ways after all.

Unexplored Way
If you haven't tried the way, how do you know it's bad? Yes, I know your current way fits your needs perfectly. That doesn't qualify you to make judgments on other ways -- unless you've tried them. And I don't mean reading the FAQs or relying on anecdotal evidence. Until you've explored the way, your opinion of it remains uninformed. So don't speak so loudly.

Your way
And at the end of the day, none of the above matter. What works for you works for you. It may not always work for you, and you may try different ways along the... way. That's OK. You may have ways that work for you that run counter to those around you. Still very OK, though don't make the mistake of trying tell everyone moving forward why your way is better. See "old way" above.

To quote Joss Whedon via Malcom Reynolds: "I have a way?"

Yes. Yes you do.

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