Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Life in the (Comments) Field

Once again, Twitter is to thank for today's post on the care, feeding and maintenance of Blog comments.

Comments are many things to a blogger - they are a measure of engagement, a way to determine the health of your blog, the reach, the coherence, the interactivity.... Comments are the way you know you're not just talking to yourself.

And so, when Social Media star ShellyKramer mentioned the other night on Twitter that she deeply disliked moderated comments on blogs, I thought that would make a stellar topic for discussion.

With thanks (and apologies for not attributing quotes directly) to Melinda Beasi, Daniella Orihuela-Gruber, Johanna Draper Carlson David Welsh and many others I'd like to summarize the Pros and Cons of Moderating Comments:

1) When You Delete, You Are Moderating...and Censoring

We all pretty much agreed with Shelly that anytime we chose to delete a post (aside from spam) we are making a decision to censor. This is not a universally bad thing, because as a blogger it is both our right and responsibility to keep the conversation in the comments relevant and friendly. (See #2.) But it can also lead to needing to have the last word.

Just as you toss out mail that is junk, there is nothing wrong with deleting spam, or shaping the conversation towards an end, but there are powerful pitfalls associated with deletions of posts. You can throw out mail that touts causes you don't believe in at home, and on your blog you *can* get rid of dissent or irrelevancy. It's important to know when you are riding that line.

2) Curating the Comments is Part of Your Job as a Blogger

Another commenter pointed out that, as a reader, there was an expectation on their part that the blog owner *would* curate comments and shape the conversation to keep it friendly, lively and non-toxic.

This will of course, depend on the purpose of your blog. Some are designed to *be* incendiary, some are meant to be educational, informative, conversational. Some blogs encourage dissenting opinions (I like to think mine are among those) and others are meant as a forum for a particular perspective. They way you curate the conversation should be in line with the mission of your blog. Maintain and support that position as consistently as possible, so commenters know what to be able to expect - for instance I now have this statement posted on my other blog:

...any comment that contains the word "objective" or "objectivity" is subject to rejection. This is a review blog - it's all personal opinions, all the time. Mine and yours.

Which was to expressly state that objections to my opinions are welcome, as long as they don't take the position of being in some way "objective," which opinions never are. ^_^

Setting ground rules helps your readers know where they stand.

3) It's Your Blog, You Don't Have to Apologize For Closing The Comments

A number of bloggers and forum moderators said flat out that if someone was misbehaving overtly, they had no compunction about closing that thread. The phrase bandied about was "Is that person being a dick?"

I and a number of other people weighed in with a slightly different perspective - people are allowed to be opinionated, but when they cease to be entertaining/informative/unique, the thread will be closed. In my case I have explicitly stated that "it is time to stop now" or "you have ceased to be entertaining." In both cases this means that the fourth incredibly long, single-spaced rant you have written on why I am wrong is pretty much exactly like the other three that have already been allowed. Nothing new is being said, so I'm going to stop approving posts.

4) Having The Last Word is Overrated

At least one person argued strongly that deleting comments or closing threads is always tantamount to needing to have the last word - and this can absolutely be true.

I frequently allow commenters to continue the topic as long as they want - even if they post serially until, as above, they start repeating themselves or are simply rehashing the same grievances in different form.

I rarely, if ever, require the last word. To be very honest, I prefer to let the craziest, most delusional posts stand for themselves, because I find that more amusing than any attempt I can make to punctuate that person's insanity on my own. (Mean, I know. But that's how I roll.)

5) Know Toxicity When You See It

Overwhelmingly, bloggers felt that when comments became toxic *for the readers* was when it was time to close the thread. No one I spoke to cared much about ad hominem attacks, but several of us felt that when the attacks addressed the readers, or the posts were close to threats against readers, they had to be stopped.

Toxicity goes back to #2. Part of the blogger's job is to make reading the blog enjoyable for the readership. If you run a very controversial blog and invite that kind of commenting, then as long as readers know what to expect, that's fine. But imagine the slap on the face effect when a person is reading a comments thread only to be told that if they disagree or agree, they are /something really insulting and rude/ or /terrible thing should happen to them/.

Serial ranting can also cause a thread to become toxic, just as a serial ranter at work can ruin the team environment.

6) Use an Engagement/Conversation Strategy

I use what I call the "3-comment" rule. I will engage with and respond to commenters up to 3 times on any given thread. Since I have written the original post, I'm willing to clarify or comment but, after 3 comments, I stop. This allows the commenters to comment on each other...and allows the comments thread to start to shift organically to other topics. I don't stop that and I often encourage it with ex-site conversation (for instance, encouraging someone to comment based on something we're discussing elsewhere.)

Other bloggers use questions at the end of a post to encourage responses. Of course some rely on strongly worded opinions (not any of the above bloggers, but it is a fact of blogging that some do) and some folks explicitly request feedback and/or suggestions.

On WordPress, bloggers can set auto-approval, so once a person's comments to a blog have been approved, that person no longer needs to be moderated. This feature is not available on Blogger. I wish it were and have already requested it.

Moderation is especially invidious on online magazine-type blogs. It's unlikely that Mashable, for instance, is getting loads of hate mail to need moderation. But if you have a topic (or a personality) that attracts strongly worded, insulting or plain old crazy responses, it makes sense to have a gentle, firm hand on the comments.

Lively commenting is a good indicator of the well-being of your blog. Encourage comments, don't make moderation a tedious process for your readers, keep both eyes on your mission as you approve those posts and you'll develop a thriving ecosystem in the comments field.

Monday, November 22, 2010

How Social Media Sent Me To Japan

I often see requests for case studies on how businesses use Social Media effectively. I offer up a recent experience I personally had as an example. I want to be as honest as I can about this - there is a trick in this story. I'll tell you the trick at the bottom of the article.

I write another blog, Okazu. It's a blog attached to my avocation, the promotion, creation and publication of Japanese comics. To be very specific, I promote, create, publish and review Japanese comics and animation with lesbian themes. I state this only so you can understand how small the niche I'm positioned in is. My blog is the oldest in the world on the topic and I bring a fairly unique perspective to the issue.

There is a series of novels from Japan that are pretty popular there and mostly all but unheard of here in the West. Recently, a live-action movie was made of the first of these novels. Of course I wanted to go see it, but didn't expect to be able to.

I was on Twitter, discussing it with a friend from Japan. He originally emailed me because of my blog. We've stayed in touch by Twitter and email.

My friend let me know that he had purchased one of the commemorative tickets to the movie for me, so I could get the extras that came with them. Of course I thanked him and immediately started to look up prices for flights. My friend was in a particularly silly mood that night - everything I posted on Twitter, he relayed again, in Japanese. I commented that I would come for the movie, but that flights were more expensive than I was comfortable with. Actually, what I said involved the phrase "highway robbery." He cheerfully translated that I felt the airfares were too high. And then he started to tease me - if only one of your fans would fly you to Japan to see the movie! I posted back that I would certainly go, if someone flew me over...

...and a fan of mine tweeted that she would sponsor me.

Which is how, not two months later, I was able to stand on line in Osaka, Japan and see that movie.

I am not joking about any of this, or making any part of it up. But I did say there was a trick.

The trick is...the story starts almost nine years ago.

Nine years ago I started Okazu. I have been posting reviews, news, opinion pieces, discussions guest columns there for nine years. For nine years, I've been building a readership, a following, a fan base and, for good or bad, a reputation.

The trick here is that Social Media is about building relationships and developing them over time. I met both my Japanese friend and my benefactor a few years ago and we have communicated through email, Facebook, Twitter, sometimes phone, ever since.

This is not an overnight success story - it's not a story about ROI. This is a story about how Social Media really works.

P.S. - The movie was excellent. (^_^)b

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Twitter is not Facebook is not Email is not FourSquare

Remember that birthday? You had friends over for a party, but your parents also invited a few family members, with the result that grandma told that story about you to your school friends and the next day you had the nickname "Monkey Boy?" I'm joking of course. Today we're talking about the awkwardness that occurs when you mix and match your networks.

Whether you are a company trying to grasp how to use Social Media, or you are an individual balancing you time with friends, colleagues and clients, it's important to remember that networks often don't (and shouldn't) mix.

Fellow blogger Sean Gaffney and I were discussing a company we both follow. This was on a day when the company had some fairly big news. They had clearly sent out press releases, because industry news sites were buzzing. But on Twitter? The last post had been almost a week ago, and it was one of those "hey, which of our products do you like best?" kind of tweets.

Which prompted Sean to comment, "Yes, Press releases are good, but really, Twitter is not meant to be composed of your 'buddies' the way Facebook is. You don't friend a company to be their pal. Or if you do, you aren't worth it."

Twitter is not Facebook. Nor is Facebook a Press Release. LinkedIn is not your Mailing List, Foursquare is personal, not public.

Here's a few ways companies mis-use the most popular Social Networking platforms:

Twitter - Twitter is not, as Sean points out, the same as a press release, nor is it a bulletin board for your press releases. Twitter is a place where people who follow you expect a mix of news, conversation, customer service and insight. The best Twitter accounts supply all this and mix in a good dollop of contests and fun things on top. Making everything you say pithy and retweetable may not be possible, but keeping yourself open for communications is. Don't become the company ticker, unless you don't care about the people who take time to follow you on Twitter.

Facebook - I've said it before, Facebook is easy. Too easy. Facebook gives you a false sense of engagement when your "Fans" have only to click a button to show how much they "like" you, your news, your newest promotional campaign or product. Even if they are your friends, are you really reaching folks on Facebook? "Likes" are the least effective way to tell. Do your fans/friends respond when you post - if not many, there's a good chance that a large number of those "fans" have hidden your posts. Do they see your page as a place to hold a conversation, or jump in with a comment? Or is it all about you, you, you? Facebook can become a mirror filled with nothing but yourself quite easily. Be careful that you're not adding to the delusion of popularity.

Email - Email is a privileged position. You have personal access to your audience. You have time and space to attract their interest. This is your best opportunity to make your point. How many emails do you delete a day? Why? Think about how many ways email marketing fails to be relevant to you. When you have a chance to send that message - make it count.

FourSquare - Publicly posting Foursquare check-ins is the equivalent of having an intimate conversation with a romantic partner in public. It's all well and good for you and your customer, but those of us who remain uninvolved in that relationship are left feeling awkward, maybe embarrassed. Nuzzling your partner in public is not necessarily the right way to show what a great lover you are and having people check in with you for freebies and discounts doesn't really express how great you are to do business with.

LinkedIn - LinkedIn was designed as a professional networking space. Unless your business is truly Business to Business, the chances of you finding your audience, much less your market, on LinkedIn is small. These are your peers, perhaps your vendors or contractors - not your audience. Treat the people there as you might coworkers, or prospective clients. But don't assume that every Answer is an open invitation for a pitch.

Each platform you choose is different - each network you build is different. It's not impossible to mix and match, but being aware when you're doing so. Treating your Facebook Fans like they are your email list, or your Twitter followers like they are your "Fans," is likely to cause conflict and defection.

Enjoy time with your relatives and enjoy time with your friends, but think carefully before you invite them to the same party.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Memo FR: The "Yr Doing It Wrng" Dept

You remember how to write a business letter, don't you? Your name and address in one corner, the date, then further down, the title, name and address of the person you were addressing.

Your business letter began with an intro - "Hello, my name is...I am writing to in regards to...." It ended with "Sincerely," your name, contact info.

Nowadays, that's all old news, right? No one does that anymore. Email and Twitter means we can jump right in and tell people what we want. Everyone knows that!

Except...that is simply not true. In fact, in this day and age it's even more important than ever before to provide people with context for your communication.

I received an email this week. The person introduced themselves, told me that they were working for an organization I am aligned with and that, because they could see that I was active in Social Media, I should retweet their communications.

I stopped when I got to this line, I admit. Okay, intro, check. In regards to, check. You're getting paid to do a thing, so I should retweet you? I re-read the line a few times, trying to see where the connection was.

Then I backed up. This was an email.

An email from someone hired to do Social Media.

An email from someone who saw that I was active on Social Media.

Telling me to RT their tweets.

I stared at this concatenation and my first thought was to Tweet this response: "Re: Yr email. Yr doing it wrng."

Obviously, I did not. I have not yet replied to the email, either. I probably will not reply, because this person is a professional. You can tell, because they are getting paid for this. I know that because they told me so. This person emailed to tell me that they are being paid by this organization to do their Social Media.

A business letter is more than just a communication - it's a proposal. This person failed in the part three of good business letter writing. There was nothing at all in this for me. Sure, retweeting is a matter of hitting a button, but...why? This is their job, they are getting paid to be the Social Media expert. They were not talking with me on Twitter, building a relationship with me. They aren't even communicating *at* me on Twitter. And like so many people who presume to know what's good for me, they forgot to ask for a favor. They just told me - you like Organization A, so you should Retweet me.

On behalf of all people who have been subject to this kind of ham-handed misuse of Social Media, I would like to offer advice to companies who hire "professionals" who can't be bothered to talk with people and build relationships, who obsess about quantity rather than quality, who build metrics, rather than relationships:

You Are Doing It Wrong.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Sustainable Strategies 101

Among the most overused words in the business world today is "sustainable." Companies claim that their technologies, communications, even their energy sources are sustainable. It's pretty apparent to most of us that this is merely buzzword bingo and has no actual relationship to sustaining anything except profits.

But when we're starting fresh, sustainability is something we can actually bake into a strategy to allow for changes over time. Here are a few broad topics to consider in order to create a truly sustainable strategy.

Everything Changes

You will create your strategy with an eye to the current state of your industry and, perhaps, a recognition of recent past circumstances. You will understand what your competitors are doing and what you are doing that works and doesn't and all of that will be rooted in your *now.*

There is a famous saying to the effect that no military strategy survives the moment it's taken onto the actual battlefield, and the same is totally true of business strategies. Consumers will not react the way you want them to, a natural disaster in a different part of the world will set off a series of events that effect your business, etc, etc.

Take into account the possible changes, both positive and negative, to allow you freedom to move in an ever-changing world.

Your Mileage May Vary

We all weigh all circumstances in the scales of our own experience. It's useful to walk in someone else's shoes in order to understand different impact of that same set of circumstances. It's easy to take a position that your view is correct, but in order to create a sustainable strategy, you should remember that it is correct for you and may in fact not fit all situations.

Only You Can Change Your Mind

A business strategy is remarkably similar to an opinion. You THINK things are this way and, based on your professional opinion, they are likely to turn out that way if these certain things are done or not done. It's true that some arguments have better data to back them up than others, but invalidating other people's sources is tantamount to taking a fixed, inflexible position. The data you're using is as biased as the data they are using. There is really no such thing as truly unbiased data. Step away from your attachment to a particular source and search more widely. Look for dissenting opinions to understand the perspectives of people who disagree that your strategy will work or not to find the weaknesses in your viewpoint. Shoring up the weak points will provide you with a more sustainable position.

So...what's the trick to creating a sustainable strategy? Flexibility.

A strong, sustainable strategy contains the best understanding from every perspective of a situation and options and alternatives for varying circumstances. Allow for dissenting positions, learn from them and see what that new information can bring to your table. A strategy based on an inflexible set of criteria is doomed, as your industry and the industries around it will constantly flux and shift. Knowing what your nay-sayers say and understanding why they are saying it, will be far more useful than simply dismissing them out of hand. Plan for failure when you are succeeding and success when you are failing.

The more flexibility you build into your strategy, the more likely you are to be able to weather the ups and downs of business and the more sustainable your strategy will be.

Project Wonderful