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March 30th, 2007

Top ranking?

Top ranking?

Ever wondered how many people read a particular blog? Or how influential it might be?

Well, you’re not alone. In fact, quite a number of people seem to have been trying to answer those questions. Trouble is, no two sources seem to be able to agree on an answer, or even a way of finding out. Welcome to the confusing world of blog ranking.

When it comes to ‘old media’ – newspapers, magazines, TV, etc. – things are much more straightforward. There are independently produced circulation figures and viewing figures; not that there is complete consensus on the significance of them. Blogs, on the other hand…

Well, blogs are somewhat more nebulous.

While it’s now widely accepted that blogs can be influential, what people want to know is: which ones?

It’s certainly hard to tell at first glance. You might assume that a lot of comments indicates a large readership. Not always – some of the most widely read blogs receive very few comments.

So how do you tell whether a blog is influential?

Technorati assumes that whichever blogs are most linked to are the most influential. Makes sense. Except that it doesn’t measure how many readers a blog has.

Another service, Bloglines, ranks according to how many RSS subscribers (in other words, confirmed readers) a blog has. But that ignores anyone who has arrived at the blog via a search engine, or doesn’t use a feedreader.

Is quantity of readers important, though? Not, perhaps, if those readers have no real influence outside the blogosphere.

The latest development seems to be the mapping of networks of influence, showing both how many people link to a blog, and who they are. But who are they in real-life? That’s the Holy Grail. Whoever can find a way of tracking that will make millions.

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March 29th, 2007

Corporate blogging: the internal blog

Corporate blogging: the internal blog

Following on from the previous post, more membrane stuff.

It’s not just the membrane between a company and its customers that’s important. There’s another conversational membrane to consider: the one between a company and its employees. That’s not just one membrane, though, it’s actually lots of them: between the board and managers; between managers and staff; between departments; between head office and regional offices; between individual employees; and so on.

Again, blogging could be the answer.

This time, in the form of an internal blog. Or more than one blog, perhaps. In fact, internal blogging could be a pre-cursor to launching an external blog; a safe way of getting staff used to the medium, of getting a company more attuned to the wider blogosphere before attempting to engage with it.

But how does an internal blog break down the internal barriers?

It gets people talking, people who might not otherwise talk. It gives them somewhere to talk.

Rather than sending an email around the company on a specific issue, why not blog it instead – leave it there open for comment, open for debate? People who haven’t been involved in drafting it may have some excellent ideas – that frustrated overqualified graduate stuck in an admin job, for example; or someone in a department that’s having a quiet period. Large companies are often full of untapped talent and spare capacity.

Even if a certain post elicits no ideas or comment, the fact that it’s there at least fosters the feeling that everyone is able to participate in the running of the company; that there is a forum for people’s ideas, indeed an incentive to have ideas. Particularly if people’s ideas are seen to get a response. And if everyone is working towards the same goal, why shouldn’t everyone have a voice?

Perhaps one of the least intimidating arenas in which people can raise their voices is a blog – less intimidating than meetings, for instance; especially ones with your bosses. Indeed, meetings aren’t always the best places for ideas – often creative ideas only come with time to think. And once that idea does come, whether it be a comment or worthy of a post of its own, with a blog there’s somewhere to put it. It doesn’t even have to be fully formed, or something that the poster knows how to achieve – if it’s on the blog someone else can provide the finer details.

Before I decided it was about time I tried to make it in writing, I worked in some dispiritingly bureaucratic places, places where management was remote and out of touch, where communication was neither timely nor immediate, where new policies (that usually made employees’ lives worse) were heard about only when they had been implemented, where staff consultations were no more than amateurish questionnaires full of leading questions – I could go on, or rather I couldn’t, which was why I left them all.

Believe me, it saps morale. It kills ideas. And it certainly doesn’t inspire loyalty or a feeling of involvement and participation in common goals. And I don’t just speak on my own behalf, at times the mood in some of those offices was as grey as the offices themselves (having grey offices probably didn’t help matters either).

To be effective, a company doesn’t just need to be aligned with its customers (see point 6), it needs to be aligned with its employees. The places I’m talking about, as far as I could see, weren’t exactly aligned with either. And had an internal blog been introduced… well, things wouldn’t have been instantly better; that would have taken some while. Still, it would undoubtedly have helped.

Perhaps, then, internal blogging will have the most impact for those companies where not too much is wrong, the ones looking to freshen up or push on.

Even in organisations where a radical cultural change is needed, though, there always has to be a first step, someone has to poke those first holes in the membrane. As first steps go, starting an internal blog could be one of the best.

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March 28th, 2007

Corporate blogging: how not to do it

Corporate blogging: how not to do it

Ever thought a company blog sounds like a good idea?

Clearly the Consumer Council for Water (CCWater) did. What’s equally clear is that they didn’t know what they were doing.

A quick description of what CCWater is all about:

The Consumer Council for Water was set up in 2005 to provide a strong voice for water and sewerage consumers in England and Wales. (from www.ccwater.org.uk)

So, effective engagement with consumers would probably be a good idea. Hence the blog, presumably. And there’s no reason why it shouldn’t provide that – done correctly.

But before I say more, cards on the table: I used to work for them. In one of the regional offices; not in external relations, I hasten to add. Which means that I know that this blog, despite appearances to the contrary, has been around for a while.

There have been other posts on it (just a few). The sidebar has had different blurb in it. In fact, in September last year the blog was supposed to be collecting consumers’ comments “on the current water restrictions.” I don’t know whether it has ever collected any comments, though, as comment moderation has been enabled. In other words, any comments received won’t necessarily appear on the site – they certainly haven’t so far.

But let’s assume people have somehow found a site that fails to appear in Google’s top 50 results for any relevant search I can think of besides “Consumer Council for Water blog” (in other words, to find it you first have to suspect that the thing actually exists). And let’s assume they did comment. And even that someone responded, but in private rather than via the blog. If that happened, then they missed the point.

I suppose that’s understandable. In its previous incarnation, CCWater was part of the Civil Service – it can be hard to break old habits, like remoteness and inaccessibility. But what should happen on a blog is that a comment should appear straight away. Comment moderation just gives the impression that you don’t really want comments; that your readers might say something you don’t want to hear – it keeps people at arm’s length.

Furthermore, as a representative of consumers, CCWater doesn’t, or shouldn’t want a dialogue with just one person, they should want to know what everyone thinks. That just isn’t going to happen if comments are only responded to in private.

Just one comment can spark off a whole lively debate – if people get to see it. That debate could even spread across the blogosphere. And perhaps outside the blogosphere. CCWater could end up hearing from hundreds of people, on all sorts of useful tangents. It might even prove cheaper than the customer research and focus groups CCWater pays for, from time to time, from its limited budget.

But so far I’ve ignored the most glaring fault of this blog. No, not that word “aspectations” (really, what does that mean?). There’s just the one post. Written nearly three months ago. And not very engagingly.

Now, I know all too well that water, ironically enough, can be a very dry subject, but really if you have a blog you should be writing blog posts – it’s a blog. It’s not an online poll.

And dry or not, the amount of press releases CCWater issues, it shouldn’t be too hard.

Otherwise, if you don’t actually blog, how do you expect to attract web traffic? How do you expect to get return visits? How can you expect to have a conversation if you don’t say anything? And isn’t that what it’s all about – conversation?

Don’t just take my word for it, though, see points 7 to 9 of this presentation by Hugh MacLeod, the man whose Web 2.0 approach is behind the success of Stormhoek wine. In fact, read all of it. He knows what he’s talking about. And how to say it.

As point 6 says, there is a “membrane” between CCWater and water consumers – that’s inevitable – but it should be as porous as possible. And it could be if they’d got this right – in McLeod’s words, “nothing pokes holes in the membrane better than blogging.” Right now CCWater’s blog is more like a barrier.

But really it has no excuse.

Not when there are presentations and guides like MacLeod’s, Sun Microsystems’, IBM’s, Robert Scoble’s – the list could go on – available for free all over the interent.

In fact, when it comes down to it, not only does CCWater have no excuse, really nor does anyone else.

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March 27th, 2007

Ghost-bloggers II

Ghost-bloggers II

No, don’t go away, I’m not talking about Santo Politi again (or at least I wasn’t, until I just mentioned him). And this will be the only mention of Dan Aykroyd, Slimer or Bill Murray you’ll find (despite the lame pun used for today’s title).

No, today’s post is about ghost-written blogs. To be more specific, a service called Bring the Blog (yep, it is American). For $399 a year Bring the Blog will write a blog entry every business day for its clients. If that sounds like an awful lot of blog entries to produce, don’t worry; their writers aren’t in too much danger of developing RSI – the entries are industry-specific rather than tailored to individual clients.

Described as above, it probably sounds more like a glorified RSS news feed. And that might not be too far from the truth. Except that it’s presented as a blog, and for a more personal touch clients can add their own blog posts.

Now, why, you might ask don’t these clients just write all their own blog posts then? Well, according to Bring the Blog, it’s because blogging can be time-consuming and “blogging software has become very technical” (as far as I’ve noticed, it’s been getting ever more user-friendly).

This review of their services further suggests that many might also be put off by the “steep learning curve”. I suppose that’s not unreasonable – there are plenty of reasons why someone might not want to or might not feel able to write a blog. Equally, there’s no reason why a company wouldn’t want to enjoy the commercial advantages a good blog can bring, e.g. search engine visibility, interactivity, a reputation as a knowledgeable authority in the field, a more human, approachable face to the company. But to what extent can Bring the Blog provide these?

Despite the odd prominent spelling mistake (see the header), I’ll take it on trust that they can provide quality blogposts that their clients’ customers might want to read. And that having a blog will give their sites greater search engine visibility. And even that despite greater search engine visibility their customers aren’t going to accidentally stumble upon identical content elsewhere whilst doing a little idle googling.

However, it’s just not really blogging, is it?

It’s not interacting with their customers (commenting isn’t available just yet). It’s not making the company more accessible and immediate. It’s not humanising or personalising. It’s not former Microsoft blogger Robert Scoble, for instance. That is, unless the clients are writing their own posts as well; perhaps using the Bring the Blog content as newsy, informative filler, or abandoning it altogether. Which leads us back to why the clients have outsourced their blogging in the first place: either they don’t want to blog, or they don’t feel able to. In which case, they’re just not going to blog, are they?

Still, let’s say they do try to write the odd post – maybe they’re using Bring the Blog as a way to learn blogging – next to all those professional posts they’ve supposedly already written (it is ghost blogging – posts will be in the client’s name), their real posts are going to have to be of a similarly professional standard not to stick out like a… well, like a badly written blog post, really.

All that said, though, perhaps there’s the kernel of an idea here. Is the outsourcing of a company’s blog not a viable option?

Well, the blogosphere has certain expectations – deception, for instance, is not taken to kindly; nor is thinly-veiled commercialism. People reading blogs like to know what they’re getting – generally some kind of person-to-person interaction. Ghost-writing doesn’t necessarily preclude this. Why shouldn’t ghost-written blogs declare themselves as such?

Indeed, why shouldn’t they be tailored to and reflective of the client? And even done with a bit of style. All that would be needed is some hint that someone relevant has been involved – Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour’s blog might be a good example (clearly not written by him, but with his involvement). Even more than that, if a member of the company were prepared to respond to comments, I can’t see why a meaningful dialogue with customers couldn’t be established.

Doubtless some bloggers would still be sceptical, but perhaps there is room for a well thought out bespoke blogging service? Particularly in the consumer technology area, where engaging with customers is perhaps key to securing their loyalty. Well, I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. I’m just not sure that it’ll be Bring the Blog providing it. Certainly not yet.

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March 26th, 2007

Blogging is dead… long live blogs

Blogging is dead… long live blogs

It’s hardly news that newspaper cirulations have been falling; or that the internet has been cited as one of the main reasons for this downward trend. Nor is it surprising that in an attempt to arrest this decline, newspapers have been jumping on the new media bandwagon left, right and centre – in particular embracing the interactivity of Web 2.0 (in some cases more successfully and whole-heartedly than others). What is puzzling, though, is that whilst trying to incorporate (assimilate?) blogging into their online offerings, we keep seeing sceptical stories like this one in yesterday’s Sunday Times (and also syndicated in The Australian).

Apparently, according to Tony Allen-Mills, or at least the headline and standfirst above his article, blogging was just a “craze”; one that has been an “extraordinary failure… [and] will soon begin a precipitous slide”. If this is how the Times views blogs, you have to wonder how much longer any of these guys will be on its payroll, or its blogroll for that matter.

As for the evidence behind the story, it seems a little lacking. Granted, anyone who has spent any time perusing the blogosphere will have come across blogs like Santo Politi‘s (does he know he’s made the news?); I can’t help thinking, though, that citing celebrities’ poor blog-keeping skills was relevant only to catch readers’ attention. And as for the high-profile bloggers who have abandoned their blogs, like the article says, they have done so for good reasons: why mention them then? It certainly doesn’t support the article’s thesis that blogging is a dying craze.

The article does at least attempt to appeal to fact, though – by quoting the predictions of the IT analysts Gartner Research, made back in December 2006. These figures, like most statistics, can be interpreted more than one way. For an alternative, more positive interpretation of the same figures you might want to have a look at the founder of Technorati David Sifry’s State of the Blogosphere report last November. According to him, the blogosphere “continues to be strong”.

One bit of the article does seem reasonable, though: the last paragraph. No, not the bit about going to see Freaky Friday; the bit that suggests that blogging has merely peaked. Just because people who haven’t the time, just didn’t really like it, or were only blogging reluctantly on the advice of their publicists have dropped away, it certainly doesn’t spell the end of blogging. If anything, a de-cluttered blogosphere can only gain in reputation. At which point, no doubt, lots more people will start blogs and the whole sorry cycle start up again (which I suppose would at least support my point of view). But whatever happens, it certainly doesn’t look like the threat to ‘old media’ is going to dissipate as easily as it might hope.

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March 23rd, 2007

Last.fm to have last laugh on online music?

Last.fm to have last laugh on online music?

While MySpace has been relentlessly touted for the last couple of years as the place to discover new music, its position looks increasingly threatened by Britain’s last.fm.

In 2005-2006, the press was full of reports of artists like the Arctic Monkeys, Lily Allen, Sandi Thom and Tila Tequila apparently finding huge fan bases through MySpace, in some cases achieving immense popularity without signing a record deal. This was held up as a testament to the DIY ethic of Web 2.0, in which musicians can reach audiences directly, with no need for A&R; people, record labels or distributors.

Hundreds of thousands of unsigned bands flocked to MySpace in an attempt to find fame and fortune. Record labels followed, lured by the opportunity to market their artists to MySpace’s 100+ million users. By late 2006, every recording artiste the world over had to have their own MySpace page, or risk being left out of what had become the de facto global online music community.

But the limitations of MySpace’s information architecture are now prompting music fans to look elsewhere for the next big thing. One site consistently stands out from the rest: London-based last.fm. Unlike MySpace, last.fm functions as a sophisticated recommendation engine as well as a vibrant social community. Fans can easily find and listen to new music that is similar to what they already like, join fan groups, write journals and make new friends. Last.fm’s tasteful, ad-free interface is in sharp contrast to MySpace’s garishness, attracting people who want to discover music rather than have it aggressively marketed at them.

With a firm focus on users, rather than advertisers and marketers, last.fm is quietly becoming a massive Web 2.0 success story, despite its low media profile. It’s currently independent, but acquisition rumours have started to circulate. And with its CEO Felix Miller claiming this week that the site now has 50 million unique visitors, last.fm may yet turn out to be Britain’s YouTube.

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March 16th, 2007

UK bloggers produce book for Comic Relief

UK bloggers produce book for Comic Relief

If you want to support Red Nose Day in a way that doesn’t involve wearing your pyjamas to work, British blogger Troubled Diva (that’s not his real name) may have just the solution.

Last Friday, Mike Atkinson (that’s his real name) hit upon the idea of publishing an anthology of funny blog posts, with all profits from the book to go to Comic Relief. British bloggers would be allowed to submit one entry from their archive, Mike would read through them all and select the best ones for publication.

So far, so good, but that only gave Mike and his handful of cohorts a week to produce a book from scratch, if it was to go on sale at midnight last night as planned. Bloggers soon spread the word by linking to Mike’s original blog post from their own blogs. An interview on Radio Five Live’s Pods and Blogs section helped too, and by the Tuesday evening cut-off, Mike had received more than 300 submissions.

The finished product features 100 of those submissions, and has been published through lulu.com, the online self-publishing outfit we mentioned the other week.

Called Shaggy Blog Stories: A Collection of Amusing Tales from the UK Blogosphere, it is available to buy from shaggyblogstories.co.uk, priced GBP8.96.

As well as being a way to help alleviate world poverty without having to wear a hilarious false nose, we reckon the book will act as a fantastic introduction to some of the funniest writing in the British blogosphere. Well worth a look.

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March 13th, 2007

Top 10 computer games to preserve for history?

Top 10 computer games to preserve for history?

The New York Times has published a list of the top 10 computer games, which four US gaming experts say they wish to preserve for posterity.

They are:

  1. Spacewar! (1962)
  2. Star Raiders (1979)
  3. Zork (1980)
  4. Tetris (1985)
  5. SimCity (1989)
  6. Super Mario Bros. 3 (1990)
  7. Civilization I/II (1991)
  8. Doom (1993)
  9. Warcraft series (beginning 1994)
  10. Sensible World of Soccer (1994).

That list probably reflects an understandable US cultural bias (our own British Film Institute has been collecting computer games since the late nineties, anyway).

But it does seem to skip over an entire generation of gaming, between 1980 and 1985. This period was historically significant because people had much more power over their gaming hardware. In the early days, you needed to be an electronics expert to create games. Today, you pretty much need to be working at a large studio endorsed by the hardware manufacturers or need to create convoluted workarounds to program the hardware you’ve bought without breaking copyright law.

Back back in the early 80s, you had a (sometimes squidgy) keyboard and could buy programs in magazines. A good number of the games people played, they had to type in first, which would be completely unthinkable today. People earned their games through hard labour, and learned a little bit about programming along the way.

The ease with which the machines could be programmed made it a massively productive period. Many commercial successes emerged from hobbyist programming.

Clearly we can’t have all these games included in a top 10 list, but if we’re going to have Tetris as an ambassador of puzzle games, then I nominate Manic Miner as a representative of the early 80s. It was reportedly written by one man in six weeks (which is probably the average time a game misses its advertised street date by today). It’s an early platform game, and it was massively commercially successful. It represents all those games that came from one-man bands and made it big, something that was only possible for a few short years. And it represents everyone else who typed in games, learned to program and hoped to one day create their own big hit.

What games would you add to the list?

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March 8th, 2007

Bill Gates Says Tear Down That Wall… You're In The Process of Building

Bill Gates Says Tear Down That Wall… You're In The Process of Building

Bill Gates went before Congress yesterday to talk about how restrictions on the visas available for skilled workers are “driving away the world’s best and brightest precisely when we need them most.”

“Our lost opportunities are [other countries’] gains”, he said. “I personally witness the ill effects of these policies on an almost daily basis at Microsoft.”

Doesn’t that statement seem a little absurd? Gates is undoubtedly not going through the halls of Microsoft every day, sitting in on coding sessions where people are saying, “I used to know the best hash summer in all these parts from UseNet, but Baidu hired him because he couldn’t get a visa.”

Gates’ suggestion was to make it easier for foreign students to settle in the United States once they graduated, and make it easier for highly skilled workers to obtain permanent resident status.

I can see why this matters to the perspective of the US Congress, but why does it concern Gates? Doesn’t Microsoft have international campuses? (I would link to the page that shows them, but Microsoft’s website is serving up a very nifty 404 page in their stead.) Do rolls of dollar bills give Gates fewer paper cuts than any other currency?

My question: At this point, does a progressive, developing Microsoft actually even benefit from increased United States competitiveness?

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March 2nd, 2007

Twitter makes life more real for connected generation

Twitter makes life more real for connected generation

The news that Obvious Corp. is selling Odeo to focus on Twitter led me to think some more about what’s so important about Twitter.

Like many people, I tried it when I first heard about it, but rapidly concluded that it was of no earthly use to me. Under what possible circumstances would I want to tell the world what I’m doing right now, in 140 characters or fewer? I’ve got a mobile phone; if I want someone to know where I am, I can call or text them. If I’ve got something more substantial to communicate to a wider audience, I’ll write it on my blog.

It wasn’t just me, either. If you look through blog posts about Twitter, you’ll find loads of people wondering what the point of it is, even as they deem it to be ‘cool’ and even ‘addictive’.

It seems that sociologist and internet theorist Sherry Turkle may have the answer. In a New Scientist article last September, she observed that ‘always-on’ connections to the internet are altering our minds – to the extent that we are no longer able to assess how we feel about something unless we share it with our online social network.

Once the preserve of teenagers, this need for constant validation has spread to adults with the proliferation of ‘connected’ devices. It’s possible, therefore, that people who find Twitter addictive are people who don’t think their thoughts and experiences are ‘real’ unless they share them online. One step closer to the Borg hive mind?

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March 1st, 2007

CIPR publishes social media guidelines

CIPR publishes social media guidelines

The CIPR has published its guidelines for social media.

The CIPR is the industry body for public relations and Prompt is a corporate member. The new guidelines apply CIPR’s ethics rules for public relations to emerging social media, including blogs, online communities and social bookmarking tools.

The new policy says that it should be made clear where a blog is run almost entirely without detailed oversight by its public face. That effectively bans unsupervised ghost-written blogs, since you can’t use a byline that says ‘By our CEO (Not really)’.

Astroturfing, where somebody fakes a grassroots movement online, is also out. Contributing to wikis is allowed within the wiki’s own rules.

All of that seems sound. However, there’s one guideline that I am not convinced is headed in the right direction. CIPR recommends that any member running a personal blog, whether it deals with PR or not, should say they work in public relations. What’s more, the guidelines say this should extend to any comments left on other blogs too.

So, say I’m at someone’s blog and I want to disagree with their choice of the best pop singer of the 80s. I’m supposed to leave my comment, together with a statement ‘I work in public relations’.

As you know, Prompt only does technology PR, so there’s no link between the comment and my work. But the unnecessary disclosure creates the suspicion that there is. In the same way, if I want to set up a blog about building cool stuff with Lego, the whole thing would be undermined if I had to put a statement on it saying I work in PR. People would assume I was writing to sell bricks, not just for the love of it, even though I have no link to the Lego company.

I’m in favour of full disclosure, but we need informed disclosure. Where it’s irrelevant, the disclosure itself can be misleading and can undermine the creative works that PR professionals make in their spare time. Not everything they do is related to the job. There is life outside the office.

PR professionals are perfectly capable of judging where there’s a conflict they need to disclose, both on their own blogs and in comments. They don’t need a rule that’s so far-reaching to help them err on the side of caution.

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