Don’t Use Fake Research When Marketing to Small Businesses

Some research seems so obvious that it may as well be asking five year olds if they like puppies

Each May, I receive an avalanche of email pitches from public relations people (who now go by the title, “content strategists”) who want SmallBusiness.com to share with its readers the findings of a new surveys their companies have conducted just in time for Small Business Week.

The email is nicely produced and has links to: (1) A press release about the research, (2) research highlights (3) an infographic that looks like a PowerPoint version of their survey findings and (4) an offer to allow me to interview someone at their company about the survey.

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Learning by Doing Always Beats Talking About Theory

I’m also constantly amazed at how “not knowing what you don’t know” leads you to do things that don’t work…but provides you insight into what might.

We just flipped the switch on SmallBusiness.com’s first major technical and design upgrade since launching its daily-content Main Page section last November. (We call the new section, the “flow” side, to balance with the “know” side of the site, the 29,000 page SmallBusiness.com WIKI.)

The design changes are various, depending on what size screen you’re viewing it. However, the technical changes are all about increasing the speed of the site. And they worked. So long, little engine that could, but we know there are plenty of bugs that will show up.

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Hints for creating small business and non-profit Twitter Lists

[Notes: You can view all my “Thoughts on Twitter” posts displayed chronologically here: http://www.RexBlog.com/thoughts-on-twitter.]

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During the past few weeks, I’ve been spending a few minutes each day creating Twitter Lists as part of a set of directories on SmallBusiness.com (a wiki) called the Small Business Twitter Lists Project.

smallbusiness.com twitter lists project

Currently, the project involves creating (or finding) local lists of merchants, cafes and other consumer-oriented small businesses who are actively using Twitter to communicate with their customers. (Later, we’ll be adding lists of professional services, personal services, business services, consultants, etc., but now, we’re focusing limited bandwidth on doing lists of small businesses that are consumer-focused.)

Our plans are to create good models of lists and then to encourage others to create such lists they can add to the directory.

Even though I spend just a few minutes each day on it, the project has led me to realize what a great potential service Twitter Lists are, but how there needs to be some guidance or suggestions for what makes a good list. (And yes, I realize the irony that the lists created under the @r Twitter account do not follow these suggestions yet.)

So, here are the top hints for creating and curating Twitter Lists I’ve learned (so-far) from the SmallBusiness.com Twitter Lists Project:

1. Know the difference in “following” and “listing”: On Twitter, “following” is like adding a Twitter user to your iTunes Library. “Listing” is like creating a play list.

2. You don’t have to “follow” a Twitter account to “list” it, so that iTunes metaphor in #1 is a little inaccurate. Another kink in the metaphor: At this point, you can only create 20 lists. (Warning: see hint #8)

3. Lists are incredibly helpful to people who look to you for expertise on a topic. A list titled “Boise stores where I shop” can be a great service to those who consider you a retail maven in Boise.

4. Another way to explain #3: If you have more than 100 Twitter users you follow, new Twitter users may look at the list of those you follow hoping to find people they should follow — a Twitter List would be a lot more helpful to them.

5. Name your list in a search friendly way. Twitter has not yet integrated Lists as a filter (operator) to Search.twitter.com and is even promoting a third-party list directory called Listorious (obvious acquisition possibility for Twitter), so it is important that you name a list so that it can be found by those using Google to find lists. (Here’s an example of the Google search engine results page if someone is looking for a Twitter List of small businesses in Austin and uses the query: Austin small business twitter list)

6. Keep your lists “narrow” in focus. Think niche. Twitter Lists are like tagging. They can be categorized any way you like, and using any term, and can include hundreds of accounts. However, I’ve found that for me, personally, the most helpful lists are narrow in focus, and very limited in number. For example, with our SmallBusiness.com project, I feel certain we will end up with lists of coffee shops, lists of bars, etc., in a certain city — rather than lists that are broad.

7. Use the “description” field to explain what your list is about. This is a recently added feature, so if you’ve created a list, go back and add it. Again, this will help Google find the list, and make it easier for readers to understand what you intend the list to be about.

8. The best Twitter List to experiment with is a cause about which you are passionate. In fact, here’s your first Twitter List trail run. Create a Twitter List with the name of your hometown as the first word followed by “___________ non-profit organizations I admire”

9. (A cautionary hint related to #2) You can create “private” Twitter Lists that only you can see, but those on the list can see they’re on such a list — so don’t name a private lists “idiots worth monitoring” or anything like that.

10. If you create or run across a good list of your hometown merchants, bars, restaurants and cafes using Twitter to promote their businesses (i.e., *not* a list of social media experts and marketing consultants – yet), please email me a link to it: rex@smallbusiness.com.

You don’t get Wikipedia, so stop trying

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For years, I’ve been reading that Wikipedia is dying. (Of course, on the internet, anything successful attracts an “is dying” movement.)

Today, there’s a Wall Street Journal article that does a half-way decent job of glancing at the history of the site, but does so under a headline that suggests “volunteers are abandoning the site” and implying, at least by implication, that Wikipedia is declining. The article, however, points out that usage of Wikipedia is actually increasing.

I soon will be writing quite a bit on the topic of wiki development and culture, so I won’t go into the topic deeply in this post, but I can say with some authority and experience: Wikipedia is at a stage where casual volunteers should abandon it. Again, I don’t have time now to explain what I mean, other than to say, there is a user-to-contributor ratio on an open wiki project like Wikipedia (and SmallBusiness.com, the wiki where I serve as creator and head-helper), that is optimal for maximum productivity. Too few volunteers or too many can create challenges that detract from the overall potential and quality of the wiki. The “Baby Bear (just right)” number of volunteers is one of the secrets to wiki development success that only a few projects have cracked. Again, I’ll be writing on that topic more in-depth later.

If you understand wiki development, you would understand that Wikipedia needs fewer, more dedicated, volunteers, at this point — not more drive-by volunteers like it may have needed in the past. It needs volunteers who can add accuracy to the content that’s there. It needs volunteers who can improve the usability, taxonomy and navigation of the site. It needs volunteers who can enable it to raise the funds necessary to sustain the content that’s there already.

But the volume of volunteers is not important for Wikipedia, at this point.

Frankly, I’d prefer to see some of those volunteers take what they’ve learned working of Wikipedia — both what they like, and what they don’t — and go create their own wikis, or volunteer on some more tightly-focused wiki projects. (And yes, email me if you’d like to bring some of that Wikipedia volunteer knowledge over to helping build SmallBusiness.com.)

Thoughts on Twitter #8: You’re going to love Twitter Lists, unless you don’t

[Notes: You can view all my “Thoughts on Twitter” posts displayed chronologically here: http://www.RexBlog.com/thoughts-on-twitter.]

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If you read this blog closely, you know I’ve been whining for a “lists” or “groups” feature on Twitter since, well, about the time I started using it. (About 90% of the complaints I hear from people who use Facebook could be solved if they understood and used the FaceBook “friends list” feature.)

For those of us who use third-party services and software to manage our Twitter following and tweeting, solutions to organizing people and topics one follows were solved a long time ago. Likewise, it’s been obvious for a long, long time, that a person who experiences Twitter just via the Twitter.com website is completely lost because of the lack of such a feature.

They are so lost that the Twitter powers-that-be started rolling their own lists of suggested Twitter users for new Twitter users to follow. Unfortunately, those “suggested users” were the entertainers, media types, tech-personalities or random friends of the person who controlled the list, that it resulted in a sky-rocketing of those individuals’ followers. The infamous “Suggested User List” (SUL), in my opinion, set back the comprehension of what Twitter is as it encouraged new users to believe it’s something you sign up for when you want to get blasts of messages from famous people you’ve never heard of. And so, they re-confirmed their perception that Twitter is a joke.

Recently (as I explained in Thoughts on Twitter #6), I decided that the list of people I was following on my @r Twitter account was creating so much noise, the tweet-stream had become meaningless. Therefore, I re-booted the list — wiped it completely away and started all over. In doing so, I lost hundreds of followers who, obviously, have services set up that unsubscribe from anyone who does the same to them. As I explained in that post, my idea was to be a better “curator” of the list of people I follow, so it became more targeted on friends, folks I respect and talk with professionally, some of my passions and Twitter users who live in my hometown of Nashville.

The experience of thinking about “following” as curation made it clear to me that if a Twitter user was able to make “lists” have a public view, such list-building would be viewed as a valuable service — and, in a way that is understandable to longtime students of online reputation, another data-point that could be used by those who are always trying to quantify “authority.” (If you stick with me, you may discover why there seems to be a high correlation between tech-geeks and baseball fanatics.)

Here’s an example of “following” and authority and curation that I’ve experienced personally.

Because I’m the “juggler-in-chief” of the wiki-model resource SmallBusiness.com, I registered the “early-bird-catches-the-worm” Twitter account, @smallbusiness. While it currently has about 5,000 followers — a lot less than many small business oriented Twitter accounts — Digg.com’s WeFollow.com‘s algorithm ranks my @smallbusiness account as #2 in authority in the #smallbusiness category, again, despite being #63 in followers.

As, frankly, I have too little interest to spend much time trying to understand how WeFollow actually measures “authority” (another term for “reputation” or “influence”), I’m assuming it’s related to the number of “high authority” users who follow someone else with perhaps some weight given to the “authority” rank of individuals who re-tweet something posted by a particular user.

As the “content” of the tweets I post on @smallbusiness are limited to news stories and other items I think are ofinterest to small business owners and managers (unlike the goofy banter on my personal user account @r), I get lots of RTs because it’s obvious that the links I post are highly curated and timely: they are real news I look for carefully.

What WeFollow is doing with an algorithm, Twitter Lists is going to do with the power of the crowd. Lists will provide an incredible service to the casual Twitter user — and will help the service evolve away from its perception of fluffiness — a perception the Twitter SUL helped to reinforce.

It will also turn the ridiculous notion that how many followers you have on Twitter is the most revealing marker of “authority.” Listen — you can buy Twitters followers. And, no doubt, you’ll be able to buy getting on “lists.” But the challenge and cost of doing that will become more geometric in complexity and expense. And, the likelihood of those with “real” authority following your spam list is zilch.

Bottomline: Lists will make it a lot easier for unconvinced users of Twitter to understand its utility. And second, Lists will reward those who actually spend time and effort providing helpful, witty or engaging content in the form of the “tweets” they post OR the effort they put into curating unique and special lists.

Sidenote: I am working through the weekend on a major project, so I haven’t gotten around to building many lists on my @r Twitter account. However, I’m going to be aggressively creating lists using the @smallbusiness/lists (where I have an amazing URL to build such lists) and I’ve already started a few.

Bonus link: Like so much I have learned regarding the nature of content and connectedness over the past ten years, Dave Winer has been my maven on the topic of Lists, as well. The other day, when I first received the feature, I was thinking of him when I decided that Twitter Lists won’t be a “perfect” feature until they are exportable via OPML and can be followed via RSS. I’m sure Twitter will enable those or there are 3rd party hacks of the API going on right now.

Other bonus links:
Dave Troy – “Why Twitter Lists Change Everything”
Todd Zeigler – “Using Twitter Lists to Judge Influence