Archive for the ‘Basics’ Category

Free and Open Internet Access: In Danger?

I knew about Net Neutrality but didn’t really have a sense of urgency about it until Iwatched this video presentation by Lawrence Lessig. It may seem like a boring subject, but Lessig does an excellent job, like your favorite professor (if you go to Stanford Law School, you can have him as your professor). If you do business on the Internet, you should watch this.

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The Digital Divides – They Lives!

When most people talk about the digital divide, it seems they are referring to the inability of low income people to surf the Internet. Or, basically, to receive and regurgitate the messages that we, the digital elite, are sending to them online.

But there are plenty of small businesses and small non-profits – run by educated, middle class people – who are being left behind, too. This is not simply due to a lack of access to the internet, but the inability to keep up with the rapidly changing environment of social media, search engine marketing, and the like.  I also think it’s the inability to imagine the possibility of this new world, like Clay Shirky has described in his book Here Comes Everybody.  Perusing the job postings of local non-profits, I don’t see many marketing and communications positions that even incorporate knowledge of social media into their job descriptions. I think perhaps they don’t want to scare off some of the older professionals (including people in my age group!) but it’s surprising that it’s not even mentioned. Again, evidence of another aspect of the digital divide.

Big corporations and most of the national non-profits have the resources for getting their message out. And despite the promise of the Internet, I think it is only being partially fulfilled for the small players.

Lately I have been trying to see this as an opportunity. I was initially shocked that people would pay to learn how to use Web 2.0 tools, including LinkedIn and Twitter, but EveryDotConnects has been hosting workshops on this subject! 

 So what should we, the digital elite, do to help our brethren discover the potential that exists in social media? Will our moms forever continue to simply forward us cute and/or alarming emails and, if they’re businesspeople or community leaders, have 1998-era Web sites? And if they do participate, will it continue to be mindless regurgitation? Wait a minute, even those 20-somethings are doing mindless regurgitation… so yes we do need to ensure that technology is used for good… and why should social media literacy be relegated only to the young and hip and savvy?

The art and science of project management

As many have noted, including some folks over at Adaptive Path, project management is both an art and a science. It requires a person who can be a facilitator, a motivator, an instigator, a deal broker, and more. My approach emphasizes building stakeholder consensus and keeping the lines of communications open. Here, I will try to simplify the process, as I see it, down to 6 components: Who, What, Where, When, Why, and How (although not necessarily in that order):

  1. Who: Identify and gather stakeholders and define their roles. For a Web application, one needs to define the core project team, which includes writers, designers, and programmers. In addition to the client and the core team, one must coordinate with others who will be part of the collaborative process and involve them in the requirements (see “What” below). It’s important for the PM to be familiar with all elements of the organization in order to understand how projects and programs may interact. In large organizations, it can be a challenge to identify the best stakeholders, but I would do so by checking in with related areas, reading company newsletters or blogs, etc.  Who are the key members of the impacted teams?  If you want user-generated content, who will be reading and vetting that content? If possible, find team members who demonstrate an interest in the project. 
  2. What: Define the overall goals, requirements, dependencies, and constraints. How does the project fit in with the overall strategy and communications/ marketing plan? The client will define this but the development team and stakeholders should have input into defining this based on their areas of expertise. This is where the brokering and consensus building among the parties begins. Having identified the right people to include will be important. In the case of a Web application, one first needs to define the content and vision, then define the technical means of accomplishing that goal.
  3. When: Timelines and deadlines are generally the PM’s main responsibility. Promoting and maintaining communication between the development team and the client is essential. If there are other moving pieces or dependencies, such as the development of a new Content Management System or the production of an ad campaign, the PM must know. For software and Web development, some teams prefer an iterative process that is similar to prototyping and involves several rounds of testing. In this instance, the client needs to not only know about this process, but also support it from the beginning. When it comes to the Web and social media, the environment and consumers’ expectations are constantly changing. Any product or feature development needs to keep a look out on the road ahead; the PM on this type of project needs to help educate the client about this dynamic environment.
  4. Where: Ideally, the development team and even the key stakeholders work in the same location, which facilitates more natural communication. Beyond gathering for meetings, I find technology useful to facilitate collaboration whether the team members are co-located or not. Some tools I have used are Basecamp, Twitter, test sites, instant messaging, and wikis.
  5. How: Define internal resources and evaluate them as the project moves forward. Does the team have “experience design” expertise? If not, can an outside resource help? Will the current infrastructure (server capacity, etc.) be sufficient? It’s important to discuss the “how” with the stakeholders, without getting into too much detail and watching their eyes glaze over. I also believe strongly in feedback loops. As a PM it’s important to celebrate successes as the project moves along, while fostering an environment to discuss openly any issues or problems that may arise.
  6. Why: This is the most important part! The PM helps keep everyone’s “eyes on the prize.” The project as a whole and all of the above elements should be evaluated from the beginning and throughout the project life by how it meshes with the core values of the company. Will the project mean a paradigm shift for the organization – e.g., will user generated content be introduced for the first time and how will it impact the company? How is this project contributing to a great user experience? How will it help create passionate and loyal customers or motivate and train team members? The PM should lead the way to excellence.
  7. Of course, documentation such as project plans and creative briefs are important and they should reflect the above issues.

    Best Practices and Industry Trends

    I like to also look outside the organization to get ideas of how others may be tackling a similar project or issue. By researching what others have done and presenting that information to the group, such as demonstrating Web sites or sharing findings from recent studies, we can get ideas that will help the project, preferably in the requirements phase.

    Launch

    Before a public launch of a Web application, sign-off should be obtained from the key stakeholders and final edits or changes made.This is always the most stressful time in the product development cycle and it’s important to build in time for this and even for unforeseen problems at the launch.

    Flexibility and Fun

    As I said above, I try keep on top of activities throughout the organization to determine how they might affect the project. Will any changes in other programs affect it? Flexibility and strategic thinking helps ensure projects are successful.

    Finally, beyond being the task master and cat herder, a PM should work to ensure that people are enjoying collaborating with each other and find some time to just have fun together.

Just say “No!” to bad meetings

humorous pictures

Does your company have boring, unproductive meetings? Sometimes, perhaps, a boring meeting is better than no meeting, but usually not. It’s worth it to take the time to improve your meetings. One way that I find to make meetings more productive is if the attendees can get up to speed on the issues that you want to talk about beforehand.

Of course, the level at which you want to engage your audience may vary, but if you do want input from the people at the meeting, you might consider using a Wiki or another online collaboration tool to get people thinking and even talking about the subject before having a face-to-face meeting. I have used Basecamp as a project management tool; it’s writeboard feature functions similarly to a Wiki, in allowing different people to edit or add text, and it has a message board, to-do lists, and milestones. Their product blog has some interesting case studies and other product feature info. Some popular Wikis are Wetpaint and PBWiki. All of these tools are free, so they are limited in their functionality, but worth checking out. What I did initially was try them out with a small group of people, including using Basecamp to coordinate a personal project (my wedding!). Go forth and let technology work for you!

Of course, there are a million other ways to make better meetings. Do you have any favorites?

No such thing as a free lunch, despite what Wired says

The cover story of a recent issue of Wired magazine holds forth the idea that the Next Big Thing in business will be to sell products and services for $0.00, i.e., FREE. They don’t necessarily mean the cross-subsidized “free” that was pioneered by Gillette razors, giving away the razor and selling the blades at a higher cost, although maybe it’s not really so different.

Assuming you’re a consumer of such “free” services, you had better be prepared to get what you pay for. Sales/PR/marketing consultant Thom Singer describes getting shut out of his free blog by a spam-blocker for several days:

while Blogger.com has been great, it is a free service, and free services have limited access to any human customer service and support

That’s one of the problems with free. Until computer applications get so good that they can provide customer service for a lower cost, if your business relies on a service, it’s best to go with the service that costs a bit more than free, if you get to talk to a (hopefully helpful and competent) customer support person.

Another problem with free or even low-cost options in technology is your limited ability to customize your users’ experience. Of course, Web applications are getting better at customization, fortunately. But depending on your business needs and the expectations of your client base, you may be better served by spending the money to get a custom Web site or database or whatever tool you need. I worked for an organization whose constituent base and marketing managers wanted highly customized event registration, database-driven tools, and a social network that integrates with other social networks (something that barely even exists, although data portability will hopefully be changing that soon). They complained vociferously about the existing system, hosted by a third-party ASP. Come to find out, the ASP was receiving the equivalent of the salary of one junior Web developer for the annual service fee. Again, you get what you pay for! The highly customized solution could be built, but it would take a much larger investment.

And that’s not even getting into the problem of externalities – for example, what is the social and environmental cost of these free products and services? Because transistors and computer components can be made in China so cheaply, we have increased computing power. We’ve all read the stories about human rights, use of lead in toys, and poison pet food and know that maybe cheap products from China isn’t the best thing for us, perhaps.

Of course, just because you pay for a product or service doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get the absolute best experience, but you can now get revenge on the Internet (a subject for another post!) and you may have more legal options.

Enjoy your free lunch now, but know that someone is paying for it!

E-mail is dead. Long live e-mail!

With the rise of text messaging, social networks such as Facebook, and instant messaging, teens and college students are using e-mail much less than their parents, becoming the “text generation.” Even people who rely more on e-mail get overwhelmed by the inundation of messages and start to tune it out or, like me, opt out. Since getting a Yahoo! Web-based e-mail account in the late 90s, I have signed up for so many e-mail newsletters or lists (either because I was truly interested in the store, cause, or news provider or because I was bribed to do so by free stuff), I just today went on an “unsubscribe binge” and removed myself from at least 20 lists.

Does this mean e-mail is obsolete? No. In fact, there is the possibility that our Web-based e-mail accounts will become our data hubs for our complete online identity, according to a recent article in The Economist.

Although diversifying your communication to include online social networks, text messaging, and other spaces where appropriate is a good idea, having a good e-mail newsletter is still an essential element to your communications strategy. There are e-mail management vendors out there, but remember, content is key, just as it is on your Web site. And writing and designing an effective e-newsletter is becoming crucial. Some basics:

1. Keep it simple. But not too simple. If you give too much information, not many people will take the time to read it. If you provide too little information, you may not motivate people to learn more.

2. Pay the most attention to the Subject line. You would be wise to find someone who is really good at writing succinct, catchy, and informative headlines. The subject line of most people’s in-boxes is pretty long, so don’t waste that opportunity!

3. Put as much information at the top as you can, in a list or somehow grouped together. Like Subject lines, the information in these lines needs to be succinct, informative, and motivating enough to move the reader either down further in the newsletter or to click on a link to your Web site.

4. Try out different styles and formats. If your broadcast e-mail vendor provides data on click-through, you can send out different versions of the same newsletter and see which ones work to get the most traffic to your site, etc.

The Nielsen Norman Group, the usability experts, in their most recent study, say that publishers need “to pay attention to their newsletters’ usability and to design for scannability and fast access. ” It’s an important resource that is most likely being underutilized (see the NNG study again), so you owe it to yourself and your organization to put it at or near the top of your communication list of to-do items.