Facebook drops the Like gate

In the last few weeks, the Facebook team has rolled out a number of changes to the way the site works. The many changes to the user experience (like the new “ticker” and the increase in character limits on posts) have been widely covered and discussed elsewhere.

A much more significant change that is not getting as much attention is the complete removal of “Like” gates on commenting. To be clear: this means Facebook users can now comment on ANY Page without having first Liked the Page.

Why is this significant?

In the past, the act of clicking “Like” acted as a useful psychological gate. People with an axe to grind might be disinclined to publicly say they “like” a brand or organization just to be able to post a nasty comment on the Page. That (admittedly paper-thin) barrier has now gone.

More importantly, the act of “liking” created a relationship, of sorts, between the fan and the organization Page. This gave the Page two valuable things. It allowed the Page administrator to track all kinds of meaningful analytics about the behaviour of the Page’s fans. Secondly, by becoming a Page fan, users were willingly “subscribing” to see status updates from that brand or organization’s Page appear in the news stream on their own Facebook Pages.

As Josh Constine of the blog Inside Facebook puts it:

“By previously reserving the right to comment to those who had Liked a Page, participation in a conversation was a value exchange. Users got to share their opinions, and Pages got to reach those users through the news feed and appear on their profile.”

That value exchange is now gone.

Facebook have already made compensatory changes to their “Insights” analytics system, adding more granularity to the way Page admins can track interactions on their Pages.

This may help pacify Pages admins who view Facebook primarily as a measureable advertising and promotion channel. It seems almost as though the trade-off logic is: “you don’t get to have a relationship with everyone who comments on your Page any more, but in return we’ll give you more manageable data about how engaging your content is”.

From the perspective of anyone with a Public Relations mindset, however, the fall of the “Like gate” has some serious ramifications.

The Impact on PR

As Page walls are now entirely open to the public, we can expect the monitoring burden for Pages to increase considerably over time. To quote Josh Constine again:

“A brand experiencing a public relations crisis could see thousands or even millions of users descend on its Page to leave complaints or insults without gaining any new fans.”

The message for all of us involved in administering, monitoring and managing Page communities within Facebook is: diligence.

Issues can erupt at any time. The simple barrier that previously helped throttle the volume and velocity of comments on pages is gone. This heralds a ripe new opportunity for spammers, malcontents, and trolls. It also throws open a door for people with genuine concerns and complaints, removing that psychological barrier.

What should you do?

Now is the time to take a close look at your Facebook Page policies and processes and tighten things up BEFORE some seemingly innocuous post escalates into a full-blown crisis, played out in full view of the Facebook public.

Four things:

  1. Review and, if needed, revise your Facebook comment moderation policy. Think of this as insurance. It’s important to publicly state some “rules of engagement” as a permanent link on your Page, reserving the right to delete comments and, if necessary, ban certain users if they post offensive, defamatory, or otherwise inappropriate comments;
  2. Take a close look at your monitoring and comment triage protocols. Are they robust enough to manage an increased comment flow? Is your process for review, escalation and response approval sufficiently streamlined and efficient? What are your provisions for off-hours and weekend monitoring?
  3. Review staff training. Do the frontline teams charged with monitoring your Facebook Pages understand their responsibilities? Are they empowered to encourage healthy, positive debate within your Facebook community? Do they know when to escalate issues, when to step out of the discussion, and where to go to find answers?
  4. Look to your crisis plans. What will you do if your Page gets overrun by angry commenters or spam bots? Will you switch to real-time monitoring and response, switch off commenting, or even shut down your entire Page?
Of course, if you’re ever feeling uncertain about how robust your Facebook monitoring and management protocols are, feel free to drop me a note. I know some people who can help with that.

Farewell Jack

“My friends, love is better than anger. Hope is better than fear. Optimism is better than despair. So let us be loving, hopeful and optimistic. And we’ll change the world.” – from Jack Layton’s final letter to Canadians, penned just two days before his sad and untimely death at 61.

Canada and the world have lost a true gentleman; one of the last genuinely honourable politicians and a deeply decent human being.

As Max Valiquette put it on Twitter:  ”1980s: city councilor. ’90s: runs for MP. ’00s: party leader. ’10s: Official opposition leader. The man deserved another decade, I think.”

Thank you, Jack, for restoring hope in the left. So sorry you were denied the time to finish your great work.

Thoughts on Google+

It occurs to me that in all this talk about Google+ vs. Facebook, Google+ vs. Twitter (and Google+ vs. ALL THE THINGS!!) we’re kind of missing another important perspective.

As usual, many of us have fallen into the all-too-easy assumption of OR logic. We’re examining and considering all the ways Google+ might OR and, potentially, NOT other social services.

Will Google+ kill Facebook? Does Google+ render Twitter irrelevant?

This kind of binary thinking makes a certain sense, of course. We’re naturally inclined to see things in competitive terms and it’s certainly true that Google themselves have represented G+, in part, as a competing alternative to Facebook, Twitter and their ilk.

But if we only look at things in terms of this OR that (or, even more extreme, in terms of this NOT that), we’re assuming that there must be one SocNet to rule them all (and in the ToS grind them).

This is not the lesson we ought to be taking from the history of the space. Social Networks rarely die; they just find their niche.

Sometimes, that niche is relatively small and defined by geographic, demographic, or industry-specific parameters (think MySpace, Orkut, Badoo – emphasis on “relatively” small).

Sometimes the “niche” is huge and, I guess, no longer a niche (Facebook, Twitter), but that still doesn’t mean the other SocNets have been killed or rendered irrelevant by the gimungous dominant players.

In other words, AND logic is often much more applicable than OR or NOT here.

Sure, there’s a natural and understandable race for dominance among the big players – fueled, in large part, by the needs of investors as much as it is by the lust for power, fame & glory on the part of the management teams. And yes, one (or more) of the big SocNets will always “win” for a while.

SixDegrees.com was the early winner, way back in ’97. Then it was Friendster, then Orkut. MySpace came along and held the pole position for a long time. Now Facebook is on top of the heap and getting bigger all the time.

But with the exception of SixDegrees, none of the other, earlier SocNets has entirely ceased to exist. They just found the niche that allowed them to coexist with the rest of the networks out there. In the same timeframe, other significant networks have also arisen and achieved enormous followings (look up the user numbers for Badoo some time), without too much speculation over whether they’ll OR/NOT the others.

Facebook didn’t kill MySpace. It may have rendered it less relevant from the perspective of investors, advertisers, and many users (particularly the influential digerati), but MySpace still seems to be going strong in many markets around the world.

So, right now, Google+ has a (large, rapidly expanding) niche. That niche – for the moment at least – is geeks, phreaks, early adopters, and the digerati. People like you and me, in other words. No, it’s not your Mom’s social network – but then neither was Facebook when it launched.

Can Google+ grow to the point where it “kills” Facebook? That seems unlikely and, more to the point, historically UNevitable :)

Sure, it’s growing incredibly fast (I’ve seen reports suggesting 20 million+ users by this weekend), but a more reasonable projection would be that Google+ AND Facebook will settle into their respective, very large, niches – that each will continue to be relevant in different ways for a long time to come. This would also seem to suggest that increasing overlap and content integration between the two services should naturally continue to evolve – an entire after-market of third-party integrations will arise to bridge (and, essentially, erase) the divide between the services.

It’s AND logic. Both services can and, most likely, will continue to be relevant to different markets or for different purposes.

One other aspect worth thinking about is the extent to which the various social networks can become infrastructural – deeply integrated and woven through the fabric of the web.

There’s been some discussion out there about what happens if Google+ reaches 750 million users (the most recently-published Facebook user count), but this is in some ways a less interesting question than considering which of the various SocNets might end up becoming accepted as an infrastructure service.

This is interesting to me because the different approaches of Facebook and Google seem to represent opposing ideas about how the web should work.

We can’t truly understand Facebook’s ambitions and machinations, but the prevailing opinion seems to be that Facebook intends to, in essence, BE the Internet for the majority of people. It’s the old AOL view of the world: that the Web should be packaged up and filtered for us. The “walled garden” approach.

The Facebook “Open Graph” thing, that has Facebook Like and Share buttons popping up all over the web, is a key pillar in this strategy. Facebook wants to be everywhere, and everything is pulled back into Facebook.

Google’s approach might appear similar on the surface (+1 buttons appearing everywhere, everything pulling back into Google indexes), and yet Google already feels a lot more infrastructural in so many ways.

They already have a truly web-native OS in Chrome (to say nothing of their role in Android – the fastest-growing mobile OS right now). This suggests that Google, with Google+, Chrome, Gmail, YouTube and Google Apps (if they can get the damn things integrated) may have a much stronger chance of being an infrastructure play than Facebook ever could. And I’m actually kind of OK with that idea.

I find it a little hard to define, but Facebook seems to want to pull everything in to its playground, whereas Google seem rather more inclined to make their toys show up wherever you already are. Sometimes, anyway – although I sense their thinking about all this is probably as confused as mine is.

So. Where does this all leave us? I have absolutely no idea. I just know that Facebook, Twitter and their ilk are not likely to disappear off the map anytime soon just because of Google+. I project a good few years of confusing coexistence still to come.

For now, though, I’m enjoying the Google+ experience and can see myself spending an increasing amount of my time in here.

It’s entirely natural, by the way, that Google+ is, at the moment, positively choked with discussions about what Google+ is.

No surprise here. Back in the early days of blogging, a lot of what we used to blog about was, in essence, “whither blogging”.

In the first 9 months or so of Twitter, most of the people on Twitter were talking about Twitter.

And so with this new shiny social media object: the vast majority of discussions inside Google+ today are discussions about Google+

This is simply because we’re all following the fundamental rules of Social Media Club:

The first rule of Social Media Club: you talk about Social Media.
The 2nd rule of Social Media Club: you TALK ABOUT Social Media
Rule 3 – If someone says stop, goes limp, taps out: Twitpic it.
Rule 4 – Unlimited Likes to a Circle.
Rule 5 – Multiple conversations at a time.
Rule 6 – No shills, no spammers.
Rule 7 – Threads will go on as long as they have to.
Rule 8 – If this is your first time at Social Media Club, you HAVE to comment.

Jane Jacobs for Toronto Mayor!

As I ease back into the old blog after too long away, permit me a bit of a rant about the state of the city I call home. Seems appropriate, in this municipal election season, to think about what is to become of Toronto in the years ahead.

See: I’m worried. More than worried – I’m bitterly upset and depressed to watch this once bright and hopeful city slowly consumed by untrammeled construction and the want of any coherent plan.

It’s a conversation I’ve had with countless friends, cab drivers and complete strangers time and again in the past couple of years; the consensus always being that we’ve squandered the splendour of our city and we don’t know how to fix it.

When we first lived here, I used to love picking up visiting family and friends from the airport and driving them back to our home in the Beach along the long arc of the Gardiner Expressway. As we swept past Exhibition Place – rising up onto the elevated section of the Gardiner, over Bathurst, curving in towards the heart of the city – that iconic Toronto skyline would start to open up before us.

It was like a curtain going up; Toronto announcing itself to our visitors: “just look at the magnificent city your friend calls home.”

There’s the Skydome, backed up by the CN Tower, opening the door to the grand rise of the Royal York away back behind the rail tracks, leading the eye on up across the serried towers of the downtown core – the still-impressive gold-plate windows on Royal Bank Plaza, Mies van der Rohe’s TD Centre towers; and to the right, the sparkling expanse of Lake Ontario, stretching so wondrously far I think my Mum’s still secretly convinced it’s the ocean.

It was stunning. But now…?

Now the relentless wall of bland, pre-fab condos has robbed our city of any grandeur it ever aspired to. We’ve already walled in the lake with an ugly march of concrete boxes. Now we’re busy shutting off every other once-inspiring vista the city ever offered.

Poor old Ted Rogers must be gnashing teeth in his grave – $25 million he paid to get his name up on the side of the Skydome. You can’t hardly even see it for condos now.

Even newer, but still quirkily-lovable buildings like the Air Canada Centre “Hanger” have fallen victim, with yet another faceless glass-box and two overhigh towers completely unbalancing a space that held such potential. John McEwen’s magnificent sculpture, that proudly dominated the Hanger’s main entrance, cowers now under the shiny, looming new palace of Mammon they call “Maple Leaf Square”. (I hear they’re going to move the sculpture off to the side into it’s own little green space as part of the new development plan. Just like Toronto to relegate something impressive and dramatic to the status of a parkette.)

And this is just the experience of driving through one stretch of the city. Don’t even get me started on the slow-motion disaster of our transit system, the lip service paid to cyclists, or the weary, nerve-wracking misery of being a pedestrian in our downtown area.

Ack.

So here’s my wish for Toronto’s new mayor: be a designer.

Be an architect, an urban planner. Be a builder and a breaker. Be someone with the courage and the sheer force of will to slam the brakes on, pause, re-think, and build a plan to renew this city before the mess spreads too far.

It can be done.

Look to Birmingham. The city I lived just outside of for 20-odd years had become, by the mid-70s, a misplanned muddle of 50s and 60s concrete monoliths; hostile to pedestrians, toxic to business, and just no bloody good to anyone.

Now, though, it’s a city transformed and well on the way to becoming one of the most liveable megacities on the planet, thanks, in large part, to the bold vision put in place by the city council of the 1980s and the new “Big City Plan.”

That’s what I want for my Toronto. A Big City Plan for this great big city.

I know dear Jane Jacobs isn’t with us any more, and I doubt she’d run for mayor even if she was. But is it too much to ask for at least one of the current mayoral candidates to have read The Death and Life of Great American Cities? Maybe they have. Maybe one of them will surprise us yet.

[UPDATE: it has been suggested by three friends whose opinions I respect, that I may be inadvertently misrepresenting Jane Jacobs' views here. This is certainly not my intent and is, if anything, a casual accident of poor word choice on my part. It's challenging to discuss Jane's complex thinking and her remarkable legacy without using such obvious phrases as "urban renewal" and words like "planning" and yet I should acknowledge that much of what passed for "urban planning" from the middle of the 20th century onwards was precisely what Jane took issue with in her first book. I do think she made a distinction between good urban design and bad urban planning driven by misguided zoning laws. So in calling for a mayor who will be the kind of urban planner Jane might have liked, I guess I'm really looking for someone who represents my own inevitably skewed and very personal view of what a plan should be and how my city should look. Better?]

Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes…

This feels like a really weird post to write.

After more than three years at Thornley Fallis, I’m leaving for pastures new. More than that: I’m leaving the agency business entirely and getting back into software – my first and enduring passion. I can’t say exactly where just yet, but this is a really exciting move for me and I can’t wait to break the news.

First, though, a fond farewell to Thornley Fallis & 76design – my home-away-from-home and extended family for the past three years. It’s hard to be leaving at a time like this. The firm is probably in the best position it has been in all the time I’ve known them, with extraordinary new people coming into the team, terrific clients, and some genuinely cool new projects in the pipeline for 2010.

I will always be proud to be able to say that I worked with Joe Thornley, Terry Fallis and the entire team there – remarkable people doing outstanding work. Joe’s recent post about “The New PR” paints a clear picture of the vision of the firm; a vision I know they’re putting into action every single day.

Having followed the PR business closely from the inside for the past ten years, I don’t think there’s another agency anywhere in Canada capable of delivering the quality of service and consistent innovation the TF team turns out. I would heartily recommend TF to anyone. Thank you, Joe, and thank you to the whole TF/76design crew – it’s been a great ride.

My decision to move on from my agency years and return to “the client side” has much more to do with the opportunity in front of me than anything else. I wasn’t looking around, but something came along that just made instant sense, from the very first conversation. But now that I’ve settled into the idea, I don’t think I’ll miss being an agency bloke. Timesheets kill me.

More news about the new gig as soon as I’m able to reveal it. For now, adieu TF crew, see you at Third Tuesday!

HoHoTO 3.0 – Why do we do this?

[Cross-posted from the main HoHoTO page]

Yes, we’re doing it again.

As those of you following the tweets have noticed, HoHoTO is returning this December 16th at The Mod Club in Toronto.

New to all this? Wondering what the heck a HoHoTO is and whether you need an inoculation? Check out this summary video from last year’s phenomenal event, or just… well, you know what to do. If you’re still confused, here’s my post about last year’s event.

Last year, we set the ticket prices at a starting level, then steadily increased the price as the days ticked down toward the event. This year, we’re taking a different approach – less strongarm, more faith in the natural generosity of our fellow Torontonians. I’ll get to the full explanation about ticket pricing in a minute.

First, let’s remind ourselves why we’re doing this in the first place:

HoHoTO grew organically out of a shared belief among a relatively small group of people. A belief that spread like a wildfire through the tweetstreams and blogvines and quickly turned a much, much bigger group of people on to the same core idea:

That people in our own town are hungry and – dammit – we can make a difference.

HoHoTO is about a lot of things. It’s about having an insane night of unbridled, unforgettable FUN. It’s about meeting old friends and new and spilling drinks on them. It’s about dancing like you’re 19 again. It’s about awesome raffle prizes and fantastic surprises. It’s about creating memories to last a long, long time.

But at root, it’s about something even more important. Not to get all glum and earnest on you, but HoHoTO is – and always has been – about helping feed Toronto’s hungry.

That’s why we do this thing.

  • In Toronto, people just like you and me made more than a million visits to food banks last year.
  • Food bank use is growing – up 18% nationally this year over last. The largest ever year-over-year increase on record.
  • More than 37% of the people using food banks are children (and if that doesn’t break your heart, you need to examine your soul)
  • The median monthly household income in Toronto is only $980. Hunger in the GTA is a result of lack of money, not lack of food.

Now you have a sense of why HoHoTO was created — to help the Daily Bread Food Bank with desperately needed funds and food.

So far, with our original Holiday party in 2008 and the summer spinoff (oh so wittily labeled HoHOTo) we’ve managed to raise over $38,000. This year, we’re going to try to beat that in one night. Our goal is $40,000. Yes, we’re mental.

Here’s the deal. If you’re employed, gainfully self-employed, or independently wealthy and thinking of coming to HoHoTO, the chances are you’re a hell of a lot better off financially than any of the people we’re trying to help. So we’ve got a bunch of $20 tickets available – but are you really only good for twenty bucks?

A hundred bucks to you is what you take out of the ATM on a Saturday night and find it’s all gone by Sunday morning. To a food bank user, that same $100 could be all they have left after rent and basics to feed their whole family for a month.

Please: before you say you can’t afford any more than the basic ticket, stop and think. Yes, you can.

This year, you’ll see there are blocks of tickets available at a range of price levels. There’s no difference between the $20 and the $100 tickets. Only you will ever know the size of the donation you choose to make.

If $20 really is all you can spare, that’s cool. We still want you there, and we know you’ll be spending more on the night for drinks, cabs, etc.

But please, if you can – think of paying for your ticket at one of the higher levels. It’s just the right thing to do.

OK. Enough begging. The tickets are now officially on sale, here. Hook yerself all up and get ready to have the ultimate Santastic holiday experience at the return of the original party that Twitter built.

Be there, or we’ll bauble your eggnogs.

What question would you like to ask Steve Ballmer? (Part II)

This has been interesting.

At the very end of last week, I put out a call for questions to ask Steve Ballmer this week on the eve of the Windows 7 launch. Encouraged to note that I ended up with a really good selection of questions, as well as an entertaining handful of obscene, scatological, ribald or just generally cheeky ones (as expected).

I’ve arbitrarily chosen a small handful of the best questions, tweaked the wording slightly, where needed (mainly just editing for length), and created a mini Twitter poll to help pick the final question.

The candidate questions are:

  1. Many felt the Vista launch was not your finest marketing moment. Have you made a conscious effort to market Win7 differently?
  2. What is the primary goal for Win7 – where does this OS fit in Microsoft’s overall strategy?
  3. Which features in Win7 will best combat the Mac OS and which features go way beyond your competition?
  4. The transition from XP to Vista was a very steep learning curve for the average user. Will the shift to Win7 be as big?

You can vote at the poll over here.

Voting closes at 07:00 Eastern Time tomorrow morning, October 20th.

The question with the most votes will be included in a special one-on-one interview with Mr. Ballmer himself later this week. (No, I’m not doing the interview myself – this is a kind of proxy interviewing thing).

BTW – if, on reading the questions, you think you could come up with something even better, feel free to email or leave me a comment here. Who knows…

What one question would you put to Steve Ballmer?

I promise this is not a joke.

Through some fine friends in the media, I’ve been invited to ask a question that will be put to Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer in a special interview he’s doing with a Canadian publication next week, on the eve of the Windows 7 launch.

I was exceptionally surprised and immensely flattered to be asked. Strangely, perhaps, my first instinct was not to try and come up with some dazzlingly intelligent and incomparably deep question on my own – instead, I immediately knew I wanted to crowdsource it.

I want you, my lovely blog readers, Twitter followers, RSS relatives, and Friendfeed roommates, to help me craft the ultimate question to life, the universe, and everything (from a Microsoftie Windows 7-centric POV, that is).

Think of it this way: you’re the only person standing in the elevator at the foot of the CN Tower, about to take the short ride from the ground floor to the main deck at the top of the tower. Just as the doors are closing, Steve Ballmer steps in and intones a friendly “hello”.

You have about 58 seconds alone with one of the most influential men on the planet and certainly one of the most powerful tech industry executives of all time. Time enough to ask him just one question.

What’s it going to be?

Serious, searching, or flippant. How are you going to use your one question?

Give me your suggestions in the comments here, by email (to: michaelocc AT gmail.com), or on Twitter (@michaelocc).

Only one restriction: the topic is Windows 7, so let’s try and stay on topic, please. I know you want to dig into Vista. I’m sure some of you might just want to say: “So Steve. Bing. Really, Steve? Bing? Really?”

But no. Let’s stick to Windows 7, please. OK?

And no – before you ask – no one has asked me to do this. No fellow flack has put me up to this. The journalist asked me directly, and I decided to have a little fun with it.

I’ll assess all the questions I get between now and Sunday night (October 18). Then in my entirely arbitrary and subjective wisdom I’ll tweet my choices for the top three questions and ask you to vote.

The question that gets the most votes by 23:00 Monday, October 19, will be included in the interview and actually put to Mr. Ballmer himself. I’ll then link to the interview results here once it’s published.

How cool is that?

[UPDATE Monday, October 19: 16:30 - Not counting the utterly silly, but often genuinely amusing ones, I've got 29 questions in so far, from the comments, email and on Twitter. Thanks! Still time to squeeze a few more in, if you have any brainwaves. I've started sorting and ranking the ones I think make most sense, and will have a Twtpoll up later this evening to ask for votes on the top three. Stay tuned.]

Customer service lessons from a news distribution service

Disclosure first: CNW Group, Canada’s main national newswire service, continues to be a valued client of my firm, Thornley Fallis.

I just wanted to get that important point across up front. This relationship is already a matter of public record and something I’ve blogged, tweeted and even appeared in videos about in the past.

Still, given the topic of this post, it’s worth repeating in full: for the past three years I’ve done a fair amount of work with CNW Group in our role as their Agency of Record. Naturally, as a PR firm, we often use the services of a newswire. CNW Group gets a lot of our business, out of loyalty (of course) but also because we happen to think they do a very good job.

Having said that, there are – as our friends at CNW know – times when we’ve used other wire services. It’s entirely appropriate that we should. Personally, I’d love it if 100% of our business went through CNW, but that’s not the way it works.

Sometimes, we have clients who express a particular preference for a different service. On occasion, we’ve also been asked to experiment with some of the newer web-based news distribution services, just to evaluate their effectiveness.

Point is: I like CNW a lot and I’m naturally inclined to be loyal to them. But that doesn’t mean I’m not interested in offerings from other news distribution services. Quite the opposite, in fact – I’m more inclined to want to learn about competitive services, for all kinds of (fairly obvious) reasons.

I felt all this contextual blah was necessary before getting into the real meat of this post. You’ll soon see why.

Earlier today, I had a lengthy and, let’s say, “interesting” email exchange with the provider of a competitive service. I’ve posted the entire exchange, below.

I was tempted to give this the detailed, line-by-line fisking it so richly deserves. On reflection, though, I’ve chosen to just post it with minimal additional commentary. Frankly, I don’t think it really needs much help.

For the record: I’ve altered absolutely nothing of substance from the original email thread. I have made only three cosmetic edits worth noting:

1. I have removed the name, company name and address details of the other party. Given my relationship with CNW, it wouldn’t seem entirely fair to name the competitive vendor involved in this rather vigorous exchange of views. Let’s call the other protagonist “George” and his company “OtherWire”;

2. I’ve reversed the order of the email thread, to save you having to do that bottom-to-top scrolling thing, and;

3. I’ve added colours to make the two sides of the discussion a little clearer, just in case. The messages I received are in blue, my responses are in red, any additional comments that were not part of the original email thread are in italics. Where I’ve removed links or any other info, I’ve said so in CAPS. Those of you reading on a handheld or through an RSS reader that doesn’t support the formatting can either click through to the full post, or just follow along – it’s probably not that hard.

So, with all the lengthy disclosure our of the way, let the tomfoolery commence:

—–Original Message—–
From: admin@otherwire.com
Sent: July-09-09 1:40 PM
To: Michael O’Connor Clarke
Subject: Unlimited Press Release Distribution

I noticed that you do not currently use OtherWire to distribute your company’s press releases.

*******************

If you would prefer to have your email address removed from this list,
please click the link at the very bottom of this message. Do not reply
to this message.

*******************

I founded OtherWire in April 2001 and offer the same or more exposure
for your PR pieces, for considerably less money, compared to any of our
competitors.

In today’s market, you need to save money where you can.

[REMOVED LINK TO COMPANY'S HOMEPAGE]

Also, please read this comparison:

[REMOVED LINK TO COMPETITIVE COMPARISON CHART]

With OtherWire you can:

* Reach more than 230,000 bloggers and 170,000 media contacts
* Increase traffic to your website
* Optimize your ranking in search engines
* Guarantee placement of your press release on top websites like Yahoo!,
AltaVista, AOL, Google News, Google Finance, Twitter and Topix and
thousands of others
* Have all of your press releases published and remain live during your
paid subscription period
* Post your release to thousands of media contacts
* Track your press releases in real-time (newswires and blogs) with
custom software developed by OtherWire
* Get 10% of your paid subscription donated to a charity of your choice

We offer a one-off price of just $39.99 per press release or you can
subscribe for unlimited access and send any number of press releases for
just $59.99 per month (discounts are available for advance payment).
This includes agencies, who can submit all of their client’s PR through
a single account.

Yours sincerely,

George
Publisher
OtherWire

P.S. If you do not send more than 5 or 6 press releases each month, or
if your annual press release distribution spend is less than $612, then
consider using LINK TO ANOTHER SIMILAR DISTRIBUTION SERVICE FROM THE SAME BLOKE

On the other hand, if your company would like to have your own White
Label version of OTHER SIMILAR DISTRIBUTION SERVICE, either for your multiple offices’ use or to get into the Press Release Distribution business, please visit LINK TO OTHER SIMILAR DISTRIBUTION SERVICE

*******************

Michael O’Connor Clarke wrote:

Thanks George,

As the Agency of Record for CNW Group (the main Canadian national
newswire, co-owned by PRNewswire), I don’t think we’ll be switching
service providers any time soon.

Also, your comparison chart is plain wrong, IMHO. But please feel free
to prove me wrong. If you have examples of client-issued releases that
have received more coverage due to distribution through your service
compared to a major newswire, I’d be interested.

Regards,

/m

*******************
OK, so perhaps my initial response was a little snarky. I’ll grant that. But I could have just hit ‘delete’ or flagged his message as spam. I thought I should give him a chance to respond and educate me. As I said above, I’m genuinely interested in all kinds of news distribution services – it’s part of my job.

I didn’t have to wait long for a response from “George”…

*******************

From: OtherWire
Sent: July-09-09 2:25 PM
To: Michael O’Connor Clarke
Subject: Re: Unlimited Press Release Distribution

Michael,

I didn’t think you would be interested, but then, you never know.

In any event, well, as you say, it’s your opinion. You are incorrect. But that’s your right–to be wrong.

You don’t know how OtherWire is distributed. We have more than 200,000 journalists who receive our twice-daily news feeds, plus more than 400,000 distirbution points through a number of partnerships including Moreover and frankly, all the rest.

So if you can show me where I am not correct, I will accept what you say, but speaking without actually understanding how my system works suggests inexperience at best.

Yours sincerely,
George
Publisher
OtherWire

*******************

Michael O’Connor Clarke wrote:

If you didn’t think I would be interested, then why send it to me? Is that the same philosophy of approach you use when sending stuff to journalists?

I’m not trying to be a dick, George. Even before starting to work with CNW as a client, I’ve had a long-time interest in the business of news distribution and the necessary evolution of the wire services in this disintermediated world. I’m genuinely interested.

I believe your comparison chart is incorrect for a couple of reasons:

– The pricing shown for competitors’ “global distribution”. If a BusinessWire release goes directly into the editorial systems of the majority of mainstream international media (plus Bloomberg, Reuters, AP, etc.) and is also simultaneously submitted to Yahoo! News, Google News and so forth – how is your global reach any better than theirs?

– I don’t know how all of the services you compare work, but do know how to get a release out through the PRNewswire network within 30 minutes. That’s about as close to “immediate distribution” as I think anyone can offer. What am I getting wrong?

But, again, for Public Relations professionals, the mechanics and reach of a distribution service are, in truth, rather less important than the results. Results = coverage. And coverage is not the same as distribution or syndication.

This is an argument I’ve had with wire services for many years. Just because they can pipe a client’s news release semi-directly into Yahoo! News, for example, does not mean that my client should consider that a mark of success. That’s output; we’re focused on outcomes.

When a journalist (traditional or citizen) reads a release and chooses to cover the story – only then do we have something worth measuring. If you can demonstrate to my satisfaction (i.e. with evidence) how OtherWire makes that process more effective, I’ll concede, apologize, and even blog about it.

Of course, there are many reasons for issuing a news release beyond just getting coverage, but that remains the principal objective in the majority of cases. Outcomes drive business results. Firing content out to hundreds of thousands of distribution points is of relatively limited value.

Usual caveats apply: IMHO, YMMV, etc.

/m

*******************

From: OtherWire
Sent: July-09-09 2:59 PM
To: Michael O’Connor Clarke
Subject: Re: Unlimited Press Release Distribution

Michael,

Journalists subscribe to our service. Your email was gathered with a number of others and frankly, I could not be bothered to remove it. What I said is that I would not have thought or didn’t think that you would be interested.

In addition to the network that I have already described, we have more than 400,000 RSS feed readers who receive their news directly into their inbox. We submit to every one of the services you mentioned with the exception of Yahoo News and frankly, we prefer Google News and Finance. That having been said, I am told that we will be indexed by Yahoo shortly. In any event, I say we have the same or better exposure than the companies mentioned. Period.

I have been an NUJ member for 23 years, so that’s for the advice about how journalists work, but really, I didn’t need it.

In any event, I don’t really care about the competition since they are all too expensive and really don’t offer anything different that we offer. In today’s market price is everything and looking at the number of press releases our competitors submit each day (we scan all of the sites), I think I am correct in thinking that their business(es) are going down, while I have seen an 800% increase since May.

Yours sincerely,
George
Publisher
OtherWire

*******************

Michael O’Connor Clarke wrote:

Well thank you, George, for missing my point – indeed, all of my points – by such a wide margin.

I was truthfully, genuinely interested in learning more about how your service might help my clients.

For what it’s worth, notwithstanding our understandable preference for our friends at CNW, we continue to use a range of different services to distribute news. Some of our clients insist on using BusinessWire or Marketwire. Sometimes, we just experiment with PRWeb, PRLeap or other services to see if we can help enhance our clients’ success rates.

Again: at all times, what we’re interested in is the outcome of our efforts. On this point, I wasn’t presuming to offer any advice about how journalists work, but merely sharing some thoughts about how PR people and their clients do.

“Exposure” through push-based distribution is never a factor in the measurement schema my clients apply. They honestly don’t care (and I can’t bill for) the number of points of distribution our releases reach; they only care about tangible evidence of our results.

[REMOVED: IRRELEVANT PARAGRAPH WITH COMPARISON OF A DIFFERENT VERY BAD WEB-BASED NEWS DISTRIBUTION COMPANY]

Again (one last try): if you have any solid evidence of results, we’d be happy to consider your service for the portfolio of options we offer to clients.

Over to you,

/m

*******************

From: OtherWire
Sent: July-09-09 3:32 PM
To: Michael O’Connor Clarke
Subject: Re: Unlimited Press Release Distribution

Sorry. You’re too wordy.

Try a book publisher.

Best wishes,
George
Publisher
OtherWire

*******************

And there you have it.

Or, well… not quite all of it. There was one final salvo.

From my obviously biased point of view, I believe I was being remarkably restrained in my last message to “George”, but I’ll let you be the judge. Here’s what I sent back, and his immediate response:

*******************

Michael O’Connor Clarke wrote:

No thanks. But I think I will try a blog post. Be interested to see what my readers think – I’m trying to figure out whether I’m being the dickhead here or…

/m

*******************

From: OtherWire
Sent: July-09-09 4:44 PM
To: Michael O’Connor Clarke
Subject: Re: Unlimited Press Release Distribution

You are.

*******************

Nice.

So tell me. Do you agree with “George”?

The Top Five Myths of SEO (IMHO) – Myth #3

In this third post in the series, I want to dig into the incessant focus on on-page optimization factors.

But before I do, I need to address a little housekeeping. Anyone who’s been following me on Twitter recently, or any of the threads emanating from the first posts in this series, may have noticed that the as-yet unpublished fifth post in the series has been scooped a couple of times by friends of mine.

Ed Lee, in the comments on my second post in this series, raised this excellent point:

…the problem with a series of posts around SEO implies that there are a series of simple problems that need to be fixed. nothing could be further from the truth. SEO is, in truth, a complex and ever changing subject… that, like all aspects of communication, relies on an integrated approach that blends technology, content and authority.

He’s quite right, of course. As I said in my response to Ed’s comment, there’s always something new to learn with SEO and website optimization in general; it’s a moveable and ever-moving feast of experimentation. My 5th Myth was going to be a piece all about how SEO has to be an ongoing process, not a discrete series of tactics.

I was also going to talk about how this is just way too complex, and volatile a subject domain for anyone to fully understand and that it requires near-constant study to keep up with. Some of the speakers at the upcoming Search Engine Strategies conference spend a significant portion of their daily work lives doing precisely that – studying and experimenting in the space. People like Andrew Goodman, already mentioned in an earlier post. Or Jeff Quipp, whose firm, Search Engine People employs:

…a dedicated research group, with the sole mandate of performing ongoing real time statistical analysis and experimentation to help understand search engine algorithms as they evolve.

This stuff is hard. Too hard to be boiled down to a series of five little myths by a search dilettante.

The other thing I was planning to say at the end was that any list of “Top 5″ this or “Top 10″ the other, is inherently suspect. Something my great friend Frank Paynter pointed via Twitter. All true.

It seems lame now, but I had intended this series to work on one level as a bit of a self-referential joke. Blog posts with “Top 5″-type titles tend to work well as linkbait and search engine fodder – especially when your blog is set up to forge meaningful URLs from the title of each post. So here I am laying into SEO chicanery, whilst indulging in a rather sad little example of the game itself. It sounded a lot cleverer in my head.

Onwards…

The third big mythical nit I want to pick with the SEO snake oil peddlers is the disproportionate emphasis placed on “on-page optimization” by many practitioners in the space.

On-page optimization is, essentially, the sum of all the various tweaks, edits, keyword sprinklings and structural massaging you can do to optimize the pages of content in your website. In my definition of on-page factors, I’d include such things as: paying attention to the page titles, those dreaded meta tags, header tags, your use of appropriate and relevant keywords (yes, I know), internal links between pages within your site, images (and the appropriate Alt Text for each image), etc.

The whole point of on-page optimization is, as the name suggests, to understand and focus on how a search engine sees the individual pages of your site. There are some groovy tools out there that can help when you’re playing around with this – sites that will let you look at your own website the way a search engine spider would. (Sadly, my favourite spider simulator, Seebot.org, has been offline for a couple of weeks).

By contrast, “off-page optimization” is all the stuff that goes on outside of your main home on the web; the linky-love that draws direct traffic, attention and, ultimately, search karma to your site.

If on-page optimization is the sum of all things you can do to your own web pages, you can think of off-page optimization as all the things other folk might do that would help pull direct people to your site.

They might write about your organization and include a link to the site, or bookmark your site at delicious.com, submit one of your pages to Reddit or Digg, mention you in a forum, post a link on Twitter, or even (to stretch the thought a little) chat about you over the garden fence.

Another word for this might be: publicity.

[Aside: Yes, naturally I'm going to be a little biased here - my business is, in many ways, the publicity business, although I've always pushed back at that label as a simplistic and narrow view of what PR is really all about. Only one part of my job actually includes generating tangible publicity. At the same time, I have to love the first factor listed at the Wikipedia entry for off-page optimization - it points to news releases as one of the ways to draw attention to your site. Yay!]

On-page stuff you can tweak and fiddle with as often as your budget will allow; the off-page stuff is, to a degree, outside of your direct control. Sure, you could submit your own pages to something like Digg, but that’s cheating (and will quickly get you flagged as a spammer).

At the heart of this, though, is why I like to see a balance between on-page and off-page efforts. While on-page tuning is important, I think it’s even more vital to stay focused on the overall authority of your entire site and surrounding ecosystem.

If you were to look at the web through the blinkered lens of an on-page purist, you’d be surprised to find that there are many millions of crummy, poorly optimized pages that still seem to come up very high in the search engine results. But how can this be?

It’s because the human web — you, me, the dude in the next cubicle, and millions of hopeful searchers like us — are teaching the machine through our links, clicks and every online action. When enough of us find something online that’s useful, valuable, interesting or just funny, and we share that something with our friends, the off-page optimization happens. The linky-love happens. The inbound traffic and search rank happens.

So how do you optimize for off-page joy? C’mon, Bunky, you can figure this one out…

Focus on creating stuff that is useful, valuable, interesting, funny (or accurate, informative, entertaining, new, different, authoritative, well-researched, short on BS, etc.).

Again, very few people really know how the search engines do that voodoo they do do so well, but one thing seems clear: a huge part of your search rank is built on popularity. Google’s PageRank is one version of this (although the business is way more complicated than just that today). In simplified terms, it’s a measure of how many other sites and sources are pointing at yours.

In this sense, search rank is a gift you receive from others in return for producing quality material. Your web content is like an American Idol contestant who just received the most votes for a rip-roaring cover of “Play That Funky Music” (yeah, I kinda liked Adam too). When people like your stuff, they vote with their links. The more votes you get, the higher up the search rank you climb.

You can tweak the living blue blazes out of every SEO-friendly toggle and widget on your site, but if the core material is a gently steaming pile of ordure, you’re still not going to get any votes. If your writing just plain bites, people will stay away in droves. If your ideas are rank, your rank will be… er… you get the picture.

Achieving that elusive high search rank is not all random karma for creating good stuff, of course. There are specific things you can do to help improve your off-page reputation and inbound linkflow. You’ll find plenty of checklists and ideas for off-page optimization online if you hunt around for them — some good, some a little dubious. Use discernment and avoid spammy techniques.

The point of all this is to demonstrate what I see as an increasingly close connection between intelligent SEO and just good online communications practices. I’m not saying that on-page optimization is irrelevant, but the slavish focus on the tools and techniques for tweaking individual pages and site architecture sometimes gets in the way of sound communications.

Assuming you have a finite budget, it makes sense to me to seek a balance between the SEO basics within your site and paying for original, creative, interesting content. If you’re using both an SEO consultant and a professional communications firm, have them work together.

As I said above, I’m naturally inclined to look at this from the perspective of someone whose principal product is words, but I’ve heard quite enough about the technical aspects of on-page SEO, with little attention paid to the quality of the content and the outbound marketing and communications activities needed to really drive awareness and interest from outside your site.

In trying to figure out how to express this, I threw together this Venn diagram, showing how I think the three sisters of search engine. Let me know if you think this makes sense.


In short: do worry about optimizing your site pages, for sure, but don’t forget the creative quality of your ideas and your core content, and the way you spread the word.

Back to:
Myth #1: The Importance of Keyword Meta Tags
Myth #2: The Magic Keyword Density Percentage
Next up – Myth #4: Google partnerships and multiple site submissions