Monthly Archives: February 2010

zombies ahead: studying web site stagnation.

When you’re redesigning, redeveloping or refreshing (pick your term) your Web site is the easiest time to take stock of its level of activity and atrophy. OK, ideally you could/should do this continuously, but then we should also work out regularly and eat only healthy foods … but I digress.

We’re in the process of changing content management systems and, in the process, developing a new taxonomy for our sprawling and mostly decentralized Web site. Before attacking how to categorize/organize the content, I picked up my torch, machete and compass and wandered into the jungle that is our current site. I looked at 206 site accounts — which vary from dozens of pages to single standalones — deciding to start with culling the dead. Since a previous CMS software update accidentally republished all our pages, even long-abandoned pages list 7/9/07 as most recent update, meaning we had to delve deeper.

Figure 1: A Web site that never was.

What I found were bodies. Lots of dead bodies. At last count 35 of the 206 site accounts were either abandoned, never started or rendered obsolete. That’s 17 percent or over 1 out of every 6 accounts virtual ghost ships plying the Web’s waves.

Some involved programs or ad hoc projects that went away. Other accounts existed but never published. Many were pages and accounts abandoned because a department or office decided to start over. However, the pages left to flounder on the high seas are just as easy to find via Google or other search methods as the updated pages and accounts. Ay, cap’n, there’s the rub.

Figure 2: A ghost ship on the high seas.

Around 90 percent of those accounts reside outside of our office, and we preach: update your sites, cull your dead pages, etc. But in a decentralized system, many users are not actively thinking about updating pages, whether because of workload (it’s just one of many tasks in their job) or turnover, nor of decommissioning expired content. And we’re too busy to stay on top of tens of thousands of pages. Then you wake up one day and BAM, 1 out of every 6 pages is a zombie, eating your Web site’s brains.

To be fair, user-friendliness is a key factor. Our CMS had four separate editable regions for most pages — title, subtitle, body and right column. To edit any one of these sections involved five steps: check the section out, perform editing, save, confirm and publish. Throw in having to chose a template and then making a title and metadata, that meant creating most pages involved 22 steps. Small wonder some overloaded page admins didn’t want to work on the Web site. EDIT: I realized if you avoid micropublishing, you can get it down to 16 steps. But still.

Of course, at this point all we can do is learn. And know that creating a system that is better for people who have to maintain the pages will create a more active and updated Web site that is better for those who visit it.

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with activism, social media is not a waiting game.

Recently, New York State announced a mind-boggling move to close a number of state parks and historic sites, including Oswego’s Fort Ontario. Fort Ontario played a role in the French & Indian War, Revolutionary War and War of 1812; housed nearly 1,000 refugees, mostly Jewish, from World War II Europe (the only haven of its kind); and serves as a key community resource for folks of all ages and interests. That activists would want to use every tool available — including Facebook — to try to save the fort came as no surprise.

The first to jump was a high school student, who created a group that is a truly grassroots campaign. A local official contacted the person saying she also was working on something but was waiting for approval. The student accepted her request to become an administrator, and she later contacted everyone when she had the more official page set up. Where, to her credit, she did plug the other effort.

My reaction, however, was: Waiting for approval? To set up a Facebook page? I understand wanting to gather official partners and settle other organizational details, but with a cause where people are ready to act, [s]he who hesitates is lost. If there’s a hot topic and a ready audience, they aren’t going to wait for committee meetings, mission statements and the trappings of how we used to do business.

The results? As of early Tuesday, the student-created group is community-driven, with a wide variety of people constantly posting emotional comments, links and photos. Number of members? 4,314. The organization-created page is almost completely administrator-driven. Community comments and interaction are less frequent. Number of fans? 2,050. A journalist friend of mine astutely observed that, in the Web 2.0 world, an unofficial presence, for whatever reason, sometimes has the opportunity to become more trusted and engaging than an official effort.

It sets up a fascinating study in communication dynamics, but I also wonder if it will dilute efforts, no matter how friendly the two are. There’s a reason, after all, why you don’t see two chess clubs, two weekly student newspapers, two Jewish Student Associations on most campuses. While one would hope the efforts complement each other, in the go-go 21st century, busy people may prefer one place to visit, one entity through which to focus efforts.

Don’t get me wrong: If you’re a college, company or other permanent presence, you should indeed take the lead of online branding. You have every right to make sure you know what you’re doing before you go all-out on a social-media campaign. But if a cause comes up and you sit on the sidelines while someone else sounds the horn, you’ll see that social media is not a waiting game.

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rumours of gordon lightfoot’s death have been greatly exaggerated.

Despite what many Canadian and U.S. press outlets said Thursday, singer Gordon Lightfoot is very much alive. What’s dead, apparently, is fundamental journalism practices.

Upon learning that rumours of Gordon Lightfoot’s death had been greatly exaggerated, most media sites pulled down their stories, but failed to leave a correction in place. The main spinning reaction blamed a Twitter prank for the misunderstanding. Maybe this is what started it, but placing the blame there is a cowardly act of misdirection.

In my journalism classes, the top two rules I learned were:

– Rule #1: Always verify something with a reliable source before publishing.
– Rule #2: When in doubt, see Rule #1.

This is where the media failed. In a culture where getting it first trumps getting it right, too many media outlets follow the fallacy that if it’s on the Internet, it must be true. Forget how unreliable or unverified the source may be, the last thing they’d want is to miss out on something else the world is reporting. But haste, as the old saying goes, makes waste.

As the CBC’s Sarah Liss, who copped to helping spread the word informally but not via her news outlet, accurately summarized:

… you could argue that the real problem may have something to do with the eagerness of mainstream media outlets to compete with social media networks and be seen as the first to post breaking news stores. As Toronto-based social media ace Justin Stayshyn rightly noted, “Twitter just spread it. Rumour began in the hallowed halls of dead tree MSM [mainstream media] journalism.”

Personally, I’m quite relieved to know that the Canadian icon has not seen his final sundown. But that journalism standards have sunk as low as the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald should concern us all.

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before the rise of silos: jimmy moreland and 1950 education.

I was reading the other day about the death of Jimmy Moreland. It came as no surprise, as he passed away nearly 60 years ago, but it showed me how much different higher education was in the bygone era. And perhaps, in some ways, better.

Moreland died young in 1950 after 15 years teaching, recruiting and advising at Oswego. Er, sorry, make that Jimmy. He asked everyone to call him Jimmy. He was a revered English professor, a chief recruiter, advisor for 300 to 400 freshmen, and even director of public relations. In his spare time, he advised the fledgling Hillel club and volunteered in the Oswego community.

Jimmy “taught his classes, not from a textbook, but rather from his great wealth of knowledge,” the student body president recalled. The president of the alumni association valued how Jimmy’s “informal talks in the co-op, in the halls, on the front steps or anywhere that a group of students would gather helped to mould the thinking and philosophy of students and teachers alike.” Jimmy “imparted a great love of learning, he imparted some of his own goodness, he imparted his own unbounded curiosity and optimism to his students as they learned with him in his classes,” said then-president Harvey Rice. “As freshman advisor through the years he, more than anyone else, helped youngsters to find their bearings away from home. His friendship won them, his understanding comforted them, his love sustained them.”

In short, Jimmy wore a lot of hats well, and he never looked at his watch and declared his day done, knowing any time he saw a student provided an opportunity to connect. He recruited students, advised them, taught them, excelling in all areas. There were no silos, cubicles or boundaries to what we would, and could, do to serve students.

In contrast, recent trends in higher education bend toward staffing many specialists, while spurning the benefits of being a generalist. When we develop a mentality we can only help students with x but not y, we see them less as humans than checkmarks on a report. Anyone who knows me would attest I’m one of the busier folks around, but I never mind helping one of my students with something that falls outside my so-called job description. Why? The Golden Rule. I appreciate all the people who helped me as a student, treated me as a person and not a category.

I can’t see Jimmy poring through the pages upon pages of policies, procedures and precedents we’ve foisted upon higher education governance. If he had a mission statement, it would likely simply read: Do the right thing. Maybe we’ve made this business a lot more difficult than it should be. You see how one man, one incredible man like Jimmy Moreland could follow his head and his heart and serve as educator, inspiration and friend to thousands of students, and you wonder.

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super bowl™ ads, through the eyes of students.

The Super Bowl™ presents an excellent opportunity for people, like me, who teach advertising to tie it to key lessons. And, as often happens in classes, I learned almost as much from what students thought were effective ads.

For Broadcasting 328: Media Advertising, I’ve asked all my students to sign up for Twitter (the subject of a future blog post) and each session includes a less-than-140-character homework assignment. This one: Tweet about an ad you thought was effective and mark it with a #brc328 tag.

So while USA Today had its ever-popular AdMeter ratings, the Web was all a-twitter over various commercials and every pundit had their take, the students provided a different view (in a much-sought-after demographic, no less). I learned the three most important things to them were 1) humor, 2) great visuals, 3) a memorable idea. Most popular campaigns with them were:

1. Bud Light/Budweiser. Biggest buzz surrounded the Bud Light House. Clearly, it represents fantasy fulfillment, but it made people laugh, provided a concrete visual and was a clever execution. Moreover, the product was not only the hero, but dominated the screen. They also liked the Lost parody and the T-Pain/autotune spot — both using humor and playing on popular culture. What all ads had in common: They equated Bud Light with partying and fun. The Budweiser bridge spot also proved popular because of its visual impact. I continue to maintain that it’s unclear whether Budweiser gains market share for the outlay, but if college students are impressed and remember the product, that says something.

2. Doritos. One student explained the simple brilliance of the Playing Nice ad: When the child tells his mother’s suitor: Keep your hands off my momma. Keep your hands off my Doritos, it pretty clearly sets the priorities in his world. Hyperbole? Sure. But it makes its point succinctly. The snappy execution of Dog Collar and the (weird, imho) Tim’s Locker/Samurai spots also scored.

3. Denny’s. When’s the last time anyone even talked about Denny’s? Yet the screaming chicken ads, while potentially annoying, sure captured attention. One student shrewdly noted it highlighted special offers for Free Grand Slam Day and free Grand Slam on your birthday. Simple idea — everyone will want Denny’s breakfasts, so chickens have to work harder — that came across loud and clear.

Other thoughts:

Surprising revelation: Many pundits wrote off the Boost Mobile ad because they assumed using the 1985 Chicago Bears couldn’t sell to young adults. Big disconnect, right? Wrong. Every student in my class claims to know the Super Bowl™ Shuffle, perhaps because of how we recycle pop culture. Thus we know what happens when we assume …

Betty White scores: The Snickers ad earned the most positive buzz among people I follow on Twitter (and topped AdMeter ratings), plus the students loved it too. They may not have known who Abe Vigoda was, but they all knew Betty White from Golden Girls. And once you got past the shock of White being creamed in a backyard football game, you got the concept: Snickers picks you up.

Where’s the outrage?: The young women weren’t terribly offended by the Dodge Charger ad, even though it seemed the most excoriated spot on Twitter. Some saw the overstatement and shrugged it off; others didn’t find it any more offensive than the other messages that regularly bombard us.

My personal favorite?: The Google ad. Why Google would need to advertise (imho: to counter Bing) is a fair question, but in terms of simple storytelling and demonstrating the product’s effectiveness, I loved it. A tale of boy meets girl, with some cool music, the brand as hero and a bit of humor. It won’t affect my use of Google, but as standalone branding, I found it just about pitch-perfect.

So you have the opinions of a couple dozen college students and an older dude who works in communication. What did you think? And will you think of any of these observations next time you try to market to students?

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facebook’s wave of imitation: or, if your friends’ profile pics decided to jump off a bridge …

At first it presented an interesting sociocommunication trend. Then it proved mildly amusing. Now it’s just really annoying. Oh, and if you agree, post this as your Facebook status!

I’m not sure when exactly Facebook turned into the world’s biggest flock of electric sheep. It’s nice that people want to connect and feel part of a community, but is imitation of status updates really the sincerest form of flattery?

It started with the best of intentions, I’m sure. Around the time of the heated health care debate, you’d see someone posting (to sum it up briefly) that no one should have to suffer because of lacking health insurance — and, if you agree, copy and paste this as your Facebook status. Nice bit of solidarity, until it just proved monotonous. Communication theory states that the repetition of a particular message, without deviation, just gets tuned out like white noise. So 10,000 people posting individualized comments on the health care issue, or sharing anecdotes, can make a bigger impression than 100,000 people just copying and pasting the same message.

The next wave sparked when users objected to a Facebook group claimin soldiers are not heroes. Soon status messages appeared everywhere about supporting the troops, imploring others to copy and paste the message. The same behavior brought us well-meaning statements against kinds of diseases, urging others to copy and paste, followed by statements about loving their mothers, and on and on. Some bore a dubious stat that 93 percent of Facebook users won’t copy and paste which, while adding a baseless statistic and urban legend component, almost seemed to demean the shocking idea of not blindly imitating others.

Most recently, we’ve had Wayback Week, where folks posted an old picture as their profile, followed by Doppleganger Week, where you’re supposed to change to a picture of your celebrity lookalike. I’ve seen people post about trying for hours to figure out their celeb lookalike, and I wonder: Where do these people find the time? And if your friends’ profile pictures decided to jump off a bridge, would yours?

Online communities can best serve as creative and connecting forces if you challenge or inspire people to think for themselves — to engage in imaginative, not imitative, behaviors. In the large vibrant community that came together during ZeFrank‘s year of daily videos, Ze spurred creativity in his viewers by asking them to dress up their vacuum cleaners and post photos, make short films, do crafty remixes. On a more modest scale, our monthly #pancaketweetups — virtual breakfasts shared via social media — applaud culinary creativity. I’ve learned that Matteo Williams and Todd Sanders are virtuoso flapjack artists. I’ve learned about food regionalisms, and the ardent pride some regions have in their maple syrup. And I’ve learned a lot about participants from not only their choice of food, but from pictures of their kitchen decor and loved ones helping to make or eat the meal.

So, Facebook Nation, I beg you: For future waves, please do something that encourages creativity and celebrates individuality — more definite and deep individuality than which vacuous celebrity you resemble. Let the next trend be something that enables more than surface interaction and sparks real discussions. Let’s learn more about each other than what urbandictionary.com posts as synonyms of our first name.

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