Monthly Archives: August 2010

the virality myth: why ‘going viral’ isn’t a strategy.

If you work in the communication field, someone may have approached you with a line resembling: Let’s make a video that goes viral! A nice thought, but making a video for the sole purpose of it going viral is as flawed a strategy as buying lottery tickets as a retirement plan.

Any video you make should serve a purpose first and foremost: To showcase a strength, entice prospective customers (or students), raise awareness on an issue, etc. To deploy a more simple breakdown I learned in a public speaking class, presentations (and I’d include video) should try to do one or more of the following: 1) inform, 2) persuade or 3) entertain. That’s where you start.

Making a video for the sole purpose of hoping it will go viral is mere folly. Viral videos are quite often accidental hits, double rainbows or kids after dentists or a dying professor’s extra-resonant lecture. Sure, the Old Spice campaign went viral, but that’s because it represented a breakthrough in terms of superior creativity, near-real-time interaction and remarkable talent on both sides of the camera.

I’ve heard the let’s make something viral pitch a couple times, and my first question is why they think the concept would go viral. One more flash mob or lipdub is just following the herd, and if you can’t provide an amazing new wrinkle, will you stand out from the pack? A clever idea is nice, but thousands of clever videos hit the ether every day. Remember that the latest YouTube statistic is that 24 hours of video are uploaded every minute! Have you truly made something that can cut through that clutter?

It’s totally cool to make and use videos in your communication efforts, but to borrow my favorite maxim from #stamats09: Think goals first, then tools. Does the video serve a purpose to some key audience (in highered: prospective students, current students, faculty/staff, alumni)? Does it inform? Could it persuade? Will it entertain? These are all good reasons to make a video, or a series of videos. When I work with my student videographers, these are our general parameters. It helps that they are members of the target audience and know what others their age may find interesting.

It’s funny that our video with the fastest rise in immediate hits was anything but non-stop excitement — the footage of a wind-turbine installation mentioned in this post. We saw the video as a sidebar to a story, a visualization of a neat green product. But it had news value and picked up hits, links and retweets from a lot of environmentally minded folks. A recipe for success? Not exactly. But here’s something to remember: There is no absolute recipe to success, any set of ingredients that guarantee anything on the web going viral. Period.

So if you’re heading out the door, camera in hand, to make that viral video, also swing by the convenience store and pick up a lottery ticket. Who knows, maybe your chances of the latter jackpot could be even better?

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facebook places: right move or out in left field?

The trouble with trying to keep up with geosocial media developments is how the landscape changes all the time. Like last week, while I finally wrapped my blog entry on SCVNGR, Facebook sailed out of left field in unleashing its new Facebook Places feature. My quick take: It brings all the good and the bad of Facebook into play.

The good: Facebook has an immense user base — in the neighborhood of 500 million and counting. You can check in somewhere and learn your friends are nearby. Or catch up with friends if they’re already out somewhere. Or stalk somebody … er, forget that last one. Anyway, even with the surging numbers for Foursquare, chances are a lot more of your friends are on Facebook and you can see what they’re up to while staying connected to this huge social media community. Anyone can create a place, anytime, anywhere.

The bad: Because anyone can create a place anytime, anywhere, you could end up with duplicates (which detract from shared experiences), erroneous/misspelled entries or intentional misinformation. Facebook’s track record shows little interest in data hygiene if these happen. The app itself brings no value-added. You can check in and comment and … that’s about it. You can’t become a mayor or earn a badge or post a review, tip or photo. Maybe those are coming. But maybe these aren’t so much bad as just streamlined. Let’s save the true scorn for …

The ugly: If you run a business or work at a college, your venue may exist but good luck making it a place of true engagement. When I look for a check-in on my campus, the created venue is State University of New York at Oswego, a name almost no one uses (please call us “SUNY Oswego”). I could create SUNY Oswego, but then you’re into duplications and you can’t consolidate dupes as easily as on Foursquare. Nor can you claim a venue as easily as Foursquare. If at all.

OK, let’s say I want to claim the Facebook Place of State University of New York at Oswego, being the college’s director of web communication and social media canary and all. If I try to claim the venue, I get to this screen:

Hm. I don’t happen to have a digital copy of our articles of incorporation, since SUNY Oswego was founded in 1861. Nor a local business license, BBB accreditation or, well … does Facebook — which started, remember, in the higher education market — expect any college to have these articles?

This Facebook maneuver seems the wicked stepsister of the community page. Not the actual fan page we manage (with some 7300 often-engaged fans) but the spam-filled artificial construct by Facebook where the info comes from Wikipedia. The one I inquired about helping months ago — in case anyone has questions or seeks legit information — but haven’t heard from Facebook about. When community pages rolled out, creating more problems than solutions, Michael Fienen penned an excellent blog entry titled Facebook Hates Your Brand. With unclaimable, unverifiable and uncorrectable Places proliferating, this observation is more apt than ever.

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SCVNGR hunt: using geosocial gaming for orientation and education.

In the arena of geosocial apps and gaming, SCVNGR may represent one of the top potential challengers. For end users, SCVNGR offers a rich experience combining the best features of Foursquare and Gowalla. As an app for higher education and business, it provides immense potential for created user experience.

Our college used it to implement a scavenger hunt at all eight freshman orientation sessions where incoming students formed teams and followed clues that allowed them to meet people while gaining more information about college functions and facts. The collection process involved points for texting correct clues, with bonus points for the first teams done. With the prizes being Oswego hoodies for top teams, students threw themselves into the competition with great gusto.

Students on a dead sprint = throwing themselves into a scavenger hunt with great gusto.

Students on a dead sprint = throwing themselves into a scavenger hunt with great gusto.

Brandi Ostrander, who coordinated our scavenger hunt, said the technical part was not difficult — somewhat easy compared to finding 20 offices/partners to participate (including web communication folks getting feedback on a new website). She created and put in tasks, locations and the point system, guessing about a “50/50 split” with what SCVNGR developers did for the project.

Scavenger hunters on smartphones downloaded the easy-to-use free SCVNGR app; those with older phones could text SCVNGR (728647). The game started with receiving directions to their first location, and those with the app had the added benefit of a Google Map. Completing tasks and earning points could include inputting a specific keyword, inputting any response (for an open question) or posting a photo. After the task, the program sends the next location, which can be randomized (we preferred this as opposed to all hunters converging at once, although smartphones could see a linear menu). Incorrect answers could lose points, though players could advance after a number of tries.

As an administrator, you can use most SCVNGR features for free, but if you need a lot of development help or something highly customized, you can contract at various price levels. Our Orientation Office bought a year-long unlimited plan, with the huge advantage being nearly instant support — otherwise, you have to post a question on a message board or browse the site FAQ. With our extended support, we plan to implement a similar game during Opening Week to help students learn even more about the campus.

As far as everyday end-user experience, SCVNGR is robust and impressive. At any time, users can create venues, write tips and post photos (and get points for all of the above). You can create your own scavenger hunts and point systems fairly easily, and play existing games or hunts others have already designed. Unfortunately, like Gowalla, you can get stuck with poor data hygiene if the information is wrong. And like Gowalla and Foursquare, you can find duplicates of the same venue, but with the exception of more controlled apps like Yelp, this seems a common challenge to geosocial platforms.

Did the students enjoy the scavenger hunt? “They had a blast with it,” Ostrander said. “They thought it was a lot of fun and met a lot of people.” The most important thing, she suggested, is the game coordinator needs to be very organized, have everything set well in advance and know how to do with unexpected results — like when students lost service inside our cavernous Campus Center and had to repeat some steps (they remembered the clue words, and Ostrander had them re-enter them).

“We wanted to keep it simple, but you can also do multimedia messages, like photo or video clues,” i.e. find this building or person, Ostrander said. “I don’t think we tapped into its full potential.” It is that potential — as well as perhaps the best usability of any geosocial app I’ve seen — that could turn SCVNGR into a huge player in the market.

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maybe the ‘dirty word’ of academia isn’t dirty after all?

At my first meeting of Provost’s Council a few weeks ago, I used what I’d always been told was a “dirty word” in academia. And the reaction was the opposite of what I expected.

In describing a feature of our new website to a room of deans and other academic officers, I said, “At the risk of using the ‘dirty M word,’ we hope this results in better marketing of our academic offerings.” I braced for a backlash, weeping, gnashing of teeth. None came. Quite the contrary.

“Finally!” one said, raising his hands for emphasis. “Hallelujah!” added another. While so-called “experts” tell us “academics” consider “‘marketing’ a dirty word,” here was a room full of people waiting, hoping, praying someone would acknowledge a greater need to market, promote or otherwise publicize all things academic.

If you’ve attended a higher education conference, you likely seen the following: A speaker uses the word “marketing” and then smugly says, “Of course, that’s considered a dirty word in academia.” The crowd then chortles along knowingly. Or not so knowingly. I’ve been among them. And I’ve been wrong. Maybe we all have.

Having worked in higher ed for nine years, I know this much: Almost everyone here welcomes and strives for greater publicity, promotion or marketing of what they do. They want to attract great students, want to retain those students, want to recruit and keep outstanding faculty, want to receive grant money, want to (individually or collectively) gain prestige. So why — other than our own preconceived notions and often-faulty conventional wisdom — would we expect them to be averse to the term “marketing” or any attempt to help them attain their goals?

The bigger problem is that once we start to see others as preconceived groups — academics or Briggs-Myers categories, generational stereotypes or ethnic types — we stop seeing them as people. Making assumptions on anyone — an all-too common practice, even in higher education — is just wrong. Maybe stereotype should be the real dirty word of the conversation.

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users don’t want to “click here.” they want to take an action.

image of Pantene bottles on Wegmans shelves

If you want to be reminded about good web writing and usability, sometimes a trip to the supermarket helps.

While browsing the aisles of Wegmans over the weekend, I saw that Pantene (the official shampoo of TimsHead) was on sale. Being a fan of convenience (and cheapness), I gravitate toward their combined shampoo/conditioner options. You can tell this clearly by a 2-for-1 logo on these offerings. And I thought about that differentiation in comparison to web content.

One of the most outdated, but alas persistent, web phrases is “click here.” It predates when researchers knew anything about how users employ the web and what motivates them. Remember that people don’t read as much as they scan, looking for actions they want to take. They’re scanning for actions or phrases of interest like “apply,” “course information,” “schedule a tour,” “financial aid” or “student organizations.” So a “click here” phrase is superfluous and countervenes their hunt for information. I prefer phrasing desired actions into a contextual link: “Apply to SUNY Oswego,” “Schedule a visit,” “Browse our majors and minors,” etc.

Back to the Wegmans example — could you imagine if, instead of pertinent information, all the bottles simply said “buy me!” Sure, that — like “click here!” — is the desired outcome, but it’s irrelevant to my selection process. And remember it’s less about what you (the web writer, the college, the supermarket) want a user to do; it’s ultimately about what the user wants to do, and cues you can offer to help.

Or consider that moderately successful website known as The Facebook. There’s no “click here!” polluting the content; it’s almost all about driving action. You’ll see phrased links saying “Add as Friend,” “View Photos of Tim,” “What’s on your mind?” Navigation is self-explanatory: Messages, Events, Friends, etc. Nary a “click here!” used — because the phrase is, quite simply, not necessary. Users have moved past being treated like Pavlovian dogs … they know, and look for, the actions they want.

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another layar of augmented reality.

For a while, I’ve wanted to blog about Layar, the augmented-reality aggregation app, but seems every time I start, the app changes. And not always for the better. In the game of geosocial media, Layar is like that young baseball pitcher with all the talent in the world but still working on his delivery.

Put simply, the Layar app lets you see what’s happening around you in several layers — who’s tweeting, who’s posted pictures or YouTube videos near you, what Gowalla locations exist, where to eat, where to drink, where crime is happening (the scariest one), who’s looking for love (or maybe that’s the scariest one?), etc. Sounds like a lot of great hyperlocal stuff, eh?

Hypothetically it would be, if the app had even decent usability. You’re allowed to select favored layers, but have to access and use each one separately through not-quite-intuitive navigation. Sometimes it will show hits around you but they won’t come up in either the list nor map views. Sometimes it says you’re nowhere near where you actually are. And just when you’ve figured out its latest reinvention, Layar seems to change the way it functions.

Note that Layar had layer functionality before Foursquare added its layer for users around you. And Foursquare toyed with a partnership with Layar — which, given its greater use than Gowalla, could have been promising — but a beta version that doesn’t work for all devices is as much as I ever saw. And while Layar theoretically offers more functionality than augmented reality competitor Yelp — which focuses on local points of interest and reviews — it’s nowhere near as reliable or easy to use.

One interesting thing about Layar, which also points to its potential, is how it resembles an app store within an app. Many of the popular layers are free, but Layar also offers paid layers, such as guides to Walt Disney World, an “EyeTour” of Puerto Rico, a service for finding local deals and even augmented-reality greeting cards. Thus, unlike Foursquare and its ilk, Layar has a built-in monitization avenue … if it can score a decent adoption rate and develop apps people find of value.

With all its power and potential, it’s too soon to know where Layar will go. To return to the baseball analogy, it could flourish into a Stephen Strasburg or flounder like a Hideki Irabu. But there’s enough going on both within Layar and the whole geosocial game that this app remains worth watching.

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content + context = compelling: in defense of raw video.

At the risk of stirring up a hornet’s nest, I’d like to advance the theory that not all web video need be extravagantly produced, meticulously edited and mini-Hollywood productions. Raw video, with the right content in the correct context, can be every bit as compelling.

Last week, for instance, a colleague used a Flip to take raw video of a new experimental wind turbine’s mounting on the roof of SUNY Oswego’s Lee Hall. In the abstract, 47 seconds of video, occasionally shaky, showing a couple of people affixing a turbine and starting its first revolutions doesn’t seem the most marketable footage. But when reviewing it, I saw a neat little narrative (content) on the ever-hot topic of alternative energy (context) and (not having to edit) quickly posted it to our YouTube account, then linked it from a homepage story which I fed through Twitter and Facebook.

And a funny thing happened: People started watching, retweeting, liking and commenting. Then our regional paper, The Syracuse Post-Standard, decided to add the raw video to its event coverage (several P-Sers follow us on Twitter) and the number of plays continued to climb. (Which also caused more hits on our related college videos.) All for a 47-second video that, to the Spielberg wannabes in the world, would appear unremarkable.

But this isn’t our first success with raw video. This spring when our men’s hockey team beat our fierce rivals Plattsburgh to win our first conference tournament in many years, and clinch an NCAA bid, among the celebration, I saw something cool. The team took the trophy around the ice in front of the student section and the remaining fans cheered loudly, pounded the glass and shared the joy. I caught some quick raw video, posted it on our Facebook page, and it quickly scored hundreds of hits and a couple dozen Likes. It’s shaky and hardly slick. But it had content (deliriously happy fans) plus context (a long-awaited conference tourney championship) and thus proved compelling.

Longform video is a tough match for the web and busy people. Some highered folks fell all over themselves praising the 16+ minute Yale admissions video, but I was beyond bored within 30 seconds and shut it off. Yet I repeatedly watched UQAM’s one-take lipdub video — which scored 10 times the YouTube hits of the Ivy League piece and, unlike the Yale yawner, the lipdub generated actual student buzz. Sure, it involved a lot of planning, but the UQAM students knew the right pace, made it fun and were more concerned with content than something slick. (Or consider the authentic awesomeness of the Guy Starts Dance Party raw video that preceded the flash mob craze.)

So don’t underestimate the power of raw video, and the opportunities available if you carry a camera or smartphone with at least some video capability (or ask students to do the same). The ability to capture short compelling raw video that needs no edits and almost instantly disseminating it via the many possible web/social media channels can offer nearly limitless potential.

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