Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Social media lovers celebrate "the revolution"

The popular social networking blog Mashable has declared today Social Media Day, and techie-types across the country are planning Tweetups to celebrate, as Mashable puts it, "the revolution of media becoming social." Locals are planning a lunch at noon at the Area Fifteen conference center in the Optimist Park neighborhood just north of center-city Charlotte.

Whether you think sites like Facebook and YouTube and Twitter are a bunch of crock, they are having an undeniable impact on life and communications today. Check out these statistics, collected by researchers with Experian Simmons:

  • Two-thirds of Americans now use social media sites, up about 230 percent from penetration levels just three years ago.
  • It's not just kids. Some 41 percent of online adults ages 50 or older visit social networking sites monthly.
  • Nearly half of the people who visit social networking sites say they do so multiple times per day.
Individual networks will come and go, but the millions of people sharing their pictures, videos, Web links and unnecessary random musings over the Internet aren't going to give those privileges up anytime soon. What do you think? Are social networks just a fad? Or have they changed the way you communicate?

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Social media: Are businesses making money?

Businesses are scrambling to get on social networks, but some skeptics are wondering if anybody's actually making money from them. The Wall Street Journal reports that a study Forrester Research conducted for the the National Retail Federation said only 7 percent of retailers surveyed cited social networks as one of their top three most effective tools for gaining new customers. (On the other hand, 90 percent cited marketing through search engines like Google). It's in keeping with a common theme I've been hearing from people who are frustrated that, despite all the buzz and the eyeballs social networks generate, reducing it to dollars and cents and measurable impact for companies is hard. It's the old ROI question -- return on investment -- that the proponents of social media marketing keep getting from prospective clients.

It's not a new question for Jason Keath. The Charlotte native is the founder of Social Fresh, a successful social media marketing conference that began in Charlotte and is now held in six cities. The reason, he says, is simple: people still aren't sure what they're doing in the space. "Most people are not seeing results because it's so new. They're still in the educating, 101 phase, how do I use these tools...But there are a few people who are the early adopters who are seeing results."

He points to Starbucks, which recently used social media to drive its Free Pastry Day campaign and brought a million people into its stores. Since you had to print out a coupon from Facebook or Twitter, or show your coupon on your mobile device, the results were easy to track. And, most importantly, the promotion also required you to buy a drink in order to get the free pastry. Starbucks' profit margin on the coffee likely more than made up for the cost of giving away the pastry. Smart. "Businesses that are investing in social media in smart ways -- they're making money," Keath says.

And so, I imagine, is Social Fresh. The conference has tapped into the seemingly insatiable appetite businesses have to try and ride the social media wave. Keath, who recently moved to New York City, says he's had serious requests from business people and marketers in 40 other cities, asking that he bring the one-day Social Fresh conference to them. His new Big Apple base gives him more networking opportunities, he says, but Charlotte and its growing business market remains important to him. Tickets for year's Social Fresh Charlotte conference, to be held August 16, are already selling briskly enough that he's thinking it could prove his biggest event yet. This year's event, he says, will have more "drill down" topics, taking attendees beyond the basics to application-type issues such as how to ramp up social media without adding staff, and forming strategy for using social media monitoring and management tools. (Registration prices jump July 15, but even with its pricey $300-range tickets, last year's Social Fresh event in Charlotte sold out).

Keath believes as the gap closes between social media's capabilities and users' skill levels, we'll see more winning campaigns and less skepticism. He's probably right. But as Web 2.0 evolves, networks and concepts rise and fall so quickly that it's hard to tell what's coming next. We're headed for territory none of us has ever visited. It's a thrilling thought. But it's also scary. Just ask anybody in the newspaper industry.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Is the social web killing e-mail?

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg created a bit of a fuss in the digital world recently by declaring that "e-mail is probably going away," thanks to teens' obsession with texting and social networks. Given Facebook's well-chronicled drive to "socialize" Web communications, she's obviously not an unbiased observer. Still, it's a provocative question that people in the ever-evolving tech world have been asking for a while. It formed the topic of this morning's monthly breakfast meeting of Social Media Charlotte, a club comprised largely of social networking aficionados, marketers and technology buffs.

Panelists Greg Cangialosi, Adam Holden-Bache and Jeffrey Cohen agreed that e-mail likely isn't dying anytime soon, given how heavily companies and their workers depend on it. What is happening, Cangialosi said, is that marketers are figuring out how to use e-mail and social networks in tandem. For those of you who regard all advertising e-mails as spam, that's probably bad news. Cangialosi said the practice is still in its infancy, but savvy marketers are figuring out how they can pull your e-mail address and other personal data from sites like LinkedIn and Facebook, and how they can use that to fine-tune their marketing efforts. Maybe they overlay their e-mail list with Facebook and find so many Facebookers that they decide it makes sense to set up a fan page. If you've got a huge following on Twitter, maybe you get a different e-mail from other folks. Perhaps even a nice little giveaway prize in hopes you'll extend the company's message and reach by re-tweeting it to your followers.

Like so much of what's happening with Web 2.0, though, it remains to be seen whether e-mail has a future on the increasingly socialized Web. Will we all talk to each other via Facebook or whatever comes after it? Or will it always be the case that you can't get access to anything on the Web without inputting your e-mail address? Stay tuned...

Friday, June 18, 2010

Father's Day: what it means to me

So, it's Father's Day, and hopefully, all the Good Dads out there are in for a lot more than ugly ties. If by any chance you're just curling up and doing some net-surfing today, I'd recommend you check you a site suggested by my buddy, ad-man and social media maven Jim Mitchem.

He pointed me to the online magazine for The Good Men Project, an initiative aiming to start a national dialogue about what manhood means today. As a guy raising two daughters, I can tell you a few of the first images that brings to mind for me: Friday night pizza, re-learning Algebra, mall runs, pool trips, the triumph of the rare perfect dish of baked macaroni and cheese, proving that men can do hair too (sort of), and realizing that, oddly enough, even "America's Next Top Model" can make for compelling TV. (Those girls really need to eat, though).

On a deeper level, it means realizing the legacy that survives me won't be the millions of words I've put into print over what's now been two decades of newspaper journalism. It won't be my college degrees, or any awards I've won. It will be two beautiful women -- hopefully happy, hopefully well-adjusted, hopefully married to sane and sensible men, both peering at the world through the same deep-set eyes my father left me. It will be whatever I poured into them in the time I've had with them.

Given what I see and know of my girls, I'm more than OK with that. Happy Fathers Day guys!

Androids on the March -- Can they overtake the iPhone?

I've been reading for weeks now the breathless news reports about how Android phone sales are outpacing the iPhone, but I haven't had a chance to see up-close what all the Android fuss is about. Now I have. For the past few days, I've been test-driving the HTC Incredible, one of the newer models in a growing stable of Androids. Bottom line: I'm impressed. (But then again, I own a Blackberry Curve 8330, so hey...). Still, the Incredible is a seriously nice device. Light (4.59 ounces), fits in the pocket nicely, and the resolution of its 3.7-inch HD touchscreen makes my poor little hard-working dinosaur of a Blackberry look like yesterday's news -- in grainy sepia tones. As someone who types for a living, I tend to want physical keyboards, but the Incredible's HTC Sense touchscreen is perhaps the first phone that makes that a non-issue for me. The Web browser also has one of the most helpful predictive typing features I've seen.

The battery life left much to be desired, though. Running simultaneous apps is great, but the downside apparently comes when your battery can barely make it through a day. (My Blackberry can go two days easily uncharged). Still, that doesn't seem to be hurting sales. Verizon's Web site says customers trying to buy it now online can't expect shipment until July 16. And that's all before the next big Android, the Droid X, is expected to be unveiled during a press event on June 23 -- the day before the iPhone 4 hits stores. The X appears to be drawing even better first-look reviews than the Incredible -- at least from the supergeeks at Engadget.

Apple, the king of digital media, is finally getting a run for its iPhone money -- and is responding like a champ. The iPhone 4, coming out June 24, boasts so many nice tweaks (videoconferencing capability doesn't hurt) that people are almost literally beating down the Apple Store doors to get in line for them. So many pre-orders have gone in that Charlotteans who have reservations to buy one aren't sure they'll be honored come D-Day. Some say they're prepared to camp out in front of SouthPark Mall if necessary to get in the Apple Store early.

The Apple vs. Android war is officially on. And you need only take a look at this wireless industry chart to see that we're talking about the kind of upward-spiraling revenue stream any corporation would fight to the death to dominate. So, we'll see what happens.

Who do you think will end up on top?

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Internet privacy and safety: Just myths?

So, I just had a rather sobering conversation with one of our resident IT experts here at the newspaper. He was in the process of adding Tweetdeck to my laptop (no administrative privileges for me!) when he said something to the effect of, "Well, now you can access your Twitter thingy..." That made me curious, so I asked him what he thinks of social networking. He laughed and said he's never going on any social network. Too dangerous. Too many hackers out there. Actually, he said it's not just social networks. He won't put any personal information on computers if he can help it -- he won't even do online banking, despite the obvious convenience factor. I noted that the banks and social networks have security controls, and they seem to keep people protected well enough, despite the occasional hiccup. His response: most people putting their personal information online will be fine, but the few who get theirs hijacked are in for a nightmarish experience. He'd rather not take the chance at all.

I know there are others out there like him (a few make a point of telling me -- repeatedly -- how pointless social networks are). But part of us will always recoil at the notion of sharing previously private information over a public transom. I still remember thinking the Observer's parent company had lost its collective mind years ago when it decreed the end of paper paychecks and made us handle all of our pay data via a secure online site. Now I input without a second thought.

And consider this: more institutions are asking you to do your business with them online. It saves them money, it helps the environment (no paper to throw away) and it offers you convenience. The era of cloud computing and the socially-connected Web is upon us.

It appears that, whether everybody likes it or not, it's here to stay.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

What's up with Twitter?

Ok, Twitter's getting on my nerves.

Tried to get on it again this morning and got the old Fail Whale for what seems like the third time in as many days, announcing that Twitter is over capacity.

Apparently the problems could continue today, since Twitter's status update site issued the following message this morning: "We're seeing periodic high rates of errors on This is the result of testing and maintenance. We expect our maintenance to end at approximately 7:30" a.m.

When I tried to log on about 9:20, though, I got greeted by the Fail Whale, so apparently the problems aren't going to end when maintenance does. I know the site's been struggling with all the World Cup soccer traffic and its own internal architectural problems, but part of what makes people like Twitter is the ease of communication -- have a thought, blast it out there. Simple.

If it's not going to be that easy, or if these high error rates become a more regular part of the Twitter experience, the site that helped revolutionize digital communications could find itself an afterthought.

Twitter users out there, are you having the same frustrations?

Monday, June 7, 2010

Gastonia native's obit: check out my Facebook page

Edith Anne Shuford Summey died May 1 of complications from open heart surgery, but judging from the obituary that ran in Sunday's Observer, the 69-year-old Gastonia native had a blast of a life. She loved scuba diving so much that she had two obit pictures -- one standard "dressed up" picture, and a second of her underwater in full scuba gear.

And, in keeping with the spirit of the times, her loved ones used her obit to invite everyone to check out her Facebook page, where you can click on a link to her website, which displays tons of pictures from her scuba-diving trips all over the world.

Looking at her pictures -- yes, those are really big sharks she's shooting -- you come away thinking: "What a great life!" And what a great use of social networks. Sharing at its best.

I sent her a friend request, just for the heck of it.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

New Facebook privacy settings rolling in

So after all the fuss and furor over Facebook's privacy policies, the new privacy controls are rolling into users' Facebook pages. The alert hit my Facebook page yesterday, letting me know I had access to the new controls, and I finally got around to checking them out today.

My first impression? More of the controls have indeed been more conveniently grouped on a short series of screens, just as Facebook promised. But when you get right down to clicking through them, they didn't feel much different in substance from the old options. I also couldn't help but notice that Facebook's recommended settings, which would allow "everyone" to see my status updates, photos, posts, bio and family and relationships information, were a lot more public than the ones I'd previously customized. (I'd locked down everything except "bio and favorite quotations" so that only my friends could see).

Still, having all the information laid out in a more easily digestible format made me a little more comfortable with sharing, so I left the "instant personalization" feature on. (I'm nosy, I guess. I wouldn't mind seeing what my friends are finding interesting on sites I tend to visit).

I think because I labored through the old settings to customize them, perhaps that left me with less "new" to do when the new ones hit. And for whatever it's worth, I think Mark Zuckerberg's right -- people will share more eventually. But only if it's their choice, and only if they feel they're being dealt with honestly.

Have the new settings showed up on your page yet? Do they make you feel any more secure about what you're sharing and what people can see?

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

BP Twitter spoof building huge following

Have you seen the fake BP public relations tweets about the oil spill in the Gulf? I've been peeking in on @BPGlobalPR for the past couple of days at the satirical, sardonic and seriously un-PC tweets the account's creator has been sending out. (Animal lovers be warned: this person apparently never asks "is this in bad taste?" before hitting 'enter.')

Take one recent tweet. "Due to public outcry," it read, "our 'Spill or Be Spilled' Flash game will be taken off our BP Kidz Klub website. 'Smack the greasy manatee' stays."

Or the latest one (so far) today: "The oil leak was caused by a natural gas explosion, or sea fart, which is now having silent but deadly consequences. #bpseafart"

Some say this is all in extremely poor taste. Others call it dark humor at its finest. Either way, it's definitely a good example of how easily a company's brand can get hijacked on social networks. The spoof account has more than 97,000 followers, compared to fewer than 9,000 for the real BP Twitter feed, @BP_America. The real BP, apparently choosing to ignore the spoof, is tweeting serious-sounding updates about the effort to stop the oil spill.

People have been speculating about the identity of the spoof's creator, with some guessing it's a professional comedy writer type. Whoever it is, I suppose it won't be long before he or she's signing a book deal, a la Fake Steve Jobs blogger Dan Lyons.

Just one more example of how, in the age of social media, anybody can grab the microphone, and God only knows what they'll choose to do with it.