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Putting the Public Back in Public Relations: Crooked Monkey Style


T-shirtI hadn’t heard of the popular t-shirt company Crooked Monkey until I was invited to an exclusive party they recently held. You see, even though they get great press from actors wearing their shirts in movies and magazines talking about their fashion styles, Crooked Monkey is based in Washington, DC not widely known as the fashion capital of the country. And they wanted to do some local brand building.

This wasn’t just any party. Sure, there were attractive guests in a cool setting with great drinks and music all the usual stuff. It was what they did differently that made it the most memorable event Ive been to in a long time.

Lets start with how I even found out about the event a secretive email from someone I didn’t know telling me that my friend recommended me as a guest for the event. This is somewhere in between Facebook and Eyes Wide Shut.  Then, a request for my home address, to which was mailed a package containing an envelope with a paper invitation, and also a sparsely decorated white t-shirt, which I was required to save for the party two months later and bring with me to gain admittance. Finally, a bag of tart banana candies finished the package.

Further inspection revealed that the event was on a Sunday night (no night is safe from parties!) at a secret location to be given to us later. Keep in mind that I dont know the person behind the party, nor the other guests, and now also not the location. Still later I discovered by email invitation that the event would be in a warehouse in a not-so-savory part of Washington, DC and that we MUST bring our white t-shirts because wed be doing something with them on the night of the event.

When the day of the event came, I really couldn’t stand not knowing anything! I texted the contacts I had for the event to ask questions, but they revealed little. I emailed some socialite friends to try to figure out who else would be there we knew it would be all tastemakers of different sorts, but no one really knew who was going, which was exciting. I used Google Maps to investigate the location of the warehouse. I stressed about what one wears to such events (I think I chose well!).

Even the party itself was very engaging. An artist created a mural from our white t-shirts that we used for entry right in front of our eyes. An old-fashioned photo booth let us take pictures with each other, and the photo strips had (what else?) a Crooked Monkey logo on them.  Even the name of the event Photoshoot at the Warehouse gave the party an active quality.

Do you detect a pattern here? Crooked Monkey kept busy, elite attendees who get invited to tons of events mentally engaged with their event for weeks. They made us part of telling their story. They got us to talk about their brand before, during, and after the event.  And in the end, the event delivered with a cool venue, outstanding bar, fun atmosphere, and lots of fashion.

Photoshoot at the Warehouse is a great example of putting the public back in public relations and brand engagement. How great? Im writing an entire post about them – and I dont even like wearing t-shirts!

This post originally appeared on Brian Solis’ PR 2.0 site.

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The Five-Minute Citizen Engagement Plan


Ben Huh is an expert on audience engagement who’s best known for creating a platform where people can post photos of cute cats and funny captions. If you’re wondering what this has to do with the government and information technology, don’t worry — until recently, I didn’t understand either. But as I’ve spent time thinking about what citizen engagement means, I’ve become convinced that Huh might be on to something.

Huh’s company is named Cheezburger Networks, and its goal is to “make people happy for five minutes a day.” Not only does its Web sites have more than 11 million monthly visitors and more than 10,000 daily submissions, the commentary level in some cases rivals the number of votes cast in congressional elections. People undeniably enjoy participating because it’s fun and engaging.

So why doesn’t a federal agency have the informal goal of, say, “helping students learn for five minutes a day” or “teaching Americans about foreign policy for five minutes a day” by creating something equally fun and engaging?

Cheezburger Networks makes participation simple. There is a low barrier to entry for participation on its sites, and indeed, when prompted at a question-and-answer session held recently at Google’s Washington offices, Huh suggested that combining participation with humor could make the government more engaging. However, there’s definitely resistance to that idea.

When chatting with another attendee immediately after the event, I received feedback to the effect of “that’s not the government’s job.” What, being interesting? I’d like someone to show me the rule that says the government can’t use some engaging, tasteful humor to engage citizens and, in the process, convey information. The Forest Service still has SmokeyBear.com, after all.

True, a Web site like ICanHasCheezburger.com might be too far outside the box for the government. But what about another popular Cheezburger Networks site, GraphJam.com? GraphJam is a fascinating Web site that consists entirely of user-generated graphs like you’d make using data in Microsoft Excel — except they’re hilarious. The site lets you upload your own files and even has a proprietary chart builder for pie charts, Venn diagrams and so forth. Some graphs certainly take liberties with the facts, but they’re primarily fun and informative.

The government has so much data that it often can’t see novel applications for it. Engaging Web sites where people could create simple visual interpretations of government data and submit them for others to learn from, discuss and, yes, even be amused would be valuable. Why does all government data have to be treated so seriously? Does portraying it in a boring fashion somehow make it seem more important?

The key to building big, fun communities that can accomplish something useful is making it simple to belong and get involved. Narrowing the number of variables involved in the decision process to initially getting involved is critical to drawing people in. I wonder what people could collectively accomplish if they voluntarily engaged with government data for five minutes a day.

This post originally appeared at Federal Computer Week.

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Why Posterous Is a Smart Tool For Informal Government Blogging


For a few weeks, I’ve been testing a tool called Posterous, and I’ve come to like it a lot. You can see my account here. If you’re not familiar with Posterous, it is essentially a very simple blogging platform. It may in fact be the most simple one; yet it is very feature-laden. And it has one relatively unique feature that could make it the most powerful tool for informal blogging by government employees.

That simple, amazing, singular feature is email as a primary interface. In other words, you can post blogs simply by emailing post@posterous.com or a similar address – you don’t even need an “account” or a “login” or a “password.” Even in the private sector, this is considered a cool feature. But for government employees, it could be a breath of life in an otherwise locked-down state of cybersecurity affairs.

You see, many government computer systems block domains like YouTube.com, Facebook.com, Twitter.com, and so forth. There’s a current debate about the degree to which government employees can access such sites because of cybersecurity and other reasonable concerns – after all, there have been some very recent instances of bad things being passed through these social media tools and onto your computer. But when you can interact with a blogging platform through email – and in principle even through your official government email account accessed through a traditional program like Microsoft Outlook – you can get the functionality without the risk, and without needing permission from the IT shop.

As information is more decentralized and as more computing is done on mobile devices, quickly communicating information will be more commonplace – and more in demand by consumers of it. So to citizens, government content will still be king, but the speed at which it travels to them may be queen. And being able to blog on-the-go can increase that speed. Recently I’ve experimented with blogging while walking eight blocks to a date, blogging incredibly fast in reaction to breaking news, and blogging during a conference and posting my “journalism-style” article precisely at the end of a talk. There are innumerable other tactical applications of this tool.

Posterous has a lot of great features that I like. Perhaps most important among them is that links to the content you post can be instantly pushed to other social services like Twitter and Facebook – even if they’re blocked in your office. Another great feature is that if you attach photos, videos, or documents to your email, Posterous automatically embeds them in your blog – and will also push them to services like Flickr, YouTube, and Scribd (which may also be blocked in your government office). Still another great feature is that multiple people from multiple email addresses can contribute to one Posterous page (say, for an office), and conversely one email can be associated with multiple Posterous pages (say, a formal public affairs page, and an informal tech thoughts page). In brief, you can be very powerful from your BlackBerry.

Posterous has been described by a Mashable writer as “unremarkable,” but frankly, that’s what a lot of government employees are interested in. The government has a lot of outstanding content, and their primary mission in many cases is to get it out; customizing the blog theme is definitely secondary. A standardized, simple blog platform controlled through email sounds like just what the doctor ordered, and it offers numerous advantages over something more complicated like WordPress; for example, it’s easier to teach people how to use! Oh, and did I mention it’s free?

Posterous would probably love it if people in the government wanted to jump on this bandwagon in a more official manner, too. If I understand the numbers correctly, Posterous currently only has about one million unique visitors a month – total. The U.S. Government has more employees than that. I’m not picking on Posterous – it’s only been available since June 2008 and has some tough competition in the blog platform world – but my guess is that they’d be very willing to work with the General Services Administration and other appropriate people (as have companies like YouTube) to make Posterous work with official government interests and missions. And the same goes for local and state government employees too, who often deal with IT situations similar to those of their Fed counterparts.

Many agencies are working on social media policies and guidelines for employees, and education and training are no doubt part of successful use of tools like blogs by government employees. But assuming that people are trained and empowered to create online content, can you imagine if even 5% of Postal Service or FEMA or Army employees had a Posterous blog, and citizens and journalists could mine that information about what was happening in the country, or the world? It would be amazing.

So, for the 99% of government employees that can blog in their private lives and informally talk about their careers and more generally about their lives, I recommend getting a personal Posterous account. And because many of the things I said about the government also apply to large corporations, I think there’s a huge opportunity there, too. Everyone’s workplace has different rules about what you can and cannot use your computer and mobile devices for, and you shouldn’t break them. But if you can interface with Posterous via email and help to achieve workplace goals by mobile live-blogging of conferences you attend, or posting photos of critical emergency situations, or provoking discussion over the issue-of-the-day, I say: Go for it.

(If you work in government or closely with it and use Posterous, I’d especially like to listen to your feedback as I help prepare content for the upcoming Gov 2.0 Expo in May 2010.)

This post originally appeared on O’Reilly Radar.

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Social Networking is the Means to Achieve Collaboration


Yesterday I live-blogged a bit from the terrific Government 2.0 event produced by FedScoop.com at the Newseum in Washington, DC. I wrote a post about how collaboration was not the means, but rather an end made possible by the means of social networking tools.  You can read my original writing and some initial comments here.  Below, I expand a bit on these ideas.

My post was initially inspired by one speaker’s (WFED’s Chris Dorobek) notion, shared by some others (Justin Houk commented that, “Taxpayers don’t want to think about those in government sitting around on twitter all day even thought that might be an effective way to collaborate.”), that social networking tools come across as too social or “fun” and that being social is not what people are truly doing (in the government) when they use them – they’re collaborating.  Thus, when marketing Government 2.0 to wider audiences, he feels that a term like “collaboration tools” is more appropriate.

In my opinion, while this might sound better to the traditionalist, untrained ear, I think it is factually wrong to say that things like Facebook or Intellipedia are collaboration tools.  True, collaboration often happens with these tools.  And perhaps one could argue that collaboration is mainly what people hope to accomplish with them in the workplace.  Fair enough.  But I think that collaboration is the end result of leveraging social networks, which is in actuality what the social networking tools are for.

In other words, social networks are the means by which to accomplish something.  This something might very well be collaboration.  It might also be putting together an office softball team, or a study group of employees all learning Arabic.  Is that “collaboration”?  I don’t think so.  There are many things that happen in workplaces based around social networks that are not strictly collaboration on work projects.  One big thing I’ve been thinking about lately is “leveraging social networking to accomplish important things” and no one can deny that personal relationships can influence collaboration.  How well you know someone, how much you identify with them, how much you trust them, their level of reliability or transparency – all of these are values derived from social networking that then, when leveraged, can influence collaboration.  Collaboration is not an end in itself, of course – it is a means to accomplish some end (finishing a draft report, etc.).  So, social networking is a means to collaboration, which is a means to achiving some work or personal goal.

I also completely reject the notion that there is something wrong with having some fun at work.  The idea that having fun with social software shouldn’t be allowed in serious workplaces is ridiculous.  And of course, anyone who’s ever passed around a joke-of-the-week email, celebrated a colleague’s birthday with a cake in the break room, or ended work at 4pm for an informal happy hour with the office would surely agree with me on this.  Work can be fun, and be productive, too.  The head of the OPM recently visited Google for a reason.

So, briefly, I think social networking tools are not necessarily collaboration tools.  They are social software that allows social networks to be leveraged to accomplish things you find important.  That might be collaboration on a National Intelligence Estimate, or arranging a carpool with people in your agency (getting to work, being more green), or finding a racquetball partner (staying healthy, living well) – all of which postitively influence the workplace, in government and in the private sector as well.   As Fred Wellman commented on my original post, “I can’t help but wonder if Chris [Dorobek] is seeking a more politically correct or business sounding name of the same tools with the goal of breaking down barriers to implementation and usage as opposed to a lack of understanding of the power of social networking applications in the business of government.”  I think there’s a lot of truth to that.  But I also think that, as an academic, this is actually not what we are doing.  This may sound esoteric, but from an academic standpoint I think it’s an important distinction.

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Government Ambassadors For Citizen Engagement


To the average person, government is represented by an anonymous person on the other end of the phone, a pile of mandatory paperwork, and perhaps at best a friendly neighborhood postal carrier. If you ask the average American not living inside the Beltway to name a single individual who works in the federal government, how would they reply? My guess is that the broad majority of them couldn’t give you the first and last name of a federal government employee; In reality they would find it much easier to name their local pharmacist, garage owner, or supermarket manager. And from the perspective of the government, this is a shame. How might emerging social technologies help to bridge that gap, in combination with a modification in thinking about government public relations?

The ideal end state when a citizen is asked to name a government employee would be that a person working in a micro-niche of interest to them – finance, farming, foot-and-mouth disease – immediately comes to mind. Unfortunately though, interesting and talented people working at Treasury, USDA, NIH and other places are not well-known to the public, despite the great effects their work has on everyday life in America. Why is this? Partly, it is a vestige from the days when communications were controlled by professionally trained public relations staff and mainstream journalism teams. This was understandable – equipment was expensive, channels were few, and citizens trusted authenticated, official sources for their information. But this media structure that worked well for 40 years is now outdated.

In the Web 2.0 world, every individual is empowered to be not only a consumer of information, but a producer of it. Writing is searchable, discoverable, sharable, usable, and yes, even alterable. The proverbial “pajama mafia” of bloggers has morphed into a powerful society class of listeners, questioners, writers, editors, publishers, and distributors. And in some outlying examples from the federal government, such as the TSA’s blog, we see this same power being harnessed by individual employees (with their agency’s approval, naturally) – Individuals from the TSA not only blog, but interact with citizens who comment on the articles. But this form of government-citizen interaction is, honestly, a primitive version of how social technologies can empower citizen engagement with government.

The modern citizen is not a vessel waiting to receive press releases and government website updates. Even a sophisticated government website like the White House’s new blog can only expect to attract a subset of citizens a subset of the time. Why? Simply, there are simply too many avenues of information flowing towards these people formerly known as a captive audience. No matter how compelling your government information, they are not waiting to hear from you about it. Nor are they necessarily waiting to hear from the New York Times, MSNBC, or any other mainstream organization.

Read more about how governments can harness the power of social media to reach the modern citizen at O’Reilly Radar.

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Proactive Social Media: Filling the Information Space With Great Content


I recently gave a talk titled Free the People! at the Potomac Forum’s Government 2.0 Leadership, Collaboration, and Public Engagement Symposium in Washington, DC that generated enough interest for me to post my slide deck and write a summary for a wider audience. These thoughts constitute some of my early ideas about “offensive social media” for organizations (this talk was particularly geared towards a government audience, but the fundamentals apply to the private and public sectors more broadly).

Read the rest of this article at the PR 2.0 blog!

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Happy Birthday, Dear…Somebody


I use Facebook a lot for networking these days.  There’s over 100 million users, which means a lot of old friends, new friends, work contacts, local acquaintances, and more are on there posting information about what they’re doing and where.

It’s certainly impossible to keep track of what all your contacts are doing. Just on Facebook, I have about 2,000 “friends.” But there’s a bunch of people you don’t talk to very much that are still very important from time to time…if you’re on their radar.

One “trick” I use is to scan the list of who’s having a birthday every morning. If there are people having a birthday whose names I recognize, but haven’t talked to in a while, I definitely go to their Wall and post a “Happy Birthday” and maybe add a little extra. Seems small, but a little bit of meaningful interaction is better than zero. And who’s going to complain??

Everyone wants to see who wished them a happy birthday. Use it as a small gesture to keep the small pieces of your social graph loosely joined.

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Don’t Aspire To Be a Writer


Today I saw the phrase “aspiring writer” in someone’s brief biography. But there’s no longer a need to aspire to be a writer. The proliferation of blogs have made it possible for anyone to publish anything at anytime and share it with the world. Sure, the popularity of your writing will vary, but not your ability to do it in the first place. Stop aspiring to be a writer, and be a writer.

Ironically, the aforementioned person’s biography was on Twitter, where they were publishing their own writing, even as they thought they were only aspiring to.

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Make a Meaningful List and Take a Stand


There are so many lists.  Top 100 this, top 50 that, top 150 must-read blogs in this sector.  How can there be this many people that I “must” pay attention to?  Truth is, there aren’t.

People are so afraid to take a stand, to have a strong opinion, to leave someone “important” out, that they put anyone and everyone on their lists.  And large organizations are afraid, too.  For example, some blogs on the AdAge Power 150 are pathetic choices – they are frequently off topic, or have no real influence (of course, they are mainly designated without human interference, automatically).  I’ll consider them important when the pigs eat my brother (thanks, Brando).  Or how about the Foreign Policy’s Twitterati 100?  I cannot sum this one up better than NYU professor Jay Rosen“The 100 most famous foreign policy names we could find who have [Twitter] accounts.” It’s frankly amazing that well-respected brands put their reputations behind such pathetic lists.

Here’s one good, haphazardly chosen example.  I hate to critique just one person making one list, but this one was on my radar, and this isn’t an academic study.  It is a new list of “Top 50 PR Professionals You Should Be Following on Twitter.”  Let’s break this down.  First, some of them are simply not PR professionals (interesting though they may be), or if they are, the definition has been fairly diluted.  Second, on Twitter, many of the actual PR professionals are tweeting very similar things, so it’s complete overkill if one follows all 50.  Third, many of the people on the list are obvious follows (so having them on the list adds nothing), and many have such bland descriptions of why you should follow them as to be useless (so having them on the list adds nothing). And finally, blog comments like this and this suggest that some very obvious people were far down the list, or entirely left off [a list of 50], and it’s not clear why that reasoning was, either.

Moreover, perhaps the most important point is that all the (1) obvious and (2) bland choices serve to drown out anyone on the list who may be truly undiscovered and interesting!  I know they exist to some degree, but more lists of “Top 10 People You’re Not Watching” would be very useful, in all topics of interest.

I’m really happy for everyone living in the Web 2.0 world who thinks that they can make sloppy lists and do incomplete research for blog articles and that everything will just get “sorted out” in the comments section (the author of the above Top 50 list suggested that there were so many comments after the post that she might make a Top 500 list! Thanks!).  Thoughtful comments are nice, but are they nice enough to reward sloppy writing with the hopes of getting thoughtful comments to round out their own incomplete thought process?  I don’t think so.  I write everything pretending that there will be no comments.  Then, if there are useful comments, it’s a pleasant surprise – not a recipe for completeness.

When I made a list of the 10 most “influential” people using Twitter in Washington, DC, I kept it simple.  I used somewhat unique criteria. I listed 10 people and explained in detail why I chose each of them. And largely, they were different than people on similar lists. So different, in fact, that NationalJournal.com ran a story about how my list differed from others in the LA Times and other publications, with a Twitalyzer quantification chart. Turns out my list has certain qualities, and theirs had certain other qualities – mine was unique if you were looking for this sort of thing, and theirs for a different sort of thing. Great, we can all reasonably coexist. It’s not about right or wrong – It’s about having a strong opinion, arguing for it, and sticking with it.

If you’re going to make a list, of anything, make it short and to the point. Make it stand out from other similar lists. Have some reasons for choosing what is on your list. Have some guts. Be willing to be different. And take a stand when people disagree. Otherwise your list is meaningless – to you, and to anyone that comes across it.

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Your Digital Audience Listens In Multiple Theatres


Last night, a social media consultant and Massachusetts political candidate whose writing I follow, Ari Herzog, unfollowed everyone he was following on Twitter and started from scratch.  And he’s done this before, all the while engaging in conversation with people about why he’s following who he’s following, and why he’s changing his tactics.  He’s probably the only person I’ve seen wholesale delete all his followers and start over.  Sounds crazy, right?

Wrong.  First, it’s good to do your own thing, and you don’t have to explain yourself to anybody.  Second, it’s good to reassess things you’re doing to see if they still work, if they’re still relevant to meeting your goals.  Third, as Ari says, Twitter is not Facebook, it’s not an email list, it’s not a Rolodex – meaning, the people you interact with on different platforms do not necessarily have to be the same.

In fact, it’s probably better that all the people you know don’t use all platforms equally.  I know people that love Microsoft Outlook for sharing news and information, others that use Facebook a lot but don’t microblog, and still others that worship shiny digital objects like Twitter and Friendfeed.  A tenet of new marketing is to go where the people you want to talk to already are; well, if you mainly interact with someone on one platform and they rarely use another one, why bother trying to interact with them on the second one?  Streamline your operations and do things that work to meet your goals.

Update: Robert Scoble unfollows almost 100k people, and wants to start a new movement – http://friendfeed.com/scobleizer/03d1701f/new-twitter-movement-unfollow-everyone

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