Thursday, May 31, 2007

Email Koyaanisqatsi

When someone sends you an email, when should they expect a reply? Within an hour? A day? It is a simple question, but the answer (and you can send them to me via email if you'd like) isn't.

I think most of us try to respond within a business day, and if we get the email early enough, by the close of that day too. It is a pretty good rule of thumb.

But then some of us expect a response even quicker, and get annoyed or impatient of the delay. To me, this represents something out of balance, like some scenes from the movie Koyaanisqatsi. (Little ironies department: I now live about a mile from the former site of Pruitt-Igoe made famous in the movie.)

I was talking to a colleague yesterday about how she often replies to her emails late at night, after her husband has gone to sleep. It made me think about how often I reply to emails in the early morning, before my own wife awakes.

And how many of us can't leave the laptop home when we go on vacation for fear of the massive email pile-up that will await us upon our return? Or who can't help ourselves but "multitask" during meetings and clear our inboxes when we are supposed to be part of the meeting itself?

There are some that are hyperactive email responders, carrying BlackBerries and being reachable 24x7. You know who you are.

Is this healthy? I am beginning to wonder.

The irony is that I have come full circle on email responsiveness. Back in the early days of my own email use, I tried to respond to every email that I received within a few hours. This is the early 1980s, when the Internet was still a DoD science project, and few people had the ability to send messages between corporations, let alone across the world. It was still a novelty then.

In the early 1990s, I had an Internet-reachable email address, actually several. When I started Network Computing magazine, we were one of the first magazines to include email addresses of the authors for each article, which was also novel concept then. Now you can find them for the bylines in my local paper. I was also an early user of the BlackBerry precursor, called Radiomail. I remember one time pulling over at one toll plaza on the Garden State Parkway to answer some emails. A curious cop came over and was wondering what I was doing.

Back when Computer Associates (now called just CA) first implemented their email network, they actually turned the system off for several hours during the workday because they wanted their staff to get work done. This was before various executives were caught cooking the books, so I guess it worked too well. They eventually stopped doing this, and now email is available 24x7, just like everywhere else.

The email landscape sure has changed since then and what was novel is now de rigueur. Today most of us think nothing about emailing people that are halfway around the world, and of course now I get spam in about a dozen different languages, if I could figure out the character sets that come into my inbox.

The trick to being successful with email can be summed up with one word: balance. Or getting back into email balance.

"I do however still get a chuckle by those who complain they can’t get work done at the office, yet are sending personal emails out all day long," says Rich DiGirolamo, who writes a very amusing email newsletter and is a professional keynote speaker. "Some of us make every effort to answer every email within twenty-four hours, but at times we need to prioritize them. Yours just may not be as important to me as you think it is. But it will get answered, I promise."

I think that is a great strategy. I recommend setting aside some time every day to read your emails, and perhaps a separate time to write replies. But don't let it bleed into the entire day.

Maybe we need an email rehab center in Malibu to help those that need to get their lives back into balance.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

My top ten ways to promote yourself on Web 2.0

After reading about how various indie musicians promote themselves in a NY Times magazine article this past weekend, and meeting Scott Ginsberg for the first time, I have a series of Web 2.0 epiphanies.

Ginsberg is the Nametag Guy, a smart young man who wears "Hello, my name is Scott" nametag on his shirt all day, every day, for the past several years. He has a blog, a podcast, a Squidoo "lens", an email listserv, an RSS feed, Digg and Technorati references, Myspace and Facebook entries, YouTube snippets, and probably one or two other things too. In between updating all these things, he writes books and is a professional speaker. He totally gets how to promote himself using the latest tools.

People and businesses that will succeed in this brave new world have a lot of work to do to. The old days of putting together a few pages (or a few hundred) of static HTML are so over. The good news is that most of the tools are free for the downloading. All it will take is your time. The bad news is that the time investment is non-trivial. You can't farm this out to someone to just do it for you. It has to become part of your own online psyche and daily activities. Like the Katie Couric ghost-blog debacle, it isn't something you want to delegate.

Here are my top ten tips that I have learned along the way:

1. Email is still the best way for anyone to enter your ecosystem. I have been doing these essays for more than 10 years, and many of you are still reading them and responding. Email is the best way for people between 30 – 50 years old to contact you and stay in touch. Why not younger than 30? Because these people are using IM, Facebook, Myspace, and probably 13 other "social network" sites. They certainly have email addresses and spend time with email, but probably not to the extent that you would want to count on this form of communication. Why not older than 50? Well, I am just putting an arbitrary age here, but eventually, you are getting to the non-typing pre-war generation that doesn't want to communicate via email – until all of their friends or grandkids get on it. These are still people that have their assistants print out their corporate emails – don’t laugh, I have seen too many situations.

2. You don't just want to focus on email, you still need to be approachable in Web 2.0-space. List all of your electronic coordinates in one place on your Web site, and include a phone number for good measure, because that makes it all real. Don't do a "contact form" that hides your email address – that is so old school and off-putting, and anyone worth their HTML code can figure out what the embedded email address is anyway.

3. Give something away for free. Really. You do this to build credibility and also to give people a taste of what you will charge them for. Ginsberg is giving away his latest book on his blog, and he is so comfortable with doing that because he knows this will build word-of-mouth and drive sales. The indie musicians profiled in the Times are giving away MP3s. Some have taken this a step further and are even experimenting with demand-based pricing that turns out to net them more than the 99-cent download standard at iTunes.

4. Think about lists of useful stuff that you can offer others. I have a page of links to various Web conferencing tools on my site that used to be in the top four sites when you searched on Google (today is down to #13, I guess I am slipping up). I have had this page on my site for about a decade, and started it on a whim. Now I get vendors who want me to list their stuff there. Squidoo has institutionalized this with their "lens" approach, and Pageflakes has something similar with their shared pages (You can see my RSS feeds and sites that I frequent here). Each of these approaches takes something that you know, and filters that you apply to the Wide World, and puts a very small amount of your own stamp and value to it.

5. Remember the Web is all about short attention spans. Call it the 4-4-4 rule: The average person spends less than four seconds looking at a Web page. They abandon a site if they can't find something in four clicks. Any video should be shorter than four minutes, or people won't bother watching it.

6. Video matters more. Speaking of videos, start to think about ways that you can put more content into (short) video segments on your site, and then post them to YouTube and other video-sharing places.

7. Don't just Digg. Sites like and that point people to your content are terrific ways to spread the word, but need care and feeding as you post new content – you have to add the entries on their sites to point to your new stuff. But also consider other places such as that will promote your content. If you post enough content on these other sites, you can leverage them better too.

8. Titles and keywords matter. When you add content to these pages, think of snappy headlines and catchy keywords. Because that is what people are going to be searching for and seeing when they scroll around.

9. Exploit your readers/fans/listeners/viewers. Everyone is big these days on "user-generated content" but there is much more to this than meets the eye. The people that consume your content are your best promoters. Leverage them, take care of them, and they will make you rich and famous. Or at least amongst your own ecosystem. The NYT article mentions how the musicians have cleverly used their fans to generate tracks on their songs, schedule concert dates in particular cities, and other activities. I try to answer every email that you send me, even if it is just to acknowledge receipt. Part of this is respecting your readers, part of it is a new way of interacting with them. I remember when we started Network Computing magazine back in 1990 and put our author's email addresses at the end of the articles. We were fearless! But we got some great feedback.

10. Think about all the communities you belong to. Does each one have its own equivalent of an A-list blogger? Someone who has a page a mile long of MySpace "friends" or LinkedIn "connections? A common calendar of events that is easy to subscribe to via RSS? A list of recommended books/videos/music?

There is so much more to do with Web 2.0. I have to run, and post this article on the various places mentioned here, and get the emails out.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Web site construction woes

I've heard lots of woes from people trying to work with their Web site consultants this week. You know the type: they promise that your site is "just about finished" and the pages "just need some tweaking" and yet nothing gets done. I have had to suffer through whiney rants about delays, bad programming decisions, tools that malfunction, missing logins and content wrecks.

Have we reached the point where building a Web site is a lot like building a new freeway? It takes far too many people, time, and dollars, upsets the people who have to live near it, and in the end is obsolete by the time the first people try to use it.

I remember the good ole days of the Web, say 12 years ago, when one person (like me) could build a site in an afternoon, without any really specialized tools or knowledge beyond knowing a few tags and reading a Laura Lemay book.

I am coming to the conclusion that we need to return to those simple days where one person can still build their site, without the heavy lifting of a Web Site Designer and a Web Programming Consultant and an Internet Search Specialist and a Web Marketing Person. (Capital letters deliberately intended to reflect the title's self-importance.)

At one site, a simple database was taking months to webify. I ended up talking to the site's graphic designer, who was the only one who had any project management skills and could reign in the wayward development staff. Said staff has trouble configuring something that my high school networking students could do in their sleep. Someone else was complaining to me that their copy of Dreamweaver had started behaving badly, and all I could do was recommend a clean uninstall of every Adobe product on her disk, short of buying a new computer. These are just a couple of the stories I could tell you this week alone.

So in the 15 or so years of the Web we have better tools, but they still suck. Better sites, but they are still annoying with pop-ups and dead-end links and overblown graphic frippery. Better site statistics, but still no insights into who comes where and why they leave our sites. Better traffic, but still a lot of mythology about how the search engines point our way. And speaking of search, why is it that we still can't do better there on deploying good internal site search algorithms?

There is a simple answer: rebel, resist, and reclaim the Web as your own personal place. Avoid the consultantization of the Web. Fire your designers and programmers.

Start afresh with a blogging tool like Wordpress or Blogger and build your site around that. Or pick up a couple of widgets and components, or use dabbleDB or Pageflakes or stuff from Google or Yahoo. You don’t need a passel of programmers to work this Web.

Since moving over to Wordpress and posting these simultaneously to the blog and my email listserv, I have noticed that I don't do any site maintenance over on good ole' anymore. Why bother? The old archive of prehistoric articles is still there, and maybe even a few of the links still get people to the original places. A few pages are in the top ten category on Google, not through any forethought or planning of my own, and I am grateful for that traffic.

As Thoreau said, simplify. Part of being all Web 2.0 is never having to hear the sorry tales of your programmers that are behind schedule, over budget, and full of excuses why the dog ate their APIs. Forget about them, and build a simple, quick site that can deliver some value the same day you start the project.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Waning attention spans

I find that my attention span is getting shorter and shorter, and I have coined a description for this condition: hair-trigger multitasker. I start a task, and if it is taking too long to complete, I move on to something else. It means that I find it difficult to spend long periods of time working on particular projects. And it also offers a convenient excuse why it took me until today to write this column: I just couldn't find the time to complete it earlier in the week.

I am in good company: Even Rupert Murdock says he rarely finishes the longer WSJ stories.

The hair-trigger part of this means we have become more impatient. What about slow-to-load Web sites? Outta here. Long-winded emails? Hit the delete key. Some of us have bought a second screen for our PCs just so we can have lots of windows open to keep us amused.

I find that the way I interact with my computer is also changing: I used to be able to read long Web pages and articles online. No longer. I watch shorter online videos too: five minutes is almost the outer edge for me. I guess this is one reason why Sony (and I would assume others will join them) are now repackaging five-minute episodes of Charlie's Angels and TJ Hooker. While some of you might say that there never was more than five minutes' worth of content in these episodes, it goes to show that online, life is short. Cut to the chase (literally for both programs mentioned), get in, get out.

I find that my own video viewing habits are going bi-modal: the short Web videos that you can find on You Tube et al. The longer feature-length films I still watch in my living room. Not much in-between.

I haven't analyzed how my writing style has changed over the years (now, that would be a project for some undergrad to take on) but I would be willing to bet that my sentences and paragraphs are getting shorter, too.

Back when I toiled in the IT fields at Transamerica Insurance, we had to do Flesch-Kincaid Readability tests on our documents, to make sure they are readable. There is a tool to do this analysis online of course (not sure of its accuracy).

Does this spell the end of deep content diving? I don't think so. But it does show that as we design new Web sites, we need to make more of our content more digestible. More componentized. Summaries up at the top of the page. Sentences shorter.

It is harder to write these nuggets too. It was Blaise Pascal who said: "I made this letter very long, because I did not have the leisure to make it shorter." (Hat tip to Larry Hertzog for today's column idea.)

About Me

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David Strom has looked at hundreds of computer products over a more than 20 year career in IT and computer journalism. He was the founding editor-in-chief of Network Computing magazine, and now writes for Baseline, Information Security, Tom's Hardware, and the New York Times.