Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Five useful social networking tools

In preparation for a keynote speech that I am giving next month, I took some time to look at a variety of social media consolidation and notification services. You might find one or more of them useful for your purposes, even for those of you that still don't poke, tweet, or know what RSS really stands for.

First is Ping.fm that can post to multiple social networks at once. You sign up, give them your login credentials at Facebook, Plaxo, LinkedIn, Flickr, Twitter, Wordpress and many others. When you want to update your social networking universe, you send one message to your Ping.fm account via an email, a text message, or a Web form, and it goes out to everyone. This can be a big time-saver if you post across different networks and don't mind sending the same information to all these places. I haven't used it as much because I tend to post different things to LinkedIn vs. Facebook, as an example.

Friendfeed.com works in reverse. It consolidates your entire social network "feeds" together in one place, so that your network can follow your posts across your blogs, your social networks, and other sites. You set everything up using the various RSS feeds that these services create, which is pretty clever when you think about it. The downside to Friendfeed is that your adoring public has to sign up separately for this service, which means Yet Another Social Network Request to fulfill. Still, I have been surprised at how many people are following me in this fashion, and how many of them are the A-list blogger types that you want to engage and be at top of mind in any event. Clearly, this is one service to pay attention to if you are trying to get the word out about your products and services.

Twitter is certainly all the rage these days, and a number of services have taken some of the best notification-style pieces out of it in interesting ways. If you like the way Twitter works but don't want to share your updates with the public, such as just with your work colleagues or a special task force, then take a look at Presentlyapp.com. You can use the free Web service or pay to install it behind your own firewall for the ultimate private group. They even make use of the same kind of scrolling interface that Twitter has made popular.

Another take on private discussion forums is from Yammer.com. They cost $1 a person a month. Think of this as one of those old-school BBS's that has been updated for the Gen-T and Web 2.0. I think if you want something quick and dirty and need to have a group discussion to knit your project team together, this is worth a closer look.

Buzzable.com can be used to create groups of Twitter users if you want to send out notifications to all of your partners or customers at once. LinkedIn is finally implementing this feature on their groups, but that is probably too much work to get the initial group assembled, given their still draconian triple opt-in rules.

So these are just five services that I have found that have something going for them. Whether any of these companies will be around next year is hard to tell. And I can guarantee that none of them have received any TARP funds from the US Government. If you have other suggestions, email them or post a comment on my strominator.com blog.

Self-promotions dep't

Since I mentioned my speech, I might as well give you the URL where you can see what I am going to be talking about here:

I write about a half dozen articles a year for the New York Times, and last week you can read one that I did about various services that help automate meetings and scheduling tasks here:

Also, last week I began a series of columns for PC World that will appear every Wednesday under the title of NetWork, geared towards practical solutions for small businesses that don't have a lot of IT depth. They are collected here:

Finally, today I gave a Webinar on ten things that you can do on the cheap to improve your security posture for TechTarget. You can reply the seminar here:

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Custom publishing 2.0 with MagCloud

Not every Web service has to be completely an online operation. Take as an example Netflix – when they started it wasn't really possible to stream an entire DVD across the Internets and they developed a system to mail DVDs to their customers. Now, of course, they have some very innovative ways to "watch instantly" your videos, including to Ethernet-connected Blu-Ray and Xbox players.

But the combination of on and offline components isn't widely exploited by many businesses, either because they are so enamored by Web 2.0 (or whatever we are calling it this week), or because they lack the offline skill sets or institutional memories to be effective in both camps.

Let's take a look at one service that does a great job in both worlds, called MagCloud.com, which is sponsored by HP. As someone who once ran the editorial operations of several computer magazines that have gone by the wayside (no fault of my own in particular, at least so I like to think), I welcome the effort.

It works this way. Let's say you want to produce a small number of copies of a custom published magazine – say something more than a sales brochure that has actual editorial content. You want to approach this project with the same kind of quality that a regular printed magazine would entail – full color printing, nice graphics and layout, and mailed to potential readers. This is the idea behind their service. You create your magazine just as you would with the usual Adobe tools, upload the digital files to their service, along with the mailing addresses of your readers. HP takes care of printing, proofing, binding, polybagging and postage.

You can get an idea of what is involved by browsing their Web site and seeing some of the magazines that are offered for sale there. I got a copy of "Georgia Speaker" – a magazine that is published by the Atlanta chapter of the National Speakers Association (an organization that I am a member). It was well put together and arrived in the mail in a few days and cost about $5 all told.

What I like about MagCloud is that it combines the best attributes of print-on-demand with online access for searchability, marketing and awareness. The price is reasonable and you can set up any number of custom-published pieces. Obviously, HP Is doing this to tout its printing business, but why not?

When I first heard of MagCloud, I thought the service would email me the PDF that I would then print myself. And I was pleasantly surprised when the magazine arrived in my snail mail a few days later. Then I realized the genius of this service. How much stuff do you get in the mail that you actually look forward to these days? Other than paychecks from my clients and my Netflix DVDs, not a heckuva lot. This can be high impact just because it is something so retro that it stands out.

Now, I don't know if MagCloud has a future, but certainly it can bring some bright spots of hope to some of the 11,000 journalists who lost their jobs last year (according to the Columbia Journalism Review). While that is small change compared to the number of idled GM or US Steel workers, it still means that there is a large talent pool to produce custom-published zines. And if any of you do produce your own custom magazines using the service, please let me know and I will post links to them on my blog.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Four better ways to collaborate than Google Docs

If you are looking for something better than Google Docs to work on a document or a presentation with a colleague, this column is for you. I will touch on four alternatives that are all better solutions and can give you ways to create your work product faster.

I have tried Google Docs in a few different situations, and they have been abject failures for different reasons: either the group of potential collaborators has never worked together before, or is too widely distributed geographically or organizationally to have developed any common work habits. As someone who has written two books with co-authors (along with countless magazine articles that get edited along the way), I can tell you the hardest part about collaboration isn't the technical aspects -- it is the human interactions and developing the various trusted relationships with your co-workers.

The other downside to using Google is that at its heart it still is serial workflow – I write my document and email a link so that you can continue. What we need are tools that can combine the immediacy of Instant Messaging with the viral power of social networks to help a group of content creators to get started to work together.

If your ultimate product is a document, start with the service Etherpad.com. You can bring up a common shared workspace inside your browser and multiple authors can add their comments in a chat window off to the side and compose on screen in real-time. Each author is given their own colored font to keep track of changes, and you can go back to particular versions quite easily. This service is great if you want to work with a writing partner on a proposal, say. Or if you have to assemble a final report from several sources and want all the authors to quickly converge on a series of recommendations.

But that solution is just for text. What about that bane of corporate life, PowerPoint slide decks? Here a service called SlideShare.net has a nifty solution. It goes beyond just sharing your slides by having a layer of social networking on top of things. You can add comments to individual slides, group a series of presentations together (such as all the sessions at a particular conference), add a voice narration track that can be synchronized to the slides, and more. All of this is of course available inside a Web browser. The speaker's notes that accompany each slide is also displayed and indexed by the search engines, which can be a good or bad thing depending on how you use this feature. And you can embed your slides in your blog or broadcast them to your friends on various social networks. The downside is that your builds and transition effects are lost, so if your slides have a lot of these effects, you aren't going to be too happy with the service. It also takes several hours after you have uploaded your files before they are posted to the service.

Moving on beyond slide decks is the service called drop.io for real-time collaboration that is based on an IM-style chat service. You bring up a browser and point to a common URL and off you go. You can drag and drop photos, documents, whatever and they show up in the common workspace, which you can view as a chat stream or a file directory. You can add comments, voice messages, even faxes (remember them?) to your shared workspace. When you have reached a point where you want others to review your work, you can send out a broadcast message to your Facebook or Twitter friends or gather everything up in a Zip file. For collections of files less than 100MB, the service is free.

Speaking of Twitter (isn't everyone these days?), one final service that I will mention here is Yammer.com. If you think of this as a private social network discussion board that combines some of the notification and flexibility of Twitter with that of the traditional BBS's, you got it. You can share files, have a tag cloud and a layer of search on top of everything too.

There are lots of other specialized collaboration tools – Collab.net's free Subversion is useful for tracking software development projects, and Clarizen.com's fee-based project management tool is another one that I haven't tried but seems useful in that area.

The nice thing about all of the services that I mention is that they all have free versions. With drop.io, if you want more room, you can get upgraded for $10 a gigabyte per year or if you want more management for $20 a month plan for 20 GB of storage. Yammer has a paid version if you want a managed private shared space that starts at $1 per person per month. Isn't the Internet a grand experiment in free data processing? Nevertheless, it is great to be able to try something out risk-free. Do let me know of your own suggestions and what has worked and hasn't for your collaborations. And if you want me to come speak to your company about these and other technologies, you can download my slide deck here (it is very much a work in progress) and see if it would be appropriate.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Slow and steady wins online

While many of us marvel at those Web sites and "viral videos" that take the Internets by storm and quickly gain viewership, I think the sign of truly successful sites are those that more slowly and incrementally gain their fans. The motto for today's essay is that slow and steady will win the online video race. And those sites that are quick to gain attention are also quick to lose it: the longer it takes you to build your followers, the better a chance you've have at keeping them.

Too often we get consumed by playing the numbers game: is traffic for our Web site up from last month? What were the big ticket articles or pages that brought in the most visitors? Did we get anything posted on Slashdot (which has a huge following, and can often spike traffic if articles get the right position)? These aren't the right questions to be asking.

Instead, lengthen your time horizon to the next quarter, and look for efforts that will build interest for more than just the quick hit. Is your site truly useful as a resource and will bring back returning visitors several times over the course of the year? Do you regularly post new content? Are your most popular pages easily accessible from your home page or clearly labeled at the top menu bar? Do you tie in your Web site with social network group postings and with regular (weekly or twice monthly) email blasts that have something of value in them? Do you look at your site logs and understand what they are telling you?

I realize that there are a lot of questions here, more than answers. Too often, Web site operators are easily swayed by the latest trend-let or Search Engine Optimization seminar come-on. It doesn't have to be that way. Here are a couple of examples from my own efforts that you can use to guide your own strategies.

People talk about the power of LinkedIn and other social networks. I have built my own into several hundred people gradually, by adding a few people at a time. Now the whole thing is self-sustaining. And while it seems impressive now when you look at the total members that I can reach, I think it is a much better list because I built them up gradually. I use LinkedIn to find sources for stories that I am working on, or to try to discover new clients from my installed base. After all, these are the people that are most familiar with my work. I also use it as an online resume/reference source, so potential clients can check out what my previous clients have said about me.

The same goes for you, the Web Informant reader. These weekly emails are a great way for me to continue to engage you, because I hopefully send something out of value rather than a marketing blast that is content-free. I hear from many of you that save these missives, or that reply to ones that I wrote months ago, and that is a very potent connection and a great motivation for me to continue to write them.

As many of you know, I began creating my own series of sponsored video screencast product reviews over on WebInformant.tv. So far I have posted 15 videos, and they are slowly gaining viewership on more than a dozen different video sharing and how-to Web sites. While none of them are at the level of the Coke-and-Mentos guys, I am glad to see that day after day and week after week they are getting watched and more importantly, serve as a great resource for enterprise IT managers that are trying to figure out whether they can buy these products.

Another thought: always freely offer something of value on your Web site, even if you are tempted to charge for it. The more people can stop and smell and taste what you have, the more they are going to want to stick around and eventually dive in deeper. Some people suggest that you offer almost everything for free, and then charge them to customize your content. I can't tell you how many Web sites that I visit that still don't do this, and insist on registering you or tracking you or verifying you before you can get inside the front door. You can make money by giving things away for free.

And if you feel like sharing your own thoughts with my audience, please post your comments on my Strominator.com blog.

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.