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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Gmail’s Permanent Failure, by Adam Rifkin

I really like this TechCrunch article. Here are some reasons:

  1. It is not overlong but it manages to touch all the needed bases of Rifkin’s subject. All writing should be EXACTLY the length to cover the subject properly. That’s a truism, and you can take it home with you.
  2. His ad hoc subject matter carries relevance not just to him, but to all of us Gmail users. This is not an essay written in the desperation of providing content, but to understand and expound upon a specific situation.
  3. Rifkin takes a local, personal experience, and expands its relevance to a greater audience.

The thrust of the essay hits home because Rifkin nails a sore weakness in the Google. The giant lacks feel for the user’s experience.

Google is curiously lunkheaded in terms of  communication. It would seem that the effort of empathy has not been proclaimed positively at the company. Instead, the user must measure up to the well-schooled creators of the company’s myriad products and services. Google’s aristo glow is a fake if they can’t talk normal to regular folk.


Google’s collegium of high gear prototypes loses the Get It test. And their funneling answering machine to stroke your issue presents a hopeless future. Service is merely advice.

Google doesn’t care because caring is not part of the program. The program turns to proliferation of product while scanting on service. Google is too busy to respond adequately. Instead, Google relies on failsafe technology. The people part is abandoned. Hi, my name is Why Bother.

Selling Real Estate

My wife is studying to become a real estate agent. I have accompanied her the last few weekends to check out open houses. Doing this let me see interesting opportunities.

Beth always identifies herself right away that she is not a buyer but intending to enter the profession. The agents have been varyingly helpful, within the human norm.

As an agent, you have the resources of the company for which you work, but you largely work alone. I have had the opportunity to talk shop with some of these agents. The smart ones understand that strong communication is essential.

I do not know that the challenges of selling a house are larger than selling other things, but the scale of the purchase certainly adds considerable concern. Agents must be able to communicate clearly with prospective buyers, to overcome the fears and confusions associated with that scale of concern.

The agent must reassure clientele that:

  1. His/her knowledge of the business is adequate
  2. He/she understands the needs of clients
  3. He/she is scrupulous, both in the sense of perspicacity, but also in the sense of ethics.

Should an agent dress up particularly when showing a $3 million house? I was asked that. This is one of the things one must decide. A blanket answer does not exist. Regard the specific situation and decide.

That same agent asked me to help him with some of his communications. His company puts out quarterly flyers that associate with the agents. He wants to be sure that this effort ties in with his own initiative.

I can help him, because I think in terms of the language. This is a matter of training, both in the sense of taking courses, and in asserting my own course of study. The language of communication for these sales situations must be dynamic, concise, accurate, and clear.

Temptations to skirt these necessities abound. A lovely house was two miles from the center of town, not “steps”, as the flyer reported. Perhaps one was to understand that by steps they meant 5000. Why even attempt to suggest closer proximity? The ruse is obvious.

Some people will accept the necessity of sump pumps in the cellar. For others, no gilding will suffice. Words of communication must be framed by verities. Show the house in good light, but acknowledge the faults. Those faults can be ameliorated or accepted.

Within these strictures, I take my duty as removing obfuscation and duplicity, highlighting verifiable features, and trusting that an honest delivery will find the proper audience. I know that an urge to sneak by exists, but that is a bad implement, and one I will not use.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Writer as Slob

I was just reading a blog that I like. It supplies good information that I can use. Unfortunately, it is a mess of typos and poor grammar. I read Internet as well as anyone (I speak it pretty well, too), but I find the situation problematic.

At best, the sloppiness produces distraction. The missing apostrophe or the ‘e’ before ‘i’ situation cause me momentarily to lose track of the sentence. At worst, I am confused, like when the run-on sentence leaves me lost.

I like the blog because it supplies good information, but I hate accepting the sloppiness. Should I even recommend it to people? Should I contact the author(s) and let them know? Or are low standards the norm now?

Content Farms, Sucking Our Lifeforce

Content farms are high production sites for content. Check out this brief rundown. Content farms provide the disappointing muck you find at the end of many a search. They illustrate how the information revolution can go astray.

People perform Internet searches exactly 27 bajillion times a day. Canny entrepreneurs have discovered that providing likely content for those searches, and tacking ads to that content, will create revenue. The more page views, the more revenue. It is a business model, and it works. Whee haw!

A  fearsome amount of content must be created to satisfy those 27 bajillion daily searches. Production has been honed with algorithms to determine what topics and data people seek. At the scale of content farms like Direct Media, whatever effort expended to check data and maintain decent levels of grammar simply cannot match necessity. Slapdash is the byword.

So what else is new? This is Web 2.0. Deal with it. One finds oneself thinking that. Alternatives remain, however. One can choose to avoid the crap and stick with good content.

Crafting good content cannot be a mechanical exercise. I stress good here. Good = original. Original means an ad hoc reaction to and presentation of a subject.

Many templates exist for a good blog post. These templates include ideas like asking questions (thereby eliciting reader response), numbered lists (people love them), use of keywords (search engines love them), an 8th grade vocabulary (just 8th graders apparently read blogs), and so forth. These are good ideas, useful to keep in mind. Like with all rules, though, these can be usefully broken at times.

The surprise factor still scores points. I base this assertion on no statistics. I just know that I tire of the same old. I also know that new things, original things, intrigue people. Content farms offer no surprises, and barely any content. Content farms cheat readers with the barest minimum of pay off.

My thesis is that readers will follow you if you take a left turn where the content farm authors always take a right. Surprise—in subject, in vocabulary, in viewpoint—will carry the day. That is my hope as a writer, and my belief. Originality is still a good thing.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Elevator Pitch

The following is the elevator pitch for my company. If anyone would like to offer criticism, please leave a comment, or write to me directly at tributary.communications@gmail.com.


Tributary Communications

Focusing Your Business Communications

Tributary Communications uses social media to build your customer base, increase your profits, and save you time. Interested? Here is how:

Internet: I will create a focused and effective web base for your business that customers will be drawn to.

Email: I will develop targeted email campaigns tailored to the specific needs and interests of your clientele.

Social Networks: I will create a profitable social media presence that will engage customers with lively content and a clear sense of your business strengths.

Blogs: I will set up your blog and either write strong content or edit yours so that customers will want to visit your blog regularly.

Is That Ringing in Your Ear a Death Knell?

Seth Grodin, author and—can I call him this?—marketing guru, announced on his blog that he was through with traditional publishing. The blog post is here. This should surprise no one who reads his blog, he has been clear about the possibility. Does this signal the end of traditional book publishing? Well, how should I know?

I do know that many options exist now. You can deliver your work by website, pdf, e-reader, or print on demand, and give the publishers a bye. This is one more example of when traditional businesses should get on their toes rather than back on their heels.

Grodin has established himself, so this step is not so precarious as for a lesser known writer. A lesser known writer can still succeed with the new alternatives, but must put the effort in.

I do not hear the death knell of publishing in Grodin’s decision. We will still need publishers, of some sort. They did not just select what to publish, they got work designed, printed, and marketed. those services were valuable. If you do not want to do all that, or cannot, then publishers provide the service.

Publishers unwilling to change may hear a death knell to the way they did business, but if they are savvy they might see a need for gatekeepers. I hate saying that, because publishing has been a guarded playground for so long. We have so much ‘content’ now, however, that filtering seems necessary. The market will settle the matter of course, but the market is pretty weird right now.

Grodin points out that with traditional publishing, you sell to an editor. Nowadays, you can sell to the reader. That’s who I always wanted to read my writing. Possibly we can move away from the model of publishers creating crap excitement with celebrity tell alls and copycat memes, though I suppose there will always be a market (and a marketing) for that.

So publishing will have to change, just as the music and movie industries had to change. Death knells are heard by pundits but that has more to do with their own clamor than actual events. It is certain that those who cannot change will find themselves forced from the playing field.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Is Marketing Lying or What?

Marketing attractively presents a product or service to prospective customers. Having gotten that difficult definition out of the way, I would like to look closer at what marketing encompasses.

In the wine business, I performed marketing in two ways. I met customers face to face, and I wrote reams of marketing material with newsletters, brochures, and shelf talkers. Naturally, I tried to present our wines in the best light.

Presenting products or services in the best light represents the essence of marketing. At what point does “best light” actually obscure the truth?

Truth is a fuzzy word in this context because everyone has their view about things. Good marketing should not make anything up,  however. That is not the same as tellin’ it like it is, but honestly, the goal is to give a good picture.

I did not work on commission so I lacked that consideration. Still, inventory concerns and supplier relationships, among other forces, influenced me when I directed selection ideas toward customers. That’s business. But I wasn’t trying to hoodwink anyone.

In the end, customer satisfaction rules. You cannot afford to disappoint customers in the slightest, whether you work on commission or not.

In these circumstances, I did my best to hear what customers wanted. Why not? We had a good selection. Each wine is an individual statement, and everyone’s taste differs. Something accurate and positive about a wine could always be said. Besides, we did not carry faulty wines. Whether I would purchase a wine need not enter the conversation.

Marketing, then, presents what is good about the product or service. This does not mean hiding flaws. To do that will bite you in the ass every time. Every time!

Big companies like Google and Microsoft cannot get marketing straight so I offer a numbered list of marketing rules.

  1. Explain the product or service clearly. That fuzziness in your head after reading Google explain Wave or Microsoft explain Live is not your fault.
  2. Explain pricing clearly. In other words, do not act like a cable company.
  3. Regard problems with your product or service as flaws to be fixed not features to hide.
  4. Learn from your competitors but do not copy them. Create your own niche using your own innovation and distinction.

Buzz Off—Thoughts on Content Delivery Systems

Leo Laporte recounts how Google Buzz failed him here. His problem brings up several points for me.

Point One: we are dependent on content delivery systems. These systems may or may not work all the time. Human error, of course, can occur. Furthermore, and of more concern, the delivery systems created by Facebook, Google, Twitter, and so forth, do not share the same goals as the people using their services. For the content delivery systems, users are data mines. The content delivery systems seek the most extensive mining rights that they can get. We are mere West Virginias in the eyes of these big businesses.

Point Two: Guess what? The content delivery systems do not care about the content. The content delivery systems care about getting eyeballs to look at their ads. They want more entrants into their revenue streams, not quality content. By the way, a good synonym for revenue stream is revenue.

Point Three: For all the information and opinion and content out there, there aren’t a lot of Leo Laportes. That is, there are few distinctive voices, people you remember and want to listen to. Or there are, but there is just so much out there that it is hard to discern. Kind of overwhelmed here. Are you?

Looking at myself as much as anyone, I would recommend that people put more care into content. Not every issue needs your opinion, or mine. Typos and other evidence of rushed work should not be considered acceptable. Perhaps we could resign ourselves to offering just our A material, possibly high B as well.

I think my final  point should be this simple: take control. Must we be at the mercy of content delivery systems? The Internet vitalized many of us because it allowed us easily to broadcast our work. We found that we need not pay obeisance to the possibly contrary motives of publishers and editors. Shall we return to that freedom?

Discontent with Content

I began writing on my own when I was sixteen. I did not know what to write, I just knew that I wanted to write. I claim Robert Benchley as my first model as a writer.

If you do not know Benchley, he wrote charming humorous pieces for The New Yorker and similar magazines from the 20s to the 40s. I liked how he could take any modest, homely subject and create something fun to read.

His writing had three things that made it work, and that I envied:

  1. He had a voice. A Benchley persona existed that the reader knew and could relate to. He was an average guy (though not really), faced with average problems (though not really). He was not a faceless content producer.
  2. He had a subject. That Benchley persona could fuss about the travails of travel, or the silliness of opera, and it scaled perfectly. Again, readers could relate.
  3. He had an audience. He was a popular writer, yes. He won an Academy Award for a short feature that he acted in, derived from one of his pieces. Audience is not just a numbers game, however. It encompasses the idea in the writer’s head that someone could relate to what one writes. Benchley knew that he had something that would engage readers. He was distinct from his contemporaries James Thurber, Dorothy Parker, and S. J. Perelman, all excellent in their own ways.

Nowadays, the stakes seem higher for writers. Production must be maximized. Writers must engage and entertain a highly distracted yet voracious readership. This leads to a problem.

A kind of blankness has entered the connotation for content.. Have you noticed? The term includes not just different types of writing—information, opinion, promotion, distraction—but different ways to present content. Content is pictures, videos, and writing: stuff. All carefully manipulated and delivered in tsunami-sized quantities.

I want to remain with the Benchley model.

Keywords, fan boys, and Top Ten Reasons have made content mechanical. I need information and want opinion, but the all too obvious noise of the machine overwhelms the message. Do you agree? Or should we just accept rushed, “crafted” writing pockmarked with keywords and typos?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Communication as Translation

When we communicate, we bring a thought or an emotion to another person. In reaching the person with whom we communicate, the message changes. Our message has been translated.

You know that when you use the word dog, it provokes a highly personal image or concept in your mind. We all experience dog differently. When we speak, we translate our idea of dog to others, and hope for the best. We do this with every word that we use. Perfect communication cannot happen. As humans, we do not really expect perfect anything, do we?

But we have to try.

I return to the demise of Google Wave because it illustrates something important. The application failed, at least in this incarnation, not because it did not work but because its value and use never reached the understanding of enough people.

Expertise is tricky to maneuver. Experts must bring their knowledge to the level of their audience. They must find language that conveys their intent. That means jargon is right out. Vocabulary must inhabit the reader’s comfort zone. Use cases must be relevant.

Google botched the communication. I hope their Facebook Killer receives better care. The translation of the idea of value must reach millions of people, most of whom are not engineers.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Google Wave Explained?

The following from Lifehacker ‘explains’ why the author loved Google Wave:

I loved Wave's ambition. From a purely technical perspective, Wave pushed the edge of what was possible in a browser; it promised a new federated communication system; it's open source and uses an open protocol; it's a platform that developers could customize and extend with gadgets and robots. From a user perspective, it had the guts to try to introduce a whole new paradigm of communication, one that combined document collaboration and messaging into a single interface. It demonstrated real-time collaboration in a browser the way no other webapp had yet. It made group discussions/brainstorming/decisions much, much easier.

I don’t want to sound like a dummy (who does?) but this does not help explain Wave. Too many generalities impede my ability to see how the app could help me specifically. Look at the language:

  1. “I loved Wave’s ambition”. The author provides a vague indication that Wave offered new ideas. Users wants results not ambition. Next sentence.
  2. “Wave pushed the edge of what was possible in a browser.” Ditto, but at least the reader knows that Wave is browser-related.
  3. “It promised a new federated communication system.” More ditto. Okay, it is a collaborative tool, but how does it differ from, say, Google Docs?
  4. “it’s open source…” This speaks to how Wave was created and how it can be improved and changed, but does not describe its function.
  5. “it had the guts to try to introduce a whole new paradigm of communication. Still more ditto, and still not backed up. User don’t want try, they want can. This basically repeats #2 and #3. No specifics yet.
  6. “combined document collaboration and messaging into a single interface”. This is getting somewhere but still says little how it differs from other collaboration tools.

I won’t go on. I infer that Wave is snazzy, but beyond that, little resounds for me. An underlying problem reveals itself here. Excitement attached to generalities is hype.

If the author, or Google, put more emphasis on actual use cases, Wave would have a much better chance of surviving. Give us potential users something to latch onto beyond ‘innovative’.

I offer Evernote as an example of a company that gets the message across. Evernote  constantly provides tips on how to use the application, offering loads of specific uses. For instance, take a picture of a business card with your smartphone, save it to Evernote with a tag, and later collect the info in your address book. There is a clear use of the application.

With Wave, the emphasis stuck on the blurry concept of innovation. Google failed to reveal the tool itself in any useful and functional way. So Wave is now no more.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Wave Goodbye

Our friend Google decided to rid itself of Wave, the collaboration tool or whatever it was that it developed. Wave never caught on. It represents one more item hoisted up Google’s flagpole in the hopes that someone would salute.

And so Google seems more and more like Microsoft, clumsily cluttering the Internet mindspace with more halfhearted endeavours. It is embarrassing to see such large companies flail. They can afford to, for a while, but it remains perplexing to watch.

Don’t you find it odd that Google could not come up with an elevator pitch for Wave? Seemingly, the people who developed Wave were so bound into it that they could not explain it to outsiders. Something about collaboration but why would one prefer Wave over, um, email, or Google Docs? What need out there did Wave fulfill?

Google provided Wave with the form of a promotion, but never gave voice to an actual, energized expression of Wave’s positive benefits. What was the motivation for this product? I am afraid it was less that it was a great tool for users than another way for Google to collect user data. I think users sniffed that out. Oh well,  on to the next project.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

How Do You KNOW? How DO You Know?

I learned an important lesson from my 10th grade English teacher. I find it useful to remember that lesson. For me, it entails the essential nature of education.

We all have different ways of learning. The developmental psychologist Howard Garner identified different intelligences (or inherent learning patters). Go here for more information on Gardner and his theory of multiple intelligences. Much of the education offered even now seems focused on a single, model intelligence, the perfect student. Education becomes an obstacle for anyone who does not fit the perfect student model.

Received wisdom confronts us every day, so we should learn to recognize it. My 10th grade teacher faced the curriculum necessity of teaching us Poetry. Gag! Hack! I think the class largely agreed that this was a waste of time.

I remember that teacher fondly. He not only got us through grammar in what seemed like record time, he also helped me, finally, to understand the subject. He was a good teacher.

Having to read poetry seemed about as dull as English class could get. The teacher set the class back on our collective heels, however, by beginning with a question: What is poetry?

Students offered their ideas, that poetry was writing that rhymed, that followed strict meter, that used words like ‘thee’ and ‘thou’. That sort of stuff. That was our experience, that was what we knew.

Our teacher did not refute us. He simply said, Who says? We had to consider.

He proceeded to show us work that did not conform to those rules. Not just modern stuff, John Milton 300 years ago got by occasionally without rhyme. Of course our teacher had us read e. e. cummings, who regularly and thoughtfully broke those assumed rules. Discussion in that class became eager and interested. And we were talking about poetry!

Understanding that I need not follow assumed rules opened me up to becoming a writer. I needn’t copy other people and how they proceeded, I could make my own way.

Here is the lesson for me. Most people would assume that a stream of brief, random observations from strangers would not interest them. Nor would a service that tracks their location and broadcasts it publicly. Twitter and Foursquare both enjoy strong and growing followings. I do not know the future of either but currently they both show life.

We can learn important lessons at those points of obstruction and assumed wisdom, or we can go along with the assumption. You can begin by believing that people don’t want X, and be done with it. If you begin with the assumption that people do want X, perhaps you can be working towards something useful, productive, and visionary.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Foursquare, Part Deux

I have been using this service for more than a week now. I see why companies might be rubbing their hands in anticipation. I also see the service fizzling away.

The deal depends on whether users can remain involved with Foursquare long enough for companies to make use of their interest. A class of users likes the game of it but is that class big enough to support the service?

It is not my problem but I cannot help pondering. If businesses can add a worthwhile dimension to Foursquare, basically to replace the game of gathering badges with something more appealing, the thing can work. I am just a casually user, much like John and Jane Q. Public. I am bored with it. Yet the call of location seems powerful even so.

The but that I see is this: the effort required by the user/customer. If one needs to be frenetically on top of the Foursquare game to gain from it, drop off will occur. Businesses need to make the experience simple. What they give must be easy to get.

The use of social networks by businesses requires ease of use for the public. Your Facebook page must have good information, good deals, good events: good stuff that is worth my bother. Likewise Twitter and Foursquare must deliver the company’s goods briskly and clearly. Forget the razzmatazz. When we’re all on Twitter, Facebook, Foursquare and all, we will want just the refined stuff, not your tv promotion.

Foursquare, and all the other efforts out there, must bust a move to maintain consumer interest in their tools. Then businesses that will keep these services afloat can dip their beaks. Tricky stuff. I will not say impossible, but some keen folks will have to be on their toes.