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June 27 2011


June Net2 Think Tank Round-up: Monitoring Online Feedback

Using the social web to market your cause, communicate your services, and interact with your audience is an important part of the communication function for many socially-foucused organizations. One thing that many of these groups have found is that the internet allows us to not only tell our story, but also get an honest understanding of the perception of our organization.  With that in mind, we asked you for your advice for monitoring online feedback as part of this month's Net2 Think Tank:

Topic: What are your best practices for effectively monitoring online feedback about your organization, cause, or enterprise. What are your favorite tools and tactics for listening, and how do you use your findings to inspire practical change from within?


Below, we've compiled all of the community responses.

While this month's Net2 Think Tank is now closed, you're always welcome to add your feedback on the subject. Feel free to add your ideas in the comments section at the bottom of this page.


Here are several techniques you can use to strategically listen to and interact with the people you are targeting online:

Know what people are saying about you

  • "Before you can start listening and monitoring feedback, you have to understand where it’s coming from. I spent my first 3 months in this position simply observing and finding the conversations. Once I knew where people talk about NTEN, I could start paying attention to what they were saying. Some people like the river, others spend all day in the wave pool; the same rule applies to social media. If you can discover what brings a group of people to your Facebook page vs. your Twitter account, you’ll really start to understand what types of conversations they want to have there. Then you can start engaging them in those conversations." - Sarah Janczak on the NTEN blog
  • "Is our story being told? And how is it being told?  - Although this sounds dangerously close to marketing speak, it actually touches on our sense of mission and purpose. If we are working towards ultimate benefit, how is our organization being spoken about (if at all)? How about our partners? Our overall issue? By knowing the tone and extent of conversation, we can identify opportunities to more clearly advocate" - Gordon Dymowski on MetroShrink

Be there

  • "Who and where are people talking? - Twitter and Facebook are the de facto channels for consumer driven conversation, but for our cause? It may be better to use monitoring tools to find channels of current activity." - Gordon Dymowski on MetroShrink
  • "This is where the people are. If you can identify the channel that draws the largest crowd, or the most interactive crowd, you'll have the opportunity to start prioritizing your work flow. It's the place where you’re most likely to miss something when you’re in a meeting or otherwise unable to keep up in real time. It’s also the place you can try out new experiments and ask questions – and count on consistent feedback. It’s an invaluable resource for you and a link to your community, a great place to go when you need a quick snapshot of how your donors are reacting to the latest fundraising campaign and you don’t have time to sort through all the feedback." - Sarah Janczak on the NTEN blog

Make a Plan

  • "Spend 10 minutes each morning and sort through your day. When do you have 20 minutes to check the LinkedIn group and respond to posts there? When you have to pull together data for your dashboard, it’s ok to walk away from Twitter; just make sure you stop by and check things out later. Scheduling your day will save your brain from the oh-so-common “what was I just tweeting about?” syndrome, allowing you to write more detailed and meaningful responses when you have the time set aside." - Sarah Janczak on the NTEN blog
  • "I have found it helpful to have a plan in place for how the results will be used to inform decisions BEFORE starting to gather data. To easy to have goals gather data and then feel lost knowing exactly what to do with it. This can be supported by having a policy ahead of time that helps identify in part what to do with feedback as well." - Ash Shepherd on Linkedin

Keep Records and Identify Trends

  • "Document your findings - Creating a regular report for monitoring can be as easy as a spreadsheet or document, noting both quantitative and qualitative data. It sounds counter to wanting to engage on a human level, but what this does is allow for further justification should you require to seek funding, other organizational support, etc." - Gordon Dymowski on MetroShrink
  • "Look beyond the obvious - choose to observe rather than see - Part of monitoring is to find themes and patterns within online conversation, both driven by your organization and by others. Be willing to make deductions based on what you are observing, and let what you find and deduce shape your approach to social media and online conversation." - Gordon Dymowski on MetroShrink

If it Sounds Too Good to be True...

  • "Beware of a self-appointed “Moriarity” - Much has been said about the self-proclaimed “social media expert”; let me change this to a different type of person. A person who claims on some level to have “a web with a thousand radiations”, yet seems to have nothing more than a pleasant personality. Any efforts to engage within social media need to have a solid strategic basis which includes monitoring and further engagement." - Gordon Dymowski on MetroShrink



The following tools may help you listen, monitor, meassure, and ask questions so you can begin to understand the conversations that are of interest to you and your cause on the web:

Social Media Monitoring Tools

Online Polling Tools

  • Polldaddy - "Although as a therapist I often believe I know what people's needs are, this tool has helped me know what the customer views as their needs. It has been eye-opening to find out from them what their needs are. It helps me to know rather than guess what the needs of my customers are." - Jeffery Murrah on Linkedin
  • Poll Function on Hubpages - "I have also found the poll function on hubpages useful in assessing customer needs as well. The polls on hubpages has been helpful in narrowing down the needs identified with tools such as polldaddy." - Jeffery Murrah on Linkedin

Measurement by Channel

The following channel-based tips are all from Mazarine Treyez on Wild Woman Fundraising

  • "For Facebook: Edgerank for measuring the efficacy of your Facebook page, although, frankly, I’ve never had any luck raising serious money with Facebook and I think there’s so much noise there for the average person that you might have a hard time being heard. But if this is one of those things that you HAVE to do, then try this tool. "
  • "For Twitter: Sprout Social, which helps to measure the return and reach you’re getting with your Twitter account. It shows you how many followers you are getting, when influencers retweet you and how much this increases the radius of your tweet, and also demographic data like age and gender of your followers. You might also like TweetPsych, TweetSprout, and TweetStats."
  • "For your Emails: Your e-newsletter software. I prefer AWeber. You can track who opens it, when they open it, and if they click and give. So, this is another dimension of your marketing efforts that should be pretty easy to measure"
  • "For your website: Google Analytics. This is usually a conservative estimate of how many people are coming to your website, but it’s better than nothing. And it’s easy to set up and log into.

Learn even More:

Here are a rew more resources for you to delve even deeper into online listening:


About Net2 Think Tank:

Net2 Think Tank is a monthly blogging/social networking event open to anyone and is a great way to participate in an exchange of ideas.  We post a question or topic to the NetSquared community and participants submit responses either on their own blogs, the NetSquared Community Blog, or using social media.  Tag your post with "net2thinktank" and email a link to us to be included. At the end of the month, the entries get pulled together in the Net2 Think Tank Round-Up.

Thanks again to Mazarine Treyz of Wild Woman Fundraising for suggesting this month's Net2 Think Tank topic!

April 25 2011


April Net2 Think Tank Round-up: Handling Negative Online Feedback

Receiving feedback from your community is a great way to get them engaged with your mission. Whether it's about a specific task or a larger ideology, feedback allows us to learn and adapt to what our audiences want, need, and think. And, with the increased use of social media and collaborative technologies, we're able to give and receive feedback in real-time often with the choice to be completely anonymous. But what happens when the feedback is negative, hateful or just plain untrue?

Earlier this month, we asked you to share your tactics for handling negative feedback within your online community. Below, we've compiled all of the community responses for this month's Net2 Think Tank!

Topic: How do you respond to negative feedback?  What are the best tactics for responding to negative, hateful, or incorrect feedback in a productive and transparent way?


While this month's Net2 Think Tank is now closed, you're always welcome to add your feedback on the subject. Feel free to add your ideas in the comments section at the bottom of this page.

A brief story

One contributor to this Think Tank shared a brief story about the frustrating reality of online feedback:

In our case which seems to be a politically motivated smear campaign there has been no effective way of dealing with it. Google blogspot who host most of the commentary will permit [negative comments to be posted] anonymously yet remove any attempt to identify the source as 'publication of private information'

In one way the sheer volume of negative commentary helped, in that it helped raise the profile of a human rights issue [we were covering], yet the campaign had been effective in harming our business by deterring customers.

It took 5 years before the story of the orphanage in Torez surfaced as an article with photographic evidence, in the Sunday Times. Now we can declare our progress.

- Jeff Mowatt

With this story in mind, this Think Tank Round-up offers several tactics for community managers to consider adopting:

Learn from the feedback

  • "listen, evaluate, and figure out what you can do better (whether it's the task, or the response)" - Shawna Spencer
  • "First, thank them for their input. Second, consider the input validity. Third, try to do better if input is deemed valid" - Kenneth Larson
  • "Negative Feedback is the BEST type to get. Positive says nothing, you're doing ok or at least not "Drifting" too far. NEGATIVE Feedback points to TRUE trouble spots, and tells you that "Course Correction is Necessary". - Dan Sobel
  • "Negative feedback is GOLD!  Here is someone telling you their objections....but there are just objections for you to overcome. Great book that helped me learn how to do this well on my feet: "How to be a rainmaker by Jeffrey Fox". Also the "Solution Focus" method is great for taking objections and negativity and turning into a communication opportunity." - Paul Nazareth

Assume the best

  • "Sometimes negative feedback is provided in a moment of pique and is expressed in error, but in many (probably most) instances, it contains useful information. After I identify that useful content, my response (if one is warranted) can be constructive. Sometimes my response can be practical, fixing a problem which the feedback highlighted (perhaps followed by a comment acknowledging the person who provided the feedback). Sometimes my response is no more than a comment addressing the issues raised in the feedback." - Eric Kline
  • "Respond to criticism with a nonjudgemental mind and examine the person's opinion in the content of their cultural, religious, political, tradition, country's beliefs that might be influencing their reactions." - Cleopatra Fitzgerald
  • Consider it a plus that someone would take the time to communicate their genuine thoughts to you.  Be polite and professional in your prompt reply. Focus the conversation on the issue not the emotion. - David Parfitt

Don't delete negative comments

  • "Let it stand - respond to it the best way you can - allow audience to judge!" - Ryan Crowe
  • "I always advise to keep the negative comments posted, unedited and respond to the credible and valid concerns.  After the response, of course deliver a solution otherwise it's just lip service. " - Richard Sailing

Be helpful and human

  • "It's all about trying to solve the issue, instead of following CSR script. But then it [requires] qualified staff [which leads to increased] costs" - Lukasz Mlodyszewski
  • Be both helpful and useful and understand others are watching how you resolve the situation. Conflict is sure to happen. How it is resolved determines how others view you and your company. So be honest, be upbeat, find the real issue, and resolve it. All out in the open with a professional and caring attitude. - David Parfitt

Do not feed the trolls

The following exerpt was shared by Wild Woman Fundraising's Mazarine Treyz as part of a longer response on the NetSquared blog:

If they send more than 3 insulting messages, if they start threatening you, your company, or just basically harrassing you with various kinds of written abuse or horrible pictures, time to get medieval on their handle!

Don't try to reason with the troll. They are taking advantage of the fact that they will never meet you, and so can say anything they want to you. The advent of the internet has really not helped with common courtesy, unfortunately. So you want to get your community members to sign a little statement saying, "I will not post blatantly self-promotional things, I will not troll or flame or spam people or be obnoxious in any way (As defined by the community manager) or I will be blocked and banned."

What you can do for this sort of negativity

Once you have identified a troll (which will be a very very small percentage of your users, you can instruct other community members "not to feed the troll".  Then, like the three fates, you can measure out their time with your community, and then you can cut and block them from communicating. You can block people easily in Twitter, and you can also ban their IP address from accessing your website. This might inconvenience a few other community members, so check with your IT person to see if there are a lot of people on that IP address accessing the site.


Thank you to all of our contributors this month! While this month's Net2 Think Tank is now closed, you're always welcome to add your feedback on the subject. Feel free to add your ideas in the comments section at the bottom of this page.

About Net2 Think Tank:

Net2 Think Tank is a monthly blogging/social networking event open to anyone and is a great way to participate in an exchange of ideas.  We post a question or topic to the NetSquared community and participants submit responses either on their own blogs, the NetSquared Community Blog, or using social media.  Tag your post with "net2thinktank" and email a link to us to be included. At the end of the month, the entries get pulled together in the Net2 Think Tank Round-Up.

March 24 2011


Can eHow Get More Respect with Push for Quality Content?


Business content on MediaShift is sponsored by the weekend MA in Public Communication at American University. Designed for working professionals, the program is suited to career changers and public relations or social marketing professionals seeking career advancement. Learn more here.

Content farms. Content mills. Robo-content.

Demand Media and its huge how-to site eHow have been called snarky names for years, largely because they pay low rates for quickly produced content based on popular search queries. So it's no surprise that a search for "how to grill fish" on Google produces this eHow article up near the top of the results.

Last year, MediaShift ran a week-long special report, Beyond Content Farms and one report by Corbin Hiar included a Demand Media writer saying that her haphazard report on "How to Make Gin at Home" could poison someone. Now, eHow execs tell me that they're taking steps to improve quality.

greg boudewijn.jpg

"I know there was so much conversation out on the web about low quality content," said Greg Boudewijn, eHow's senior vice president and general manager, in a recent interview. "We realize we're human and there's going to be pieces of content that slip through that aren't great. Whatever we can do to provide means to continue to improve the processes and the content that exists on our site, that's something we take to heart. We applaud Google for their changes, and applaud any site that focuses on quality."

A recent redesign of eHow created colorful channel pages for Family, Food, Health, Home, Money, and Style. The cleaner look is being augmented with longer form feature stories, a video webisode series about the popularity of food trucks, and a content deal with Rachael Ray in the Food section. More importantly, eHow added new "Helpful?" buttons at the end of each article so people could provide direct feedback on whether articles are useful -- which will lead to more oversight of writers.

Despite a recent change in Google's algorithm to filter out poor quality content, eHow actually benefited from the change, according to both comScore and Sistrix. I spoke to both Boudewijn and Jeremy Reed, the senior vice president of content and editorial at Demand Media, in a wide-ranging interview. While they admitted they weren't on a path to match the New York Times, they were frank about their push into service journalism -- especially with the number one most trafficked home and garden site. Below is an edited transcript, with audio clips, from that phone interview.


What were the main improvements with the redesign of eHow?

Greg Boudewijn: We were looking at this site as the next evolution of our site and user experience. It was a little more than four years since we touched it, it was 2007. Demand Media acquired eHow in 2006, so you can imagine that four years on the web is like 30 in real life. In that time, eHow had grown phenomenally based on our unique content model. It was time to re-architect the back end to handle the scale of innovation and development faster, and we wanted to launch more sites internationally.

We introduced a new eHow logo and color palette to introduce a more consumer brand. We wanted to create more of an emotional connection for them, and the best way we did that was the introduction of six core channels at the top of the header. Each channel has its own color palette and own look and feel. If you look back 10 years to the AOLs and Yahoos of the world, doing portal hubs -- a little bit of an antiquated term -- they had huge amounts of traffic coming through their front doors. And they could funnel that traffic to core verticals like news, finance and entertainment.

ehow large grab.jpg

Our model is very different. We made each individual content page as an entry point to our site. Over time, we saw audiences growing in certain core verticals and those are the ones we chose to use for our channels. People were coming repeatedly to certain topics so when we created the channel pages, we used them to create new content types. Everything from long-form video webisodes to blogs and posts from experts. We partnered with Rachael Ray for our food category. The experts can be personalities or brands.

In the home channel, we have Home Depot to help users fulfill what they're looking for. It's about simplification. You have the steps to do something and can go out and buy it. The new site is a springboard to expand the media company to cater to more than how-to articles.

You were thinking of every story as an entry point but now you have vertical sections. Why? Because of traffic patterns you saw?

Boudewijn: We still view articles and videos as entry points whether people get there from search or social networks. What we saw was that we were amassing audiences of a scale that was much larger than sites on the web that only focused on that specific topic. That was evident with the home category, where for more than the past year, we've been the number one home and garden site on the web. We felt it was our responsibility to make a front door for that and program it daily with a rich experience.

Tell me more about the new longer form stories and features.

Jeremy Reed.jpg

Jeremy Reed: One of the things we've always focused on is the idea of utility. But there's also the opportunity to entertain them or take them to the next step or direct them to another place. We have 15,000 active people in our community [of contributors] throughout the U.S. -- we have filmmakers, copy editors, writers. They were very good at creating this specific kind of content, but they also have experience writing feature content, or filmmakers had experience doing longer form content. We had a talent base in our community, so it made sense on the business side and an opportunity for that community so they could grow their career.

Was the business reason for doing longer stories so that you could improve the time spent on your site?

Reed: When we look at content, we look at many signals. We look at content that could hold its weight next to branded advertisers, and content that people would want to share. In the last month, we had 100,000 articles shared through Facebook. So it's trying to figure out compelling content based on the signals coming to our site.

Boudewijn: It's about completing the user experience. We've done a really good job doing articles of a certain length and type. So what happens now is, because we've created these channels, the content we create in one channel can be fundamentally different than in others. We're providing something with an expert voice, and something they can follow daily. It has more of a personality and engagement factor.

How has pay for writers evolved at eHow, and will you change compensation with this redesign?

Reed: We've always had a range in compensation. We've paid anything from $7.50 for a short-form tip to more than $100 for feature articles. Different ranges for filmmakers. I think the price that we pay has certainly gone up. We pay our writers twice a week, so if they turn in an article on a Sunday, we pay them on Tuesday. If they turn an article in on Wednesday, we pay them on Friday, regardless of the amount paid.

Reed explains how eHow is transparent to writers about how much they'll get paid and let writers of similar content see how much everyone in that subject gets paid:


Does pay vary according to topic or length of story?

Reed: We look at different factors like subject area expertise and how much time it takes to write it and other factors like that.

How is this redesign targeted at advertisers? You mentioned there would be more "touch points" for them in your press release about the redesign.

Boudewijn: We were very good at providing a utility, and there was content programmed on the home page focused on how-to, but not differentiated by category. When we acquired eHow in 2006, branded sales wasn't a big part of our business. We relied primarily on third party relationships with advertising affiliates. Over time, with the hiring of Joanne Bradford [from Yahoo to be chief revenue officer of Demand Media], branded advertising has become a bigger part of our business. Those advertisers want to own the consumer experience. They want to see their placement on the page and see the integration. They want to know the boundaries around where that exists.

So when we did the redesign, we looked at aesthetics of the site but also looked at places where advertisers could come in and buy sponsorships or packages. One thing that's unique about what we do is our content is all intent-driven. We're not an entertainment site or news site where people come to the front door and say, "entertain me." But eHow is intent-driven; people come with a specific mission and we want to help fulfill that. That's a very meaningful experience and a funnel that advertisers want to be a part of.

Plus, we wanted to position experts. Brands want to be associated with the Rachael Rays of the world and expert knowledge that's honest and genuine. That's a great opportunity for advertisers to wrap around eHow Food. And there's also an opportunity for brands as experts. So for the Home Depots of the world ... a user coming to the site recognizes an advertiser that adds value to the experience, and it helps them.

Boudewijn explains how Home Depot will help users as an "advertiser presence" that will help users complete tasks.


You've added this "Helpful?" button to get feedback from readers. How does that work?

Boudewijn: We've been very good at listening to signals out on the web, whether through search or social to understand what content we should create. eHow has a massive audience, and it's one thing to be in the studio evaluating writers on a number of metrics -- their grammar, their quality, their experience. That's an academic way. But we want to know how our content resonates with people who are using it in on an everyday basis. So these buttons are the first step of a curation layer to understand how helpful our content is in the real world.

helpful choice.jpg

Right now we let people tell us if it's helpful, and they can "like" it or share it on Facebook and Twitter. If they don't think it's helpful, then we're gathering reasons on why it might not be helpful for them, and funnel that information back to our editorial team to help enrich our content and inform our guidelines on what to produce. That's just our first step, there will be other hooks on the page to solicit feedback in the coming months.

Reed: One of the things we've done from the beginning is make sure we understand the quality of the content by the people who use it. We've let people make comments and ratings on stories, but we wanted to go back to ask the specific question: Was this helpful or not? Like Greg was saying, we can take that information and go back to the writer and decide if we want to give them more work, or are they better in one subject than another. It's a constant, targeted feedback loop from someone who's engaging with that content.

I noticed on Compete.com that the traffic for eHow went down about 7 percent in visits and 4percent in unique visitors for February 2011. Was that related to what happened with Google changing its search algorithm?

Boudewijn: February is naturally a shorter month. Most businesses on the web, going from a 31-day month to a 28-day month, especially with the two holidays for Valentine's Day and President's Day, you have a lot of events that make businesses fluctuate. We're now Top 10 in the U.S., according to comScore. I don't rely heavily on third-party analytics that we don't have direct influence over, so I can't necessarily comment on Compete's numbers.

Google makes algorithm changes all the time, but when they make it public, people seem to gravitate to them. We've seen them make a number of changes, and we see ups and downs. Our business continues to grow and we haven't seen any material effect from [Google's algorithm changes].

(Editor's Note: In a follow-up query to comScore, the research firm also found a slight drop in traffic to eHow in February, but attributed it to the shorter month as well, and noted that the Google-referred percentage of traffic to eHow is actually slightly higher in February than January.)

Are there other things you're doing to improve the quality of content?

Boudewijn: If you look at the way we produced content two years ago, it's fundamentally different than the way we do today. One of the unique things we're doing is creating these channels and aligning writers in Demand Studios with those channels. We're also vetting the talent to make sure they're qualified to write for us. Content quality is such a broad term. You could take the New York Times' content and put it on someone's blog and put 15 AdSense ads around it and show it to 100 people and they'd say it's terrible.

Content quality comes down to the process by which it's created, and we stand behind our editorial process. At eHow, we want to make sure it's a quality experience for users and for brands and advertisers.

Reed: We did make a make a conscious effort to stay within what we could do responsibly within our model, within our community, within our scale. We didn't go after investigative reporting like the New York Times does because we didn't feel in the current equation that we could do it successfully. We went after this very service journalism, the utility kind of content. We started to see the value of subject matter expertise, and an editorial process. We wanted people to come through the door with years of experience, so that it makes sense for them as part of their career.

Our editorial rigor includes plagiarism checks, citing references, going through a copy editor so we felt good about that content. We have a very large taxonomy, so we've tried to cut that up so everyone has subject matter expertise, including the people who write the titles, who edit the copy, who select the photo, all the way down to the people editing it and giving it the final OK.

Boudewijn says they realize there will be some pieces of content that slip through 'that aren't great,' but they're trying to improve:


How do you vet the people that you hire?

Reed: It's on two levels. We qualify people who come in. If you're a writer, you submit a resume and multiple clips and we have an in-house editor who vets that. If you're a copy editor, it's the same process but if you're accepted there's a copy editing test. So if you're going to edit a section on automobiles, you get a test based on that subject. That's one part of our approach. And then on each piece of content, every writer gets edited by a copy editor and has a possible re-write before it's sent through. The copy editor then rates the writer on a 1 to 5 scale on grammar and on subject matter expertise.

We look at every single person and qualify them, and look at every single piece of content.

Do you own all rights to the content or can writers or videographers re-use the material?

Reed: We made the decision that if we would pay up front and pay for that piece of content that we would own it.

Boudewijn: That was one of our learnings over time, that ensures our editorial process and integrity. Early on, in 2006, we did allow people to come directly to eHow.com and submit content. We dropped that program last April because it didn't make sense to put all the time and energy into producing content with a rigorous editorial process, and then have people submit things without any process. So today we stand behind our content because it's completely owned by us.


What do you think about eHow's redesign and push for higher quality content? Do you use the site regularly or avoid it? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.


Business content on MediaShift is sponsored by the weekend MA in Public Communication at American University. Designed for working professionals, the program is suited to career changers and public relations or social marketing professionals seeking career advancement. Learn more here.

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March 04 2011


Posted email addresses for NYT Mag reporters: A flashback to 1995

The new regime has taken over at The New York Times Magazine, and among the visible changes online is the addition, at the bottom of stories, of an editor’s credit and the email address of the writer. Jack Shafer’s written about the editor’s credit, but I’m more interested in the email addresses, which (correct me if I’m wrong) I believe is the first time the Times has ever attached reporter email addresses to stories in any sort of consistent way. (Times writers have their own author pages, but the “Send an E-Mail to Frank Bruni” link hides the email address via Javascript.)

My interest is mainly in the opportunity to repost one of my favorite all-time Lab documents, which Zach Seward wrote about two years ago. It’s a transcript from a conference we held here at the Nieman Foundation back in 1995. The conference was entitled “Public Interest Journalism: Winner of Loser in the On-Line Era” (we dug hyphens back then), and one of the sessions featured Esther Dyson interviewing the then-relatively-new publisher of The New York Times, Arthur Sulzberger. It’s the oldest documentation I’m aware of the Times’ perspective on its journalists getting feedback from readers. Here’s the relevant excerpt of the transcript, after Sulzberger tells Dyson that they’ve always gotten feedback from readers, even pre-Internet:

MS. DYSON: Yes, and you get that feedback when you go to cocktail parties at Michael’s, and people come up to you who are your elite readers. But now, you’ve got some guy who can’t really spell, who wants to waste your reporter’s time sending him Email.

MR. SULZBERGER: …I don’t think that’s going to happen. And maybe I’m fooling myself, but I really don’t think that an individual reader directly to reporter, that that’s going to be a major factor in how this is going to design itself.

MS. DYSON: But it’s going to be a major factor in how they have their time wasted, or how they have their time enriched.

MR. SULZBERGER: Are you making the assumption that we’re going to put all of our reporters online? Is that the assumption built into the question, that every day, all of our reporters will have hundreds and hundreds of Email’s that they’ve got to respond to?

You can pick up a pen today and misspell a letter any one of our editors, reporters, business folks. Most — I will speak, I think, candidly for the newsroom — most of those letters go unanswered. It drives me nuts, but it’s true.

Anyway, go read the whole thing and have your own journalism version of I Love the ’90s.

January 19 2011


Camps: Setting the stage for 2011

Earlier this week, we shared some of the lessons we learned from running the 2010 Camps Pilot. Not only did we learn a lot, we also got pretty darn excited for all that this network of changemakers can do! I’m writing today to share some of our ideas with you, ask for your feedback, and hear what you think about Camps 2011.

Cultivating the bottom-up

Communities have been solving their own problems for millenia. The networked nature of the web provides us with ways to harness new resources towards local issues, and our web-based platform provides us with a relatively easy way to surface and curate project success stories to our global audience. Together, harnessing human capital on the web, coupled with a networked approach to cultivating and supporting action networks offline creates an environment where there are entry-points for actors at both the local and global level. Funders, technology companies and volunteers are able to plug-in wherever most appropriate, based on their own capacities, interests and aspirations.

The Camps program is designed to provide both a space for people to share and learn, but also to develop new solutions. At the organizational level, we see our role as the ‘context providers’ -- whereby, we create a framework for community organizing while providing some of the tools, resources and support in order to increase the likelihood of success of all participants. By design, we recognize that the energy, ideas and innovations come not from us, but from the bottom-up, and it’s the activities happening at the local level that can change the world. As regional events play out, our job is to curate the stories that emerge from the network, and to work with our partners to harness resources where there is need.

More breadth and depth

The 2010 Pilot saw events in 6 cities, in 4 countries (with over 500 engaged participants). We think the resources and lessons can scale further and have set new goals for 2011. Specifically, we’re aiming to mobilize at least 1000 people this year at regional events in as many as 10 countries around the globe.

You can check out the previous post in this series which included highlights of what we learned in the 2010 Pilot. What’s important to note here? We learned a lot, and will be bringing those lessons with us as we co-develop the Camps program this year with participating organizers. We’re committed to bolstering more resources towards the effort with our technology partners and sponsors, while addressing some of the barriers to collaboration we identified last year (including translation issues). As usual, we’ll be addressing these issues with the organizers, partners and participants, but if you have ideas or other examples we can learn from, please drop us a line any time!

From Local To Global: Surfacing Local Success Stories via NetSquared Challenges

Part of the NetSquared platform for the last 5 years has been the open innovation “Challenges” that open up a call for ideas to the world of innovators working at the intersection of technology and social change. Projects like Ushahidi, See-Click-Fix, and Frontline SMS: Medic received some of their initial funding through participation in the NetSquared Challenges and we are excited about the idea of combining the Challenge process with Camps taking place in local communities around the world.

Here’s the idea in a nutshell: Each Camp could administer a local NetSquared Challenge to surface great ideas for new tools, mashups, or strategies that local organizations are developing to extend the reach and impact of their work.

We are hopeful that by surfacing innovative Projects, mobilizing participation at the local and global level, and providing various entry-points for local participation, we can best leverage our position as a global social enterprise to harness resources on behalf of these projects. We’re excited about the potential of a community-driven approach, as it provides the communities we serve with the means to design social-benefit projects that address contextually appropriate solutions, while leveraging the knowledge, passion and interests of NetSquared’s mission-driven global network.

We are looking for your feedback to help shape the Camps 2011 plan! If you have thoughts on including Challenges or anything else, just leave a comment to let us know!

November 04 2010


Help Improve the Challenge Process: Community Survey & Feedback

We recently wrapped up the 2010 FACT Challenge, and while working to promote and support the Featured Projects and Winners, we are also looking ahead to upcoming Challenges. As always, we are actively improving the platform, including the Challenge process - the way it works for Project teams as well as the community. During the FACT Challenge, we heard from many community members, provided support when people needed help, and even worked to improve the platform in real time. During the Community Vote, I shared some of the feedback and updates on our work.  Now, we are hoping even more people will weigh in and share feedback!

read more

September 14 2010


Twitter queen Susan Orlean on the mini-medium, the interactive narrative, and the writing persona

Susan Orlean is proof that being the consummate narrative journalist doesn’t conflict with becoming the consummate Twitterer. In her feed, currently 78,000-plus followers strong, the author and longtime New Yorker writer inverts the Jay Rosenian “not lifecasting, but mindcasting” approach to the platform: Orlean’s Twitter feed is focused on her life, from her writing, to her chicken-raising, to even — meta-tweets! — her use of Twitter itself. Rather than curating the web worldwide, Orlean (a former Nieman Fellow) curates the web of her own experience and her own (enviable) life. The feed is, in all, personal and whimsical and delightful — a memoir unfolding in real time. But if it’s a memoir, it’s an interactive one: To follow Orlean’s feed is to follow countless conversations between the author and her readers.

I spoke with Orlean about the way she interacts with this most interactive of media; she explained how writers can use Twitter to connect with their readers, why using Twitter makes financial sense for narrative journalists — and why it took Tweetdeck to make her a convert. The transcript below is lightly edited.

Megan Garber: So, first things first: How did you get started on Twitter?

Susan Orlean: I had an assistant who is quite a bit younger than I am, and one day she said to me, “You know, you really ought to be on Twitter.” I think her feeling was just: “Writers should be on Twitter.” So I opened an account — and I really didn’t do anything with it at first. It took a while before I “got it,” and began using it, and appreciating it as a part of my writing life.

MG: Was there a particular event or exchange that made it click for you — or was that appreciation more of a gradual process?

SO: It was gradual. When I was following a particular narrative in my life (when I was talking about one of my chickens being sick, for example), and seeing people respond to it — that made me think, “Interesting. Maybe this is a different way of talking to readers.” But it took a while. Twitter was something I didn’t quite “get” until I was actively using it — and until I was looking at it in a different way, rather than just on Twitter.com. It’s hard to appreciate the way it works if you don’t look at it on other services.

MG: Which platform were you using when things clicked?

SO: Tweetdeck. I’ve urged people — anybody I know who’s been using Twitter, but not understanding it — to use Tweetdeck, or some other interface. Twitter makes so much more sense that way. It’s really hard to understand it until you look at it in a different way — literally.

MG: That’s true. There’s something powerful in having the flow of Twitter — the conversations and interactivity, in particular — visualized, and then centralized. Speaking of that, I love the description of Twitter you used in your “What I Read” feature on The Atlantic’s site: “a tendril of my writing persona.” Do you think of your feed as narrative in the classic sense?

SO: I do. For one thing, you’re creating and supporting and embellishing a persona. That fosters a narrative of who you are and what you feel is worth commenting on. And if you’re a person who already has a public presence, you’re enhancing people’s understanding of where that’s coming from. In many cases, you’re following stories; you’re telling stories that have an ongoing narrative. There have been a number of instances where I’ve told stories and followed them — mainly personal stories, since I’m not using Twitter as a reporting medium — and people reading my feed have seen those stories unfolding. They’re generally fairly short stories, but they’re stories nevertheless.

MG: I love it when snippets of those stories — little Twitter nuggets — make their way into your more traditionally structured pieces: the work published in the magazine and even on your blog. It feels almost subversive, in the sense that we’re getting peeks into the background of the author’s life, and the background of particular narratives, that we wouldn’t have been privy to before.

SO: It’s an enhancement. You’re in control of how much you do or don’t want to reveal, but, yes, there’s also the pleasure that a reader might find in watching a story being born, so to speak — or even in hearing me thinking out loud about a story as I go along.

When I first started writing, I was working for a small, alternative news weekly in a smallish city [Willamette Week in Portland], and I knew who was reading my stories. I would see them, I would talk with them, I would get reactions from them — and I had an ongoing sense of who was reading my work and how they were experiencing it. When I first started writing for national magazines, it felt very strange. Suddenly my readership seemed really removed. I did run into people who’d say, “I just read your story” — but it’s very different from writing for a paper that’s in a smaller city, where you just see the reaction, and you know exactly who’s reading your work and why, and they know you, and there’s an intimate relationship between the writer and the audience.

I feel like Twitter is bringing that back, a little bit. It’s intimate in a very different way, but I once again have a sense of who my readers are, for the first time in a long time. They know what I’m working on, and they know when I’m flailing. It just creates a different sort of connection between a writer and a readership.

MG: That’s true. And I like, too, that Twitter creates another size option, I guess, for narrative: small (Twitter feed), medium (blog), large (magazine) — all radiating from, and feeding back to, that one central story.

SO: Yeah. For me, it was particularly nice to get engaged with Twitter at a time when I was working on a book. You go for this long, long, long stretch of being in a rabbit hole with this piece of work that’s taken years to do, and it can feel like, “AARGH! Is anyone out there?” I’ve found it enormously encouraging to think that there are a lot of people out there who are an audience — whom I can encourage to listen up and be prepared for the project when it’s out and ready to be read. I like being connected to readers.

You can also use Twitter to feel your audience. As I’ve been working on stories, sometimes I’ll mention something I’m working on — and I’m very interested in the reaction. I love doing readings, and to me Twitter is actually very much like doing a reading — in the way that doing a reading in front of a live audience gives you a chance to see, “Gee, people didn’t respond to that line,” or “People seem puzzled by this part of what I’ve read.” Twitter hasn’t changed anything I’ve written as much as it’s been an interesting way to gauge an audience.

It’s also been useful for building up interest in a story. It’s a way to say to people, “I’m working on this now. Keep an eye out for it” — without being annoying or using the medium purely promotionally. It gives people a glimpse of a story in advance, and a chance to anticipate something — which is nice for readers, I think. There’s never any reason not to get people interested in a story ahead of time.

MG: Definitely. And that process also gives readers a sense, I think, of being more intimately involved in the story simply by familiarity with it. Even just a bit of background knowledge — that sense of being clued into the creation and the dynamism of a piece — invests you in it.

SO: I think so. I think Twitter’s really important in that sense, frankly. In a world where we’re worrying about people’s commitment to reading, the more engaged readers feel in your work, the more likely they are to follow it — and to pay for it. It’s marketing in the best sense, because it’s finding the people who are interested in work and keeping them involved in it in a way that they’ve never been able to be before. I think it’s all to the good.

MG: Have you found that being on Twitter has affected your writing, style-wise?

SO: Yeah, I think that’s inevitable. I think the economy of expression, if nothing else, reminds you that it is entirely possible to say something of substance in extremely few words. If nothing else, Twitter is just a very useful reminder that you don’t have to go on ad nauseam to make a point or even to say something of real emotion. I’m not sure that I’m writing my book in 140-character spurts, but I do think that I’ve been reminded of how efficiently you can really make points. And I think that it has an effect — as you sit down to write something considerably longer, you appreciate how well you can telegraph something.

I think, for a writer, any writing you do, whether it’s an email or anything else, exercises the same muscles that are going to be used when you sit down to write your magnum opus. You’re always learning, and you’re always trying things out, and you’re always practicing. Any form, with its limitations, gives you a new set of parameters to work within. And I think every writer can benefit from that. Because there are always limits; there are always parameters. Whether it’s that you’re a reporter, and the limits are the truth of the situation, or that you’re a fiction writer, and the limit is the length that your editor is going to permit you — there are always restrictions. So learning to write in yet another restricted form is just great practice. It doesn’t mean, necessarily, that you put into play the ways you write with Twitter. But I think that every time you write, you’re learning something. You should be learning.

August 10 2010


All Our Ideas facilitates crowdsourcing — of opinions

What do readers want from the news?

It’s a hard question to answer, and not only because we don’t often know what we like until we find ourselves liking it. To figure it out, news outlets have traffic patterns on the one hand, and, if they choose, user surveys on the other; each is effective and unsatisfying in its own way. But what about the middle ground — an analytic approach to creative user feedback?

Meet All Our Ideas, the “suggestion box for the digital age“: a crowdsourcing platform designed to crowdsource concepts and opinions rather than facts alone. The platform was designed by a team at Princeton under the leadership of sociology professor Matt Salganik — initially, to create a web-native platform for sociological research. (The platform is funded in part by Google’s Research Awards program.) But its potential uses extend far beyond sociology — and, for that matter, far beyond academia. “The idea is to provide a direct idea-sharing platform where people can be heard in their own voices,” Salganik told me; for news outlets trying to figure out the best ways to harness the wisdom and creativity and affection of their users, a platform that mingles commenting and crowdsourcing could be a welcome combination.

The platform’s user interface is deceptively simple: at each iteration, it asks you to choose between two choices, as you would at the optometrist’s office: “Is A better…or B?” (In fact, Salganik told me, All Our Ideas’ structure was inspired by the kitten-cuteness-comparison site Kittenwar, which aims to find images of the “winningest” kittens (and — oof — the “losingest”) through a similar A/B selection framework.) But the platform also gives you the option — and here’s the “crowdsourcing” part — of adding your own idea into the mix. Not as a narrative addition — the open-ended “Additional Comments” box of traditional surveys — but as a contribution that will be added into the survey’s marketplace and voted up or down by the other survey-takers. (The open-ended responses are limited in length — to, natch, 140 characters — thus preventing modern-day Montaignes from gumming up the works.) You can vote on as many pairings — or as few — as you wish, and contribute as many/few ideas as you wish.

That contribution aspect is a small, but significant, shift. (Think of All Our Ideas, in fact, like Google Moderator — with a cleaner interface and, more significantly, hidden results that prevent users from being influenced by others’ feedback.) Because, it should be said: in general, from the user perspective, traditional surveys suck. With their pre-populated, multiple-choice framework, with those “Additional Comments” boxes (whose contents one assumes, won’t be counted as “data” proper and so likely won’t be counted all), they tend to preclude creativity on the part of the people taking them. They fall victim to a paradox: the larger the population of survey-takers — and thus, ostensibly, the more rigorous the data they can provide — the less incentive individual users have to take them. Or to take them seriously.

But All Our Ideas, with its invitation to creativity implicit in its “Add your own idea” button, adjusts that dynamic. The point is to inspire participation — meaningful participation — by a simple interface with practically no barriers to entry. The whole thing was designed, Salganik says, “to be very light and easy.”

Here’s what it looks like (you can also test it out for yourself using All Our Ideas’ sample interface — a survey issued by Princeton’s student government asking undergrads what improvements it should make to campus life):

The ease-of-use translates to the survey-issuers, as well: All Our Ideas is available for sites to use via an API and, for the less tech-savvy or more time-pressed, an embeddable widget. (Which is also to say: it’s free.) Surveyors can tailor the platform to the particular survey they want to run, seeding it with initial ideas and deciding whether the survey run will be entirely algorithmic or human-moderated. For the latter option, each surveyor designates a moderator, charged with approving user-generated ideas before they become part of a survey’s idea marketplace; for both options, users themselves can flag ideas as inappropriate.

So far, it’s been used by organizations like Catholic Relief Services in Baltimore, which used the platform to survey more than 4,000 employees — based out of 150 offices worldwide and speaking several different languages — about what makes an ideal relief worker; Columbia Law School’s student government used it to find the best idea for improving campus life (that survey got 15,000 votes, Salganik told me, with 200 new ideas uploaded in the first 48 hours). And the Princeton student government survey got more than 2,000 students to contribute 40,000 votes and 100 new ideas in the space of a few weeks.

A new way to survey

All Our Ideas, Salganik says, “deals with a fundamental problem that exists in the social sciences in terms of how we aggregate information.” Traditionally, academics can gather feedback either using pre-populated surveys, which are good at quantifying huge swaths of information, but also limited in the scope of the data they can gather…or, on the other hand, using focus groups and interviews, which are great for gathering open, unstructured information — information that’s “unfiltered by an pre-existing biases that you might have,” Salganik points out — but that are also difficult to analyze. Not to mention inefficient and, often, expensive.

And from the surveyers’ perspective, as well, surveys can be a blunt instrument: their general inability to quantify narrative feedback has forced survey-writers to rely on pre-determined questions. Which is to say, on pre-determined answers. “I’ve actually designed some surveys before, and had the suspicion that I’d left something out,” Salganik says. It’s a guessing game — educated guessing, yes, but guessing all the same. “You only get out what you put in,” he points out. And you don’t know what you don’t know.

But “one of the patterns we see consistently is that ideas that are uploaded by users sometimes score better than the best ideas that started it off,” Salganik says. “Because no matter how hard you try, there are just ideas out there that you don’t know.” But other people do.

Conceptual Crowdsourcing

That utility easily translates to news organizations, who might use All Our Ideas to crowdsource thoughts on anything from news articles to opinion pieces to particular areas of editorial focus. “Let’s say you’re a newspaper,” Salganik says. “You could have one of these [surveys] set up for each neighborhood in a city. You could have twenty of them.”

The platform could also be used to conduct internal surveys — particularly useful at larger organizations, where the lower-level reporters, editors, and producers who man the trenches of daily journalism might have the most meaningful ideas about organizational priorities…but where those workers’ voices might also have the least chance of being heard. News outlets both mammoth and slightly less so have been trying to rectify that asymmetry; an org-wide survey, where every contribution exists on equal footing with every other, could bring structure to the ideal of an idea marketplace that is — yes — truly democratic.

But perhaps the most significant use of the platform could be broad-scale and systemic: surveying users about, yes, what they want. (See, for example, ProPublica’s employment of an editorially focused reader survey a couple months ago.) Pose one basic question — broad (“What kinds of stories are you most interested in knowing?”) or narrow (“Whom should we bring on as our next columnist?”) — and see what results. That’s a way of giving more agency to users than traditional surveys have; it’s also a way of letting them know that you value their opinions in the first place.

May 20 2010


Getting and managing user feedback on apps?

We're launching a news app soon that will be core to our business, but don't really have a customer feedback system in place more than e-mail and Instant Messaging.

I'm hesitant to invest in something like Get Satisfaction or FogBugz, because this is in garage mode-funding right now (i.e.: 0), and I don't want to invest very limited resources unless I have to.

One thing we would really like to do is capture feedback on current features and, maybe more importantly, possible features, as well as more general feedback, bug reports, etc. etc.

Any suggestions on what (preferably open source, fingers crossed) is out there that would be good for this?

May 03 2010


Feedback website “Finding the Frame” launches

Finding the Frame, a website dedicated to giving feedback to newspaper multimedia producers and video journalists has launched.

My post in Mastering Multimedia last month,  “Video at newspapers needs to improve,” resonated with many people. I received lots emails from producers who vented their frustration at not being able to get feedback on their multimedia stories.

After a brainstorming session over a few beers, Brian Immel, a former multimedia producer and programmer at The Spokesman-Review, graciously agreed to build a website for the sole purpose of connecting those who need feedback on their multimedia, to professionals willing to share some time and knowledge.

Here’s how it works

The plan is to have onboard as many “expert” volunteers as possible that have solid foundations in video storytelling, audio slide shows or Flash projects. This pool of reviewers will peruse the submitted links of multimedia in the “Story Pool”. If they decide to comment on a story, it will then become public on the Finding the Frame home page where anyone else is free to give added feedback.

So why do this?

While most publications have driven head first into the online world, multimedia storytelling is still in its infancy at many newspapers. Unfortunately, not all people tasked with producing multimedia received adequate training or had the financial ability to attend a multimedia storytelling workshop. Many multimedia producers are self-taught, having picked up bit and pieces of knowledge along the way.

When I judge a multimedia contest, I often get frustrated at seeing the same problems in the execution of basic video and audio production fundamentals. Many photojournalists are struggling with how to tell an effective video or audio slideshow story that is different from the traditional still picture story.

Our hope is that Finding the Frame will begin to address the need for feedback and in turn, help multimedia producers improve their storytelling. Just read some of the comments by reviewers so far–you’ll be impressed. The professionals that have signed on as reviewers are the some of the top in the industry. If they critique your story, please thank them for giving up some of their precious time to help out a fellow visual journalist.

What we need

What we need is for enough producers, multimedia editors and photojournalists who have a solid experience with multimedia storytelling to step forward and share some of their knowledge with those that are looking for constructive, honest feedback.

So if you feel you have something to offer, we would really like you to join the pool of reviewers on Finding the Frame.

So go check it out and give Brian and me some feedback. Create an account. Upload a link to a video, audio slide show or Flash project. Be patient, as it might take some time for your story to get reviewed

I am not sure how many people will upload stories, so let’s take this slow at first. It would also be helpful if non-reviewers could give some feedback to others by commenting on their work.

If you would like to be added to the reviewer pool, register your account, making sure you create a profile and upload a photo of yourself or avatar, then email me at cmulvany@findingtheframe.com with the request.

This website is for you. We would really appreciate your support and feedback.

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