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How to use the data you’re already collecting

Big data appears as the solution to all our business problems, able to reveal what customers want, how to increase profits, and cut costs all by doing some fancy math. Of course, big data is more complicated than that, but amid all the zeal for collecting and analyzing big data, we’re forgetting the small data many companies already collect but don’t know how to take advantage of.  Almost every company, from doctor’s offices to web developers have some data they have already collected that can be used to improve some aspect of their business.

Data appears in many forms, not just sales numbers and conversion rates.  Anyone with a website already has mountains of data they can collect with free tools like Google Analytics and Google Webmaster Tools. Google Analytics provides free web traffic information with many robust custom reporting tools, along with simple statistics of how many people visit each page, for how long, and how they got to your site. Even with low web traffic, looking at how people are finding your website (from Google searches or social media) can inform your marketing efforts.  Google Webmaster Tools, a little less well known, can be even more valuable than Google Analytics because it provides extensive information about how your website appears within Google searches.  Webmaster Tools tells you how high your site appears on search terms and which terms send people to your site. Because of privacy settings, Google Analytics isn’t able to give you this much information.

Beyond your website, it’s important to find the different ways you interact with clients and staff and mine these for informative data.  At a doctor’s office I consulted with, we found that patients were leaving after completing their treatment, but coming back weeks or months later for different services.  We asked a few of these patients why they returned and they said they didn’t know these services were offered before.  Often these were services they were looking for but didn’t think to ask about.  The doctor began introducing related services to patients earlier and adding additional brochures which increased the quality of care for patients and increased revenue with a minor cost and time investment.  With web development, I keep track of the number and frequency of emails with clients, during and after a project.  I use this to gauge how well I am explaining progress or issues with clients and have refined many ways I speak about web development to non-web developers.  I also assess my own efficiency after completing projects with the number of subsequent emails and whether I need to update my technical documentation or training practices.

Small data can provide small insights (and big ones) that are still beneficial, especially relative to the time and cost with finding them.  Every company has accounting records, emails, costs, sales, and other data rich with information about how well you are running your business. While all data will tell a story, not every story has to be interesting. Know where you have data and know how to understand it can be enough to open new opportunities to improve yourself work and business.

Online privacy expectations, reality, and the secrets in between

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg called up Tweet-storm over his comments that the Age of Privacy is over.  Zuckerberg tells TechCrunch:

When I got started in my dorm room at Harvard, the question a lot of people asked was ‘why would I want to put any information on the Internet at all? Why would I want to have a website?’

And then in the last 5 or 6 years, blogging has taken off in a huge way and all these different services that have people sharing all this information. People have really gotten comfortable not only sharing more information and different kinds, but more openly and with more people. That social norm is just something that has evolved over time.

But the internet has made privacy more complicated rather than vanquished it completely. The issue for both Zuckerberg’s Facebook and online users is that our expectations of privacy and the reality are far separated. The truth is we are just as private as people. But the internet changes the scale.

Expectations for privacy often revolve around the good intentions of the companies we give information to. Facebook and Google will keep our data secret, for our use only.  One study found that most people, rather than reading a website’s privacy policy, assume that if a website has one, it means they will keep the data protected.

Of course, this is far from the trust. Even the best intentioned websites have security breaches or mistakes that leave users open to privacy violations.  Several of my family members are still petrified to use their credit card online, not concerned by the dozens of credit card and social security number leaks done because some employee lost a laptop.

On Facebook, privacy concerns focus more on our personal data, like interests, pictures, and relationship status. Talk about a widespread case of narcissism. No one cares about every little college student’s love of the Big Lebowski or how they’ll take “whatever they can get”. My rule, if I don’t want people to know something, I don’t put it online because once its online, it’s up for grabs. Even if I deleted one of my old blog posts, there would still be ways to find them.

Shockingly, several studies show people will give out personal information, including passwords and income levels, if you simply ask or if you’re nice, offer them a chocolate bar.

And the data many expect to be private, or to use the buzzword, anonymized, but would be surprised to know how easy it can be for an intrepid researcher, like Latanya Sweeny, a computer science professor at Carnegie Mellon University who showed that just gender, zip code, and birth date are unique for about 87 percent of the U.S. population.

So expectations – people and companies want and keep data private (and apparently lots of people want your information too) but the reality is tons of data leaks out all the time, most people are unaffected because there’s so much data and yours isn’t that important, and it takes just a tiny bit to figure out who you are (even the stuff you feel safe sharing).

Zuckerberg is right that our concept of privacy is changing. When I first went on the internet, my mother forbade me from telling anyone my name or where I live, but now I post that all over. I regularly meet people in person that I first talked to online. I often recommend people buy the domain of their full name and build some kind of web presence for in case they get Googled (better the first link is something you know and control).

This is not because we keep less private. Just more people know. Like everyone who wants to. You had no problem telling a room full of strangers at a party what you do, where you live, and how you like your steak. Now, it’s incredibly easy to tell a world wide web full of strangers.

Privacy still matters. And more than an effort, it should at least be a challenge for bad guys to get good data. But now we’re not just teaching our kids (and adults) to not talk to strangers. It’s about common sense online. Knowing that anything you share can be shared again. And again and again. And it might never ever go away.

Why I prefer marketing to selling (updated)

I like marketing; I don’t like selling. Various jobs have asked me to perform varying levels of both. One I enjoy; one makes me feel dirty.

First, let me define marketing and selling for you. Marketing seeks to offer solutions for the needs of a group of people. While marketing is targeted, it is targeted at those with this need rather than a specific person. Selling is done to a specific person.

Let’s say I make lunches. Everyone in my office is my market for lunch. I can put up posters marketing my lunch and some people will buy it. If I’m selling my lunch, I go up to a specific person, relying on them to buy it. If they don’t, I’ve wasted lots of time trying to convince them.  Think about the difference between seeing a car commercial and going to the car dealership. One is exciting, the other leaves you feeling dirty.

I recognize I am coming at marketing with an idealistic view. I believe that marketing is a worthwhile endeavor when handled in a needs based manner. This is why often the best products need no advertising, relying instead of word-of-mouth and brand trust. While that’s an extreme (it worked for Google), most companies and products can benefit from smart marketing rather than selling.

Now social media throws some new tools in the marketing arsenal while also complicating my definitions (is promoting something on Twitter marketing or selling?). I think the best way to approach any marketing is to focus on building your brand and then letting that trust (and the quality of your products) sell themselves). For instance, marketing on Twitter or on your blog should be more about providing a service to your readers, whether by providing information on a subject important to them or highlighting research in your field. Corporate blogs are excellent tools to show your company’s expertise and provide valuable information to users, ensuring readers will turn into future customers when you have a product they might want.

Taking the pulse of technology: RSS evolving or dying?

With the rise of Twitter and social networking news streams, many techies have been debating the value and livelihood of RSS. RSS, or Really Simple Syndication, is a common format used to share a constant stream of articles. Popularized by blogs, RSS can be imported by RSS readers (like Google Reader; here’s my little guide to them).

Back in May, TechCrunch already pronounced RSS dead which makes it more shocking that today, again, Sam Diaz reveals he’s not using RSS anymore. And so the conversation begins. Marshall Kirkpatrick defends RSS as another of his many research tools while Robert Scoble has moved on to Twitter and FriendFeed for news.

Let’s not confuse death with evolution. RSS has always been a tool, a tool still used by, shockingly Twitter, Facebook, and Friendfeed.  While some find basic RSS readers less valuable, this is because innovators have found ways to make finding information on the web more useful and more valuable.  New tools like Feedly and LazyFeed are making RSS more valuable, and in some cases, unrecognizable from its original state. The internet is, obviously, moving so quickly (just watch Twitter update), that it’s impossible to believe the same tools we use today will be the same tools used next year. Nothing disappears, it evolves into something better.

Of course, I still love my RSS Reader.

Hulu and YouTube not at war: Let’s live peacefully together

As Hulu adds Disney to its video fold, some seem to be calling this a loss for YouTube. But YouTube and Hulu are very different video sites and hopefully will continue to evolve so as to co-exist peacefully for the benefit of all web video kind.

YouTube is the video site for the masses. Anyone can upload anything for any reason. It makes the site excellent for finding something, whatever that may be. And that makes it an excellent service for many people, from content creators trying to get noticed to guys filming their dog do funny things.  Hulu is the standard for premium, professional content from the legendary gatekeepers of entertainment.  Even as the two imitate each other, there is more than enough space on the World Wide Web for both.

Yes, YouTube is adding premium content and using much of Hulu’s interface. That’s good for everyone – Hulu has a great interface. But Hulu will never add the breadth and freedom of YouTube. Similarly, much of Hulu’s content providers refuse to give up the control a closed system provides (including, still bizarrely, blocking out most of the world from viewing the page).  Much of the apparent concern for YouTube comes from the higher ad rates Hulu gets for its premium content, but of course, this puts mistaken value on the content itself rather than the experience and the community.

Hulu is an excellent experience, when they aren’t blocking access, but it lacks the community that makes YouTube thrive.  While Google has yet to figure out how to monetize the community, there are still millions of loyal video makers and watchers devoting hours of their time to the making the site more enjoyable and valuable.  Already we’ve seen unique ways YouTube can be a tool for increasing wealth and marketing, from the recent Susan Boyle excitement (which increased sales of Les Miserable CDs) to the amazing Wario Land: Shake It video game ad (you must click the link to experience it fully). Plus, YouTube videos now allow links, allowing for some interesting new opportunities.

Obviously, I like YouTube, and I have some problems with Hulu. Basically, web video, like most aspects of the web, is not a zero-sum game. Just because Hulu gets something does not mean YouTube loses. YouTube finds its own market and its own success because of Hulu, not in spite of, and vice versa.  That’s called competition. And it’s a good thing.

How to manage social media on a small scale

One of the major appeals of social media marketing is the ease with which few can reach many at almost no cost. But for many small companies, this can be a fear rather than a blessing. Social media might expand your client base, but it does little to improve productivity to the same degree.  While having more business than you can handle is certainly better than not, it is possible overload can harm your business and brand. So how can you make sure social media is working only how you want?

Be honest about what you want

The focus of any social media campaign should increasing user value, but that doesn’t mean you ignore your own needs.  If you provide luxury services, be forward about it (and include some price examples so passersby know what they’re getting into).   If you only serve local clients, say so. Make sure you know what you want and base your marketing on that.

Niche versus mainstream

Don’t focus on Facebook if your demographics are only a tiny percent of the population.  Find niche social networks, forums, and blogs to network with that will help build your small but more valuable community.  You can always broaden your reach if you find your current strategy too limited, but it’s much harder to put the internet genie back its bandwidth bottle; even worse would be harming your brand because service suffers under the overload.

Control communication channels

I hate when a company only gives me a generic email (like blog@prodigeek.com, but I’m the only one, so you know I read it). But deciding the right communication method could be the difference between hours of sorting and a few moments of weeding.  If overloads of emails and phone calls really concern you, a contact form can help soften the pressure.  You can ask demographic questions to help sort through inquires. And best of all, contact forms will deter more casual inquirers.  A great benefit of Twitter or Facebook messaging is you can see many of the sender’s demographics, but turning those into your main communication channel is more effort than its worth.

Change your promotion methods / lower costs

Some of the highest costs related to marketing can be printing and mailing.  Moving more of your marketing online, like your catalog, can save tons in printing and add more value by being searchable and more interactive (don’t just turn it into a PDF).  Plus, email is free. Free. How’s that for cost-per-prospect?

Remember how I said social media won’t improve productivity? That might be technically true, but the internet can make you more efficient. Depending on your products and services, more and more can be done with technology, helping filter the amount of hands on time required, allowing you to increase your business without significant growth or sacrificing service.  From email to e-commerce platforms (like eBay or Amazon, the easiest) are great ways to sell products, for example.  Finding the best platforms and strategist, of course, means finding the best value for your users.

If Twitter is mainstream, then what’s niche?

The mainstream media has been buzzing about this new and exciting web tool called Twitter.  Because Oprah now uses it.  Twitter, over the past few weeks/months, has been crossing the infamous chasm that separates early adopters with everyone else.  After Oprah promoted the three-year old company on her show, and sending out her first tweet, traffic spiked 43 percent.  Oprah, Ashton Kutcher, and CNN competed for the first million followers on Twitter.  Celebrities and brands have replaced the Twitter innovators like Robert Scoble and iJustine who helped evangelize the application and build the massive following it has now.

Social media bloggers are pondering what happens next for Twitter (beyond that nagging how are they going to make money question).  Will Oprah follow other people and engage in true two-conversations? Or will Twitter become just another broadcast marking tool.  I offer links to these questions and tackle one of my own: where do geeks go next?

I ask this because I consider Twitter a niche tool.  It has limited functionality and because of that is very hard to use effectively/creatively.  Twitter has obviously grown from being just another way to tell people what sandwich you’re eating – it’s a unique, rapid-fire communication platform thriving on texts and one-liners.  And this is, at least posed, to become popular with soccer moms and every brand with an email account (neither of which is bad, this is not a moral judgment).

To me, this says more about how tech savvy the mainstream is, than how useful Twitter is or how protective geeks are of their turf (we are).  Twitter is far more niche than Facebook or LinkedIn are, and if software like this can cross the chasm, how much more niche does niche get?

This is a credit to the rapid transition people are making into the digital world.  My mother is now asking me if she should join Facebook (no) and my 50+ year old friends want me to help set them up on Twitter. Definitions of what is part of the geek niche need to be redefined.  Geeks need to be a lot geekier to be geeks, it seems.

For web companies, this should be exciting news (though watching how Twitter traffic grows over the next weeks will affect my confidence in the following statements).  Twitter’s ability to appeal to a broad audience of users shows a society more willing to experiment with new tools, even if their uses are not so obvious.  I’m not saying this can be easily replicated – maybe Twitter is a fluke.  Instead, the next time you’re developing a product you fear might be too geeky, think about Oprah and your mother using Twitter.  Suddenly, your definition of geek, and the demographics for your product, are suddenly much, much wider.

Dominos: Using social media to damage and fix a brand

Domino's Pizza, LLC
Image via Wikipedia

Two Domino’s Pizza employees posted a video of themselves spitting on food, putting cheese up their noses,, and violating several health codes while preparing people’s food.  The video, posted on YouTube, became a sensation with more than one million views, spreading discussion to blogs and Twitter.  The New York Times today even profiled the threat social media plays for Domino’s and other companies.

I’ll still buy from Domino’s. Hopefully this is an example of two really bad actors and not reflective on the company. But this is a huge PR nightmare where even if Domino’s isn’t directly at fault (legally or morally, that we know of), it is still responsible to remedy this tragedy, making amends to the public for what it’s employees did.

Social media was used to damage Domino’s brand. Domino’s can use social media to repair the damage.

First, admit fault. With a press conference posted to YouTube and news outlets. Admit employees were not properly supervised, incentivized, and educated, and then outline how all these things will be fixed for the future.  Also publically compliment the rest of the Domino’s sales staff. We know Domino’s hiring is not the most rigorous, so oversight is important.

To repair its brand, Domino’s would best be served by opening up it’s serving practices to the world – through YouTube. I don’t mean hidden cameras showing you don’t trust your employees (that will only invite more trouble). Instead, show how much you value your employees by encouraging each store to make it’s own YouTube video about their favorite pizza creation.  So every Domino’s outlet will have the chance to create a special pizza, which customers can buy, and see online how the staff came up with and made that pizza.  This shows Domino’s trusts its employees to serve its customers’ best interests, and it gives something special to customers in the form of unique and special pizzas, customized for their location.  Domino’s can collect all these videos onto a YouTube channel and even make a U.S. map with links to the videos of locations closest to you.

The lesson to learn – social media can be a dangerous weapon in the wrong hands. But in the right hands, social media can be used for just as much good.  Embracing open communication builds and rebuilds brands.

How you can use social media everyday

For many people, social media barely extends beyond Facebook events and a few messages. For most, it’s hard to understand why people need to be constantly connected.  But social media and networking is a valuable tool for every person in every industry, from executive to homemaker to student to chef. How you use social media relies on your style, interests, and goals.  Everyone can find benefits in social media with just a little effort.

Make new connections / Revive old ones

Social networking gets lambasted for valuing acquaintances or people you don’t really know, but in reality, these networks are vast databases of everyone you’ve met. And who knows when you’ll need them again.  On a job search, you can search your network to see who works at places you’d like to work. LinkedIn makes this even better by telling you who in your network knows someone else who works at a specific company, and helps make the introduction for you.

Party planning

For convenience, having all your friends listed in one place can make it easier to plan parties, arrange reunions, or just find someone to hang out with this weekend.  Facebook has a built-in party planner making it a point-and-click affair to invite everyone (or someone some) you know. And with a master list, it’s harder to forget someone.

Discover new interests

Last.FM and Pandora Radio to make it easier to discover new music. Digg and StumpleUpon help you find exciting news or fun articles.  Netflix and Amazon help you find movies and books (and anything else) you might like. None of these are an exact science, but simply help wade through the massive sea of the internet to find things you might like. And each one has a social media component to help you see what other people have bought or liked or better, what your friends have bought or liked.  Tuning into these spaces can improve your own media and purchasing experience.

Promote yourself

Everyone Google searches people, from potential employers to co-workers to dates. This means you want to control your online brand. When someone searches for you, it’s better they find information you’re willing to share, like on your Facebook page or a personal blog.  You don’t have to detail every part of your life (once something’s on the internet, it’s no longer private). While it sounds cold, it’s reality – you are your own brand, just like Coke or McDonalds, and you want to control how the world views you.

Find out if that boy/girl you like is single

And the true purpose of an social network – social stalking.  Just kidding…