Media Influencer

helping people break out of pigeonholes since 2003

Podcast Notes: Past, Present and Future

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Just before Christmas I got to chat with Chris Vallance of BBC Radio 5 Live and Seamus McCauley of Virtual Economics about what trends stood out in 2007 and what 2008 might hold in store for us.

I don’t do predictions – I like the saying that the best way to predict the future is to make it happen – but it was fun and relaxed conversation. For those interested in what it was about, my ramblings start around 30:32 into the programme.

Obscure underdogs

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No longer, as the New York Times mentions BrainStorm, the best, simplest and flexible application for sorting out your thoughts.

Next is a truly obscure underdog: software called BrainStorm, created and sold by two independent programmers in England. Its kind of elegance, quite distinct from the style and polish of the Mac or TiVo, is the stripped-down functional beauty of an excellent sharpened knife.

BrainStorm is a return to the early days of personal computing, in its resemblance to outstanding DOS-era programs like XyWrite and GrandView. Its display is text only, with no graphic grace notes, and the only thing it does is manage lists – of ideas, tasks, references, names. Behind this simplicity is surprising power, or so I have found since buying it on a friend’s recommendation several months ago. The program makes it very quick and easy to add, subtract, rearrange, or reconsider information you are working with.

David Tebbutt, one of the handful of bloggers whose off-line company I have a chance to enjoy, has spend much time and loving care on BrainStorm. I find it very useful when preparing for presentations, for example, as my thinking tends to be lateral and disorganised. Using BrainStorm enables me to switch from the creative (unstructured) to the analytical (structured) mode in a very convenient manner. I do recommend it, not only because I know how much effort went into it, but because it works. I also think that BrainStorm is like one of those little secrets that people like to keep to themselves – a phone number of a reliable and inexpensive plumber or a builder. Fortunately, Brainstorm can take the rush in orders, so off you go, organise and grow your brain.

Big media influencing…

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Yesterday morning I had a car pick me up from our HQ and deliver me to the TV center at White City – this is where the BBC resides. It was to record the next Shop Talk, a programme on Radio 4, the subject, wait for it… was blogging. But not just any old blogging but blogging for companies, which is not surprising given the title of the show.

Leading up to the recording day, I had an interesting conversation with one of the producer of the programme who intelligently guided me through the topics he was interested in covering and I was able to recommend some other contacts, one of them, Thomas Marne Mahon of English Cut, will be appearing on the show.

I was also looking forward to meeting other participants – Heather Platts of Soap blog, Simon Phipps of Sun Microsystems and Sun Mink and Collaborate Marketing and Paul Woodhouse of Tinbasher (who was sadly missed in the end).

My impressions from the experience are very positive although the programme was a series of smoothly choreographed questions addressed to specific people based on previous interviews with them. The answers will be heavily edited for reasons of time but overall I think most of us had a good chance to say things and make our point. The frustrating thing for me was that there was no room for discussion or elaboration on our own or each other’s statements. However, given the nature of the programme – an introductory and entertaining chat about something that may be perceived as complex or obscure to many of the listeners – it was a necessity.

The presenter, Heather Payton, was very pleasant and professional and her role was crucial as she was the one that knew the audience, not us. We understood the topic and she understood the audience and the rest was making the two come together.

So it was hippo talking to the birdies for a change…

Update: I think the show airs next Tuesday at 4pm.

More media influencing… well, just a bit

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In today’s Guardian Jane Perrone writes in Every second a blog – but not for the long slog:

80,000 new weblogs are being created every day. Technorati tracked more than 14.2 million blogs this month, compared to 7.8 million in March.

But the statistics show not everyone who starts a blog stays the course. Although the blogosphere has doubled in size in just over five months, only around half of all blogs are "active" – in other words they have been updated in the past three months – and just 13% are updated every week or more often.

But that does not really matter, does it? As I often point out, talking about blogging as a unified subject is focusing on the format and missing the most fascinating aspects of the phenomenon. It is like judging the success of printing press by the impact the Communist Manifesto, or the Bible or trashy novels, for that matter, have had on the world. And this is actually what happens – there are people complaining about how blogging can be toxic by causing confusion or lack of transparency and credibility(!) and many arguing that blogs are nothing but self-absorbed rubbish at worst and an online version of tabloids in terms of facts and reporting at best, etc etc etc. Even is such objections were true, which they mostly are not, they are irrelevant to the understanding of what is happening with communications and the ability of audiences to connect not only with the ‘broadcasters’ but also with themselves.

My point in the article is that we should not be focusing on the numbers – that is playing the game by the big media rules – but on those aspects of blogging that are truly revolutionary. Self-expression, individual creativity in the public space/domain giving rise to a new online social infrastructure, on top of the technological one.

If you know somebody, how long does it take to know what they are thinking? It’s a long drawn out process. But with blogs it’s the other way around – you meet the person’s mind through their blog.

I see this every day and I myself have found a number of amazing people in a very short period of time. That makes blogging a social activity par excellence. And this is before the pyjamas even come into it. :-)

Some media influencing…

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Yesterday’s WSJ Business Europe had an article on business bloggging. More on it here.

Blogging for Business

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Below is the text of an article by Kyle Wingfield that was published on July 20, 2005 in Wall Street Journal Business Europe. The link will work only for the subscribers of WSJ, so I published the full version below.

When you hear the word "blog," what comes to mind? The online rants of teeth-gnashing, pajama-clad political junkies? If so, it’s time you got up to speed. That kind of thinking is so 2004.

Increasingly, companies are realizing that blogs — shorthand for "Web logs" — can be effective business tools. Just as e-commerce has dramatically changed the retail industry, many predict that blogs and other online innovations yet to come will revolutionize the way businesses conduct public relations and marketing. Enthusiasts even dare to say that the effect will be still greater on communications and creativity within firms.

"It is a tool that you make work for whatever you want it to….It’s like a Swiss knife," says Adriana Cronin-Lukas, co-founder of the Big Blog Company, a London-based firm that builds blogs for companies and trains workers to use them.

Those political-junkie bloggers out there have turned to their keyboards for one reason: They’re passionate about a particular subject, and they want to talk about it with someone. Seeking an outlet in the blogosphere means they aren’t constrained by geography or schedules, and their discourse is available to anyone who wants to join in. That same kind of wide-ranging discussion can take place between a business and current or potential clients. "There’s a lot of pent-up goodwill on the part of customers," Ms. Cronin-Lukas says. "They’re talking about the company anyway. So it’s a matter of joining the conversation."

This may feel a little disconcerting at first; after all, the primary way that companies communicate with the public emulates the style of television broadcasts: a one-way message sent from one source to the masses. Think of it, though, like learning to ride a bicycle: The off-balance sensation eventually will give way to a confident, even liberating, feeling that allows you to go farther, faster, than you could before.

In the long run, conversing directly with customers could help your credibility with them. That can come in handy in a crisis, as frequent readers of the blog will visit it first to hear directly from the company. "The blog is a great opportunity to tell the public directly about the cars and trucks we have on the market and the ones we’re bringing to market soon," Bob Lutz, vice president for global product development at General Motors Corp. and a frequent contributor to the company’s FastLane blog, wrote in a recent Information Week article. "We’ve also used the blog to address specific media articles that we considered unfair, unbalanced or uninformed."

Far more beneficial, however, may be the gains in employee productivity and creativity that can come from an internal company blog. "If you look at the modern business system, I would say the current structures create bottlenecks," Ms. Cronin-Lukas says. "You have a clash of top-down structure and the bottom-up dynamics that are needed for creativity….My theory is that if you look at any successful company, you will see that innovation happens despite the formal structure."

Rather than trying to generate ideas in meetings, Ms. Cronin-Lukas advises, companies should create an internal blog on which employees can share ideas. A blog allows employees to show tangible evidence of their thinking and expertise, getting ideas out of their heads and putting them to work for the company.

Don’t worry if this sort of talk evokes bitter memories of the tech bubble and Web-site-development costs that spiraled out of control as entrepreneurs tried to keep up with the Gateses. First, this is hardly a recent phenomenon. Those who weren’t introduced to blogs until last year’s U.S. presidential election — in which bloggers helped to uncover the "Rathergate" forged-document scandal at CBS and were accredited, for the first time, as journalists at the Democratic and Republican national conventions — were indeed behind the curve. The origins of blogs can be traced back to the pre-World Wide Web days of bulletin boards. And the business applications are at least as old as Cluetrain.com, launched in 1999, and "The Cluetrain Manifesto," the book that followed a year later warning businesses to "communicate in language that is natural, open, honest, direct, funny and often shocking" or risk losing their customers. Blogs merely provide a forum for doing this, and companies from Boeing Co. to Butler Sheetmetal Ltd. in Lancashire, England, have since come on board.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, this new online wave is not about glitz for glitz’s sake, but rather that, when it comes to communication, simpler is better. Flash? Forget it.

With blogging, technology is no longer the end but the means. There’s little doubt that the folks at Microsoft could create for themselves the most whiz-bang Web site imaginable. Yet it’s a very amateur-looking blog by Technical Evangelist Robert Scoble (yes, that’s his real title) that, in the words of Ms. Cronin-Lukas, "almost single-handedly changed the monolithic image of Microsoft" (even the blog’s URL is plain: http://radio.weblogs.com/0001011).

Blog consultancies are springing up in greater numbers, particularly in the U.S. and U.K. Depending on the size of your firm, and the amount of training required, consultancies like the Big Blog Company can get you started for £1,000 to £10,000 (€1,450 to €14,500). Sites such as Blogger.com, a division of Google Inc., offer a chance to try your hand at blogging for free, if not in the most attractive format.

In the business realm, though, better to leave the pajamas at home.

Mr. Wingfield edits the Business Europe column.

Plain speaking

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This is the text of an article in New Media Age from 14th January 2005 issue:

Adriana Cronin-Lukas is on a mission to educate and convince companies of the benefits of improved communications through blogging, discovers Michael Nutley.

“There are two trends in online marketing.  One is to say, ‘This is our message and we’ll use all the new technology to make it louder and harder to escape.’ I’m working on the other trend.”

Adriana Cronin-Lukas is a woman with a mission. Her goal, she says, is “to make companies open themselves up”.  And her method of choice is blogging.

Cronin-Lukas discovered blogging in 2001 when, inspired by the book The Cluetrain Manifesto, she was working on ways for insurance giant Lloyds to use the Internet.  A friend took her to the first British Blogger Bash, organised by the founder of Samizdata, a group blog of socio-political commentary.  As a child of activist parents in Czechoslovakia, she found the idea of 21st Century pamphleteering, “using the blog format to give a persistent worldview”, immediately appealing.  She started writing for Samizdata and eventually became an editor.

But Cronin-Lukas is also a trained management consultant, so she soon started thinking about the brand Samizdata had built and how its approach could be applied to business.  She asked a fellow blogger who was a media lawyer to explain to her the legal problems companies might face using blogging, and then set up The Big Blog Company to bring the blogging message to companies.  At the same time, Google was buying Pyra, the company behind blogger.com, and bloggers were starting to think about how they might make money out of what had previously been little more than a hobby.

Cronin-Lukas has strong views about the commercial use of blogs. A blog is something that can help a brand to make money, not something that makes money itself, she says.

Instead she emphasises what she calls the value-for-value exchange. It’s true there’s no such thing as free content.  You’re being paid in attention,” she explains.” Any monetisation shouldn’t disrupt that value-for-value exchange that’s already happening.

Instead Cronin-Lukas sees the value of blogs as allowing companies to tell customers their story and the stories behind what they’re selling.  Instead of entertaining people into hearing about your company, you tell them what you think they might want to know, she says.

She cites Microsoft as a classic example of a company recognising the power of blogging. 

Robert Scoble worked with the developers of Longhorn at Microsoft.  His blog is called Scobleiser and with it he cracked the monolithic facade of Microsoft.  Almost singlehandedly he changed the perception of Microsoft as the devil in Redmond; he humanised it.  Microsoft recognised this and started its Channel 9 group blog for developers, addressing the developer community outside Microsoft.

Channel 9, named after the in-flight channel on some airlines that allows passengers to listen to exchanges between the cockpit and air traffic control, is an example of the kind of blog that most interests Cronin-Lukas.

One-person blogs are all very well.  People call me in to advise them on how they can use a personality within their company to write a blog.

What’s more likely is I’ll suggest a group blog; a Channel 9 for the whole company.

She gives the example of VC firm Augusta Capital, which has a group blog discussing the issues surrounding venture capital. 

VC is supposed to be a black art; it’s not something you’d instinctively think of blogging about.  So if Augusta Capital can have a blog, anyone can.

It also shows that the company brand can emerge as a collective identity by allowing individuals to express themselves.

And Cronin-Lukas sees a further value in encouraging employees to blog.  A blog can be a tangible way of storing expertise, she explains.  That’s one of the ways it repays the time put into it. It can make the intellectual capital stored within your employees tangible, because they’re writing it all down.

This goes hand-in-hand with another of her main interests: using blogging to improve internal communications.

I’m trying to reproduce the dynamics of the blogosphere within a company. It’s not a technical problem, it’s a human problem.  Content management system approaches aren’t working as a way of getting departments to communicate, because there’s nothing in it for the people who are supposed to be using them.

Taking the idea that the basic unit of a company is the individual, I’m trying to get firms to let everyone have a blog and see what emerges, she says. 

A lot of what I do requires a mindshift on behalf of the companies I’m talking to.  I’ve come to see my job as being much more about education in recent months.

The wave has already broken in the US, but we’re only inching towards it in this country.  People in the UK are more responsive to ideas, but it’s harder to get them to try new things.

Trying new things is crucial for Cronin-Lukas. It’s what brought her back to the UK after she’d trained as a management consultant.

My plan was to go back and use those skills in my country, doing what would have been very useful work, but I had to come back to the UK to be at the cutting edge, she says.

And it’s also what drives her enthusiasm for blogging.  She sees the blogosphere as the next step in the development of the Internet.

The Internet is not a channel, it’s a network.  It can behave as if it’s a channel, but that’s only part of what it can do.  The problem with Web sites is that they’re not designed for the Internet.  They’re network nodes by default, not design.  They have the legacy of being conceived as something very different to what a network node should be, and it’s the user who loses out.

An agency can produce a beautiful site that the client loves, but it expects users to sit and watch it.  That’s not how network nodes work.  If you want to use the Web properly, you have to design your Web presence as a network node.  And blog software builds optimal network nodes.  Think of the blogosphere as Internet 2.0.

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