Why I’m nonplussed about Google Plus

25 Feb


There has been lots of publicity over the New York Times‘s report that Google has finally ‘admitted’ that Plus was a ploy to track our behaviour online.

This isn’t really news, unless you count the ‘admission’, if you can even call it that. (VP of product management Bradley Horowitz spun it by saying that ‘Google Plus gives you the opportunity to be yourself, and gives Google that common understanding of who you are.) After all, when something’s free, you’re the product, etc etc.

But, to be honest, by the time I read this, my Google Plus activity had already flatlined.

Whenever I try out a new platform or network, I’m only likely to stick with it if it offers something functionally useful that isn’t already being provided by something else. When I first got onto Google Plus, I thought it might be better than Twitter for discovering longer-form content, and a less hectic environment in which to browse through interesting galleries or articles. In terms of what I shared, I tried to differentiate what I posted on there from what I was already tweeting about, so as not to overload my friends with the same stuff multiple times.

I stuck with it for a while, but eventually it petered out around September last year.

As I barely use any other Google products, and prefer for my every move not to be so heavily tracked, I was hardly ever logged in, so posting something became a chore. But, more importantly, I quickly found that the active people I was already connected with on Twitter were sharing a lot of the same stuff in both places, and on Facebook, and LinkedIn, and everywhere else. In addition, if I found something I felt worth sharing on Google Plus, I inevitably preferred to share it on Twitter too, as this was where I had more connections, and where people seemed more likely to engage more immediately if they were interested. It seemed unnecessary to share and receive the same stuff in so many places.

This is also symptomatic of the growing trend in the last couple of years that everything is repeatedly shared everywhere, reblogged, and shared again. It’s getting harder and harder to find the original art, at its original source.

Here’s what this experience has reinforced for me: when you’re using the web in a personal capacity, the medium doesn’t matter. What matters is the artist and their art. And, to some extent, the people who are best at curating it.

(Of course, when it comes to using social for business purposes, it’s a bit more tricky. How many meetings have you been in where someone says ‘Our brand needs to be on Google Plus/Pinterest/*insert name of any seemingly shiny new network here*’? Unfortunately, as the New York Times article notes, this is where Google’s powers and the lure of SEO prevail. But this is a subject for a whole other blog post.)

Meanwhile, if you find a great blogger/photographer/writer/filmmaker … make it your business to visit their site/gallery/portfolio/blog/magazine, lap it up, then share the best aspects however you see fit. Likewise, when you find someone else who’s good at finding that stuff, follow their posts for inspiration.

It really doesn’t matter what network you’re on – we’re interconnected enough now that the great art will rise to the surface. And, on the off-chance you find something amazing that hasn’t yet had its day in the sun, give the creator the credit and share it right from the source – before someone else turns it into a Buzzfeed and just gifts more traffic to … Buzzfeed.

Image credit: Daniel Iversen

WeFunder vs Kickstarter: where would you invest?

20 Mar

WeFunder vs Kickstarter: where would you invest?

Last week, screenwriter and producer Rob Thomas broke records when his Kickstarter campaign to create Veronica Mars the Movie became the crowd funding site’s most successful film project to date, hitting its target of $2m within hours of going live.

Thomas’s campaign – complete with a Youtube skit featuring the TV show’s original actors soliciting pledges – shows no signs of slowing down. At the time of writing, it has racked up nearly $3.7m, and the project still has at least another three weeks to run.

It’s interesting that many of the most successful Kickstarter projects have not been ‘must have’ items, but have involved ‘experiences’ of some kind. This movie looks likely to be the site’s third or fourth most successful project ever, and several of the others in the top ten have been video games. The Pebble watch was an exception, but even that is very much about customisable user experience rather than just a gimmicky gadget – getting people excited about seeing just what a new piece of technology is capable of doing.

I’ll be interested to see whether people get just as excited about WeFunder, which aims to function in a similar way to Kickstarter, but for start-ups rather than one-off projects. As I understand it, at the moment only high-net-worth individuals will be able to invest through it, in keeping with regulations. But, as you may have read today, possible changes in legislation this year could open up a site such as WeFunder to allow the average Joe to invest in start-ups.

Thomas and actress Kristen Bell promised that their Kickstarter movie would get made if they reached the $2m mark – Warner Bros is already on board. Yet the fans keep donating. Maybe they just want the T-shirt. (At this point, *I* want the T-shirt.) Or maybe Thomas knows something every community – or crowd funding project – can learn from.

When you want something from someone, tap into their emotions.

To my mind, crowd funding is like building any community – you need to engage your audience, and hope that they’ll stick around long enough to be invested in what you’re doing and help you to achieve your ultimate goal.

But, as I’ve heard Adam Tinworth express it best: ‘It’s not enough to engage people intellectually. To keep them coming back you also have to engage them emotionally.’

Will a business proposition get people as enthused as they would be about a movie, and could it ever be enough to persuade anyone other than the hard-core investors to part with their money?

I hope for the budding entrepreneurs’ sake it will.

Intellect or emotion – share in a business, or shared experience: which would tempt you to invest your hard-earned cash?

Image: taxcredits

Twenty-first century journalism: we’re always ‘on’ – can we
keep it up?

1 Feb

A couple of weeks ago, the person who oversees content strategy at my company came to spend a day in our newsroom, to see what we actually *do*, and how journalism is changing.

As fate would have it, it turned out to be one of the most intense news days in recent memory – touching everything from billion-pound shopping centre deals and high-profile fraud convictions to tragic death.

Here’s what he blogged about the experience:

Within half an hour of my rocking up at 8.30am yesterday, news came through on Twitter that a helicopter had crashed into a crane at a residential tower under construction. Within minutes, the acting news editor had bashed out 200 words, her colleagues had secured a picture of the crash from a tweeter, posted the story online and uploaded it to the iPad edition, while various writers had tweeted and retweeted the story.

That, as it turned out, was just the wake-up call. By mid-morning, news came in of a conviction following a £740m property loans fraud. Same routine. Web. Twitter. iPad. More tweets. Zip, zip, zip. And then, minutes after I’d sloped off at the end of the day to get back to my day job, they were at it again. This time with a scoop on a long-running £1bn development saga in Croydon. I was shattered. And I’d only been watching.

But it didn’t stop there.

The following day at 5pm, we had all decamped to the pub to discuss plans for upcoming features, when BlackBerrys started buzzing, and it emerged that the deal that had been hotly anticipated for months had finally come through: Google had completed a deal for a new headquarters in King’s Cross.

Cue a flurry of activity as we figured out if we could get onto the local wi-fi and get the ‘property deal of the century’ (as it has since been dubbed) onto our website asap.

Meeting temporarily abandoned, emails started flying and tweets were typed at the ready. Crucially, no one cared about who would be the one to get their name to the story, just as long as we got it out there.

I recalled something our head of content had blogged just a few hours earlier:

Pretty much everyone is tech-savvy, they’ve perfected a drill, and there’s a genuinely co-operative spirit. Even among the reporters. They’d all love the splash, or the yarn that goes viral on social media, but they’re happy to retweet each others’ scoops in the interests of amplifying the buzz as a whole.

That would have never happened in my day. We’d have rather have eaten our own vomit.

But after that welcome recognition of our team’s talents and multi-tasking, he closed his blog with a challenge:

Can we keep it up? The environment is relentless. It really is 24/7. You’re always on – evenings, weekends, Christmas Day. We should pray there isn’t another flu epidemic.

A sobering thought indeed.

So what’s my response? Well, the one thing that can truly be said to characterise every member of our newsroom is versatility. We’ve got features writers turning their hand to filming, news reporters producing podcasts, production editors managing Twitter and Facebook accounts, banking editors hosting webinars…

It’s what my editor likes to call ‘Total Property Journalism’, à la Johan Cruyff’s Ajax of the 1970s.

(Or even, a business ‘reimagined’, as various friends have been tweeting about today at a Microsoft-hosted forum.)

We have someone covering the news from 8 in the morning until 7 at night, we tweet in the evenings, send out news alerts at night, and even post stories on our website from home in the days between Christmas and New Year.

If there’s a flu epidemic, I imagine someone will haul themselves upright to report from an iPad in bed.

So, to respond to the question, I absolutely do believe we absolutely can keep it up. In fact, I think my colleague even answered his own question when he noted our ‘co-operative spirit’.

Gone are the days of the lone wolf writer, the selfish reporter who would keep the deal to himself, who would sit on a scoop so no one else could get it. We’ve replaced it with a formidable force firing on dozens of cylinders simultaneously – and we’re the stronger for it.

This next bit may be one of the most twee things I’ve ever typed, and maybe hardened news journalists will scoff.

We can keep it up. But if – and only if – we do it as a bloody good team.

Image credit: Nationaal Archief Fotocollectie Anefo

They say print is dead, yet we still love it so

19 Oct

Magazines - Dan Zen

Pretend you don’t know anything about me, even if you do.

What if I told you I get a consumer design magazine through my door every month. That I look forward to it dropping on the doormat, and enjoy flipping through it. That I keep the issues in a magazine rack by the side of my sofa. Or that I sometimes tear out snippets, or fold down the corners of some of the pages, intending to return to them (though I almost never have time).

What are you thinking about me right now? “Old”? “Old school”? “Out of touch”? “Where’s her iPad?”

It’s been a week of heated debate for those of us who work in the media.

Hot on the heels of the Telegraph’s allegations that the Guardian is to axe its print edition (and the latter’s robust denial), came the revelation that Newsweek is really to axe its print edition. Cue the “print is dead” broken record.

Working in a FTSE 250 global media company, I am surrounded by people who are so passionate about the digital world, that they live, breathe and tweet it – and never switch off. I am also surrounded by those who are so passionate about breaking news and get such a kick out of beating the nationals to a story and seeing their name in print that they never switch off either. (Sometimes – impossible though it may seem – these two attributes even coalesce in a single person, creating a superhuman media junkie who never sleeps. Seriously. These people exist, and they sit mere feet away from me.)

Clearly some companies are finding that certain formats no longer fit their business model. But to me, that is not enough to invoke – oh so dramatically – the Print Is Dead mantra.

Many of us still love print, and are happy to pay for it. In an ideal world, there’d really be no reason why any one company should have to retreat from one medium and concentrate solely on another. We’re all different, we all enjoy consuming our news and entertainment in our own way.

It’s not even that some people are old school and others do everything from a single device. On the contrary, we are all lumbered by dozens of gadgets, not to mention the chargers. (Time for a universal charger, anyone?)

Once upon a time, everyone thought that all anyone would ever want would be the smallest possible phone. They got smaller and smaller… until they got bigger again. Then they got thinner. Now they’re so thin we have to buy cases to make them thicker again so they don’t slip between our fingers or get lost between receipts in our handbags.

Then – because, obviously, it was time to go big again – came the iPad. Next comes the iPad mini. That will no doubt be followed by the iPad maxi, which will be your entire coffee table. (Wait, didn’t Microsoft invent that, like, five years ago?)

There’s no one-size-fits all, or one-medium-fits-all. We’re in schizophrenic sensory freefall.

So, to deflate any assumptions you may have made about my middle-aged, get-excited-when-my-print-subscription-arrives, curl-up-on-the couch-and-devour-it self: I’m 26, I spend my day glued to a computer, I tweet, I track web stats, and learn about how to create a publication that looks just as good in HTML5 on a tablet as it always has done – and still does – in print.

We WhatsApp with friends and family abroad and watch movies through LoveFilm on our smart TV. I try to blog (when I have time), help my husband build websites (when he has time), and exercise via the Xbox. (Who am I kidding, scratch that last one.)

But as long as I have a sofa, I will always enjoy flicking through a magazine, just as, as long as I have a car – or dishes to wash – I will always enjoy listening to the radio.

Yes, certain formats may no longer fit companies’ financial models. And that’s a shame.

It’s a shame because print is still much loved – and these companies may well lose out. As one of my colleagues said today: “Who’s going to read Newsweek now it’s just another random voice in the online babble?”

Image: Dan Zen

MoneySavingExpert: a lesson for content creators everywhere

3 Jun

MSE homepage

Note to readers: I have no connection with any of the brands mentioned here!

Once upon a time a man named Martin Lewis had an idea for a business. Using his background in financial journalism (and just £100) he built a website that offered advice on financial products and services.

Last week, Lewis – who now employs nearly 40 people to run the site – sold the business to MoneySupermarket.com for up to £87 million.

There is nothing flashy or fancy about MoneySavingExpert.

In fact, Tech Crunch amusingly noted: ‘Although MSE looks like a throwback to a previous era of the Web (which it admittedly is), its bulletin boards regularly hum to the sound of the average Brit looking for a good deal…’

So how has MSE attracted such an astonishing number of visitors and become the biggest consumer finance site in the UK, making it so valuable to its buyer?

One in four people in the UK have apparently visited Lewis’s site. Yet, as far as I’m aware, he has never gone in for any expensive marketing. I’ve certainly never seen an MSE TV ad.

And there are no bobbing meerkats or portly opera stars, or myriad other characters vying for your attention.

But that’s exactly the point. MSE might look straightforward, but it has nearly a decade of hard research behind it. All too often, the dancing characters of other comparison sites are merely a distraction from the fact that they offer much the same (relatively easily obtainable) information, often provided through a simple algorithm – and very little human input.

Lewis has done all the legwork, contacted all the banks, utility providers and insurance companies, presumably spent hours hanging on the end of the phone, grilled them on what their small print was really all about, and then presented it in a clear – although far from ‘dumbed-down’ – format.

There are fast facts for those who want quick information, and there are numerous opportunities to access more detailed information and complex numbers for those who need or want it.

He has also campaigned for consumers’ best interests. During the payment protection insurance furore, he warned readers against being sucked in by no-win no-fee claims handlers, instead providing simple guidance for them to reclaim the money themselves for no cost.

People go to the site for advice in much the same way that they might peruse Which? before buying a new hoover, or turn to Jamie before attempting home-made pancakes. They know that the product has been tried, tested, tested, tested and tested some more.

In short, it’s unique, trusted content.

In addition, while Lewis makes his money through affiliate links to the products and services he reviews, every single affiliate link has a star by it. If you scroll to the bottom of each page, a list of the same links are provided in plain format, making him no money. How many websites do that?

So, chalk one up to genuine, useful, trusted content making all the difference.

The reaction of other web-users has also been telling. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen the words ‘good for you Martin’ in the comments under an article about the site’s sale.

Oh, and he’s giving £10 million to charity too, including £1 million to Citizens Advice. A smart entrepreneur – and a true gent.

Which sites do you trust for good advice?