A look back with Web Informant (1996): Lessons Learned From Web Publishing

Nearly 19 years ago, I began writing a weekly column called Web Informant that was first exclusively distributed via email, then via various other technologies including a blog, push technology, and syndication to a Japanese print newspaper. It has been a wonderful journey, and hard to believe that it has lasted all this time. I first wanted to thank all of you readers who have stuck with me, sent me comments and encouragements over the years.

Over the next year and leading up to the big 20th birthday celebration, I thought I would resurrect a few of my favorite stories and see how well they have held up over time. This first piece was published by John December in a journal called Computer Mediated Communications back in May of 1996. My current commentary is in brackets so you can distinguish between the original me and the current me.

After writing and editing print publications, I threw caution to the winds last fall and put up my own website. I’m glad I did and have learned a few lessons along the way that I’d like to share with you. Here goes.

  1. Print still matters: it has the vast majority of advertising and is where the attention in our industry still lies. The industry still defines itself and pays attention to what these trade publications print. [Back in 1996, I mentioned one story that the online press did a better job than print in covering, that is still true today.]
  2. You may think otherwise, but the best way to get the word out about your site is for others to provide links on their Web sites back to yours, what I call inbound links. [With all the SEO expertise out there, this is still true today.]
  3. It is a good idea to review your access logs regularly to determine frequently-accessed pages, broken links, who is visiting, and when you have your peak periods. These logs are your best sources for measurements of success and a good way to figure out who your audience is.
  4. Community counts. If you are going to start a successful Web publishing venture, make sure you have a good idea whom your community is. By community I don’t just mean reader/viewers–I mean the entire life-cycle of information consumers, providers, and relay points along the way. Who creates the information? Who sends/interprets/messes it up? Who needs this information? The more you know this cycle, the better a Web publisher you’ll be. The more focused your publication, the better off you are.
  5. Just like running a “real” print magazine, you need to develop a production system and stick to it, and resist any temptations to fiddle with it. Online, the best feedback loop you have is when your reader/viewers drop you a note on email saying something doesn’t look right or a link is broken.
  6. Don’t get too enamored with the graphical look and feel of your publication: many reader/viewers will never see these efforts and they ultimately don’t matter as much as you think. While you are developing your production systems, don’t forget that many reader/viewers are running text-based browsers or turn their images off because they are coming in from dial-up connections. [Well, that has changed since 1996, but still lots of sites are filled with useless graphical junk and pop-ups that are annoying at any bandwidth.]
  7. The best Web publications make use of email as an effective marketing tool for the Web content, notifying reader/viewers when something is new on a regular basis. [This was in the days before blogs, RSS, social media, Twitter, and other notification mechanisms, all of which are great tools to complement the web.]

Overall, am I glad I am in the Web-publishing business? Yes, most definitely: it has given me a greater feel for my community, it has helped increase my understanding of the technologies involved, and I have had a great deal of fun too.

Has it been easy? Nope: Web technologies are changing so fast sometimes you can’t keep up no matter how hard you try. Setting up a Web publication will take more time and energy than you’ve planned, and keeping it fresh and alive is almost a daily responsibility. You need lots of skills: programming, publishing, library science, graphic design, and on top of this a good dose of understanding the nature and structure and culture of the Internet helps too. And a sense of humor and a thick skin come in handy from time to time too.

Lessons learned from the potato salad guy

ps2I am sure by now you have heard about the Kickstarter project from Zack Brown where he promises to make potato salad. In a bowl. In his kitchen. That’s the project. For this he raised more than $55,000 from nearly seven thousand backers from all over the world, including more than 20 “platinum” sponsors.

The project became big potatoes — it was the fourth most-viewed page on Kickstarter, right behind the Veronica Mars movie and the Pebble watch, with more than four million views. Many of the contributions were small — backers averaged $8 per pledge, compared with a Kickstarter-wide average of $78. Maybe because it was something so goofy, or so simple (the project didn’t have a video intro), or just because it was so incredible. When I was interviewed about crowdfunding for our local TV station a few weeks ago, I mentioned his project on the air.

Brown’s potatoes became a big deal, he got thousands of media mentions that just fed his project even further. What started out as a big joke turned into a serious effort, and now he is talking about starting a foundation and building a humor-oriented website. And Columbus, Ohio, where he is based, is holding a street festival called PotatoStock that will feature food, music, and fun. I would call it a hash bash.

So what can we learn from this meme? Here are a few suggestions.

  • If you want to make something to share with others, maybe you just need ten or 20 or 50 people to get your idea off the ground. That is from one of the conclusions from Kickstarter central, and I think it is a good one. Brown’s original goal was to raise $60, and he quickly passed that.
  • Hyperlocal is best. The Internet is great for spreading the word, surely and he got funds from all over. But Brown’s project picked up a lot of backers from the Columbus area, which is one of his reasons for holding the PotatoStock event. The project is still about one man, one kitchen and his condiments.
  • Sometimes you don’t need that next Big Idea. While there certainly have been some fascinating crowdfunded projects, the simple ideas also have their place. Yes, it would be one thing if Brown was going to take his 55 large and head off to Tahiti, or wherever. But he seems humbled by the experience. Perhaps his foundation can pay it forward and nourish another idea, or add some additional humor into our lives.
  • Humor helps. Under the risks section, Brown is very forthcoming: “It might not be that good. It’s my first potato salad.” His update videos are hilarious, and others have used humor to describe his efforts, all in a goodhearted way. We are surrounded by too much gloom and doom that having some humor helps.

The well-connected restaurant

Screen-Shot-2013-01-22-at-11.24.00-PM-1024x709You can’t download your dinner, but you will order food, pay checks, and do much more with your smartphone. That is one of the conclusions of a paid custom report that Ira Brodsky and I have published this week called Good Food and Drink and Connected Technology, 2014-2019.

The days when restaurants could rely exclusively on good food, an enjoyable ambiance and word-of-mouth advertising are quickly coming to an end. More and more restaurants are discovering that they must become better connected and use various consumer-facing technologies such as websites, social media networks and mobile apps to get a leg up on their competitors.

In our report, we looked at the largest of the national restaurant chains and analyzed their behavior, social media usage, and evaluated their digital strategies and implementations and found several trends, including:

  1. Consumer-facing connected technology is taking off in the restaurant chain business. Revenue from online ordering, digital gift and loyalty cards, and mobile payments will soar to $90 billion by 2019. No retailer can afford to ignore this trend.
  2. Our report shows how restaurant chains can improve the information content, functionality, and overall quality of their websites. For instance, restaurants who employ responsive web designs can enable access from a wide variety of devices. However, restaurant chains must never lose sight of the fact that the best measure of their website is how well it promotes their food and dining experiences.
  3. Social media is a powerful new channel for interactive advertising and market research. Our report explains how restaurant chains can achieve greater success by better allocating social media resources, monitoring how people respond, and fine-tuning their social media programs.
  4. Most restaurant chain mobile apps don’t work reliably and merely duplicate information and features found on the restaurants’ websites. Our report points the way to mobile apps that are better designed, tested, and maintained.

There are lots of other conclusions in our report, You can download a portion of our executive summary and view the entire table of contents, as well as browse a table of the leading restaurant VARs and SI vendors from the report’s website here. The report is available for purchase, too.

Here are some links to other restaurant-related tech that I have been writing about for various outlets. First are a series of stories for the site Solution Providers For Retail here, including analysis of social media usage, how Chili’s is using table-side tablets and mobile apps. And there is this piece on Restaurant Technology on loyalty programs.

The changing labor relations laws of workplace social networking

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I saw this post not too long ago come across my Facebook feed: “The best part about being over 40 is that we did our stupid stuff before the Internet.”

It is very true. But what is interesting is how our legal system is adjusting to people that want to find all this “stupid stuff” of those under 40, especially as it relates to their on-the-job performance.

Has this happened to you lately? You are interviewing for a job and things are going well. The interviewer asks you about any social media postings that you want to tell them about. You think to yourself, “thank goodness I was smart enough to have tightened all my privacy controls. There is no way that anyone can view any of my questionable pictures who isn’t part of my network.” As you are mulling over a response, the interviewer turns her laptop around to face you and ask you to login to your Facebook account. What do you do now? Gulp.

Well, it depends on what state you live in and what kind of privacy laws they have passed. A dozen states have laws restricting employer access to personal social media accounts of both potential job applicants as well as their employees. These laws try to restrict how an employer can ask for login credentials or have you login to your account in their presence or grant access to information that isn’t in a public online search. Similar legislation is pending in at least another 28 states, and Congress might even get into the act too. The National Conference of State Legislatures is keeping track here. They say:

Some employers argue that access to personal accounts is needed to protect proprietary information or trade secrets, to comply with federal financial regulations, or to prevent the employer from being exposed to legal liabilities. But others consider requiring access to personal accounts an invasion of employee privacy.

The legislation in some states extends to students at public colleges too. The laws restrict employers from requiring employees to friend a supervisor or even adjust their privacy settings on their account. Double gulp!

As you can imagine, the state laws vary in what activities are prohibited and what aren’t. “However, while state laws differ significantly, the general message is clear: employers must evaluate their current practices and policies to ensure compliance with these law,” says a recent article in Socially Aware, a newsletter from the legal firm of Morrison Foerster.

The newsletter article goes on to discuss several other aspects of the legislation, including what happens during workplace investigations of suspected wrongdoings or employee misconduct. To say that this is a legal minefield is an understatement. Clearly, if you haven’t implemented social media guidelines yet in your workplace, now would be a good time. You might also enjoy reading a piece that I wrote for ReadWrite a few years ago about creating social media playbooks.

And you might also ask for some help from Liz Brown Bullock, who created a lot of social media policies and trained thousands of folks when she was at Dell.

Ricoh blog: Is your slow website costing you business?

In a word, yes, it is. Time is definitely money when it comes to the web. In particular, the longer it takes your website to load, the less patient your visitors will be, and the more often they will leave your site without buying anything. And things are getting worse.

In this post for Ricoh’s WorkIntelligent.ly blog, I talk about ways you can speed up your site and keep your visitors sticking around longer.

Are you paying yourself too much?

As we get into the holidays, I want to ask all of your startup CEOs this question. Could you be paying yourself too much, and risk losing your business eventually? No, this isn’t coming from my Scrooge side, but some practical thinking.

Last week, a Sili Valley startup (Yet Another Social Media Posting Tool) posted, in the name of complete transparency, their entire staff salary schedule, from the lowliest workers on up to the CEO, who is getting nearly $160k. While people weighed in on whether or not this is Yet Another GenY Oversharing, what got me going on this particular screed was what the CEO was paying himself. It should be about a third of his current draw.

CEOs should be working for peanuts. Yes, they have bills to pay, but if they are in the startup scene to make money, they should stick with a salaried position at a more established company. When you go into startup mode, you want to be building a company, and you do that with offering equity and a longer-term payouts. Offer more money, and chances are good that your venture will fail because you will be burning through your cash pile. I asked a friend of mine, a tech startup CEO, for his opinion, and he told me: “I personally don’t believe in the CEO of a startup having the highest cash salary. If CEOs believe the story that they are telling investors then should be taking as much as they can in stock. If they are concerned about the cash portion of their paycheck they should be seeking employment elsewhere.” Take a look a this poll taken last year of startup CEO salaries.

And lest you think this is just for startups, the CEOs of Facebook, Oracle, Google, Yelp and HP all had $1 salaries in the past year — granted, they all made megamillions on bonuses and other incentives, but still something to think about.

And while it is admirable that this one startup wants to be so transparent, they could be hurting themselves in the long run. Again from my friend the tech startup CEO: “I would never publicly disclose my company’s compensation model. Doing so provides your competition better insight into how you think and how to compete against you. It also gives potential employees a baseline by which to start negotiations” when they start thinking about going elsewhere.” He and I both think that experience is a poor metric to be used in setting higher salaries. What should matter is results, and what each staffer produces, or how the market will respond to having a rockstar on your team.

Happy holidays and hope you all have a great break and a wonderful new year’s.

ITworld: A/B tests: Cut the fluff and spend the pixels on what works

surlatableA/B testing is like many things that can be vexing about the Web: a simple concept can turn into a complex programming project. But while the idea is simple — producing two (or more) different web pages for your site and instrument them to see which one drives more traffic or more sales – getting it to work can be fraught with politics and the actual implementation details.

Why bother? Mainly because there is almost nothing else that you can do that can have such a big effect. Just by changing the text size or button color you can generate a 50% increase in clickthrough rates.

You can read more about A/B tests in this article for ITworld and also view an accompanying slideshow that illustrates how to improve your own Web pages with four interesting examples, such as the one above showing three different versions of the Sur La Table website.