Best practices for corporate bloggers

In my various retrospective pieces leading up to my 20th anniversary party of Web Informant, ironically one topic that I didn’t dive into was the evolution of the art form of the blog itself. I guess I take it for granted that blogs are here to stay.

But then a reader reminded me of an article that I wrote nine years ago for Computerworld about the best practices for corporate blogging. And as I reread the piece, I realized that not much has changed in those nine years, at least when it comes to blogging. “Everything you recommended in that piece is still applicable today,” said my former podcasting partner and B2B social media strategist Paul Gillin. “This means you’re either psychic or common sense really is the best guidance.”

Maybe you could chalk it up to my being so prescient, but I don’t want to take all the credit. Doing a great blog really comes down to doing just a few things well: telling a series of great stories, being true to your corporate voices, and delivering great and compelling content that will keep your audience coming back for more.

I spoke to Lionel Menchaca last week when I was in Austin. He was the original blogger for Dell, now no longer with the company, but still writing about business blogging. “Focus on making [your blog post] content useful to anyone who reads it,” he says in a current post.  He and I bemoaned how some business bloggers don’t understand these basic tenets, still.

What a great corporate blog is NOT about is “controlling the message” or putting onerous workflow conditions in the way of the publishing process. I have written for many of these types of blogs over the years, and many of them have died because they tried too hard to toe the corporate line and forget these basics. But rather than be depressed by these failures, it shows that there is still lots of life left in blogging, even in 2015.

Sure, a lot has happened in the past decade: social media, Instagram, and Twitter, just to name a few. But blogging is still the heart and center of any business communication strategy, and can help amplify these other tools.

One final piece of advice from Jeremiah Owyang that didn’t make it into my original story: “Don’t accept blog advice from people that are not bloggers.”

So take a moment to review my nine-year old article in Computerworld. It isn’t often that something that I wrote so long is still very much in force today. It is ironic, though, that a technology that has been around for so long is still so relevant.

20 years of Web Informants

Can it really be 20 years ago that I had the strange idea of writing a weekly series of self-published essays and sending them out first via email, then via a variety of Web technologies? Time flies. Last year I began the celebrations early with a column that looked at some of the lessons I have learned from online publishing all these years. More recently, I wrote about some of the influential people that I have had the opportunity to interview.

In a retrospective column that I wrote in 2006, I recalled how back in 1995 we had browsers that were just beginning to display tables and images in-line, and Netscape was still the dominant force in browsing technology. We also had PCs that still booted from floppy disks, and FTP and Gopher were the dominant Internet protocols.

When it came to broadband, there wasn’t much of it in 1995. ISDN was still found in more places than DSL. In another retrospective column, I wrote that finding an Internet service provider wasn’t easy. Most of us got online via dial-up modems: there was no Wifi, no iPhones or any other smartphones that could do anything besides voice calls. Blackberries hadn’t yet been invented, and many of us used pagers when we wanted someone to get in touch with us because the mobile minutes were expensive. Most of the world still relied on land lines.

They were certainly simpler times: cybersquatting, phishing, ad banner tracking, malware exploit kits and cookie stuffing were all relatively unknown concepts. Blogs hadn’t been invented, nor podcasts, wikis, or mashups. We were still using Yahoo to search the Internet.

Back in 1995, there were no music or video streaming services, and Napster and its peer-to-peer cousins hadn’t yet been invented either. Here is an column from 2000 where I offer some lessons to be learned from Napster, sadly little of this advice took hold. In the past 20 years, as I wrote last fall, music has gotten more mobile, more discoverable, and now streaming is here to stay. One evidence of this is that Kate Mulgrew is now better known for her role as a imprisoned Russian crime boss rather than as a starship captain, thanks to the streaming Netflix series.

The Web enabled an entire eCommerce industry. In those early days, as I wrote in this retrospective, the websites were wacky, the software shaky, and the tools touchy and troublesome. Now most of us don’t give it a second thought that we can buy something with a browser and a credit card. We have lots of new payment systems, including Square and phone-based wallets, and even bitcoin: a new form of money that is entirely online.

Certainly, the biggest changes in the past 20 years have been how we collaborate on our work. Back then if our teams weren’t all under one roof, there were painful remote access tools that slowly moved information around. We spent a lot of time sending large graphics files around on our network because there wasn’t any other way to share them. In many ways, back then we were still in the dark ages of collaboration tools. Now I can bring together a staff from all over the world with almost free and quite capable tools. (Last week I mentioned some of the great people that I have had the honor of working with.)

Thanks to all of you loyal readers who have stuck with me all these years, and all the kind (and even not-so-kind) words and thoughts you have sent my way after I pen another of these columns. What a long, strange trip it’s been but– you know me well enough by now — I will keep on truckin’.

Time to secure your website with an SSL EV certificate

This post is going to be a bit more technical than the most, but I will try to keep it as simple as I can. Last month I wrote about how domain owners can mask their identity by purchasing extra-cost private domain services. Today I want to talk about the opposite: where domain owners want to prove who they really are by making use of special encrypted certificates, called Secure Sockets Layer Extended Validation or SSL EV certs. It is something whose time has finally come.

One of the many problems with the average website is that you don’t necessarily know if the server you are browsing is for real or not. Scammers do this all the time when they send you a phished email: they copy the “real” site’s images and page design for say your local bank, and then try to trick you to login using their scammy page, where they capture your credentials and then steal your money. Rinse and repeat several million times and even if just a few folks take the bait, they can grab some significant coin.

So along came the SSL certificate many years to try to solve this problem. They did, for a while, until the scammers figured out a way to spoof the certificates and make it look like they came from the “real” site operator. So the certificate issuers and several other interested parties got together and formed two efforts:

First was a standards body where they would up the ante for how certs were vetted, to make sure that the real owner was who they say they were. This involves checking the domain ownership and making sure there actually is a Real Corporation (or some other trackable entity) behind the Internet registration. Now there are three different levels of certs that are available: the regular, old-school cert called domain validated (DV), a medium grade one called organization validated, and the most stringent of them all, the EV cert. Only the EV cert will turn the URL address bar of your browser green, showing you that you are connecting on the real site. Steve Gibson has a nice explanation on his site of how this works under the covers and how it is tamper-proof, at least so far.

That is nice and welcomed, but the second effort is also interesting, and that is a non-profit corporation is just getting ready to issue their own SSL certs for free. Called the Let’s Encrypt Project, they have begun with a few test accounts and will be ramping up over the next couple of months. The cost is nice — some of the issuing authorities such as Thawte and Digicert charge $300 per year for their SSL EV certs, and GoDaddy has recently discounted their SSL EV certs to $100 per year. (Wikipedia has a more complete list of those vendors that offer the EV certs.) But the real issue is that installing the certs is a multi-step process that requires some care. If you don’t do it very often (and why would you), it is easy to mess up. The Let’s Encrypt certs are supposedly easier to install.

One downside is the free Let’s Encrypt certs aren’t EV-class ones: they are just the old school DV low-level certs. So if you are serious about your certs and want that nice green label in your browser, you still have to buy one. But at least the issue has been raised, and one of the reasons why I am writing about this arcane topic today. If you own a domain and are doing ecommerce from it, look into getting at least the free certs when they are available or pay for one of the EV models.

Looking back: the art of the interview

We are gearing up, here at Strom Galactic HQ, for a massive anniversary celebration next month. I am sure you have all marked your calendars for when Web Informant turns 20. It is hard to believe that I have been writing these columns/blog posts/whatever for so long.

This week I wanted to talk about a few of the influential people that I have met down through the years. They were the industry luminaries that played pivotal roles in the development of the tech industry. In those early days, it was quite easy to call someone up to get a quick quote, but I am talking about people that I had more of a relationship of mutual respect and understanding, people who had big ideas and shaped the course of products that we use today, and people who I have interviewed over the course of time.

One resource I want to point out is the nearly 100 MediaBlather podcasts that Paul Gillin and I produced during the late 2000’s. We interviewed many of the leading marketing and social media experts of the time and had a lot of fun producing these programs. Paul worked for many years at Computerworld and started Techtarget before striking out on his own and writing several books.

Here are some of my favorite interviews, in no particular order.

Mark Cuban is better known today as the owner of the Dallas Mavericks and his time on Shark Tank, but he was quite influential in the early days of the PC networking world. Here is an interview that I did with him in 2007, where he talks about his HDnet project.

Vint Cerf was one of the most refined gentlemen in our industry, always impeccably turned out and always managed to be both serious and playful and being able to say in a few words what many of us couldn’t articulate in whole paragraphs. I have met him at various times down through the years, while he was inventing key Internet technologies. This interview is from 2005 when he was just starting at Google.

Adrian Lamo was one of the key players in the Wikileaks/Manning case. Before that happened, he was in trouble with breaking into the proxy servers of numerous businesses. He actually stayed with me back before couch-surfing was a thing in 2002, here is a recorded interview I did with him in 2011.

I first met Professor Tom Schelling of Harvard back in the early 80s when I worked with on a project way before I was in the tech industry. I wrote about my experience here after he won the Nobel in Economics. If you haven’t read his book The Strategy of Conflict it is well worth your time.

Phil Dunkelberger has been around email and encryption for decades and I have spoken to him numerous times. Always a fountain of wisdom. Right now he is leading the FIDO authentication effort. Here is an interview that I did in 2005.

John Patrick helped build IBM’s Internet business and now serves on numerous tech company boards.  Here is a story from a visit to his house, one of the first very “smart homes” that I saw back in 2004. People are still figuring out how to implement things that he first thought of then.

Here are a few of the people that have been taken from us: There was my remembrance of Ray Noorda, the head of Novell, who died in 2006. Ray was far from a perfect leader but someone who moved mountains and was a key player in getting local area networks established in businesses in the late 1980s. And Garry Betty, who died in 2007 from liver cancer and was a key player in Earthlink, DCA, and Hayes modems. Another early cancer victim was Ed Iacobucci, who died in 2013 and was behind the early IBM PC, Citrix, and NetJets. I was very lucky to have spent the time that I did interviewing each of these guys, and learning about their products, passions, and people that they mentored in our business.

So yes, it has been nearly one Web Informant every week. Many of you have been readers from those early days, and I thank you for sticking with me. I would encourage you to put in the comments your memories of your favorite column or moment when we’ve met.

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.